Latin American Peoples Win Independence SETTING THE STAGE The successful American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Enlightenment changed ideas about who should control the government. Ideas of liberty, equality, and democratic rule found their way across the seas to European colonies. In Latin America, most of the population resented1 the control of European countries. The time seemed right for the people who lived there to sweep away old colonial masters and gain control of the land.
Colonial Society Divided
In Latin American colonial society, class determined people’s place in society. At the top of Spanish-American society were the peninsulares, people who had been born in Spain. They formed a tiny percentage of the population. Only peninsulares could hold high office in Spanish colonial government. Creoles, Spaniards born in America, were below the peninsulares in rank. Creoles could not hold high-level political office, but they could rise as officers in Spanish colonial armies. Together these two groups controlled land, wealth, and power in the Spanish colonies.
Below the peninsulares and creoles came the mestizos, persons of mixed European and Indian ancestry. Next were the mulattos, persons of mixed European and African ancestry, and enslaved Africans. Native Americans were at the bottom of the social pyramid.
Revolutions in the Americas
By the late 1700s, colonists in Latin America, already aware of Enlightenment ideas, were electrified by the news of the American and French Revolutions. The success of the American Revolution encouraged them to try to gain freedom from their European masters.
Revolution in Haiti The French colony called Saint Domingue was the first Latin American territory to free itself from European rule. The colony, now known as Haiti, occupied the western island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean Sea.
Nearly 500,000 enslaved Africans worked on plantations, and they outnumbered their masters dramatically. White masters used brutal methods to terrorize them and keep them powerless.
While the French Revolution was taking place, oppressed2 people in the French colony of Haiti rose up against their French masters. In August 1791, 100,000 enslaved Africans rose in revolt. A leader soon emerged, Toussaint L’Ouverture. A former slave, Toussaint was unfamiliar with military and diplomatic matters. And yet, he rose to become a skilled general and diplomat3. By 1801, Toussaint had taken control of the entire island and freed all the African slaves.
In January 1802, 30,000 French troops landed in Saint Domingue to remove Toussaint from power. In May, Toussaint agreed to stop the revolution if the French would end slavery. Despite the agreement, the French soon accused him of planning another uprising. They seized4 him and sent him to a prison in France, where he died in April 1803.
Haiti’s Independence Toussaint’s lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took up the fight for freedom. On January 1, 1804, General Dessalines declared the colony an independent country. It was the first black colony to free itself from European control. Dessalines called the country Haiti, which in the language of the Arawak natives meant “mountainous land.”
Creoles Lead Independence
Even though they could not hold high public office, creoles were the least oppressed of those born in Latin America. They were also the best educated. Many of them would go to school in France, where they will learn about Enlightenment ideas. When they returned to Latin America, they brought ideas of revolution with them.
Napoleon’s conquest of Spain in 1808 started the revolts in the Spanish colonies. When Napoleon replaced Spain’s King Ferdinand VII with his brother Joseph, many creoles were upset. They felt no loyalty to a French king. Creoles argued that when the Spanish king was removed, power went to the people. In 1810, rebellion broke out in several parts of Latin America. The drive toward independence had begun.
The South American wars of independence rested on the achievements of two brilliant creole generals. One was Simon Bolivar, a wealthy Venezuelan creole. The other great liberator was Jose de San Martin, an Argentinian.
Bolivar’s Route to Victory Simon Bolivar’s Venezuela declared its independence from Spain in 1811. But it was not an easy task. Bolivar’s army suffered a lot of defeats. Bolivar had to go into exile5 twice. Then, on August 1819, Bolivar led over 2,000 soldiers through the Andes into Colombia. Coming from this direction, he took the Spanish army in Bogota by surprise and won a decisive6 victory.
By 1821, Bolivar had won Venezula’s independence. He then went south into Ecuador. In Ecuador, Bolivar finally met Jose de San Martin. Together they would decide the future of the Latin American revolutionary movement.
San Martin Leads Southern Liberation Forces San Martin’s Argentina had declared its independence in 1816. However, Spanish forces in nearby Chile and Peru still posed a threat. In 1817, San Martin led an army on a grueling march across the Andes to Chile. He was joined there by forces led by Bernardo O’Higgins, son of a former viceroy of Peru. With O’Higgins’s help, San Martin finally freed Chile.
In 1821, San Martin planned to drive the remaining Spanish forces out of Lima, Peru. But to do so, he needed a much larger force. San Martin and Bolivar discussed this problem when they met at Guayaquil, Ecuador, in 1822.
No one knows how the two men reached an agreement. But San martin left his army for Bolivar to command. With unified revolutionary forces, Bolivar’s army went on to defeat the Spanish at the Battle of Ayacucho (Peru) on December 9, 1824. In this last major battle of the war for independence, the Spanish colonies in Latin America won their freedom. The future countries of Venezuela, Columbia, Panama, and Ecuador were united into a country called Gran Colombia.
Mexico Ends Spanish Rule
In most Latin American countries, creoles led the revolutionary movements. But in Mexico, ethnic and racial groups mixed more freely. There, Indians and mestizos played the leading role.
A Cry for Freedom In 1810, Padre Miguel Hidalgo, a priest in the small village of Dolores, took the first step toward independence. Hidalgo was a poor but well-educated man. He firmly believed in Enlightenment ideals. On September 16, 1810, he rang the bells of his village church. When the peasants gathered in the church, he issued a call for rebellion against the Spanish. Today, that call is known as the grito de Dolores (the cry of Dolores).
The very next day, Hidalgo’s Indian and mestizo followers began a march toward Mexico City. This unruly army soon numbered 80,000 men. The uprising of the lower classes alarmed the Spanish army and creoles, who feared the loss of their property, control of the land, and their lives. The army defeated Hidalgo in 1811. The rebels then rallied around another strong leader, Padre Jose Maria Morelos. Morelos led the revolution for four years. However, in 1815, a creole officer, Agustin de Iturbide, defeated him.
Mexico’s Independence Events in Mexico took yet another turn in 1820 when a revolution in Spain put a liberal group in power there. Mexico’s creoles feared the loss of their privileges in the Spanish-controlled colony. So they united in support of Mexico’s independence from Spain. Ironically, Agustin de Iturbide – the man who had defeated the rebel Padre Morelos – proclaimed independence in 1821.
Before the Mexican revolution, Central America was part of the viceroyalty of New Spain. It had been governed by the Spanish from the seat of colonial government in Mexico. In 1821, several Central American states declared their independence from Spain – and from Mexico as well. However, Iturbide (who had declared himself emperor), refused to recognize the declarations of independence. Iturbide was finally overthrown in 1823. Central America was then declared its absolute independence from Mexico. It took the name the United Provinces of Central America. The future countries of Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica would develop in this region.
Brazil’s Royal Liberator
Brazil’s quest for independence was unique in this period of Latin American history because it occurred without violent upheavals or widespread bloodshed. In fact, a member of the Portuguese royal family actually played a key role in freeing Brazil from Portugal.
In 1807, Napoleon’s armies invaded both Spain and Portugal. Napoleon’s aim was to close the ports of these countries to British shipping. As French troops approached Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, Prince John and the royal family boarded ships to escape capture. They took their court and royal treasury to Portugal’s largest colony, Brazil. Rio de Janiero became the capital of the Portuguese empire. For 14 years, the Portuguese ran their empire from Brazil. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, King John and the Portuguese government returned to Portugal six years later. Dom Pedro, King John’s son, stayed behind in Brazil.
King John planned to make Brazil a colony again. However, many Brazilians could not accept a return to colonial status. In 1822, creoles demanded Brazil’s independence from Portugal. Eight thousand Brazilians signed a petition asking Dom Pedro to rule. He agreed. On September 7, 1822, he officially declared Brazil’s independence. Brazil had won its independence in a bloodless revolution.
1 To dislike; to feel bitter towards
2 To burden with harsh authority or power.
3 A person who conduct government business with other countries.