What Events Started the Latin American Revolts in the Early 1800s?

French leader Napoleon provided an opportunity for Latin American independence movements.
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The early 1800s radically altered the history of Latin America. Spain had progressively colonized parts of South, Central and North America since the early 1500s, exploiting the region’s natural resources, decimating native populations and importing millions of black African slaves. However, in the early 1800s, independence movements across Latin America largely put an end to Spain’s Empire in the region.

1 Opportunity Arises

Events in Europe provided an opportunity for Spain's overseas territories to break their colonial ties. Napoleon’s French army occupied Spain in 1808 and forced the Spanish royal family into exile as Napoleon placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne. Spain fell into civil war, between factions loyal to the deposed king, and those pledging allegiance to the newly appointed monarch, Joseph Bonaparte. Although Napoleon’s defeat meant that Fernando VII was back in Spain as monarch by 1814, the power vacuum caused by the intervening years had irrevocably damaged Spain’s authority in the colonies.

2 Crisis in Government

The king's fall from power meant people in the Spanish colonies had to make a big decision. Would they stay loyal to the deposed king, recognize the new monarch, or strike out on their own? Most Latin Americans did not recognize Joseph Bonaparte's monarchy, and considered themselves without a leader, a situation which, under Spanish law, permitted them to govern themselves. Initially most of Latin America did so in the name of the exiled King Fernando VII, but as time passed independence movements grew in strength.

3 Inspiration

Locals who favored independence had been inspired by events on the Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue following the French Revolution in 1791, when slaves dismantled the plantation system and established the world’s first post-colonial nation under black leadership in 1804. Independence movements developed more quickly in some Latin American countries than others; Mexico's first uprising against a government loyal to the Spanish king took place in 1810, while much of modern-day Argentina did not declare its independence until 1816.

4 Conflict and Bloodshed

The Latin American revolts did not succeed without conflict and associated loss of life, as troops loyal to Spain resisted those fighting for independence. For example, Spanish troops partially re-conquered modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama between 1814 and 1816, before locals led by Simon Bolivar eventually gained control. They established an independent confederation known as Gran Colombia in 1819, which disintegrated into the states we know today 11 years later.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.