THE movement which led eventually to the emancipation of the colonies differed from the local uprisings which occurred in various parts of South America during the eighteenth century. Either the arbitrary conduct of individual governors or excessive taxation had caused the earlier revolts. To the final revolution foreign nations and foreign ideas gave the necessary impulse. A few members of the intellectual class had read in secret the writings of French and English philosophers. Others had traveled abroad and came home to whisper to their countrymen what they had seen and heard in lands more progressive than Spain and Portugal. The commercial relations, both licit and illicit, which Great Britain had maintained with several of the colonies had served to diffuse among them some notions of what went on in the busy world outside.
By gaining its independence, the United States had set a practical example of what might be done elsewhere in America. Translated into French, the Declaration of Independence was read and commented upon by enthusiasts who dreamed of the possibility of applying its principles in their own lands. More powerful still were the ideas liberated by the French Revolution and Napoleon. Borne across the ocean, the doctrines of “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” stirred the ardent-minded to thoughts of action, though the Spanish and Portuguese Americans who schemed and plotted were the merest handful. The seed they planted was slow to germinate among peoples who had been taught to regard things foreign as outlandish and heretical. Many years therefore elapsed before the ideas of the few became the convictions of the masses, for the conservatism and loyalty of the common people were unbelievably steadfast.
Not Spanish and Portuguese America, but Santo Domingo, an island which had been under French rule since 1795 and which was tenanted chiefly by ignorant and brutalized negro slaves, was the scene of the first effectual assertion of independence in. the lands originally colonized by Spain. Rising in revolt against their masters, the negroes had won complete control under their remarkable commander, Toussaint L’Ouverture, when Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul, decided to restore the old régime. But the huge expedition which was sent to reduce the island ended in absolute failure. After a ruthless racial warfare, characterized by ferocity on both sides, the French retired. In 1804 the negro leaders proclaimed the independence of the island as the “Republic of Haiti,” under a President who, appreciative of the example just set by Napoleon, informed his followers that he too had assumed the august title of “Emperor”! His immediate successor in African royalty was the notorious Henri Christophe, who gathered about him a nobility garish in color and taste including their sable lordships, the “Duke of Marmalade” and the “Count of Lemonade”; and who built the palace of “Sans Souci” and the countryseats of “Queen’s Delight” and “King’s Beautiful View,” about which cluster tales of barbaric pleasure that rival the grim legends clinging to the parapets and enshrouding the dungeons of his mountain fortress of “La Ferrière.”, None of these black or mulatto potentates, however, could expel French authority from the eastern part of Santo Domingo. That task was taken in hand by the inhabitants themselves, and in 1809 they succeeded in restoring the control of Spain.
Meanwhile events which had been occurring in South America prepared the way for the movement that was ultimately to banish the flags of both Spain and Portugal from the continents of the New World. As the one country had fallen more or less under the influence of France, so the other had become practically dependent upon Great Britain. Interested in the expansion of its commerce and viewing the outlying possessions of peoples who submitted to French guidance as legitimate objects for seizure, Great Britain in 1797 wrested Trinidad from the feeble grip of Spain and thus acquired a strategic position very near South America itself. Haiti, Trinidad, and Jamaica, in fact, all became centers of revolutionary agitation and havens of refuge for Spanish American radicals in the troublous years to follow.
Foremost among the early conspirators was the Venezuelan, Francisco de Miranda, known to his fellow Americans of Spanish stock as the “Precursor.” Napoleon once remarked of him: “He is a Don Quixote, with this difference he is not crazy. The man has sacred fire in his soul.”
An officer in the armies of Spain and of revolutionary France and later a resident of London, Miranda devoted thirty years of his adventurous life to the cause of independence for his countrymen. With officials of the British Government he labored long and zealously, eliciting from them vague promises of armed support and some financial aid. It was in London, also, that he organized a group of sympathizers into the secret society called the “Grand Lodge of America.” With it, or with its branches in France and Spain, many of the leaders of the subsequent revolution came to be identified.
In 1806, availing himself of the negligence of the United States and having the connivance of the British authorities in Trinidad, Miranda headed two expeditions to the coast of Venezuela. He had hoped that his appearance would be the signal for a general uprising; instead, he was treated with indifference. His countrymen seemed to regard him as a tool of Great Britain, and no one felt disposed to accept the blessings of liberty under that guise. Humiliated, but not despairing, Miranda returned to London to await a happier day.
Two British expeditions which attempted to conquer the region about the Rio de la Plata in 1806 and 1807 were also frustrated by this same stubborn loyalty. When the Spanish viceroy fled, the inhabitants themselves rallied to the defense of the country and drove out the invaders. Thereupon the people of Buenos Aires, assembled in cabildo abierto, or town meeting, deposed the viceroy and chose their victorious leader in his stead until a successor could be regularly appointed.
Then, in 1808, fell the blow which was to shatter the bonds uniting Spain to its continental dominions in America. The discord and corruption which prevailed in that unfortunate country afforded Napoleon an opportunity to oust its feeble king and his incompetent son, Ferdinand, and to place Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. But the master of Europe underestimated the fighting ability of Spaniards. Instead of humbly complying with his mandate, they rose in arms against the usurper and created a central junta, or revolutionary committee, to govern in the name of Ferdinand VII, as their rightful ruler.
The news of this French aggression aroused in the colonies a spirit of resistance as vehement as that in the mother country. Both Spaniards and Creoles repudiated the “intruder king.” Believing, as did their comrades oversea, that Ferdinand was a helpless victim in the hands of Napoleon, they recognized the revolutionary government and sent great sums of money to Spain to aid in the struggle against the French. Envoys from Joseph Bonaparte seeking an acknowledgment of his rule were angrily rejected and were forced to leave.
The situation on both sides of the ocean was now an extraordinary one. Just as the junta in Spain had no legal right to govern, so the officials in the colonies, holding their posts by appointment from a deposed king, had no legal authority, and the people would not allow them to accept new commissions from a usurper. The Church, too, detesting Napoleon as the heir of a revolution that had undermined the Catholic faith and regarding him as a godless despot who had made the Pope a captive, refused to recognize the French pretender. Until Ferdinand VII could be restored to his throne, therefore, the colonists had to choose whether they would carry on the administration under the guidance of the self-constituted authorities in Spain, or should themselves create similar organizations in each of the colonies to take charge of affairs. The former course was favored by the official element and its supporters among the conservative classes, the latter by the liberals, who felt that they had as much right as the people of the mother country to choose the form of government best suited to their interests.
Each party viewed the other with distrust. Opposition to the more democratic procedure, it was felt, could mean nothing less than secret submission to the pretensions of Joseph Bonaparte; whereas the establishment in America of any organizations like those in Spain surely indicated a spirit of disloyalty toward Ferdinand VII himself. Under circumstances like these, when the junta and its successor, the council of regency, refused to make substantial concessions to the colonies, both parties were inevitably drifting toward independence. In the phrase of Manuel Belgrano, one of the great leaders in the viceroyalty of La Plata, “our old King or none” became the watchword that gradually shaped the thoughts of Spanish Americans.
When, therefore, in 1810, the news came that the French army had overrun Spain, democratic ideas so long cherished in secret and propagated so industriously by Miranda and his followers at last found expression in a series of uprisings in the four viceroyalties of La Plata, Peru, New Granada, and New Spain. But in each of these viceroyalties the revolution ran a different course. Sometimes it was the capital city that led off ; sometimes a provincial town; sometimes a group of individuals in the country districts. Among the actual participants in the various movements very little harmony was to be found. Here a particular leader claimed obedience; there a board of self-chosen magistrates held sway; elsewhere a town or province refused to acknowledge the central authority. To add to these complications, in 1812, a revolutionary Cortes, or legislative body, assembled at Cadiz, adopted for Spain and its dominions a constitution providing for direct representation of the colonies in oversea administration. Since arrangements of this sort contented many of the Spanish Americans who had protested against existing abuses, they were quite unwilling to press their grievances further. Given all these evidences of division in activity and counsel, one does not find it difficult to foresee the outcome.
On May 25, 1810, popular agitation at Buenos Aires forced the Spanish viceroy of La Plata to resign. The central authority was thereupon vested in an elected junta that was to govern in the name of Ferdinand VII. Opposition broke out immediately. The northern and eastern parts of the viceroyalty showed themselves quite unwilling to obey these upstarts. Meantime, urged on by radicals who revived the Jacobin doctrines of revolutionary France, the junta strove to suppress in rigorous fashion any symptoms of disaffection; but it could do nothing to stem the tide of separation in the rest of the viceroyalty,in Charcas (Bolivia), Paraguay, and the Banda Oriental, or East Bank, of the Uruguay.
At Buenos Aires acute difference of opinion about the extent to which the movement should be carried and about the permanent form of government to be adopted as well as the method of establishing it produced a series of political commotions little short of anarchy. Triumvirates followed the junta into power; supreme directors alternated with triumvirates; and constituent assemblies came and went. Under one authority or another the name of the viceroyalty was changed to “United Provinces of La Plata River”; a seal, a flag, and a coat of arms were chosen; and numerous features of the Spanish régime were abolished, including titles of nobility, the Inquisition, the slave trade, and restrictions on the press. But so chaotic were the conditions within and so disastrous the campaigns without, that eventually commissioners were sent to Europe, bearing instructions to seek a king for the distracted country.
When Charcas fell under the control of the viceroy of Peru, Paraguay set up a régime for itself. At Asunción, the capital, a revolutionary outbreak in 1811 replaced the Spanish intendant by a triumvirate, of which the most prominent member was Dr. José Gaspar Rodriguez de Francia. A lawyer by profession, familiar with the history of Rome, an admirer of France and Napoleon, a misanthrope and a recluse, possessing a blind faith in himself and actuated by a sense of implacable hatred for all who might venture to thwart his will, this extraordinary personage speedily made himself master of the country. A population composed chiefly of Indians, docile in temperament and submissive for many years to the paternal rule of Jesuit missionaries, could not fail to become pliant instruments in his hands. At his direction, therefore, Paraguay declared itself independent of both Spain and La Plata. This done, an obedient Congress elected Francia consul of the republic and later invested him with the title of dictator. In the Banda Oriental two distinct movements appeared. Montevideo, the capital, long a center of royalist sympathies and for some years hostile to the revolutionary government in Buenos Aires, was reunited with La Plata in 1814. Elsewhere the people of the province followed the fortunes of José Gervasio Artigas, an able and valiant cavalry officer, who roamed through it at will, bidding defiance to any authority not his own. Most of the former viceroyalty of La Plata had thus, to all intents and purposes, thrown off the yoke of Spain.
Chile was the only other province that for a while gave promise of similar action. Here again it was the capital city that took the lead. On receipt of the news of the occurrences at Buenos Aires in May, 1810, the people of Santiago forced the captain general to resign and, on the 18th of September, replaced him by a junta of their own choosing. But neither this body, nor its successors, nor even the Congress that assembled the following year, could establish a permanent and effective government. Nowhere in Spanish America, perhaps, did the lower classes count for so little, and the upper class for so much, as in Chile. Though the great landholders were disposed to favor a reasonable amount of local autonomy for the country, they refused to heed the demands of the radicals for complete independence and the establishment of a republic. Accordingly, in proportion as their opponents resorted to measures of compulsion, the gentry gradually withdrew their support and offered little resistance when troops dispatched by the viceroy of Peru restored the Spanish régime in 1814. The irreconcilable among the patriots fled over the Andes to the western part of La Plata, where they found hospitable refuge.
But of all the Spanish dominions in South America none witnessed so desperate a struggle for emancipation as the viceroyalty of New Granada. Learning of the catastrophe that had befallen the mother country, the leading citizens of Caracas, acting in conjunction with the cabildo, deposed the captain general on April 19, 1810, and created a junta in his stead. The example was quickly followed by most of the smaller divisions of the province. Then when Miranda returned from England to head the revolutionary movement, a Congress, on July 5, 1811, declared Venezuela independent of Spain. Carried away, also, by the enthusiasm of the moment, and forgetful of the utter unpreparedness of the country, the Congress promulgated a federal constitution modeled on that of the United States, which set forth all the approved doctrines of the rights of man.
Neither Miranda nor his youthful coadjutor, Simon Bolivar, soon to become famous in the annals of Spanish American history, approved of this plunge into democracy. Ardent as their patriotism was, they knew that the country needed centralized control and not experiments in confederation or theoretical liberty. They speedily found out, also, that they could not count on the support of the people at large. Then, almost as if Nature herself disapproved of the whole proceeding, a frightful earthquake in the following year shook many a Venezuelan town into ruins. Everywhere the royalists took heart. Dissensions broke out between Miranda and his subordinates. Betrayed into the hands of his enemies, the old warrior himself was sent away to die in a Spanish dungeon. And so the “earthquake” republic collapsed.
But the rigorous measures adopted by the royalists to sustain their triumph enabled Bolivar to renew the struggle in 1813. He entered upon a campaign which was signalized by acts of barbarity on both sides. His declaration of “war to the death” was answered in kind. Wholesale slaughter of prisoners, indiscriminate pillage, and wanton destruction of property spread terror and desolation throughout the country. Acclaimed “Liberator of Venezuela” and made dictator by the people of Caracas, Bolivar strove in vain to overcome the half-savage llaneros, or cowboys of the plains, who despised the innovating aristocrats of the capital. Though he won a few victories, he did not make the cause of independence popular, and, realizing his failure, he retired into New Granada.
In this region an astounding series of revolutions and counter revolutions had taken place. Unmindful of pleas for cooperation, the Creole leaders in town and district, from 1810 onward, seized control of affairs in a fashion that betokened a speedy disintegration of the country. Though the viceroy was deposed and a general Congress was summoned to meet at the capital, Bogotâ, efforts at centralization encountered opposition in every quarter. Only the royalists managed to preserve a semblance of unity. Separate republics sprang into being and in 1813 declared their independence of Spain. Presidents and congresses were pitted against one another. Towns fought among themselves. Even parishes demanded local autonomy. For a while the services of Bolivar were invoked to force rebellious areas into obedience to the principle of confederation, but with scant result. Unable to agree with his fellow officers and displaying traits of moral weakness which at this time as on previous occasions showed that he had not yet risen to a full sense of responsibility, the Liberator renounced the task and fled to Jamaica.
The scene now shifts northward to the vice-royalty of New Spain. Unlike the struggles already described, the uprisings that began in 1810 in central Mexico were substantially revolts of Indians and half-castes against white domination. On the 16th of September, a crowd of natives rose under the leadership of Miguel Hidalgo, a parish priest of the village of Dolores. Bearing on their banners the slogan, “Long live Ferdinand VII and down with bad government,” the undisciplined crowd, soon to number tens of thousands, aroused such terror by their behavior that the whites were compelled to unite in self-defense. It mattered not whether Hidalgo hoped to establish a republic or simply to secure for his followers relief from oppression: in either case the whites could expect only Indian domination. Before the trained forces of the whites a horde of natives, so ignorant of modern warfare that some of them tried to stop cannon balls by clapping their straw hats over the mouths of the guns, could not stand their ground. Hidalgo was captured and shot, but he was succeeded by José Maria Morelos, also a priest. Reviving the old Aztec name for central Mexico, he summoned a “Congress of Anahuac,” which in 1813 asserted that dependence on the throne of Spain was “forever broken and dissolved.” Abler and more humane than Hidalgo, he set up a revolutionary government that the authorities of Mexico failed for a while to suppress.
In 1814, therefore, Spain still held the bulk of its dominions. Trinidad, to be sure, had been lost to Great Britain, and both Louisiana and West Florida to the United States. Royalist control, furthermore, had ceased in parts of the vice-royalties of La Plata and New Granada. To regain Trinidad and Louisiana was hopeless; but a wise policy of conciliation or an overwhelming display of armed force might yet restore Spanish rule where it had been merely suspended.
Very different was the course of events in Brazil. Strangely enough, the first impulse toward independence was given by the Portuguese royal family. Terrified by the prospective invasion of the country by a French army, late in 1807 the Prince Regent, the royal family, and a host of Portuguese nobles and commoners took passage on British vessels and sailed to Rio de Janeiro. Brazil thereupon became the seat of royal government and immediately assumed an importance which it could never have attained as a mere dependency. Acting under the advice of the British minister, the Prince Regent threw open the ports of the colony to the ships of all nations friendly to Portugal, gave his sanction to a variety of reforms beneficial to commerce and industry, and even permitted a printing press to be set up, though only for official purposes. From all these benevolent activities Brazil derived great advantages. On the other hand, the Prince Regent’s aversion to popular education or anything that might savor of democracy and the greed of his followers for place and distinction alienated his colonial subjects. They could not fail to contrast autocracy in Brazil with the liberal ideas that had made headway elsewhere in Spanish America. As a consequence a spirit of unrest arose which boded ill for the maintenance of Portuguese rule.