After three centuries of colonial rule, independence came rather suddenly to most of Spanish and Portuguese America. Between 1808 and 1826 all of Latin America except the Spanish colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico slipped out of the hands of the Iberian powers who had ruled the region since the conquest. The rapidity and timing of that dramatic change were the result of a combination of long-building tensions in colonial rule and a series of external events.
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The reforms imposed by the Spanish Bourbons in the 18th century provoked great instability in the relations between the rulers and their colonial subjects in the Americas. Many Creoles (those of Spanish parentage but who were born in America) felt Bourbon policy to be an unfair attack on their wealth, political power, and social status. Others did not suffer during the second half of the 18th century; indeed, the gradual loosening of trade restrictions actually benefited some Creoles in Venezuela and certain areas that had moved from the periphery to the centre during the late colonial era. However, those profits merely whetted those Creoles’ appetites for greater free trade than the Bourbons were willing to grant. More generally, Creoles reacted angrily against the crown’s preference for peninsulars in administrative positions and its declining support of the caste system and the Creoles’ privileged status within it. After hundreds of years of proven service to Spain, the American-born elites felt that the Bourbons were now treating them like a recently conquered nation.
In cities throughout the region, Creole frustrations increasingly found expression in ideas derived from the Enlightenment. Imperial prohibitions proved unable to stop the flow of potentially subversive English, French, and North American works into the colonies of Latin America. Creole participants in conspiracies against Portugal and Spain at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century showed familiarity with such European Enlightenment thinkers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Enlightenment clearly informed the aims of dissident Creoles and inspired some of the later, great leaders of the independence movements across Latin America.
Still, these ideas were not, strictly speaking, causes of independence. Creoles selectively adapted rather than simply embraced the thought that had informed revolutions in North America and France. Leaders in Latin America tended to shy away from the more socially radical European doctrines. Moreover, the influence of those ideologies was sharply restricted; with few exceptions only small circles of educated, urban elites had access to Enlightenment thought. At most, foreign ideas helped foster a more questioning attitude toward traditional institutions and authority.
European diplomatic and military events provided the final catalyst that turned Creole discontent into full-fledged movements for Latin American independence. When the Spanish crown entered into an alliance with France in 1795, it set off a series of developments that opened up economic and political distance between the Iberian countries and their American colonies. By siding with France, Spain pitted itself against England, the dominant sea power of the period, which used its naval forces to reduce and eventually cut communications between Spain and the Americas. Unable to preserve any sort of monopoly on trade, the Spanish crown was forced to loosen the restrictions on its colonies’ commerce. Spanish Americans now found themselves able to trade legally with other colonies, as well as with any neutral countries such as the United States. Spain’s wartime liberalization of colonial trade sharpened Creoles’ desires for greater economic self-determination.
Occurrences in Europe in the early 19th century created a deep political divide between Spain and its American colonies. In 1807 the Spanish king, Charles IV, granted passage through Spanish territory to Napoleon’s forces on their way to invade Portugal. The immediate effect of that concession was to send the Portuguese ruler, Prince Regent John, fleeing in British ships to Brazil. Arriving in Rio de Janeiro with some 15,000 officials, nobles, and other members of his court, John transformed the Brazilian colony into the administrative centre of his empire. When Napoleon turned on his Spanish allies in 1808, events took a disastrous turn for Spain and its dominion in the Americas. Shortly after Charles had abdicated in favour of his son Ferdinand, Napoleon had them both imprisoned. With these figures of legitimate authority in his power, the French ruler tried to shatter Spanish independence. In the process he set off a political crisis that swept across both Spain and its possessions. The Spanish political tradition centred on the figure of the monarch, yet, with Charles and Ferdinand removed from the scene, the hub of all political authority was missing.
In 1810 a Cortes (Parliament) emerged in Cádiz to represent both Spain and Spanish America. Two years later it produced a new, liberal constitution that proclaimed Spain’s American possessions to be full members of the kingdom and not mere colonies. Yet the Creoles who participated in the new Cortes were denied equal representation. Moreover, the Cortes would not concede permanent free trade to the Americans and obstinately refused to grant any degree of meaningful autonomy to the overseas dominions. Having had a taste of freedom during their political and economic isolation from the mother country, Spanish Americans did not easily consent to a reduction of their power and autonomy.
Two other European developments further dashed the hopes of Creoles, pushing them more decisively toward independence. The year 1814 saw the restoration of Ferdinand to the throne and with it the energetic attempt to reestablish Spanish imperial power in the Americas. Rejecting compromise and reform, Ferdinand resorted to military force to bring wayward Spanish-American regions back into the empire as colonies. The effort only served to harden the position of Creole rebels. In 1820 troops waiting in Cádiz to be sent as part of the crown’s military campaigns revolted, forcing Ferdinand to agree to a series of liberal measures. That concession divided and weakened loyalist opposition to independence in the Americas. Many supporters of the crown now had doubts about the monarchy for which they were fighting.
The wars of independence, 1808–26
The final victory of Latin American patriots over Spain and the fading loyalist factions began in 1808 with the political crisis in Spain. With the Spanish king and his son Ferdinand taken hostage by Napoleon, Creoles and peninsulars began to jockey for power across Spanish America. During 1808–10 juntas emerged to rule in the name of Ferdinand VII. In Mexico City and Montevideo caretaker governments were the work of loyal peninsular Spaniards eager to head off Creole threats. In Santiago, Caracas, Bogotá, and other cities, by contrast, it was Creoles who controlled the provisional juntas. Not all of these governments lasted very long; loyalist troops quickly put down Creole-dominated juntas in La Paz and Quito. By 1810, however, the trend was clear. Without denouncing Ferdinand, Creoles throughout most of the region were moving toward the establishment of their own autonomous governments. Transforming these early initiatives into a break with Spanish control required tremendous sacrifice. Over the next decade and a half, Spanish Americans had to defend with arms their movement toward independence.
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The southern movement in South America
The movements that liberated Spanish South America arose from opposite ends of the continent. From the north came the movement led most famously by Simón Bolívar, a dynamic figure known as the Liberator. From the south proceeded another powerful force, this one directed by the more circumspect José de San Martín. After difficult conquests of their home regions, the two movements spread the cause of independence through other territories, finally meeting on the central Pacific coast. From there, troops under northern generals finally stamped out the last vestiges of loyalist resistance in Peru and Bolivia by 1826.