World History 2 121 - 8.3.2 The Southern Liberation Movement

Like the port town of Caracas in the north, the port of Buenos Aires in the south reaped significant benefits from the eighteenth-century reforms aimed at developing the Spanish Empire’s outskirts. Formerly subject to the authority of the Spanish Viceroyalty of Peru, in 1776 Buenos Aires became the seat of the newly created Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata (modern-day Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay). The port was the principal outlet from which silver from Bolivia and animal hides and tallow from the vast plains of Argentina and Uruguay reached markets abroad. The town’s residents, known as Porteños, also enjoyed abundant opportunities for trading in contraband with the British and Portuguese.

The population of Buenos Aires quadrupled in the last half of the eighteenth century (it was almost forty thousand by 1800), and merchants and civic leaders took pride in their growing prosperity. Accordingly, rising fortunes in Río de la Plata created a newly favorable environment for those who preferred rupture to reform. There was a ripe international market for South American products like sugar, hides, cacao, tobacco, and silver, and the creole elite were eager to open their ports to British, Dutch, and French merchants. And with their easy access to Atlantic foreign merchants, Argentine elites in Buenos Aires also had much to gain from greater autonomy.

Following Napoléon’s invasion of Spain in 1808, the creole militia officers in Argentina formed a new governing junta that proclaimed support for Fernando VII. However, after almost two years, radical changes within the patriot majority of the junta led them to repudiate Spanish authority, silence local opposition, and proclaim Argentina’s revolutionary patriot movement on May 25, 1810. Not all regions of Río de la Plata, however, recognized the authority of the junta, which was based in Buenos Aires. Successful military campaigns in the central part of Argentina soon brought this area under the control of the junta, but its troops were not able to secure Uruguay and Paraguay, which rejected control by Buenos Aires.

In March 1816, Argentina’s conservative local leaders invoked a congress in Tucumán. The congress declared the independence of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata on July 9, 1816 (now Independence Day in Argentina), less as a sign of revolutionary militancy than as a practical recognition of their political situation. Resistance came not from faraway Spain but from the neighboring royalist provinces, Uruguay and Paraguay, when Argentina attempted once again to extend its authority there.

Paraguayans had already declared their independence from both Spain and the Argentine government in 1811. The new country quickly devolved into a dictatorship under José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, a lawyer who had briefly taught theology at a seminary in Paraguay. He was chosen one of Paraguay’s ruling consuls by the country’s Congress on October 1, 1813. (In imitation of the Roman Republic, Paraguay had two consuls, chief executives who each also controlled one-half of the country’s army.)

In March 1814, Francia, who was an advocate for the common man, passed a law requiring racial intermarriage; White Europeans could marry only people of African, Indigenous, or mestizo ancestry. A few months later, Paraguay’s congress made Francia the country’s only consul and gave him absolute power for three years. In 1816, congress made him dictator of Paraguay for life. Intent on realizing the ideals of the French Revolution and influenced by the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Francia, while continuing to support the Catholic Church by building new churches and funding religious festivals, attempted to improve the lives of the poor by abolishing tithes and giving the Paraguayan government control over institutions such as hospitals and orphanages that had been run by the Church. He instituted measures to modernize agriculture and established national industries. Focused solely on reforming society and determined to make Paraguay self-sufficient, Francia ended foreign trade, prevented river traffic between Argentina and Paraguay, and adopted a position of neutrality in foreign policy. Paraguay was thus isolated from the revolutionary turmoil that gripped the rest of South America.

Just as the people of Paraguay charted their own path to independence, the inhabitants of the eastern province of Montevideo (modern-day Uruguay) resisted threats from La Plata and Brazil and built their own movement, under José Gervasio Artigas. Montevideo remained in Spanish hands until 1814 when it fell to the Argentines, who ignored Artigas’s demands for autonomy. Creole patriots had the upper hand all over Spanish South America. The only exception was the Viceroyalty of Peru, the most solid bulwark of Spanish power in South America, where royalist armies were stationed and most creoles remained steadfastly royalist. Peru was a constant threat to patriots, and its liberation was vital.

By 1817, the Argentine general José Francisco de San Martín y Matorras, who had fought against Napoléon in Spain in 1812, had set up a plan to isolate and attack royalists in Peru, the Spanish stronghold. He organized an army camp at the base of the Andes, and under his command, Argentine forces scored great successes. In January 1817, after careful preparation, he led his five thousand soldiers through the Andean mountains, where altitudes approached more than ten thousand feet above sea level, and over six different passes into Chile.

Chile had already broken from the Viceroyalty of Peru when creole Spanish Americans there had established their own junta in 1810; however, the region had been plagued by fighting between royalists and various pro-independence factions who supported differing degrees of autonomy. When royalists gained the upper hand, the leader of one of those factions, Bernardo O’Higgins, found himself exiled to Argentina. There he met San Martín, and together they planned an assault on Spanish royalist forces in Chile (Figure 8.17). San Martín’s assistance secured a decisive victory, and O’Higgins declared Chile’s independence in 1818.

Two men wearing military uniforms are on horseback. Mountains are visible in the background.
Figure 8.17 In this late nineteenth-century painting by Julio Vila y Prades, the Argentine José de San Martín (left) and Bernardo O’Higgins of Chile are shown crossing the Andes to liberate Chile in 1817. (credit: “San Martín and O’Higgins crossing the Andes” by Museo Histórico y Militar de Chile/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

In 1856, the Colombian intellectual José María Torres Caicedo used the term Latin America for the first time. Read novelist Gabriel García Márquez’s 1982 Nobel Prize acceptance speech “The Solitude of Latin America” to learn his opinions of Western perceptions about the history of Spanish America and the narrative associated with its independence movements.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax