Latin American Independence Movements
Mexico, Central America, and South America gave birth to their
independence from 1807-1824 from Spain and Portugal.
When the independence movement began at the beginning of
the 19th century, Latin America contained two large productive
colonial empires, the Spanish and the Portuguese. Spain’s
colonies stretched from what is now the western United States
and Mexico to Argentina, while Portugal’s empire was in Brazil.
Under the system of colonialism, these territories were subject
to extensive and complex networks of control by Spain and
Both empires functioned well for three centuries, but by the mid-
1700s grievances developed among the colonists, who
complained about economic restrictions and tax burdens
imposed by the imperial powers. Those born in the colonies
also resented the fact that European-born residents were
favored for important bureaucratic and administrative positions.
Mid-Century Latin America
The first quarter-century of independent life brought many changes to Latin America,
but not many that altered the fundamental structures of society and the economy. There
was an increase in political turbulence, though with important variations among
countries, and an increase in the extent of political participation as compared to the
colonial era, yet for the great majority of Latin Americans national politics had little
meaning. They usually did not take part either in the elections or in the "revolutions."
They were still illiterate, still more susceptible to the influence of clergy and rural gentry
than to that of partisan ideologues, and still subsisting at a very low level of material
comfort, though seldom exposed to actual hunger.
There had been, of course, some Latin Americans who hoped independence would
usher in more rapid transformations. Rivadavia and his circle at Buenos Aires are
perhaps the most clear-cut example, but Santander at the head of the government of
Gran Colombia, O'Higgins in Chile, the Andrada brothers in Brazil, and the men who
founded the Mexican republic at the departure of Iturbide shared many of the same
The decade of the 1820s did in fact see a flurry of reform activity almost everywhere.
However, some of the "reforms" had only superficial effect, some were quickly
repealed, and, with a few partial exceptions such as Venezuela and Guatemala, the
next two decades saw an obvious waning of the impulse to change things. The 1830s
and 1840s were typified instead by a preoccupation with the attainment of order and a
generally moderate approach to questions of religious, social, or economic policy.
Britain on Latin American
'Spanish America is free,' George Canning, the British
Foreign Secretary, asserted in December 1824, 'and if we
do not mismanage our affairs sadly, she is English.'
Almost at the very moment that Canning wrote, the Latin
American wars of independence were drawing to a close
with the defeat of the Spanish forces in Peru at the
decisive battle of Ayacucho. Britain's future in the region
The leaders of the new nations regarded diplomatic
recognition by the United Kingdom as essential for both
their economic development and their political security.
Canning's sense of triumph was motivated by the fact that
he had finally persuaded his colleagues to consent to
negotiations with Mexico, Gran Colombia and Buenos
Aires for commercial treaties which might provide a more
solid basis for Britain's trade with the new nations.
Latin American Wars of the 19th Century
The Haitian War for Independence (1791-1803) began as
a struggle between the privileged white planters and the
less privileged affranchis (those of mixed blood) and
rapidly became an all-out race war when the third and
largest racial element, the pure blacks, ultimately
In 1791 the affranchis sought the liberties given to all
citizens by the French Revolution.
During the early years of the bloody warfare, some
wealthy plantation owners were able to escape from Haiti
with their slaves, contributing to the spread of race as a
cause for conflict, particularly in neighboring Cuba.
Conflicts in other areas of Latin America have also had
racial overtones, but none equaled the extremes of the
Mexico During this Period
The people of Mexico reflect the country’s rich history. The
Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the early 16th century
soon led to widespread intermarriage and racial mixing between
Spaniards and Native Americans.
As late as the early 19th century, Native Americans accounted
for nearly two-thirds of the population in the region.
During that century, however, the racial composition of the
country began to change from one that featured distinct
European (Spanish) and indigenous populations, to one made
up largely of mestizos—people of mixed Spanish and Native
By the end of the 19th century, mestizos, who were
discriminated against during three centuries of Spanish
colonization, had become the largest population group in
Mexico. Mestizos now account for about 60 percent of