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
(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
(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
throne of Spain in 1814? We must remember that every Spanish American colony save Cuba and
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
(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,
systems, weaponry, communications, policy and role of foreign powers, and the general
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
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
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.