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Causation and the Spanish American Independence Movements

By Don Mabry

PROBLEM: Why did virtually all of Spain's American colonies eschew their allegiance to her and declare themselves independent republics during the first quarter of the 19th century after some 300 years of voluntary obedience to and defense of the Crown?

This complicated question is not as easy to answer as it might first appear. Reciting the usual liturgy of causes--the Enlightenment, increased number of tumults, the examples of the American and Haitian revolutions, the French Revolution, the growing inability of Spain to supply colonial needs and defense, criollo disaffection with the mother country and criollo dislike at peninsular Spaniards, and the effects of the Bourbon reforms-answers little because in and of themselves they were not causes as much as factor which were present. If something is a cause, we should be able to predict its consequences before know those consequences.

In fact, they are certainly factors present which apparently bear some relationship to independence; at this point, we cannot define them as causes. Historians agree that without the Imperial Crisis in the Spanish world beginning in 1808, there would have been no independence movement for the immediate future. The Imperial Crisis was a constitutional crisis resulting in the breakdown of the Spanish governmental system. Because of pressure from Napoleon, Charles IV abdicated in favor of his son, Ferdinand VII, against the wishes of some important Spaniards. Both were imprisoned in Bayonne, France by Napoleon Bonaparte, who imposed his brother, Joseph, a foreigner, on the Spanish throne. French armies occupied large areas of Spain, but the Spanish people refused to accept these dubious constitutional proceedings and proceeded to fight a series of little wars (guerrillas) while Spanish leaders differed as to which Spaniards should run Spain in the king's absence (contesting groups included the junta, regency, and Cortes). This crisis, provoked by outside forces and thus outside the Spanish political system, was the spark that ignited the conflagration of independence movements, but the imperative questions to be asked in search of our answer or answers as to why independence was the result are:

(1) Why was the forced imposition of a foreign prince the cause of a constitutional crisis?

(2) If Spanish American resentment of Spain and Spaniards was so intense (as discussions of criollo-peninsular tension attempt to convince us), why did not the Spanish Americans welcome the new ruler who certainly was not a peninsular Spaniard?

(3) Is the answer to (2) found in Joseph Bonaparte's foreign and/or French (thereby liberal) origins ?

(4) Since most Spanish and Spanish American leaders rejected Joseph Bonaparte in favor of the legitimate Ferdinand VII, what does this tells us about the source and nature of colonial attachment to Spain, proven by centuries of voluntary loyalty to and defense of the Spanish Empire?

(5) If the Spanish Americans were as loyal to Ferdinand VII as they claimed, why was he unable to hold the Empire once he regained the throne of Spain in 1814? We must remember that every Spanish American colony save Cuba and Puerto Rico were independent by 1825.

(6) The reasons why Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Floridas didn't revolt should provide us with some clues, if not answers, to these questions.

(7) Within the areas that became independent, some Spanish Americans fought to defend the Crown while others fought to eject the Crown. This division into loyalists and rebels differed by region, social class, and time. Thus, we have to examine the events of at least 1808-1825 to understand the cause(s) of independence.

(8) Since we know that large numbers of Spaniards and Spanish Americans not only did not favor the break with Spain but also fought to prevent such a break, must we inquire into the military/logistical problem of Spain--the effects of size, distance, terrain, supply systems, weaponry, communications, policy and role of foreign powers, and the general European political situation?

In a mid-point summary, we can assert that some Spanish-Americans availed themselves of the opportunities presented during the Imperial Crisis and the Napoleonic Wars to sever or begin to sever their ties with the Spanish monarch, and, in the face military action by loyalists and Spanish forces, fought to obtain and preserve this independence, actions which were largely successful by 1825 in almost the whole of Spanish America.

We can assort that it was British policy not to allow Spain to reconquer her former colonies and that this policy, backed by British might, played an important role in independence.

If we look at the course of the independence movements (which we aren't doing in this essay), we can assert that Buenos Aires and its hinterland achieved independence early and relatively easily, that northern South America suffered brutal, devastating, and lengthy wars before independence was achieved, and that the first Mexican independence movement (Hidalgo and his successors) was crushed by creole and peninsular Spaniards whereas the second movement (Iturbide) came rapidly, bloodlessly, and with the support of the upper classes. Central America and other places got independence by default.

We can assert that the wars themselves (both the European wars and the civil wars in the New World) offered colonials the opportunities to manage their own affairs and that many of them took those opportunities.

We can also assert that Spanish America and Spain had gone through other colonial wars, especially in the 18th century, without attempts at independence.

Thus, we have to be able to explain:

(1) the Imperial Crisis-why the events were a crisis of the Empire.

(2) why some creoles exploited the crisis to effect independence.

(3) why Spain was unable to reconquer the empire she was losing.

This exercise in the problems of causation and historical explanation does not provide the answers that some students expect to be dictated to them. It is not designed to do that. It is simply to encourage you to think about historical causation and develop a better of sense of what historical causes are.

A basic source for the movements for independence throughout Spanish America is John Lynch, The Spanish American Revolution 1808-1826.

You can read about this and other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.