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Rebellion against Spain in Latin America

Ferdinand VII

Ferdinand VII




José María Morelos


Simón Bolivar

More than a few people in Spain's colonies were influenced by the Enlightenment and the American and French revolutions, and among these people was a growing dislike of Spain's restrictions over economic matters. There were restrictions on trading with foreigners, restrictions against growing crops that would compete with crops grown in Spain, and restrictions on making goods that would compete with goods made in Spain. Taxes imposed by Spanish authorities were also annoying. People of Spanish heritage born in Latin America were not participating in government the way that people of British heritage had been in Britain's colonies. Criólles (those born in America claiming pure Spanish blood) were living under the more authoritarian tradition of the Spaniards. The Church and its Inquisition were dominated by Spaniards. So too was the military in Latin America. The families of Spain's officials enjoyed their authority and higher status. They were haughty toward the criolles as well as toward Indians, and the Criolles resented it. Many of them had a non-white in their family sometime in the 200 years since the Europeans had arrived in the New World, while people born in Spain prided themselves on their purity.

A turning point for Latin America was Napoleon's move into Spain and Portugal. From 1808 to 1814, Napoleon held Spain's king, Ferdinand VII, captive. With this, to the criollos, Spanish authorities in Latin America appeared to be agents of the French. Criollo of both liberal and conservative persuasion formed committees (juntas) that declared their loyalty to King Ferdinand – believed by some to be their divinely chosen authority. On May 25, 1810, a junta in Argentina claimed rule on behalf of Ferdinand VII. A junta in Santiago (Chile) declared independence on September 18, 1810, and in Acuncion (Paraguay) independence was declared on May 14, 1811. A junta in Caracas (Venezuela) declared independence on July 5, 1811, and independence was declared also in La Paz (Bolivia) and in New Grenada (Colombia). And fighting erupted between Spanish authorities in Latin America and those associated with the juntas.

Hildago and Morelos in New Spain (Mexico)

In Mexico City – the administrative center of New Spain – a criollo junta declared its support for Ferdinand VII and for independence. New Spain extended from Panama in the south to the territories of Alto California, Nuevo Mexico and Texas in the north (Nuevo Mexico included territory between Texas and Alto California as far north as what eventually would be called Wyoming). New Spain had a population of around 1.2 million whites, 2 million mestizos (part Indian, part white), 4 million Indians (about a million more than a century and a half earlier but down from 15 million at the time of Cortez), and there were some blacks on the Caribbean coast. The criollos were interested in maintaining their property and status vis-à-vis Mexico's vast numbers of Indians and mestizos.

A sixty-year-old criollo priest, Miguel Hidalgo, had a more radical response to events. Hidalgo was an intellectual who had drawn from the Enlightenment, and he dismissed popular notions concerning race. Hidalgo had been fighting for the well-being of Mexico's Indians and Mestizos, including a call for the return of lands stolen from the Indians. Pursuing this in the wake of the more conservative independence movement in Mexico City, he organized an uprising for December 8, 1810. Then, in the early morning of September 15 at the village of Dolores (110 miles northwest of Mexico City), Hidalgo was warned that Spanish authorities in the nearby town of Querétaro had learned of his plans and were sending a force against him. Hidalgo rang his church bell, calling his Indian and Mestizo followers to action. And, according to reports, he shouted:

Long live Ferdinand VII! Long live religion! Death to bad government!

Hidalgo's followers, with their farm tools as weapons, marched to the town of San Miguel thirty miles to the northwest, picking up hundreds of combatants from farms and mines along the way. The militia of San Miguel joined the uprising, Hidalgo's army swelling to several thousand. Encouraged by their numbers, the insurgents began to sack shops and loot the houses of whites. Within a week, Hidalgo's army reached the town of Guanajuato, sixty miles farther northwest, their army now numbering around 50,000. And now they met resistance. Defending soldiers killed 2,000 of Hidalgo's men. Shocked by the reality of warfare, Hidalgo's men went on a rampage, killing all opponents they could, including those who surrendered.

The growing army moved on, taking one town after another. They defeated an army of 7,000 that had been sent against them. But Hidalgo's force was tiring and many had lost their weapons. Rather than strike for control of the capital, Mexico City, Hidalgo ordered his force to the nearby provincial capital, Guadalajara, for a rest. There he set up a government, with one small printing press, and began training his army. He sent another priest, José Maria Morelos, and 25 men on a mission to capture Acapulco (on the coast in southern Mexico).

Moving against Hidalgo's rebellion, 6,000 soldiers moved through Guanajuato and approached Guadalajara. Hidalgo's army outnumbered the rival force thirteen to one, but a battle outside of town went badly for Hidalgo's men. They panicked and fled. Hidalgo, with about a thousand men, retreated north to Saltillo in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra mountains (near Monterrey). Those around Hildago replaced him as their leader, while their enemy was capturing one town after another, and they captured Hidalgo. He was tried by the Inquisition, defrocked and executed by firing squad at Dolores on July 31, 1811.

José Maria Morelos, meanwhile, had gathered a force of around 9,000 men and was occupying towns and hills south of Mexico City. Following Napoleon's withdrawal from Spain and Ferdinand's return to power in 1814, Ferdinand sent additional troops to Mexico. In 1815 the Spaniards overwhelmed Morelos and his force, with 2,000 escaping to Puebla and about 1,000 to Oaxaca. Morelos stood before the Inquisition, was defrocked, and he too was executed by firing squad, on December 22, 1815.

The uprising to 1816 had killed between 200 thousand and 500 thousand people. If the deaths were 200 thousand, that would be a little more than 3.3 percent of the population and equivalent to the U.S. in the year 2000 (with a population of 280 million) losing more than nine million.

Spain and Liberators in South America

Simón Bolivar was a criollo with a few drops of Indian and African blood and proud of it. He was born into Venezuela's plantation society and into wealth, and in his late teens he enjoyed leisure in Europe. He was influenced by liberalism and the Enlightenment, and he acquired an admiration for Napoleon. In the year 1810, at the age of 27, he was back in Venezuela, supporting Venezuela's pro-independence junta and having outgrown youthful frivolity. The junta sent Bolivar back to Europe as the head of a delegation aiming at international support. He returned in 1811 unsuccessful but with Venezuela's leading dissident, a vain revolutionary, Francisco de Miranda, who had been in exile in England.

In behalf of the junta in Caracas, Miranda declared Venezuela and New Grenada (Columbia) to be republics. The junta removed the trading restrictions that Spain had imposed. It exempted taxes from the sale of food, ended the paying of tribute to the government by Venezuela's Indians and prohibited slavery. Battles were fought between Miranda's forces and a Spanish army that had been stationed in Venezuela, the Spanish forces winning considerable support among Venezuela's illiterate masses. In March 1812, an earthquake devastated Caracas. The Spanish clergy in Caracas claimed that the earthquake was God's anger against the sins of the rebel government. And in July Miranda's forces were defeated and the Spaniards regained control over Caracas.

Outside Caracas small bands of rebels led by military chieftains continued their defiance of Spanish authority. Simón Bolivar built a force of 2,000 men and fought his way back to the city, entering in triumph on August 7, 1813. Following Ferdinand's return to power in 1814 and more troops arriving from Spain, Bolivar was driven westward to New Granada.

Rebel forces could no longer claim power in the name of King Ferdinand, and Spanish forces were advancing against the rebels elsewhere in Spanish America. In Chile the leader of liberal regime, Bernardo O'Higgins, was forced to flee with his army across the Andes mountains into Western Argentina, where he was welcomed by José de San Martín, the liberal-monarchist governor in the province of Cuyo. In Venezuela, the Spaniards put Miranda in a dungeon – where he died in 1816. The Spanish drove Bolivar from New Grenada, Bolivar fleeing to Jamaica and Haiti. He was depressed and without any of his former wealth, but his hopes of creating a new order in South America soon revived.

In 1817, San Martín and O'Higgins went with their armies back across the Andes Mountains to Chile. There they defeated the Spanish and took power in the city of Santiago. They laid plans to sail north to Lima (Peru), the center of Spain's authority in Latin America, the most wealthy and economically successful of Spain's Latin American cities – a city filled with conservative criolles who, with an abundance of slaves, had never had to dirty their hands with any kind of work.

On the Atlantic coast, in an area called Banda Oriental (northeast of Buenos Aires), another rebel force was having successes. This force was under José Gervasio Artigas, who was allied with other cattle-raising, gaucho, landowners. He distrusted urbanites, broke with junta leaders in Buenos Aires and fought against Brazil's intrusions. Eventually he was to be known as the father of his country: Uruguay.

In 1817 Bolivar and a small force returned to Venezuela and established a base inland in the rain forest along the Orinoco River. There he gathered new recruits, new supplies and added to his reputation. The drive of Spain's forces into Venezuela's interior aroused people there into a more active rebellion, and Bolivar allied himself with the rebellious cattle herdsmen, Indians and semi-nomadic hunters there. He found that liberating slaves gave him added support and strength, and where he and his army went he gave slaves their freedom. But, unable to unify those rebelling against Spain, he concluded that he could not move into Caracas, and instead he laid plans to move his force again to New Grenada.

In 1818, Spain invaded Chile again and defeated O'Higgins at Cancha Rayada, but San Martín defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Maipu. In 1919, Spain lost in New Grenada to Bolivar, who arrived in Bogotá in August, 1819. Bolivar organized what became Gran Colombia – including what is now Ecuador, Colombia and Panama, and became its president on December 17, 1819.

King Ferdinand, meanwhile, was having trouble in Spain. After returning to power in 1814 he had been pursuing a policy of absolutism. And he was not paying his army. In 1820, soldiers assembled for embarkation to the Americas revolted, and various groups in Spain joined the revolt. They drove Ferdinand from power. Bolivar moved with his army back to Venezuela and late that year he signed an armistice with the commander of Spain's forces there. In 1821, Bolivar's armistice with the Spanish ended. On June 21 he won the Battle of Carabobo (about ninety miles, or 150 kilometers southwest of Caracas), and Caracas fell to Bolivar a few days later. Venezuela was now free of Spanish rule.

By now San Martn had landed in Peru, with the help of a British sea captain, Thomas Cochran. The invasion force was welcomed by rebellious inhabitants of coastal towns and joined by Peru's Indians. Lima's conservative forces fled inland. Spain's viceroy in Lima preferred negotiations to fighting and invited San Martn and his force into Lima, San Martín entering the city on July 12 amid celebrations in the streets. San Martín had not come to rule. All he wanted was Peru's independence. And he had Bolivar's help. Bolivar defeated Spain's supporters at Quito in May, 1822. In July, Bolivar met with San Martín, who was still combating Spain's supporters in the interior. Martín turned Peru over to Bolivar and returned to Chile.

In 1823, Europe's Holy Alliance delegated the French to put Ferdinand back onto his throne. Louis XVIII of France sent an army of 100,000 into Spain, and a bloodbath followed Ferdinand's restoration. Britain was enjoying the trade with Latin America that had been denied by Spain, and Britain warned against any attempt to reestablish Spain's rule in Latin America. The United States was also enjoying its new freedom to trade with Latin America, and in December that year the U.S. President, James Monroe, proclaimed what became known as the Monroe Doctrine: aimed at Russian designs on Alaska and also against Spain attempting to regain its lost colonies.

In August, 1824, Bolivar launched an important battle at Junin, in what was soon to be called Bolivia in honor of Bolivar. Next, in December, fighting alongside a Peruvian force, Bolivar won the Battle of Ayacucho, 200 miles southeast of Lima. Spain was no longer a colonial power in South America.


Copyright © 2002-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.