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Independence in Latin America

Independence in Latin America
Contrasts and Comparisons: Third Edition

Extensively revised to incorporate the latest interpretations and address issues of race and gender as well as of economic interest, this is the only book that in such a short space covers the causes, events, and consequences of the wars of independence (1810–1825) in all of Latin America.

Series: Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowment in Latin American and Latino Art and Culture

January 2013
Active (available)
208 pages | 6 x 9 | 32 b&w photos, 2 maps |

In the course of fifteen momentous years, the Spanish- and the Portuguese-American empires that had endured for three centuries came to an end in the mid-1820s. How did this come about? Not all Latin Americans desired such a change, and the independence wars were civil wars, often cruel and always violent. What social and economic groups lined up on one side or the other? Were there variations from place to place, region to region? Did men and women differ in their experience of war? How did Indians and blacks participate and how did they fare as a result? In the end, who won and who lost?

Independence in Latin America is about the reciprocal effect of war and social dislocation. It also demonstrates that the war itself led to national identity and so to the creation of new states. These governments generally acknowledged the novel principle of constitutionalism and popular sovereignty, even when sometimes carving out exceptions to such rules. The notion that society consisted of individuals and was not a body made up of castes, guilds, and other corporate orders had become commonplace by the end of these wars. So international politics and military confrontations are only part of the intriguing story recounted here.

For this third edition, Richard Graham has written a new introduction and extensively revised and updated the text. He has also added new illustrations and maps.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Colonies in Flux
    • Ruler and Ruled
    • Trade with Whom?
    • A Corporate Society
    • Religion and the Enlightenment
    • Haiti
  • Chapter 2. Reactions to Change
    • Argentina and Uruguay
    • Chile
    • Comparisons
    • Venezuela
    • Mexico
    • Central America
    • Comparisons
    • Peru
    • Brazil
    • Comparisons
  • Chapter 3. Toward War
    • Who Wanted Change?
    • European Events
    • Spanish American Responses
  • Chapter 4. The First War of Independence, 1810–1816
    • Argentina
    • Uruguay
    • Paraguay
    • Chile
    • Venezuela
    • Colombia
    • Peru and Bolivia
    • Mexico
    • Brazil
    • Commonalities and Differences
  • Chapter 5. The Second War of Independence, 1815–1825
    • Repercussion of European Events
    • Venezuela and Colombia
    • Argentina and Uruguay
    • Chile, Peru, and Bolivia
    • Mexico
    • Central America
    • Brazil
    • Commonalities and Differences
  • Chapter 6. What Changed?
    • The Cost of War
    • An Altered Cultural Reality
    • Social Tensions
    • Instability and the Caudillo
    • Inclusion in the World Economy
  • Documents
  • For Further Reading
  • Chronology
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index

RICHARD GRAHAM is Frances Higginbotham Nalle Centennial Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is the prize-winning Feeding the City: From Street Market to Liberal Reform in Salvador, Brazil, 1780–1860. He is the author of Patronage and Politics in Nineteenth-Century Brazil; Britain and the Onset of Modernization in Brazil; and several edited books, including The Idea of Race in Latin America, 1870–1940.


In the course of fifteen momentous years, the Spanish and Portuguese American empires that had endured without serious challenge for three centuries came to an end in the mid-1820s. The subsequent states now operated within a new paradigm, generally acknowledging the principle of constitutionalism and popular sovereignty, even if not always observing its rules. And within these states—and mainly as a result of the war itself and of the new governmental structures—national solidarity and national identity soon came to be taken for granted, as people identified themselves not only as inhabitants of America, but as Argentines, Venezuelans, or Mexicans. Moreover, the notion that society consisted of individuals and not of a body made up of castes, guilds, and other corporate orders had become commonplace. How all this came about is explored here.

Before turning to the events in question, it is worth noting that three factors delimited the course and ultimately shaped the meaning of these independence movements. First, colonial elites sought to maintain control over Indians, blacks, and the poor in general. Second, peasants, slaves, and workers sought—sometimes successfully, sometimes not—to assert themselves in the face of difficult economic conditions or altered political realities. And third, a world economy increasingly centered in northern (or northwestern) Europe now impinged directly on the life of Latin Americans, not only in terms of their livelihoods but also through a set of accompanying ideas that encompassed both a scientific approach to the natural and social world and an ideology of individualism and democratic government.

Already in the previous century the transformed economies of northern Europe had created a growing demand for raw materials and luxuries from New World colonies. Planters, ranchers, and miners jockeyed to supply these "colonial" goods directly to the consuming centers rather than through Spain or Portugal and to import manufactured goods on the same basis. But to produce those goods they often relied on unfree labor, and, in order to control the workers, they counted on the political stability and governmental authority that Spain and Portugal could supply. So many of them faced a conundrum: They desired independence in order to pursue perceived economic advantage but faced the danger of thereby losing control over coerced laborers. And then, although the social and political theories associated with growing economic connections to northern Europe were held only by a relatively small number in Portuguese and Spanish America, this group proved influential well beyond its size because it was socially connected to the economically dominant and—once independence was secured—to the politically powerful. These circumstances set the contours, directed the outcomes, and lent significance to the portentous events examined in this book.

To speak of independence requires an understanding of what it meant to be a colony. There have been many types of colonies in the history of the world. But in the Atlantic world of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the predominant one existed for the economic benefit of the metropolis and depended on holding a monopoly over colonial trade. That is, merchants of the metropolis, or, rather, a subset of these, secured from their respective governments the exclusive right to trade with the colony. To secure this monopoly against competitors from other countries or from the colony itself meant that the metropolitan government had to maintain its political power and its authority over the colony. Navies had to protect the coast from smugglers; navigation acts had to be passed to limit shipping to one's flag, customs offices set up to inspect imported goods, governors appointed, and courts established. To pay for all this, governments levied taxes on the colonials. And if colonial products were to be shipped in sufficient quantities to make the trade worthwhile, workers who would otherwise prefer to produce their own food had to be persuaded or compelled to produce nonedibles such as tobacco, cotton, sugar, cacao, or coffee and to labor in mines to bring up gold, silver, or diamonds. Those areas of the New World where soils or climate led only to the production of crops such as wheat or barley that Europe supplied for itself—as was true in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England—can be considered a different type of colony. As well, cattle-raising regions managed to produce hides and other pastoral products for export in a system wherein total labor needs were low and coerced labor was inappropriate. But in the remaining areas a great number of unfree or, at any rate, involuntary laborers dominated by a strata of wealthy local proprietors proved the rule. Alongside these owners were the agents of privileged European merchant houses that monopolized overseas trade and an imposing list of bureaucrats directed by a metropolitan government. In Spanish and Portuguese America—collectively referred to here as Latin America—an elaborate Catholic Church hierarchy lent legitimacy to the entire system. Evidently implicit in this colonial structure were three sources of tension: that between workers and the propertied; that between the American producers of exports and consumers of European-made imports on the one hand and the European monopoly merchants who wished to control this trade on the other; and, finally, that between the merchant communities of the respective colonial powers in Europe, each of which would wish to maintain its own exclusive rights while raiding the colonies of others.

But the timing of the move toward political independence in Latin America resulted not from these multiple strains but from very specific events on the European continent. Whereas English North America had initiated its independence movement almost thirty-five years earlier and was often looked to as a model by the insurgents in Latin America, it was the 1789 French Revolution and especially the succeeding wars that led directly to the onset of the independence struggle I examine here. Whenever Spain allied itself with France against the British, it found itself cut off from its American colonies. Then when Napoleon in 1808 embarked on a determined effort to dominate the Iberian Peninsula, the Portuguese government itself moved to Brazil, making Brazil, in a sense, independent, although not totally free of Portuguese control until 1822. In Spain, Napoleon's invading army and puppet government encountered fierce opposition, leading patriots there to establish a constitutional regime in 1812, a move with far-reaching effects on Spanish America. The restoration of the former absolute monarchy in 1815 marked the end of the first phase in this story for Spanish America.

For events in Latin America can be broken chronologically into two distinct wars for independence, divided from each other around 1815 or 1816. This second war, recounted in chapter 5, resulted from the experiences of the first, unsuccessful one and from the behavior of the Spaniards after the revolutionaries' first defeat. The puzzle explored in chapters 2, 3, and 4 is how the widely divergent regional and group reactions to social divisions within each area, to the possibility of trade with England, and to the transformations promised by Enlightenment liberalism are all linked to the onset and course of the first war. The setting and background for all these events are explored in chapter 1; the resulting changes are assessed in chapter 6. I have deliberately refrained from commenting on the documents that conclude this book in order to allow readers to come to their own conclusions about them, although the text itself provides their context.


“Independence in Latin America is one of the most succinct, accurate, provocative, and comprehensive views on the historical ‘big bang’ that occurred in the Western world between 1776 and 1830. . . . It would be hard to find, in so few pages, so much information so easily digestible.”
Mauricio Tenorio, Professor of History, University of Chicago