The Fight for Haitian Independence
In August 1791, thousands of slaves in north Saint-Domingue (present day Haiti) rebelled. Francois
Toussaint L’Ouverture was not among them, as he had been freed in 1777. However, he soon joined
the rebel slaves, one of whom was Jen-Jacques Dessalines. With Dessalines as his lieutenant,
Toussaint gathered a following and formed his own band of
guerrillas. Toussaint’s army of former slaves took over French
plantations in Saint-Domingue.
Toussaint’s army allied with forces from Hispaniola’s Spanish colony
when France and Spain went to war with each other. In 1793, British
forces landed on the island to support the Spanish. The French
were now fighting against three armies: the Spanish, the British, and
Toussaint’s. They tried to get the island’s black population on their
side. The French leaders said that any slave who joined them would be freed. At first, Toussaint
considered this a ruse. But then he learned that France had officially abolished slavery. Touissant
and his army joined with the French to defeat the Spanish in 1795.
Toussaint drove out the British and began to trade with both Britain and the United States. In January
1801, along with Dessalines and another lieutenant, Henry Christophe, he led a large army into a
Spanish colony to free the slaves there. Hardly a shot was fired. In July, Toussaint became “governor
general for life.” Then, in February 1802, a large French force landed at Saint-Dominigue, gaining
control of the island. The French simply could not afford to lose Saint-Domingue’s huge sugar profits
to free trade.
Weeks of fierce fighting followed the French invasion. Cap-Francais was burned. Christophe and
Dessalines surrendered. In May 1802, Toussaint also surrendered and retired to a farm near
Gonaives. However, on June 7, the French arrested him and sent him to France. Angered by
Toussaint’s arrest and believing that the French wanted to re-enslave them, Christophe and
Dessalines took up arms again.
Their fight to oust the French was still raging when Toussaint died. Finally, in November 1803,
Christophe and Dessalines defeated the last of the French forces. After Dessaline’s New Year’s
independence declaration of 1804, Christophe set about rebuilding Cap-Francais, which was
renamed Cap-Haitien. The name Saint-Domingue was changed to Haiti. Haiti was the first country in
Latin America to break free of imperialism.
The South American Wars of Independence
Members of the ruling class started South American independence. Napoleon Bonaparte, ruler of
France, was at least indirectly involved. In 1808, he invaded Spain, and replaced the Spanish king
with his brother. Spain’s imperial grip on its South American holdings began to slip.
Simon Bolivar, a wealthy Venezuelan criollo, had just returned to
Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, after spending several years in
Spain, Paris, and Rome. In Rome, he’d had a vision of his life’s
goal: to liberate his homeland. Bolivar joined other Venezuelans
who had the same goal. On April 19, 1810, they managed to kick
the imperial governor out of Caracas. A national congress met a
year later, and on July 5, 1811, a constitution proclaimed
Venezuela an independent republic. Bolivar joined the new
republic’s army, which was defeated by royalists in July 1812.
Bolivar fled to a different part of New Granada, present day Colombia.
In New Granada, Bolivar organized an army. He marched back into Venezuela and fought several
battles against royalist troops. On August 6, 1813, he liberated Caracas. For this, Bolivar was called
El Libertador. His triumph was short-lived, however. Royalists again defeated him the next year.
Bolivar fled to the Caribbean. He gathered strength and followers, and sailed back to the mainland.
Over the course of several years, Bolivar and his followers liberated New Granada, Venezuela, and
Ecuador. Wishing to push on and liberate Peru and Upper Peru, he met up with Jose de San Martin
on July 26, 1822.
San Martin, an Argentinean criollo and son of a mission soldier, had already liberated Lima, Peru the
year before, on July 28. He was now the country’s leader. Before that, he had helped Bernardo
O’Higgins liberate Chile on February 12, 1817. Earlier, he had also fought for Argentina’s
independence, which was gained on July 9, 1816. Peru’s independence was threatened by royalists
in the mountains. San Martin needed reinforcements, and looked to Bolivar for help. After meeting
with Bolivar, San Martin quit his post on September 20, and went into exile in Europe. A year later,
Bolivar and his troops entered Lima. His troops defeated the royalists in the mountains, and then
went onto liberate Upper Peru in April, 1825. Out of respect for El Libertador, Upper Peru renamed
The Independence of Mexico
As elsewhere in Latin America, Napoleon’s actions in Spain affected the people of Mexico. Some
became royalists, while others became rebels. Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a Catholic priest in
the town of Dolores, became a rebel. On September 16, 1810, he rand his church’s bells and shouted
his famous Cry of Dolores: “Long live Our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to bad government! Death to the
An army of Native Americans and mestizos soon rallied around Hidalgo
and Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s most important Catholic symbol.
On September 28, they conquered the city of Guanajuato. On October
17, the city of Valladolid surrendered without a fight. They continued
east, and, on October 30, defeated royalists on the outskirts of Mexico
City. They moved on towards Guadalajara where their victories ended.
The royal army commanded by General Felix Calleja destroyed them.
Hidalgo retreated to the north. On May 21, 1811, Hidalgo was captured.
He was tried by the Spanish Inquisition and found guilty of treason and
put to death. The movement Hidalgo started continued. For the next decade, Mexicans fought for
independence. Finally, on September 28, 1821, Mexico won its independence. Today, when
Mexicans celebrate Independence Day, they celebrate the day Hidalgo shouted in Dolores.