Neil Faulkner looks at the rolling wave of revolutions in the Spanish Empire's New World colonies between 1808 and 1826
Haiti was not the only part of the Americas transformed by the impact of the French Revolution. Between 1808 and 1826 most of the Spanish Empire in the New World fell to a rolling wave of revolutions headed by Spanish-speaking colonists.
The trigger was a French invasion of Spain. Napoleon overthrew the Spanish king and installed his own brother in his place. The Iberian peninsula was then engulfed by a six-year war that paralysed the Spanish imperial authorities.
‘Do you wish to know what our future was?’ asked South American revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar. ‘We were mere consumers, confined to the cultivation of indigo, grain, coffee, sugar, cacao, and cotton; raising cattle on the empty plains; hunting wild game in the wilderness; mining in the earth to produce gold for the insatiable greed of Spain.’
South America’s colonial dependency had intensified in the late 18th century. The policy of comercio libre had swept away restrictions on trade and opened colonial markets to Spanish monopolists. The colonies had been flooded with imports and colonial merchants ruined. Returns from America to Spain had soared.
Bullion and tax revenues from its colonies were used to underwrite Spain’s great-power ambitions in Europe. Peruvian gold, Mexican silver, and the profits from Orinoco coffee-plantations and Rio de la Plata cattle-ranches paid for Spanish armies.
It made little difference whether conservatives or liberals were in power in Madrid: both were intractable imperialists. After 1808, however, they were imperialists without teeth. The small Spanish colonial administration in South America soon found itself beleaguered and without support from home.
At the beginning of the 19th century, there were about 17 million people in Spanish America. Only 150,000 or so were peninsulares – immigrants from Spain. A further three million were criollos (creoles) – American-born descendants of Spanish settlers. The creoles’ relationship with Spain in 1808 was very similar to that of North American colonists with Britain in 1776.
Government posts were usually reserved for Spanish officials. Commercial opportunity was restricted by Spanish monopolies. Racial caste privilege was a routine feature of everyday life.
In 1806 and 1807, creole militia units defeated two British attacks on Buenos Aires. From this kernel evolved a creole revolutionary challenge to Spanish rule once news arrived of the Napoleonic coup in Madrid. In May 1810 the local creole militia seized power in Buenos Aires.
The revolutionary movement quickly spread across much of South and Central America. By 1814, when the French were finally evicted from Spain, most of the empire’s New World colonies had been lost. The main exception was Peru, the greatest bastion of royalist reaction in South America, where creole revolution had been crushed.
In 1815 the restored Spanish monarchy dispatched the largest army it had ever sent to the New World. It waged a war of counter-revolutionary terror. The creole patriot movement in Venezuela was shattered by executions and confiscations. By 1816 the revolution seemed to be on the brink of defeat.
But this was not the first major setback. Many of the initial risings of 1810 had been defeated. The movement had learned lessons from this, and later recovered and counterattacked. In the south, Jose de San Martin had transcended the parochialism of local militias and built a centralised revolutionary army – the Army of the Andes – capable of operating across the continent. In the north, Simon Bolivar had also grasped the need for organisation and leadership. And whereas San Martin was relatively conservative, Bolivar was a determined revolutionary.
‘Only the majority is sovereign,’ he proclaimed. ‘He who takes the place of the people is a tyrant and his power is usurpation.’ Analysing recent defeats, he concluded that ‘our own disunity, not Spanish arms, returned us to slavery’. Unity, centralisation, and all-out war – ‘a terrible power’ – was needed to defeat the royalists.
There could be no compromise, no temporising, with such a ruthless enemy. ‘Our tolerance is now exhausted, and as our oppressors force us into a mortal war, they shall disappear from America and our land will be purged of the monsters that infest it. Our hatred will be implacable. The war will be to the death.’
Bolivar held the revolutionary movement together through the dark night of Venezuela’s counter-revolution. He imposed centralised authority and rebuilt the army. Then, in 1819, in a spectacular campaign involving epic marches across the Andes, he led the revolution to victory in Colombia, Ecuador, and Venzuela. Royalist Peru finally succumbed in 1824.
But the struggle had been harder, longer, and more costly than it need have been. And the final victory was shallow. Bolivar went into exile shortly before his death in 1830 a disillusioned man.
His more radical aspirations for land reform to end the poverty of the peasants and for a ‘United States’ of South America to rival that of the North were still born. ‘I am ashamed to admit it,’ he said, ‘but independence is the only benefit we have gained, at the cost of everything else.’
The expanse of South America and the disproportion between geographical space and politico-military reach; the sparse and scattered Spanish-American population; the economic and social differences between regions; the countless petty clashes of rival vested interests; all these militated against a coherent, united, continent-wide movement.
The result was a plethora of factions: Spaniards against creoles, royalists against patriots, conservatives against liberals, centralists against regionalists, monopolists against free-traders. Sometimes these conflicts resolved themselves into a straight split between revolutionaries and reactionaries. Just as often, the complexities and cross-currents stymied effective action.
Instead of fusing into a single United States, South America fragmented into a mosaic of separate nations: Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela.
Worse still was the hamstringing of Latin America’s bourgeois revolution by the weakness of its popular movements. More than 80% of the people were not Spanish at all. Most were native Indians. Many were black slaves. Others were of mixed race (mestizos, pardos, or zambos).
These were Latin America’s beasts of burden. Many worked as peons (agricultural labourers) or gauchos (ranch-hands) on creole estates. Some were miners. Others eked out a living as dirt farmers on marginal land or as petty traders in the larger settlements.
Countless contemporary commentators reported on Spanish America’s grotesque social inequalites and the hopeless misery of the masses. The Bishop of Michoacan in Mexico identified only two social groups, ‘those who have nothing and those who have everything … There are no gradations or mean: they are all either rich or poor …’
Creole hacienda-owners lived in fear of the poor. Because of this, most creoles were royalist where the royalists were strong, and patriot where the patriots were strong; what mattered was armed power to keep the poor in their place, whoever wielded it.
Bolivar, the greatest of the creole revolutionaries, straddled and personified this contradiction. On the one hand, he condemned his peers, who ‘speak of liberty and constitutions’, yet ‘prefer to regard the lower classes as their perpetual serfs’. But Bolivar’s idealism was belied by his sense that South America was a volcano of racialised social contradictions that could ‘only be kept in order and prosperity by absolute power’. Unwilling to lead an elemental revolt of the masses that might have transformed Latin America, he became the unwitting midwife of a stillborn social revolution.
The Spanish-American Revolutions created independent states ruled by creole aristocrats. But as British bankers, merchants, and shippers replaced Spanish, a form of semi-colonial dependency persisted, and Latin America remained an underdeveloped continent of primary-export producers.
The conservative owners of big estates (haciendas) remained in full possession of their land. The hacienda became society’s centre of gravity. Regional oligarchies assumed control of the newly independent states. Politics became an oscillation between conservative and liberal factions of the same ruling class. The Church – rich, powerful, omnipresent – remained a dominant influence. Armies swelled into corrupt vested-interests with a taste for military coups.
For the great majority, life did not change at all. Relentless toil continued to be rewarded by poverty, hunger, and disease. Latin America’s tragedy was that Spanish imperial rule was so hollowed-out that it was never necessary to mobilise the masses to bring it down. Political revolution at the top was possible without social revolution from below.
But without the momentum of popular revolt, two decades of coups, decrees, and battles left Latin America’s economic backwardness, social inequality, and cultural torpor unaltered. It remained one of the most conservative places on earth throughout the 19th century. As Mexican campesinos (peasants) said of the post-revolutionary order, ‘Same rider, new mule.’
This article is one of several new chapters covering revolutionary movements in the Americas prepared for the Spanish edition of Neil Faulkner's Marxist History of the World - due for publication in February 2014.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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