The Historical Text Archive: Electronic History Resources, online since 1990 Bringing you digitized history, primary and secondary sources
HTA Home Page | E-books | Latin America | "Independence Or Death"

3: "Independence Or Death"

<< 2: "Our Old King or None" || 4: Ploughing the Sea >>

The restoration of Ferdinand VII to his throne in 1814 encouraged the liberals of Spain, no less than the loyalists of Spanish America, to hope that the "old King" would now grant a new dispensation. Freedom of commerce and a fair measure of popular representation in government, it was believed, would compensate both the mother country for the suffering which it had undergone during the Peninsular War and the colonies for the trials to which loyalty had been subjected. But Ferdinand VII was a typical Bourbon. Nothing less than an absolute reestablishment of the earlier regime would satisfy him. On both sides of the Atlantic, therefore, the liberals were forced into opposition to the crown, although they were so far apart that they could not cooperate with each other. Independence was to be the fortune of the Spanish Americans, and a continuance of despotism, for a while, the lot of the Spaniards.

As the region of the viceroyalty of La Plata had been the first to cast off the authority of the home government, so it was the first to complete its separation from Spain. Despite the fact that disorder was rampant everywhere and that most of the local districts could not or would not send deputies, a congress that assembled at Tucumán voted on July 9, 1816, to declare the "United Provinces in South America" independent. Comprehensive though the expression was, it applied only to the central part of the former viceroyalty, and even there it was little more than an aspiration. Mistrust of the authorities at Buenos Aires, insistence upon provincial autonomy, failure to agree upon a particular kind of republican government, and a lingering inclination to monarchy made progress toward national unity impossible. In 1819, to be sure, a constitution was adopted, providing for a centralized government, but in the country at large it encountered too much resistance from those who favored a federal government to become effective.

In the Banda Oriental, over most of which Artigas and his horsemen held sway, chaotic conditions invited aggression from the direction of Brazil. This East Bank of the Uruguay had long been disputed territory between Spain and Portugal; and now its definite acquisition by the latter seemed an easy undertaking. Instead, however, the task turned out to be a truly formidable one. Montevideo, feebly defended by the forces of the Government at Buenos Aires, soon capitulated, but four years elapsed before the rest of the country could be subdued. Artigas fled to Paraguay, where he fell into the clutches of Francía, never to escape. In 1821 the Banda Oriental was annexed to Brazil as the Cisplatine Province.

Over Paraguay that grim and somber potentate, known as "The Supreme One"—El Supremo—presided with iron hand. In 1817 Francía set up a despotism unique in the annals of South America. Fearful lest contact with the outer world might weaken his tenacious grip upon his subjects, whom he terrorized into obedience, he barred approach to the country and suffered no one to leave it. He organized and drilled an army obedient to his will. When he went forth by day, attended by an escort of cavalry, the doors and windows of houses had to be kept closed and no one was allowed on the streets. Night he spent till a late hour in reading and study, changing his bedroom frequently to avoid assassination. Religious functions that might disturb the public peace he forbade. Compelling the bishop of Asuncion to resign on account of senile debility, Francía himself assumed the episcopal office. Even intermarriage among the old colonial families he prohibited, so as to reduce all to a common social level. He attained his object. Paraguay became a quiet state, whatever might be said of its neighbors!

Elsewhere in southern Spanish America a brilliant feat of arms brought to the fore its most distinguished soldier. This was José de San Martín of La Plata. Like Miranda, he had been an officer in the Spanish army and had returned to his native land an ardent apostle of independence. Quick to realize the fact that, so long as Chile remained under royalist control, the possibility of an attack from that quarter was a constant menace to the safety of the newly constituted republic, he conceived the bold plan of organizing near the western frontier an army—composed partly of Chilean refugees and partly of his own countrymen—with which he proposed to cross the Andes and meet the enemy on his own ground. Among these fugitives was the able and valiant Bernardo O'Higgins, son of an Irish officer who had been viceroy of Peru. Cooperating with O'Higgins, San Martín fixed his headquarters at Mendoza and began to gather and train the four thousand men whom he judged needful for the enterprise.

By January, 1817, the "Army of the Andes" was ready. To cross the mountains meant to transport men, horses, artillery, and stores to an altitude of thirteen thousand feet, where the Uspallata Pass afforded an outlet to Chilean soil. This pass was nearly a mile higher than the Great St. Bernard in the Alps, the crossing of which gave Napoleon Bonaparte such renown. On the 12th of February the hosts of San Martín hurled themselves upon the royalists entrenched on the slopes of Chacabuco and routed them utterly. The battle proved decisive not of the fortunes of Chile alone but of those of all Spanish South America. As a viceroy of Peru later confessed, "it marked the moment when the cause of Spain in the Indies began to recede."

Named supreme director by the people of Santiago, O'Higgins fought vigorously though ineffectually to drive out the royalists who, reinforced from Peru, held the region south of the capital. That he failed did not deter him from having a vote taken under military auspices, on the strength of which, on February 12, 1818, he declared Chile an independent nation, the date of the proclamation being changed to the 1st of January, so as to make the inauguration of the new era coincident with the entry of the new year. San Martín, meanwhile, had been collecting reinforcements with which to strike the final blow. On the 5th of April, the Battle of Maipo gave him the victory he desired. Except for a few isolated points to the southward, the power of Spain had fallen.

Until the fall of Napoleon in 1815 it had been the native loyalists who had supported the cause of the mother country in the Spanish dominions. Henceforth, free from the menace of the European dictator, Spain could look to her affairs in America, and during the next three years dispatched twenty-five thousand men to bring the colonies to obedience. These soldiers began their task in the northern part of South America, and there they ended it—in failure. To this failure the defection of native royalists contributed, for they were alienated not so much by the presence of the Spanish troops as by the often merciless severity that marked their conduct. The atrocities may have been provoked by the behavior of their opponents; but, be this as it may, the patriots gained recruits after each victory.

A Spanish army of more than ten thousand, under the command of Pablo Morillo, arrived in Venezuela in April, 1815. He found the province relatively tranquil and even disposed to welcome the full restoration of royal government. Leaving a garrison sufficient for the purpose of military occupation, Morillo sailed for Cartagena, the key to New Granada. Besieged by land and sea, the inhabitants of the town maintained for upwards of three months a resistance which, in its heroism, privation, and sacrifice, recalled the memorable defense of Saragosa in the mother country against the French seven years before. With Cartagena taken, regulars and loyalists united to stamp out the rebellion elsewhere. At Bogotá, in particular, the new Spanish viceroy installed by Morillo waged a savage war on all suspected of aiding the patriot cause. He did not spare even women, and one of his victims was a young heroine, Policarpa Salavarrieta by name. Though for her execution three thousand soldiers were detailed, the girl was unterrified by her doom and was earnestly beseeching the loyalists among them to turn their arms against the enemies of their country when a volley stretched her lifeless on the ground.

Meanwhile Bolívar had been fitting out, in Haiti and in the Dutch island of Curaçao, an expedition to take up anew the work of freeing Venezuela. Hardly had the Liberator landed in May, 1816, when dissensions with his fellow officers frustrated any prospect of success. Indeed they obliged him to seek refuge once more in Haiti. Eventually, however, most of the patriot leaders became convinced that, if they were to entertain a hope of success, they must entrust their fortunes to Bolívar as supreme commander. Their chances of success were increased furthermore by the support of the llaneros who had been won over to the cause of independence. Under their redoubtable chieftain, José Antonio Páez, these fierce and ruthless horsemen performed many a feat of valor in the campaigns which followed.

Once again on Venezuelan soil, Bolívar determined to transfer his operations to the eastern part of the country, which seemed to offer better strategic advantages than the region about Caracas. But even here the jealousy of his officers, the insubordination of the free lances, the stubborn resistance of the loyalists— upheld by the wealthy and conservative classes and the able generalship of Morillo, who had returned from New Granada—made the situation of the Liberator all through 1817 and 1818 extremely precarious. Happily for his fading fortunes, his hands were strengthened from abroad. The United States had recognized the belligerency of several of the revolutionary governments in South America and had sent diplomatic agents to them. Great Britain had blocked every attempt of Ferdinand VII to obtain help from the Holy Alliance in reconquering his dominions. And Ferdinand had contributed to his own undoing by failing to heed the urgent requests of Morillo for reinforcements to fill his dwindling ranks. More decisive still were the services of some five thousand British, Irish, French, and German volunteers, who were often the mainstay of Bolívar and his lieutenants during the later phases of the struggle, both in Venezuela and elsewhere.

For some time the Liberator had been evolving a plan of attack upon the royalists in New Granada, similar to the offensive campaign which San Martín had conducted in Chile. More than that, he had conceived the idea, once independence had been attained, of uniting the western part of the viceroyalty with Venezuela into a single republic. The latter plan he laid down before a Congress which assembled at Angostura in February, 1819, and which promptly chose him President of the republic and vested him with the powers of dictator. In June, at the head of 2100 men, he started on his perilous journey over the Andes.

Up through the passes and across bleak plateaus the little army struggled till it reached the banks of the rivulet of Boyaca, in the very heart of New Granada. Here, on the 7th of August, Bolívar inflicted on the royalist forces a tremendous defeat that gave the death blow to the domination of Spain in northern South America. On his triumphal return to Angostura, the Congress signalized the victory by declaring the whole of the viceroyalty an independent state under the name of the "Republic of Colombia" and chose the Liberator as its provisional President. Two years later, a fundamental law it had adopted was ratified with certain changes by another Congress assembled at Rosario de Cucuta, and Bolívar was made permanent President.

Southward of Colombia lay the viceroyalty of Peru, the oldest, richest, and most conservative of the larger Spanish dominions on the continent. Intact, except for the loss of Chile, it had found territorial compensation by stretching its power over the provinces of Quito and Charcas, the one wrenched off from the former New Granada, the other torn away from what had been La Plata. Predominantly royalist in sentiment, it was like a huge wedge thrust in between the two independent areas. By thus cutting off the patriots of the north from their comrades in the south, it threatened both with destruction of their liberty.

Again fortune intervened from abroad, this time directly from Spain itself. Ferdinand VII, who had gathered an army of twenty thousand men at Cádiz, was ready to deliver a crushing blow at the colonies when in January, 1890, a mutiny among the troops and revolution throughout the country entirely frustrated the plan. But although that reactionary monarch was compelled to accept the Constitution of 1819, the Spanish liberals were unwilling to concede to their fellows in America anything more substantial than representation in the Cortes. Independence they would not tolerate. On the other hand, the example of the mother country in arms against its King in the name of liberty could not fail to give heart to the cause of liberation in the provinces oversea and to hasten its achievement.

The first important efforts to profit by this situation were made by the patriots in Chile. Both San Martín and O'Higgins had perceived that the only effective way to eliminate the Peruvian wedge was to gain control of its approaches by sea. The Chileans had already won some success in this direction when the fiery and imperious Scotch sailor, Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald, appeared on the scene and offered to organize a navy. At length a squadron was put under his command. With upwards of four thousand troops in charge of San Martín the expedition set sail for Peru late in August, 1820.

While Cochrane busied himself in destroying the Spanish blockade, his comrade in arms marched up to the very gates of Lima, the capital, and everywhere aroused enthusiasm for emancipation. When negotiations, which had been begun by the viceroy and continued by a special commissioner from Spain, failed to swerve the patriot leader from his demand for a recognition of independence, the royalists decided to evacuate the town and to withdraw into the mountainous region of the interior. San Martín, thereupon, entered the capital at the head of his army of liberation and summoned the inhabitants to a town meeting at which they might determine for themselves what action should be taken. The result was easily foreseen. On July 28, 1821, Peru was declared independent, and a few days later San Martín was invested with supreme command under the title of "Protector."

But the triumph of the new Protector did not last long. For some reason he failed to understand that the withdrawal of the royalists from the neighborhood of the coast was merely a strategic retreat that made the occupation of the capital a more or less empty performance. This blunder and a variety of other mishaps proved destined to blight his military career. Unfortunate in the choice of his subordinates and unable to retain their confidence; accused of irresolution and even of cowardice; abandoned by Cochrane, who sailed off to Chile and left the army stranded; incapable of restraining his soldiers from indulgence in the pleasures of Lima; now severe, now lax in an administration that alienated the sympathies of the influential class, San Martín was indeed an unhappy figure. It soon became clear that he must abandon all hope of ever conquering the citadel of Spanish power in South America unless he could prevail upon Bolívar to help him.

A junction of the forces of the two great leaders was perfectly feasible, after the last important foothold of the Spaniards on the coast of Venezuela had been broken by the Battle of Carabobo, on July 24, 1821. Whether such a union would be made, however, depended upon two things: the ultimate disposition of the province of Quito, lying between Colombia and Peru, and the attitude which Bolívar and San Martín themselves should assume toward each other. A revolution of the previous year at the seaport town of Guayaquil in that province had installed an independent government which besought the Liberator to sustain its existence. Prompt to avail himself of so auspicious an opportunity of uniting this former division of the viceroyalty of New Granada to his republic of Colombia, Bolívar appointed Antonio José de Sucre, his ablest lieutenant and probably the most efficient of all Spanish American soldiers of the time, to assume charge of the campaign. On his arrival at Guayaquil, this officer found the inhabitants at odds among themselves. Some, hearkening to the pleas of an agent of San Martín, favored union with Peru; others, yielding to the arguments of a representative of Bolívar, urged annexation to Colombia; still others regarded absolute independence as most desirable. Under these circumstances Sucre for a while made little headway against the royalists concentrated in the mountainous parts of the country despite the partial support he received from troops which were sent by the southern commander. At length, on May 24, 1822, scaling the flanks of the volcano of Pichincha, near the capital town of Quito itself, he delivered the blow for freedom. Here Bolívar, who had fought his way overland amid tremendous difficulties, joined him and started for Guayaquil, where he and San Martín were to hold their memorable interview.

No characters in Spanish American history have called forth so much controversy about their respective merits and demerits as these two heroes of independence—Bolívar and San Martín. Even now it seems quite impossible to obtain from the admirers of either an opinion that does full justice to both; and foreigners who venture to pass judgment are almost certain to provoke criticism from one set of partisans or the other. Both Bolívar and San Martín were sons of country gentlemen, aristocratic by lineage and devoted to the cause of independence. Bolívar was alert, dauntless, brilliant, impetuous, vehemently patriotic, and yet often capricious, domineering, vain, ostentatious, and disdainful of moral considerations—a masterful man, fertile in intellect, fluent in speech and with pen, an inspiring leader and one born to command in state and army. Quite as earnest, equally courageous, and upholding in private life a higher standard of morals, San Martín was relatively calm, cautious, almost taciturn in manner, and slower in thought and action. He was primarily a soldier, fitted to organize and conduct expeditions, rather than, a man endowed with that supreme confidence in himself which brings enthusiasm, affection, and loyalty in its train.

When San Martín arrived at Guayaquil, late in July, 1822, his hope of annexing the province of Quito to Peru was rudely shattered by the news that Bolívar had already declared it a part of Colombia. Though it was outwardly cordial and even effusive, the meeting of the two men held out no prospect of accord. In an interchange of views which lasted but a few hours, mutual suspicion, jealousy, and resentment prevented their reaching an effective understanding. The Protector, it would seem, thought the Liberator actuated by a boundless ambition that would not endure resistance. Bolívar fancied San Martín a crafty schemer plotting for his own advancement. They failed to agree on the three fundamental points essential to their further cooperation. Bolívar declined to give up the province of Quito. He refused also to send an army into Peru unless he could command it in person, and then he declined to undertake the expedition on the ground that as President of Colombia he ought not to leave the territory of the republic. Divining this pretext, San Martín offered to serve under his orders—a feint that Bolívar parried by protesting that he would not hear of any such self-denial on the part of a brother officer.

Above all, the two men differed about the political form to be adopted for the new independent states. Both of them realized that anything like genuine democracies was quite impossible of attainment for many years to come, and that strong administrations would be needful to tide the Spanish Americans over from the political inexperience of colonial days and the disorders of revolution to intelligent self-government, which could come only after a practical acquaintance with public concerns on a large scale. San Martín believed that a limited monarchy was the best form of government under the circumstances. Bolívar held fast to the idea of a centralized or unitary republic, in which actual power should be exercised by a life president and an hereditary senate until the people, represented in a lower house, should have gained a sufficient amount of political experience.

When San Martín returned to Lima he found affairs in a worse state than ever. The tyrannical conduct of the officer he had left in charge had provoked an uprising that made his position insupportable. Conscious that his mission had come to an end and certain that, unless he gave way, a collision with Bolívar was inevitable, San Martín resolved to sacrifice himself lest harm befall the common cause in which both had done such yeoman service. Accordingly he resigned his power into the hands of a constituent congress and left the country. But when he found that no happier fortune awaited him in Chile and in his own native land, San Martín decided to abandon Spanish America forever and go into self-imposed exile. Broken in health and spirit, he took up his residence in France, a recipient of bounty from a Spaniard who had once been his comrade in arms.

Meanwhile in the Mexican part of the viceroyalty of New Spain the cry of independence raised by Morelos and his bands of Indian followers had been stifled by the capture and execution of the leader. But the cause of independence was not dead even if its achievement was to be entrusted to other hands. Eager to emulate the example of their brethren in South America, small parties of Spaniards and Creoles fought to overturn the despotic rule of Ferdinand VII, only to encounter defeat from the royalists. Then came the Revolution of 1820 in the mother country. Forthwith demands were heard for a recognition of the liberal regime. Fearful of being displaced from power, the viceroy with the support of the clergy and aristocracy ordered Agustín de Iturbide, a Creole officer who had been an active royalist, to quell an insurrection in the southern part of the country.

The choice of this soldier was unfortunate. Personally ambitious and cherishing in secret the thought of independence, Iturbide, faithless to his trust, entered into negotiations with the insurgents which culminated February 24, 1821, in what was called the "Plan of Iguala." It contained three main provisions, or "guarantees," as they were termed: the maintenance of the Catholic religion to the exclusion of all others; the establishment of a constitutional monarchy separate from Spain and ruled by Ferdinand himself, or, if he declined the honor, by some other European prince; and the union of Mexicans and Spaniards without distinction of caste or privilege. A temporary government also, in the form of a junta presided over by the viceroy, was to be created; and provision was made for the organization of an "Army of the Three Guarantees."

Despite opposition from the royalists, the plan won increasing favor. Powerless to thwart it and inclined besides to a policy of conciliation, the new viceroy, Juan O'Donojú, agreed to ratify it on condition—in obedience to a suggestion from Iturbide—that the parties concerned should be at liberty, if they desired, to choose any one as emperor, whether he were of a reigning family or not. Thereupon, on the 28th of September, the provisional government installed at the city of Mexico announced the consummation of an "enterprise rendered eternally memorable, which a genius beyond all admiration and eulogy, love and glory of his country, began at Iguala, prosecuted and carried into effect, overcoming obstacles almost insuparable"—and declared the independence of a "Mexican Empire." The act was followed by the appointment of a regency to govern until the accession of Ferdinand VII, or some other personage, to the imperial throne. Of this body Iturbide assumed the presidency, which carried with it the powers of commander in chief and a salary of 120,000 pesos, paid from the day on which the Plan of Iguala was signed. O'Donojú contented himself with membership on the board and a salary of one-twelfth that amount, until his speedy demise removed from the scene the last of the Spanish viceroys in North America.

One step more was needed. Learning that the Cortes in Spain had rejected the entire scheme, Iturbide allowed his soldiers to acclaim him emperor, and an unwilling Congress saw itself obliged to ratify the choice. On July 21, 1822, the destinies of the country were committed to the charge of Agustin the First.

As in the area of Mexico proper, so in the Central American part of the viceroyalty of New Spain, the Spanish Revolution of 1820 had unexpected results. Here in the five little provinces composing the captaincy general of Guatemala there was much unrest, but nothing of a serious nature occurred until after news had been brought of the Plan of Iguala and its immediate outcome. Thereupon a popular assembly met at the capital town of Guatemala, and on September 15, 1821, declared the country an independent state. This radical act accomplished, the patriot leaders were unable to proceed further. Demands for the establishment of a federation, for a recognition of local autonomy, for annexation to Mexico, were all heard, and none, except the last, was answered. While the "Imperialists" and "Republicans" were arguing it out, a message from Emperor Agustin announced that he would not allow the new state to remain independent. On submission of the matter to a vote of the cabildos, most of them approved reunion with the northern neighbor. Salvador alone among the provinces held out until troops from Mexico overcame its resistance.

On the continents of America, Spain had now lost nearly all its its possessions. In 1822 the United States had already acquired East Florida on its own account, led off in recognizing the independence of the several republics. Only in Peru and Charcas the royalists still battled on behalf of the mother country. In the West Indies, Santo Domingo followed the lead of its sister colonies on the mainland by asserting in 1821 its independence; but its brief independent life was snuffed out by the negroes of Haiti, once more a republic, who spread their control over the entire island. Cuba also felt the impulse of the times. But, apart from the agitation of secret societies like the "Rays and Suns of Bolívar," which was soon checked, the colony remained tranquil.

In Portuguese America the knowledge of what had occurred throughout the Spanish dominions could not fail to awaken a desire for independence. The Prince Regent was well aware of the discontent of the Brazilians, but he thought to allay it by substantial concessions. In 1815 he proceeded to elevate the colony to substantial equality with the mother country by joining them under the title of "United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil, and the Algarves." The next year the Prince Regent himself became King under the name of John IV. The flame of discontent, nevertheless, continued to smolder. Republican outbreaks, though quelled without much difficulty, recurred. Even the reforms which had been instituted by John himself while Regent, and which had assured freer communication with the world at large, only emphasized more and more the absurdity of permitting a feeble little land like Portugal to retain its hold upon a region so extensive and valuable as Brazil.

The events of 1820 in Portugal hastened the movement toward independence. Fired by the success of their Spanish comrades, the Portuguese liberals forthwith rose in revolt, demanded the establishment of a limited monarchy, and insisted that the King return to his people. In similar fashion, also, they drew up a constitution which provided for the representation of Brazil by deputies in a future Cortes. Beyond this they would concede no special privileges to the colony. Indeed their idea seems to have been that, with the King once more in Lisbon, their own liberties would be secure and those of Brazil would be reduced to what were befitting a mere dependency. Yielding to the inevitable, the King decided to return to Portugal, leaving the young Crown Prince to act as Regent in the colony. A critical moment for the little country and its big dominion oversea had indubitably arrived. John understood the trend of the times, for on the eve of his departure he said to his son: "Pedro, if Brazil is to separate itself from Portugal, as seems likely, you take the crown yourself before any one else gets it!"

Pedro was liberal in sentiment, popular among the Brazilians, and well-disposed toward the aspirations of the country for a larger measure of freedom, and yet not blind to the interests of the dynasty of Braganza. He readily listened to the urgent pleas of the leaders of the separatist party against obeying the repressive mandaes of the Cortes. Laws which abolished the central government of the colony and made the various provinces individually subject to Portugal he declined to notice. With equal promptness he refused to heed an order bidding him return to Portugal immediately. To a delegation of prominent Brazilians he said emphatically: "For the good of all and the general welfare of the nation, I shall stay." More than that, in May, 1822, he accepted from the municipality of Río de Janeiro the title of "Perpetual and Constitutional Defender of Brazil, " and in a series of proclamations urged the people of the country to begin the great work of emancipation by forcibly resisting, if needful, any attempt at coercion.

Pedro now believed the moment had come to take the final step. While on a journey through the province of Sao Paulo, he was overtaken on the 7th of September, near a little stream called the Ypiranga, by messengers with dispatches from Portugal. Finding that the Cortes had annulled his acts and declared his ministers guilty of treason, Pedro forthwith proclaimed Brazil an independent state. The "cry of Ypiranga" was echoed with tremendous enthusiasm throughout the country. When Pedro appeared in the theater at Río de Janeiro, a few days later, wearing on his arm a ribbon on which were inscribed the words "Independence or Death," he was given a tumultuous ovation. On the first day of December the youthful monarch assumed the title of Emperor, and Brazil thereupon took its place among the nations of America.

<< 2: "Our Old King or None" || 4: Ploughing the Sea >>