The two regions

Latin America and North America: 16th - 20th century AD

Spanish and Portuguese colonists and administrators, settling in central and south America during the 16th century, are soon followed by the French, Dutch and English staking a claim to North america. A clear pattern becomes established. The two Atlantic seaboard countries of southern Europe concentrate on the southern part of the newly found continent, while their three European neighbours to the north struggle between themselves to dominate North america.

The story of the continent becomes divided into distinct parts - Latin America and North america.

Today there seems to be a neat division between the two along the northern boundary of Mexico, but this is a relatively recent and southerly dividing line. For much of the past five centuries Latin America has extended far further to the north, encompassing the southern states of what is now the Usa and the entire Pacific coast as far north as Oregon.

This new division of the continent in the colonial era is accompanied by a drastic change in the make-up of America's population.

The America of the Latins

The term Latin America, first used in the 19th century, is something of a compromise. The region consists, with just one exception, of those parts of the American continent colonized by the Spanish. But the exception is too large to overlook - mighty Brazil, belonging in colonial history to Portugal. Spanish or Hispanic America is therefore inadequate.

So Latin America comes into use, at a time when almost all regions south of the USA speak Spanish or Portuguese (Latin-based Romance languages) and are Roman Catholic - while the north of the continent is largely Anglo-saxon and Protestant.


Spaniards in a new world: 16th century AD

The half century after Columbus's voyage sees a frenzy of activity in the new world (part exploration, part conquest, part colonization) as the Spanish scramble and struggle to make the most of their unexpected new opportunities.

By 1506 the entire continental shore of the Caribbean Sea has been explored from Honduras to the mouth of the Orinoco. Known at first as Tierra Firme (a phrase applied to the isthmus of Panama), it is believed to be part of the coast of Asia - until Vespucci's furthest journey south gives him a different impression, which becomes gradually accepted.

During the first decade of the century the only secure Spanish settlement in the new world is Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola, established in 1496 by Diego Columbus, brother of the explorer. An equivalently stable settlement is not achieved in continental America until 1510, when Balboa founds Santa María la Antigua del Darién (the site from which, in 1513, he makes his expedition to the Pacific).

Thereafter the speed of Spanish expansion and consolidation over a vast region is astonishing. By 1515, with the conquest of Cuba and the founding of Havana, the islands of the Caribbean are under Spanish control. They become the launch pad for further adventures.

The Aztec kingdom in Mexico is conquered in 1521, followed by a campaign against the Maya in Yucatan. Central America, from Guatemala to Nicaragua, is brought under Spanish control between 1524 and 1526. In the southern part of the continent the coast of Venezuela (where the rich pearl fisheries are a powerful lure) is the first region to attract Spanish settlers, from 1523. Down the west coast, the Inca kingdom in Peru is overwhelmed in 1533; Ecuador and Colombia are subdued later in the 1530s; and most of Chile is gradually brought under control during the 1540s.

On the east coast of the continent Argentina, around the river Plate, is colonized from the 1540s. Brazil, meanwhile, is developing in Portuguese hands.

This half-century of activity by a single nation, Spain, on the other side of a vast ocean, in an age of relatively primitive Sailing vessels, is perhaps unparalleled in history. It involves numerous incidents and adventures which demonstrate the courage, greed, cruelty and wanton destructiveness of the Spanish conquistadors ('conquerors').

Two adventures in particular catch the imagination of their own time and of every age since. They are the victories won against the greatest odds and for the richest gains - the toppling by a handful of Spaniards of the great empires of the Aztecs and the Incas. But the first important development in contintental America is the establishment of Panama.

Panama: from AD 1519

After Balboa discovers the Pacific in 1513, he is given responsibility for Spain's new ocean. But the bitter rivalry of Pedrarias, governor of the neighbouring crown colony, prevents Balboa from making anything of his new appointment.

Instead it is Pedrarias who establishes a new Spanish municipality and bishopric on the south coast of the isthmus at Panama, in the year 1519 - within month's of his judicial murder of his rival.

Panama immediately becomes a place of focal importance in the developing Spanish empire. From here expeditions set out to colonize the Pacific coast (most notable being the departure of Pizarro on his voyage to Peru in 1530). And here the produce of the Pacific colonies is subsequently brought, to start its journey to Spain.

The goods are carried on caravans of mules for fifty miles across the isthmus to Portobelo - a harbour named beautiful by Columbus in 1502. Portobelo becomes the scene of a great trade fair. Each year, until the event is discontinued in 1748, a fleet of Spanish galleons arrives, to deliver European goods for the colonies and to take home the wealth of Latin America.

A glimpse of Aztec gold: AD 1518

In the summer of 1518 a meeting takes place, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, between a party of Spanish explorers and the retinue of a local chieftain. The two sides can communicate only in signs, but an exchange of presents confirms the amicable mood. The Spaniards hand over glass beads, iron pins and scissors. They are astonished to receive in return superbly worked golden ornaments and vessels.

The Indian chieftain sends news of these bearded strangers to his lord, the Aztec emperor. Their arrival suggests to the Aztecs that the exiled Quetzalcoatl may be about to return. This god-king should, for safety's sake, be appropriately welcomed.

The golden objects are dutifully sent back by the Spanish commander to his superiors in Cuba. From there, with equal decorum, the king's share of the treasure is despatched to Spain. The effect of this gold is immediate. An expedition is rapidly prepared to invade the wealthy kingdom now known to exist in Mexico.

The choice of leader falls upon Hernando Cortes. A lawyer and farmer, he has been in the new world since 1504 and has become an established figure, first in Hispaniola and then in Cuba. But this is his first important command.

Cortes advances into Mexico: AD 1519

Cortes reaches the coast of Mexico, in March 1519, with eleven ships. They carry some 600 men, 16 horses and about 20 guns of various sizes. The Spanish party is soon confronted by a large number of Indians in a battle where the effect of horses and guns (both new to the Indians) is rapidly decisive. Peace is made and presents exchanged - including twenty Indian women for the Spaniards. One of them, known to the Spaniards as Doña Marina, becomes Cortes' mistress and interpreter.

Cortes then sails further along the coast and founds a settlement at Veracruz, leaving some of his party to defend it.

Before proceeding inland, Cortes makes a bold gesture. He sinks ten of his ships, claiming that they are worm-eaten and dangerous. The single surviving vessel is offered to any of his soldiers (and now sailors too, about 100 in all, liberated from their previous duties) who would prefer to return immediately to Cuba, publicly admitting that they have no stomach for the great task ahead. No one takes him up.

His small party is now irretrievably committed to the success of the adventure. Cortes leads them into the interior of the country.

The next battles, far more dangerous than the first encounters on the coast, are with the Tlaxcala people. The Spaniards eventually defeat them, and are received as conquerors in their capital city. This is a victory of great significance in the unfolding story, for the Tlaxcaltecs are in a state of permanent warfare with their dangerous neighbours. Any enemy of the Aztecs is a friend of theirs. They become, and remain, loyal allies of the Spaniards in Mexico.

In November 1519 when Cortes approaches Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztecs, his small force is augmented by 1000 Tlaxtalecs. But to the astonishment of the Spaniards, no force is needed.

Cortes and Montezuma: AD 1519-1520

The Aztec emperor, Montezuma II, has had plenty of warning of the arrival of the fair-skinned bearded strangers. He also knows that this is a One-Reed year in the Mexican calendar cycle, when the fair-skinned bearded Quetzalcoatl will at some time return.

He sends the approaching Spaniards a succession of embassies, offering rich gifts if they will turn back. When these fail, he decides against opposing the intruders with force. Instead Cortes is greeted in Tenochtitlan, on 8 November 1519, with the courtesy due to Quetzalcoatl or his emissary. In the words of one of the small band of conquistadors, they seemed to have luck on their side.

For a week Cortes and his companions enjoy the hospitality of the emperor. They sit in his hall of audience and attempt to convert him to Christianity. They clatter round his city on their horses, in full armour, to see the sights (they are particularly shocked by the slab for Human sacrifice and the newly extracted hearts at the top of the temple pyramid).

But Cortes is well aware of the extreme danger of the situation. He devises a plan by which the emperor will be removed from his own palace and transferred to the building where the Spaniards are lodged.

The capture of the emperor is carried out with a brilliantly controlled blend of persuasion and threat. The result is that Montezuma appears to maintain his full court procedure under Spanish protection. A few hundred Spaniards have taken control of the mighty Aztec empire.

During the next year, 1520, chaos and upheaval result from the approach of a rival Spanish expedition, launched from Cuba to deprive Cortes of his spoils. He is able to defeat it, but at a high price. In his absence the 80 Spaniards left in Tenochtitlan lose control of the city - largely thanks to their own barbarous treatment of the inhabitants.

When Cortes returns, he finds garrison and emperor besieged together. He persuades Montezuma to address his people from a turret, urging peace. The hail of missiles greeting this attempt leaves the emperor mortally wounded.

The situation is now so desperate that Cortes withdraws his army from the city in haste, in July 1520, during 'the Sorrowful Night'. With Tlaxcala assistance he captures it again a year later, on 13 August 1521. There is no further Aztec resistance. The conquest of central Mexico is complete.

Cortes' astonishing achievement wins him the approval of the royal court in Spain. For the next ten or more years he governs this territory with the same energy and resolve shown in his conquest of it. It becomes the central region of the viceroyalty of New spain.

Meanwhile, in the same year as Cortes' conquest of Mexico, the beginning of a Spanish imperial presence is established on the far side of the globe - with Magellan's achievement in crossing the Pacific to reach the Philippines. But more immediate results are achieved for Spain on a nearer Pacific coast - that of Peru.

Inca gold

A glimpse of Inca treasure: AD 1527-1532

Two small Spanish ships, commanded by Bartolomé Ruiz, sail southwards in the Pacific in 1527 towards Peru. Their journey brings them across the equator (they are the first Europeans to cross the line in this ocean). The Spaniards are surprised to come across an ocean-going raft, made of balsa wood and fitted with cotton sails, with a crew of twenty.

When they seize the raft, its rich contents also astonish them (the ornaments and textiles are described later in glowing terms to the Spanish king). The people who sent out this trading vessel are clearly worth meeting. Ruiz takes the precaution of keeping three of the crew to be trained as interpreters.

This chance encounter is the first contact between Europeans and the fabulously wealthy empire of the Incas. And the glimpse of Inca treasure can only inflame Spanish greed.

The leader of the expedition (not aboard on the reconnaissance by Ruiz) is Francisco Pizarro. The winter of 1527 is spent on a swampy uninhabited island. The conditions are so appalling that by the spring Pizarro is left with only thirteen companions. They sail on southwards. At Tumbes they reach their first Inca city. Two of Pizarro's men go ashore. Their reports confirm that this is indeed a rich and civilized society.

It takes Pizarro eighteen months, mainly spent at the royal court in Spain, to drum up sufficient support for a voyage of conquest. The great Cortes happens to be at the Spanish court at the same time. He offers personal encouragement, and the example of his own astonishing achievement in Mexico inspires ambitious young Spaniards to join the new cause.

Ennobled, and granted the status of governor of a notional Spanish province along the Peruvian coast, Pizarro leaves Spain with a small fleet in January 1530. At the end of the year, in December, his expedition sails south from Panama.

Unlike the speedy advance of Cortes into Mexico in 1519, Pizarro's progress south is slow. For some reason he chooses to march his men along much of the difficult coast of Ecuador, causing great hardship and delay. Nearly two years have passed by the time he establishes a small Spanish settlement, which he calls San Miguel, near Piura in the coastal plain of northern Peru.

From here, at last, in September 1532, he marches out to attack the vast empire of the Incas. His army by now consists of 62 horsemen and 106 foot soldiers.

Unlike the speedy advance of Cortes into Mexico in 1519, Pizarro's progress south is slow through the tropical terrain of Ecuador. Nearly two years have passed by the time he establishes a small Spanish settlement, which he calls San Miguel, near Piura in the coastal plain of northern Peru.

From here at last, in September 1532, he marches out to attack the vast empire of the Incas. His army by now consists of 62 horsemen and 106 foot soldiers. Yet within ten months, in one of history's most dramatic and gruesome stories, Pizarro and his small band of adventurers massacre the Inca court, seize untold wealth in gold, and finally murder Cortes to rule in his place.

Atahualpa: AD 1532

As the Spaniards march into the Inca empire, in 1532, they are helped by two fortunate circumstances. One is that the empire is in a state of turmoil caused by civil war between two brothers, sons of an Inca ruler who has died about five years previously. Victory has recently gone to Atahualpa, the brother who controls the northern half of the empire. But there is still much support around the Inca capital, Cuzco, for his rival. In these circumstances the advance of the small band of strangers is dealt with less forcefully than might otherwise have been the case.

The other piece of good fortune is that Atahualpa is encamped in the north, at Cajamarca, nor far from the Spaniards' starting point.

After climbing into the Andes to a height of about 13,500 feet, Pizarro and his small party of conquistadors enter the valley of Cajamarca in November. Atahualpa's army is encamped in bright tents beyond the city. The splendour of the site both impresses and alarms the intruders. But there is nowhere to go but forward. They enter the town of Cajamarca, unopposed, and then send a small party forward to present themselves to the Inca.

Without dismounting, they ride into the courtyard where he is relaxing with his women. This is like parking one's tanks on someone's lawn, for horses - together with guns - are the Spaniards' main strength.

Atahualpa at first shows little reaction, except perhaps disdain. But the horses interest him. They are the first that he or his companions have seen. The Spaniards accept from the women the local drink, chicha (with some hesitation, for fear of poison). Then one of the conquistadors gives an equestrian display on a particularly lively horse.

Atahualpa agrees to visit Pizarro in Cajamarca the following day.

The massacre of Cajamarca: AD 1532

The Spaniards, aware of their extreme vulnerability, are uncertain how to receive the Inca. They take the precaution of concealing their limited forces - cavalry, infantry, artillery - in the arcades around the square. A prearranged signal to attack will be used only if the situation demands it.

When Atahualpa enters Cajamarca, on a magnificent litter carried high by his nobles, the square appears to be empty. With only a narrow entrance, the space fills up slowly with his followers, lightly armed. Then a single Spaniard walks towards the Inca - Pizarro's priest.

The priest solemnly begins explaining to Atahualpa the truth of the Christian religion (a requirement in the Spanish empire, when confronting pagan people, if there is a danger of bloodshed). Atahualpa demands to see the prayer book which the priest is holding. He leafs through it, then flings it to the ground.

The outraged priest turns back, shouting for vengeance. Pizarro gives the prearranged signal for the ambush.

The din of terrifying artillery and gunfire, the onslaught of unfamiliar cavalry and the ferocity of Spaniards in mortal danger, all combine to throw the Indians into desperate panic. Trapped by the narrow entrance to the square, they are defenceless targets for butchery. Reports state that the killing lasts two hours. The Indian dead are numbered in thousands rather than hundreds, with the Spanish horsemen carrying the carnage into the streets and open spaces outside the square.

The only wound suffered by any Spaniard that day is a deep cut on Pizarro's hand, received when he defends Atahualpa from a sword blow. He needs the Inca alive.

Pizarro and Atahualpa: AD 1532

Pizarro is well aware of how Cortes controlled Mexico through a captive ruler. He now sets about doing the same in Peru, having repeated the almost impossible feat of getting the emperor into his power (there is evidence that Atahualpa had the same intention that afternoon, expecting to use his vastly greater number of men to seize Pizarro and his followers). Like Cortes, he ensures that the emperor is treated with every respect - essential if his subjects are still to revere him and obey his orders.

But Pizarro makes a bargain beyond anything Cortes had dreamed of. The Inca offers a ransom for his freedom - a room of gold and silver, which becomes one of the enduring images of the Spanish conquest.

The room of gold: AD 1532-1533

The room proposed for the emperor's ransom measures 22 feet by 18 feet, and is about 15 feet high. It is to be filled, within two months, to half its height in gold; during the same period the entire room will be filled twice over with silver.

The filling of the room provides Pizarro with a welcome breathing space, as the precious metals are stripped from palaces and temples all over the Inca empire and are brought to Cajamarca on caravans of llamas. Pizarro needs time for Spanish reinforcements to enlarge his tiny army. They arrive in April 1533, under Diego de Almagro, roughly doubling Pizarro's strength.

In March 1533 Pizarro gives orders for the hoard of precious metals to be melted down. Nine furnaces are kept at work for three months. More than eleven tons of gold and twice as much silver, much of it in the form of artefacts of great beauty, are fed into these voracious cauldrons of Spanish greed.

The king's share (one fifth) goes off to him in Spain, and Pizarro's brave conquistadors now receive their reward - 90 pounds of gold and 180 pounds of silver for each horseman, half that amount for every foot soldier.

The room of gold and silver has been filled and emptied, but Atahualpa is still a prisoner. The Spaniards, probably never intending to keep their word, are uncertain what do with him. A rumour grows that he has given orders for a great army to advance from the south to rescue him. It is false, but it provides an excuse for his very expedient death.

In July 1533 Atahualpa is accused of treason, is rapidly convicted, and is tied to a stake at the centre of the square in Cajamarca where his followers were massacred. He is sentenced to death by burning. The priest persuades him at the last moment to accept Christianity, so he is granted the mercy of being garrotted.

Peru of the conquistadors: AD 1533 - 1548

Peru has been conquered with greater violence, and in a more buccaneering spirit, than other parts of the developing Spanish empire. The province retains this character - as is well suggested by the fate of the leading families in the conquest.

Pizarro's colleague, Diego de Almagro, rebels and is executed in 1538. Supporters of Almagro's son assassinate Pizarro himself in 1541. Almagro's son is executed in 1542. Pizarro's brother Gonzalo kills a viceroy, newly arrived from Spain, in 1544 and is himself executed in 1548. Meanwhile the Inca nobility remains a permanent danger. As late as 1780 an Indian rebellion is led by a descendant of the Inca dynasty, who takes an ancestral name - Tupac Amaru.

Yet Peru is also a province of immense wealth and importance in the Spanish empire - a fact acknowledged in the second half of the 16th-century, when the Viceroyalty of Peru adminsters the whole of Spanish south America except Venezuela.

Peru's contribution to the wealth of the empire began with an astonishing roomful of precious metal. This abundance continues, indeed is much increased. The Inca gold and silver came entirely from surface sources, found as nuggets or panned from river beds. They had no mines. The Spaniards soon discover mines to produce massive wealth - particularly, from 1545, the silver mines at Potosí.

Spanish silver: 16th century AD

The wealth of Spain's new colonies in Latin America derives mainly from silver. In 1545 a prodigious source of the metal is discovered at Potosí, in modern Bolivia. This region, high in the Andes, is so rich in both silver and tin that it eventually has as many as 5000 working mines.

In 1546, a year after the discovery at Potosí, silver is found at Zacatecas in Mexico. Other major new sources of the metal are found in Mexico in the next few years. At the same time sources of gold are being tapped, though in much less quantity.

Convoys of Spanish caravels, after delivering to Portobelo the European goods needed in the colonies, carry back to Spain the precious bullion with which the colonists pay for it - together with the 20% of all gold and silver due to the Spanish crown.

These treasures attract privateers from northern Europe - meaning privately owned vessels operating, even if informally, on behalf of a government. Their captains are drawn to the Spanish Main (the mainland of Spanish America, where the ships dock) like wasps to a honey pot. Sailors from England, such as Francis Drake, prey on the Spanish fleets in what is effectively a programme of national piracy.

At the Spanish end, all trade has to be channelled through the official Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) established in Seville in 1503. This monopoly brings great wealth to Seville, and an increase in prosperity from this flow of bullion spreads outwards through Europe. The region of Seville, and indeed the whole of Spain, cannot provide all the goods required by the colonists. Raw materials and manufactured goods from far flung regions make their way to Seville for transport to America.

Europe in the 16th century is already experiencing, for other reasons, an inflationary pressure. The Spanish bullion has an added effect in pushing prices up.


Spaniards and Indians: 16th - 18th century AD

The settlement of the new Spanish colonies, and long-term reward for the Conquistadors, is achieved by a system of grants known as encomiendas. Indians are 'commended' to a conquistador (himself the encomendero), giving him ostensibly the responsibility to protect them and educate them in the Christian faith. In return he has the right to receive tribute from them, usually paid in labour.

Entire Indian villages are often commended to an individual conquistador, giving him a status similar to that of a Feudal lord.

The Conquistadors are of necessity hard and ruthless men. In many cases they treat the Indians under their protection as slaves. But this causes a passionate reaction in defence of the Indians, promoted above all by a Dominican friar, Bartolomé de Las Casas.

Las Casas' humanitarian arguments receive a friendly hearing at the Spanish court, which is by now the most important secular arm of the Catholic reformation. Charles V decrees in 1542 the so-called New Laws (Leyes Nuevas), putting in place regulations to protect the Indians on the encomiendas.

The New Laws at first have no effect in the Spanish colonies. In Peru the viceroy attempting to introduce them is beheaded by insurgent colonists. In Mexico the laws are not even proclaimed. Back in Spain, in 1545, many of the more provocative clauses in the legislation are revoked.

Nevertheless the direction pioneered by Las Casas eventually prevails. The encomienda system is brought to an end in the 18th century, replaced by more conventional wage labour. Spanish conscience in this matter is well ahead of its time. In this heated 16th-century debate, Spain's imperial administrators become by far the earliest of their kind to consider the rights of indigenous peoples.

Spanish colonial administration: 16th - 19th century AD

The Spanish monarch is the first to be confronted with the problem of administering large tracts of conquered territory on the other side of an ocean. From the start careful measures are taken to control a difficult situation. Ferdinand and isabella entrust the building of an administration, from as early as Columbus' second voyage in 1493, to their personal chaplain Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca.

Some of Fonseca's responsibilities are formalized in 1503 in the Casa de Contratación, dealing with trade. After his death in 1524 the political side of his administration becomes the Royal and Supreme Council of the Indies, sitting in Madrid.

In America the king's authority is exercised by his viceroys, who live in great magnificence and wield much power. In the 16th century there are only two viceroyalties. The viceroy of New Spain, with his capital in Mexico City, governs the West indies and all the Spanish territories on the mainland from Florida to California in the north down to Venezuela in the south. In 1571 the Philippines are added to his responsibilities. A galleon sails annually from Acapulco to carry his instructions to the governor-general in Manila.

The viceroy of New Peru, with his capital at Lima (founded by Pizarro in 1535), governs all Spanish colonies in south America except Venezuela.

In the 18th century these two viceroyalties seem unwieldy. They are split into four. New Spain keeps the West indies and the mainland down to Panama (though the southern region, Guatemala, has semi-autonomy under a captain-general). New Granada has Panama, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. New Peru retains only Peru, most of Chile and western Bolivia. The viceroyalty of La Plata governs eastern Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina and the southern tip of Chile.

These vast regions are successfully controlled from Madrid until the independence movements of the early 19th century. British rule may later span more of the globe. But Spain's is the longest lasting of all the modern European empires - with the Philippines remaining in Spanish hands until 1898.

Portugal and Brazil: 16th - 18th century AD

The Portuguese, with imperial ambitions focussed originally on the east Indies, are slower than the Spanish in setting up any form of administration in America. Brazil is deemed to be part of their share of the globe, through the accident of the Tordesillas line. The coast is reached in 1500 by a Portuguese navigator, Pedro Cabral. Vespucci explores the rest of the Brazilian coastline for the king of Portugal in 1501-2.

But it is not until 1533 that steps are taken to colonize this rich territory. The Portuguese call it Brazil because of a valuable natural product - pau-brasil, a red wood much in demand for the dye which can be extracted from it.

The first attempt to establish a Portuguese presence in Brazil is made by John III in 1533. His solution is ingenious but idle. He divides the coastline into fifteen sections, each about 150 miles in length, and grants these strips of land on a hereditary basis to fifteen courtiers - who become known as donatários. Each courtier is told that he and his heirs can found cities, grant land and levy taxes over as much territory as they can colonize inland from their stretch of coast.

Only two of the donatários make any success of this venture. In the 1540s John III is forced to change his policy. He brings Brazil under direct royal control (as in Spanish america) and appoints a governor general.

The first governor general of Brazil arrives in 1549 and makes his headquarters at Bahia (today known as Salvador). It remains the capital of Portuguese Brazil for more than two centuries, until replaced by Rio de Janeiro in 1763.

Colonists gradually move into the interior. Accompanying the first governor general in 1549 are members of the newly founded order of Jesuits. In their mission to convert the Indians they are often the first European presence in new regions far from the coast. They frequently clash with adventurers also pressing inland (in great expeditions known as bandeiras) to find silver and gold or to capture Indians as slaves.

These two groups, with their very different motives, bring a Portuguese presence far beyond the Tordesillas line. By the late 17th century the territory of Brazil encompasses the entire basin of the Amazon as far west as the Andes. At the same time Portuguese colonists are moving down the coast beyond Rio de Janeiro. A Portuguese town is even established on the river Plate in 1680, provoking a century of Spanish-Portuguese border conflicts in the region which is now Tordesillas line.

Meanwhile the use of the Portuguese language gradually gives the central region of south America an identity different from that of its Spanish neighbours.

Bahia and Rio de Janeiro: 16th-18th century AD

The economic strength of Portuguese Brazil derives at first from sugar plantations in the north (established as early as the 1530s by one of the only two successful donatários). But from the late 17th century Brazil benefits at last from the mineral wealth which underpins Spanish America. Gold is found in 1693 in the inland region of Minas Gerais, in the southern part of the colony.

The discovery sets off the first great gold rush of the American continent - opening up the interior as the prospectors swarm westwards, and underpinning Brazil's economy for much of the 18th century. Diamonds are also discovered in large quantities in the same region in the 18th century.

The shift in Brazil's economy from sugar to mineral wealth brings a change in the colony's centre of gravity. For the first two centuries donatários, in the north, is the seat of colonial government. But the gold and diamonds make their way to Europe through the port of Rio de Janeiro, greatly adding to the prosperity and sophistication of this southern city.

Rio de Janeiro also benefits from the reforms imposed on Brazil in the 18th century by Bahia, the chief minister in Portugal. Among other new measures (ending the rights of the donatários, giving Indians legal equality with the rest of the population, reserving the diamond mines as a royal monopoly), Bahia moves the capital in 1763 from donatários to Rio.

American mission settlements: 16th - 18th century AD

In both Spanish and Portuguese colonies of Latin America the preaching orders of the Roman Catholic church - Franciscans, Dominicans and above all the Jesuits - play a prominent role.

The voyages of conquest have from the start proclaimed one of their main purposes to be the conversion of heathens to Christianity. Friars take part in almost every expedition.

In the early years conquest and conversion go hand in hand rather too easily for the spiritual side to be entirely convincing. Within ten years of Cortes landing in Mexico, one Franciscan friar claims to have personally baptized more than 200,000 Indians - including 14,000 in one day.

As the colonies settle down, the friars establish mission stations where Indians live as part of a Christian community. The friars also (as exemplified by the Dominican Bartolomé de Las casas) become staunch defenders of the Indians against exploitation by Spanish and Portuguese colonists.

Most prominent in these activities are the Jesuits, the order founded as the spearhead of the spiritual crusade of the Catholic reformation. In Brazil the efforts of the Jesuits contribute greatly to extending the province inland, as they press every further up the rivers to organize and educate the Indians in self-supporting frontier settlements.

In Paraguay the Jesuit settlements (known as reducciones) are so numerous and so successful that the order governs a virtually independent territory, protected by their own army and with a population of about 100,000 Indians.

The power and wealth of the Jesuits arouses much opposition, particularly in the anti-clerical mood of the later 18th century. They also make enemies by protecting the Indians against the predatory demands of colonists.

The move against the missions is led by Portugal. The Jesuits are expelled from Brazil in 1759. Spain follows suit in its American viceroyalties in 1767. The thirty-two reducciones of Paraguay are abandoned and fall into decay. It is all part of a broader reaction in Europe, leading to the suppression of the entire Jesuit order in 1773.

Independence movements

Ripples from Europe: AD 1791-1808

In most of Latin America, isolated within the Spanish and Portuguese empires, the upheavals in France in 1789 have little immediate effect - other than as a talking point of great topical interest. But the French islands in the Caribbean are more directly linked with these distant events. As early as 1791 the slaves in Saint domingue, the western half of the island of Hispaniola, conclude that revolution has its attractions for them too.

Their uprising rapidly succeeds, being protected by the British navy from French retaliation. By 1801 the whole of Hispaniola is under the control of the first revolutionary hero of Latin America, Toussaint L'Ouverture.

If events during the French wars have little effect elsewhere in Latin America, it is partly because Spain and Portugal play at first relatively minor roles in the conflict. But this changes abruptly in 1807-8, following an unexpected Act of aggression by Napoleon.

It is unlikely that Napoleon could predict the domino effect which results, on the other side of the Atlantic, when he sends French armies into the Iberian peninsula and usurps the Spanish crown. But with his passion for upsetting the old order, the self-appointed emperor could only be delighted by the way the dominoes tumble.

Colonial society on the eve of change: AD 1809

Never has lasting political change occurred so rapidly over such a large area as in Latin America in the sixteen years from 1809. Moreover this sudden transformation is entirely unforeseen. These are regions which have lived without major upheaval for three centuries under authoritarian Spanish rule. Recently the heady ideals of the American and French revolutions have led some (particularly among the Creoles) to dream of change. But there has been little sign of active rebellion.

In the Spanish-American social hierarchy, an exceptionally well-defined pecking order based on birth, the Creoles come second.

At the top of the social tree are Spaniards born in the Iberian peninsula who have come out to America to take up an official position in government or church, or else to make their fortunes; they are known as peninsulares or gachupines (a local word for Spaniards).

It has always been Spanish policy to favour the peninsulares, in terms of appointments to high and profitable office, above the Creoles - the term for people of pure European origin born in the American continent. As the local aristocracy, with an ancient stake in the region, the Creoles profoundly resent being discriminated against in this way. If there is to be a nationalist rebellion against Spain, its leaders will come from their class.

Lower down the social scale are four other equally specific groups. Next in esteem are the mestizos, people of mixed European and American-Indian ancestry; since there were few Spanish women in America in the early decades of colonization, many mestizo familes are of long standing. Below them are a more recent phenomenon, the mulattos, of mixed European and African blood.

At the bottom of the social heap are two racially pure groups: the American Indians, the indigenous people of the continent surviving as peasants and poor labourers; and the African-Americans, most of whom at this stage still have the status of slaves.

The event which sparks a conflagration among these people of Spanish America has nothing to do with the continent itself. In 1808 Napoleon invades Spain, secures the abdication of the Spanish king Ferdinand VII, and places on the throne his own brother Joseph Bonaparte.

This unexpected circumstance provides two good reasons for independent action in Spanish America. With no Spanish government in Spain, it can be argued that the provinces overseas must look after themselves (a theme implying long-term independence, attractive to many Creoles). Equally, and more acceptable to the peninsulares, it can be said that interim local governments should now be set up on behalf of the deposed Spanish king.

First stirrings of independence: AD 1809-1811

The first two outbreaks of rebellion occur high in the Andes during 1809. In May in Chuquisaka (now Sucre, the capital of Bolivia) the governors of the university defy the Spanish authorities, proclaiming instead their loyalty to Ferdinand VII. Their example is soon followed by other groups in the province, some of them demanding independence.

Three months later in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, patriots rise in a bid for independence. In both Bolivia and Ecuador these first rebellions are soon put down and their leaders executed. But the theme is infectious, and the following year sees a positive rash of rebellions through south and central America.

On 19 April 1810 Venezuelan officers expel the Spanish governor from Caracas and form a junta to run the province. On May 25 a regional government takes over in Buenos Aires, in Argentina, on behalf of Ferdinand VII.

Next it is the turn of Bogota, the capital of the Spanish viceroyalty of New granada, where on July 20 the royal officials are thrown out and a local regime is established. Again the new government's stated allegiance is at this stage to the deposed king, Ferdinand. Only somewhat later is complete independence claimed (and it takes nine years more to secure it), but 20 July 1810 is the date commemorated in Colombia as independence day.

In Mexico there is the first unsuccessful attempt at rebellion on September 16 (a date also taken now as the nation's independence day). Two days later in Santiago, the capital of Chile, an open town meeting (cabildo abierto) accepts the peaceful resignation of the Spanish governor and appoints a local junta to run the province.

This completes the revolutionary changes of 1810, but 1811 adds similar events in two other regions. On May 14 the settlers in Paraguay expel their Spanish governor and declare independence. And during this year, further south, the cowboy leader José Artigas besieges the Spanish garrison in Montevideo and begins the long struggle for Uruguay's independence.

Two of the most important regions of south America are missing from this account of the revolutionary years of 1809-11. One is Peru, the most conservative and stable of the Spanish viceroyalties. It becomes an accepted fact among the liberation activists that there is no chance of a home-grown revolution here. So the region, vital in the broader campaign against Spanish imperialism, becomes the target of San Martín's famous invasion.

The other is Brazil, part of the Portuguese rather than the Spanish empire. Brazil secures internationally recognized independence in a more peaceful manner than anywhere else in the subcontinent - but not until 1822, long after the main story begins with Bolívar in Venezuela.

Bolívar & San Martín

Bolivar and Gran Colombia: AD 1810-1822

Simón Bolívar, Venezuelan by birth and the central figure in the story of the independence movements of Latin America, is a young officer in Caracas in 1810. He is part of the conspiracy by which a junta expels the Spanish governor of the province of Venezuela, on April 19, and takes control. For the next twelve years Bolívar's efforts are directed single-mindedly towards liberating the whole of New Granada from Spanish rule. There are many reverses on the way.

The optimism of July 1811, when a national assembly in Caracas formally declares Venezuela's independence, is followed by a complete reversal a year later. The Spanish authorities rally, recover a military initiative, and by July 1812 regain control of the entire province.

Bolívar escapes to Cartagena, the main seaport of neighbouring Colombia. The city is in rebel hands, and here he pens a powerful political pamphlet, the Manifesto de Cartagena, addressed to the citizens of New Granada. In it he offers the inspiring vision of a united effort to expel the Spaniards.

He soon proves his own abilities in this great enterprise. In 1813, at the head of an army of liberation, he returns to Venezuela and wins six successive engagements against Spanish forces. On 6 August 1813 he enters Caracas. Welcomed as the Liberator, he takes political control with dictatorial powers.

Again success is short-lived. By July 1814 Bolívar has once more lost Caracas. He marches instead to Bogotá, which he succeeds in recapturing from the Spanish. He makes this capital city his base for a while, but soon the Spanish recover it yet again. Bolívar flees into exile, in Jamaica and Haiti. But by the end of 1817 he is back in Venezuela, building up a new army in an inaccessible region on the Orinoco river.

Here he conceives a bold plan. He will not make another attempt on Caracas. Instead he will strike at the capital city of New Granada by a route which is considered impossible - along the waterlogged plain of the Orinoco and then over the Andes for a surprise attack on Bogotá.

In 1819 Bolívar's small force, of only about 2500 men, uses cowhide boats to cross a succession of flooded tributaries of the Orinoco (one of his men claims later that for seven days they marched in water up to their waists). This ordeal is followed by one even worse, a mountain crossing during which a considerable number of the rebel band die of cold.

But the surprise holds. They descend from the high passes upon an unsuspecting enemy. In an engagement at Boyacá, on 7 August 1819, the Spanish army surrenders. Three days later Bolívar enters Bogotá. On December 17 the Republica de Colombia is proclaimed. It covers the entire region of modern Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

As yet Gran Colombia is little more than a notion, for Venezuela and Ecuador are still securely in Spanish hands. But the Liberator soon puts this right. On 24 June 1821 he wins a battle at Carabobo which yields to him once again his native city of Caracas. And on 24 May 1822 Bolívar's favourite general, the young Antonio José de Sucre, wins a victory at Pichincha and brings the patriots into Quito.

With the liberation of Ecuador, Gran Colombia becomes a reality as a free republic. Meanwhile Bolívar's attention is directed onwards to Peru. Two months after the fall of Quito he has a famous meeting on this issue, at Guayaquil, with the other great hero of the moment - San Martín, whose wars of independence have begun in Argentina.

As yet the republic is little more than a notion, for Venezuela and Ecuador are still securely in Spanish hands. But the Liberator soon puts this right. In Venezuela on 24 June 1821 he wins a battle at Carabobo which yields to him once again his native city of Caracas. And in Ecuador on 24 May 1822 Bolívar's favourite general, the young Antonio José de Sucre, wins a victory at Pichincha and brings the patriots into Quito.

With this liberation of Ecuador, the Republica de Colombia becomes a reality as a free republic. (To avoid confusion with later republics of Colombia, Bolívar's pioneering state has subsequently been given the name Gran Colombia by historians, and this now common anachronism is followed here.)

Argentina and San Martín: AD 1810-1816

Argentina takes its first step towards independence more easily than most other regions of the Spanish empire, partly because of the Events of 1806-9 in Buenos Aires. When developments in Spain in 1808 force a choice of allegiance, a cabildo abierto (open town meeting) in Buenos Aires on 25 May 1810 quickly decides to set up an autonomous local government on behalf of the deposed Ferdinand vii.

However this first step is soon followed by violent conflict with opposing royalist forces elsewhere in the province. News of this conflict brings back to Buenos Aires an Argentinian-born officer serving in the Spanish army, José de San Martín.

When San Martín reaches Argentina in 1812, the patriot army is under the command of Manuel Belgrano, a Buenos Aires lawyer who has had his first military experience as a member of the Creole militia in 1806. In the early years of the war of independence Belgrano has successes against royalist troops in the foothills of the Andes in the extreme northwest of Argentina, at Tucuman (1812) and Salta (1813). But he is defeated further north, in Bolivia, later in 1813. In 1814 he is replaced as commander by San Martín.

These battles have all been close to the main source of royalist strength, the rich and conservative viceroyalty of Peru. San Martin concludes that Latin America's independence will never be secure until Peru is conquered.

The independence of Argentina is formally proclaimed on 9 July 1816, abandoning any pretence that the junta has been governing on behalf of Ferdinand vii. (The decision is simplified by the reactionary and incompetent rule of the Spanish king after he recovers his throne in 1814.) Meanwhile San Martín is assembling and training an army for his long-term plan of campaign against Peru. He has decided on a two-pronged attack, beginning with an invasion of Chile.

He already has an important Chilean ally in Bernardo O'Higgins, a soldier closely involved in the beginnings of the independence movement in Chile but from 1814 a refugee in Argentina.

Chile and San Martín: AD 1817-1820

For three years San Martín and O'Higgins gather and train an army for an invasion of Chile. By January 1817 they are ready. They lead a force of 5000 men on a twenty-day march through two high passes in the Andes. As many as 2000 of their force fall by the wayside, whether from death or illness in the extreme cold and high altitude (though the season is summer). Even so, the arrival of the survivors in Chile is so surprising that the Spanish have little time to gather troops in defence of Santiago.

The battle of Chacabuco is fought near the capital on 12 February 1817 and is won by the revolutionaries. San Martín and O'Higgins enter Santiago three days later.

San Martín is greeted as the liberator of Chile and is offered the role of governor, but he urges instead the appointment of O'Higgins - who becomes 'supreme director' of the nation. With royalist forces still a threat, independence is not formally proclaimed until 12 February 1818. The need for caution is demonstrated by the fact that the conclusive battle, finally securing Chile's independence, is fought only a few miles from Santiago - at Maipu on 5 April 1818.

Meanwhile San Martín is preparing the next stage of his campaign of liberation. Another army is being gathered, against Peru. And an envoy is sent to London to invite a brilliant buccaneer, Thomas Cochrane, to create a Chilean navy.

Peru and San Martín: AD 1818-1821

Cochrane, an eccentric Scottish nobleman, has made a dashing reputation for his exploits at sea during the Napoleonic wars but he has been dismissed from the British navy because of financial fraud. He accepts the Chilean invitation and arrives at Valparaiso in November 1818.

The Chilean navy consists of just seven ships, ranging from fifty to fourteen guns. The Spanish fleet on the Pacific coast is more than twice as powerful, but over the next two years Cochrane harries the enemy and attacks coastal forts in Peru until the advantage changes. His most famous exploit is stealing from Callao harbour, one dark night in November 1820, the Esmeralda - the largest and fastest frigate in Spain's Peruvian fleet.

Ten days previously Cochrane's squadron has landed near Lima an invading army of 4200 men, transported up the coast from Chile under the command of San Martín. The mere news of their arrival causes an entire Spanish battalion of 650 local Creoles to change sides and come over to the rebel cause. In this atmosphere, and to the fury of Cochrane, San Martín decides to wait for a Spanish withdrawal from Lima rather than attack the capital city directly.

Eventually, on 6 July 1821, the royalist garrison begins a retreat inland to a more secure position in the Andes. San Martín enters Lima on July 9 and proclaims Peruvian independence (on July 28) with himself as 'Protector'.

The next stage in the story of Peru is also a turning point in the careers of the two leaders of the American independence movement. While San Martín is attempting to secure his hold over Peru, Simón Bolívar is pressing south through Ecuador to complete his conquest of New Granada. Between the two liberators lies the important harbour of Guayaquil. Each wants it for his own territory. They converge on the town in 1822. Bolívar gets there first. San Martín arrives two weeks later, on July 25.

Over the next two days, with appropriate intervals for feasting, dancing and the toasting of liberty, the two men deliberate in private.

The Guayaquil Conference: AD 1822

Bolívar and San Martín later write differing interpretations of their conversation at Guayaquil, but a common theme emerges. It is succinctly put in a phrase of San Martín's: 'Bolívar and I together are too big for Peru.'

The subtext of the meeting is a clash between two men whose broad aims are identical (the liberation of America from the Spanish) and whose personal ambition is also the same and therefore incompatible - each wants to prevail in Peru. San Martín is well aware that Bolívar is the greater general. He realizes that nothing will prevent him entering Peru with his army. If he is opposed by San Martín, the result would be (in San Martín's words) 'a humiliating scandal'.

On the surface the conversation is more specifically about the proper government for an independent Peru. San Martín is eager to bring over a European prince to rule as monarch (in recent years there has even been talk of Napoleon being brought from St helena to inherit a new empire in the west). Bolívar is committed to the identity of the newly independent nations as republics, though he is himself eager to serve as president with dictatorial powers.

Meanwhile there lies ahead the immediate and difficult task of clearing the Spanish out of the Andean fastnesses of Peru - including Upper Peru (the area which is now Bolivia).

San Martín recognizes that on his own he is unlikely to achieve this. He offers to serve under Bolívar in the joint enterprise. Bolívar, foreseeing inevitable trouble and perhaps reluctant to share the coming glory, rejects even this offer.

After the failure of their four-hour discussion (on 27 July 1822), and an evening banquet and ball which he shows no sign of enjoying, San Martín slips away from Guayaquil in his schooner - and then slips almost equally discreetly out of history's limelight. At the first meeting of the new congress in Lima in September 1822 he resigns his post as Protector and retires to private life in Europe. He dies in Boulogne in 1850.

Peru, Bolivia, Mexico

Bolivar and Peru: AD 1823-1824

Although unwilling to collaborate with San Martín, Bolívar has many reservations about advancing into Peru. There is much unrest and rivalry in his first liberated republic, Gran colombia, and he considers for a while making terms with the Spanish in Peru so that he can concentrate his energies further north. But the congress of the new Peruvian republic, endangered by Spanish forces, begs for his assistance.

In September 1823 Bolívar arrives in Lima, to a tremendous civic welcome. It has been agreed in advance that he is to have not only command of the army but 'dictatorial political authority' throughout the republic. He pledges himself to deliver a 'free and sovereign Peru'.

The Spanish forces are based in what are considered almost impregnable regions in the mountains east of Lima, but Bolívar and his talented chief of staff, Antonio José de Sucre, successfully confront them there. Together they win a victory at Junin on 6 August 1824. Bolívar leaves the rest of the campaign to Sucre, who goes on to win the decisive engagement at Ayacucho on December 9.

After Ayacucho the Spanish army surrenders, along with the viceroy himself who was commanding in the field. This success completes the liberation of almost the entire Spanish empire in south America. The exception is Upper Peru, beyond Lake Titicaca. Again Bolívar entrusts this final task to Sucre.

Sucre and Bolivia: AD 1825-1827

The republican victory at Ayacucho leaves only one Spanish army at large, in the high Andean territory of Upper Peru. Sucre moves into this region early in 1825 and defeats the Spanish in April at Tumusla.

Upper Peru has been administered from Lima in the early centuries of Spanish rule, although geographically - lying mainly east of the Andes - it has more obvious links with Buenos Aires. The republican governments in both cities are eager to incorporate this region, with its famous mines at Potosí, but locally a spirit of independence prevails. When Sucre convenes a congress in July 1825 to consider the region's future, the vote is for a separate state.

In honour of their liberators the delegates propose to name the new republic after Bolivár and to rename as Sucre the historic city (Chuquisaca) in which they are meeting.

The nation is duly proclaimed on 6 August 1825 as República Bolívar, soon to be better known to the world as Bolivia. Bolívar himself drafts a constitution. When it is adopted, in 1826, Sucre is elected president for life. Prudently he accepts a term of only two years, but the violence of political life in this new and remote republic means that he does not complete even this modest term. Already in 1827 there are several uprisings, in one of which Sucre is wounded. He resigns as president and returns to his home in Ecuador.

By this time Bolívar has also departed from Peru, called to the north by his own brainchild - the Congress of Panama - and by the threatened disintegration of his first republic, Gran colombia.

Delegates from only four regions (Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Central america) attend the congress in Panama in June 1826, falling far short of the pan-American gathering which Bolívar had in mind. And they achieve little of practical value. But the event comes at a most significant moment in the history of the continent. Two important items on the agenda are Cuba and puerto rico - by now the only parts of Latin America still in Spanish hands, because recent years have also brought independence to Central america and Mexico.

The sudden departure of Sucre before his term is up prefigures a pattern in Bolivian political life. Even by the standards of Latin America, regimes here prove remarkably unstable. It has been calculated that between independence and 1952 (the most significant date in Bolivia's subsequent history) there are no fewer than 179 uprisings against the government of the moment.

Nevertheless in the early years, from 1828, the nation has a dicatator who is unmistakably a strong man in the continent's Caudíllo tradition. But his aggressive machismo brings considerable harm to Bolivia at the hands of neighbouring Chile.

The unusual case of Mexico: AD 1810-1820

While the various Spanish provinces in south America have been finding their own liberal way to independence, Mexico - the centre of Spanish power in the northern part of the continent - has been undergoing a very different transformation.

In south America educated men of the officer class, such as Bolívar and San Martín, have led the fight against Spain. In Mexico the first rebels are poor Catholic priests leading armies of Mestizos and Indians. Here the Creoles and the peninsulares support the Spanish authorities in putting down an uprising (in 1810) which looks to them more like a social revolution than an independence movement. It begins at Dolores.

The cry of Dolores: AD 1810-1815

Napoleon's seizure of the Spanish throne in 1808 provokes many secret societies in Mexico - devoted either to the cause of the deposed Ferdinand vii or to full independence from Spain. One such society, in San Miguel near Dolores, is betrayed to the police. Some members are arrested, others flee. But one, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, has a different response.

Hidalgo is a parish priest in Dolores. On 16 September 1810 (celebrated now as Mexico's independence day) he rings the bell of his church to summon the parishioners. He then makes an inflammatory speech, proclaiming an end to Spanish rule, equality for Mexico's various races, and redistribution of land.

This passionate manifesto, which becomes known as the grito de Dolores (cry of Dolores), has immense appeal to the poor and underprivileged, whether they be mestizos or Indians. Hidalgo selects as his banner Mexico's most famous image, powerfully effective in this context. It is the Virgin of guadalupe, an icon of the Virgin Mary with Indian features.

Vast excited crowds rally to this banner. They sweep through the towns between Dolores and Mexico City, arriving eventually at the gates of the capital itself. Here, mysteriously, Hidalgo pauses. The impetus is lost. His followers begin to drift away.

Hidalgo's remaining forces are defeated at the bridge of Calderón, near Guadalajara, in January 1811. Fleeing north, hoping to reach safety in the United States, the priest is captured, defrocked and tried. He is put before a firing squad in Chihuahua in July. But his cause survives for several more years under the leadership of his colleague José María Morelos y Pavón, also a priest.

Morelos is a more practical leader than Hidalgo. Victories at Oaxaca in 1812 and Acapulco in 1813 give him control of most of southern Mexico. In 1813 he summons a congress at Chilpancingo. In November the congress declares Mexican independence.

In the following year, 1814, the Spanish position is strengthened when Ferdinand vii is restored to his throne and reinforcements can be sent out to Spanish America. Morelos is captured in October 1815. Like Hidalgo, he is defrocked and is shot as a rebel.

For the next five years the independence movement is checked in Mexico. When it revives, in 1820, Mexico is once again out of step with the rest of Spanish America. Elsewhere liberal sentiments have encouraged rebellion against Spain. In Mexico the precise opposite happens. Fear of liberalism provides the impulse which finally brings Mexican independence.

Agustín de Iturbide: AD 1820-1824

In 1820 a coup in Spain against the reactionary Ferdinand VII forces him to bring in a liberal government (see Liberal and conservative). It is this development, profoundly unwelcome to Catholic and conservative circles in Mexico, which results in the sudden break with Spain.

The agent of change is a Creole officer in the Spanish army, Agustín de Iturbide, who has won his reputation by his severity and violence against the independence movements of Hidalgo and Morelos. He now abruptly changes sides, finding a formula which unites nearly all Mexicans behind him. His policy, published at Iguala in February 1821, has three distinct strands.

In his Plan of Iguala, Iturbide proclaims immediate independence from Spain, promises equality for Creoles and peninsulares in the new Mexico, and declares a ban on all religions or sects other than Roman Catholicism. With this programme Iturbide is able to lead a force, known as the Army of the Three Guarantees, which rapidly wins control over the whole of Mexico.

A newly arrived viceroy, sent out by the liberal government in Spain, signs on 24 August 1821 the treaty of Cordóba recognizing the independence of Mexico (a concession subsequently but ineffectually denied by the Spanish crown).

With this much so rapidly achieved, the recent alliance between the many factions of Mexico soon crumbles. Iturbide makes use of the prevailing chaos to declare himself emperor of the new nation, as Agustín I, in May 1822. The notion of a republic was never part of his programme (his stated intention was to offer the crown to some European prince).

In the event the self-appointed emperor proves an incompetent ruler and loses the support of his army. He abdicates, in March 1823, and goes to Europe. His turbulent story ends when he returns in 1824, unaware that he has been condemned to death in his absence. He is captured and executed. But whatever the upheavals and uncertainties, Mexico is now undeniably independent.

With this much so rapidly achieved, the recent alliance between the many factions of Mexico soon crumbles. Iturbide makes use of the prevailing chaos to declare himself emperor of the new nation, as Agustín I, in May 1822.

The empire proves to be short-lived (losing the support of the army, the emperor is forced to abdicate in 1823). But during his two years in power, Iturbide nominally rules over an area larger than Mexico itself. His winning of independence for Mexico in 1821 enables the neighbouring captaincy general of Guatemala to take the same step without bloodshed.

When regions in Latin America declare independence, their new status is soon accepted by major powers with interests different from Spain's. Britain (sensing commercial opportunities) and the USA (in the decade of the Monroe doctrine) recognize most of the new nations during the 1820s.

Spain, understandably, drags her feet. Even though the liberal Spanish viceroy accepts Mexican independence in 1821, the more conservative Spanish crown refuses to do so until 1839. Honduras has to wait for Spanish recognition until 1895. But in reality the Spanish empire in continental America ends with the loss of Mexico and Guatemala in 1821 - a year in which Spain also loses Santo domingo, in the Caribbean.

New republics: AD 1821-1838

With the independence in 1821 of Mexico and Guatemala, along with similar proclamations in Peru in this same year and in Gran colombia two years earlier, the whole of the Spanish empire in continental Latin America has declared for liberty. Brazil follows suit in 1822, ending the Portugese empire in the American continent.

There will be adjustments during the next two decades, as smaller nations free themselves from larger groupings. Thus Uruguay goes its own way from 1828. Gran colombia splits in 1830 into the three republics known today. And the Central american federation is divided by 1838 into five independent states.

By this time only two coastal enclaves in Latin America remain under European colonial control. They are regions where the northern Atlantic maritime nations have been able to establish a tentative foothold on Spain's imperial soil. To the east of Guatemala, in the area now known as Belize, British privateers maintain a presence in an inhospitable terrain. In Guiana, a tropical region well suited to sugar plantations, there are British, Dutch and French settlements.

Otherwise continental Latin America is now entirely free - and free to develop its own characteristic brand of politics.

20th century

Caudíllos: 19th - 20th century AD

From the 1830s each new Latin American republic goes its own way, though often distracted by border conflicts with neighbours.

Subsequent events suggest that Spain has left her colonies ill-equipped for self-rule. Small privileged groups of Europeans and Mestizos, supported by the forced labour of illiterate peasants, incline naturally to Oligarchy as a political system. But centuries of authoritarian rule by Spain have not prepared these oligarchs to transfer power among themselves peacefully (as happens through the centuries, for example, in oligarchic Venice).

The result is a pattern of prevailing political chaos in which the ambitions of ruthless leaders can be seen sometimes as the cause of the problem and sometimes as a temporary solution.

Strong men of this kind, frequently emerging from the army, are such a characteristic part of the region's political life that Latin America has its own word for them. They are caudíllos, and the very specific loyalty which they inspire in their followers is the cult of personalismo.

Simón Bolívar, the hero of Latin American independence, is a prototype of the caudíllo. In opposition to Spanish oppression his autocratic tendencies seem all on the side of virtue. But as president of the liberated republics, while shunning any trappings of monarchy, he is not at all averse to assuming the useful powers of a dictator.

The 19th and early 20th centuries produce numerous examples of the caudíllo in Latin America. The best known in recent years is Argentina's Perón, who with the support of his wife Eva carries personalismo to exceptional lengths. By the end of the 20th century, with the subcontinent progressing in fits and starts towards democracy, military juntas rather than individual caudíllos tend to be the problem.

The caudíllos usually pay lip service to one or other of the two factions which are the consistent features of Latin American politics. On one side are the liberals, campaigning for secular education and some degree of redistribution of wealth by land reform. On the other are the conservatives, seeking to preserve the central role of the church together with an economic status quo characterized by profound inequality (see Liberals and Conservatives).

In most of the republics, for most of the time, the conservatives prevail. Latin America enters the 20th century with social structures still in many ways characteristic of the colonial era.

World Wars and Depression: AD 1914-1945

In the early 20th century the USA begins to take a more interventionist role in the internal affairs of the Latin American republics - in what becomes known locally as yanqui imperialism. In the interests of preserving regional stability, US marines are sent by President Taft into Honduras in 1911 and Nicaragua in 1912, and by Woodrow Wilson into Haiti in 1915 and the Domininican Republic in 1916.

Resentment against an overbearing neighbour is one of the reasons why the Latin American nations remain largely uninvolved in World War I. Only eight of the twenty republics declare war on Germany. Only Cuba and Brazil provide active support for the allied cause.

The war years bring economic benefits to the republics as the suppliers of raw materials, but the world-wide depression from 1929 has a correspondingly disastrous effect. The crisis, together with the influential example of fascism in Europe, brings to several of the Latin America nations a marked renewal of the caudíllo tradition, now transformed more explicitly into military dictatorship.

However the relationship with the US shows a simultaneous improvement. In 1928 Herbert Hoover makes a goodwill visit to Latin America. In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt rules out unilateral intervention in Latin American affairs, inaugurating what he describes as a Good Neighbour policy.

The result is that Latin America is much more supportive of the USA in the next global conflict. Within two months of Pearl Harbor eighteen of the twenty republics have either declared war on the Axis nations or have severed diplomatic relations. Only Argentina, with a fascist regime of its own in power, delays declaration of war until the last possible moment in 1945.

The support of most of the republics is limited to the provision of food and raw materials (bringing another period of prosperity to the region). But Brazil sends a force to fight in the Mediterranean. And a Mexican air squadron is engaged in the Pacific.

Juntas and cartels: from AD 1945

Although the gradual trend in Latin America in the second half of the 20th century is towards greater democracy, parts of the subcontinent are severely disfigured during the period by a return of singularly brutal military regimes and by the emergence of drug cartels.

The Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua is the longest lasting of the local dictatorships. Anastasio Somoza seizes power in 1936 and is succeeded by two of his sons before the years of corrupt family rule are finally ended in 1979. The first of the postwar military regimes is in Paraguay, where the commander of the armed forces, Alfredo Stroessner, instals himself as president in 1954.

In this same year, 1954, a military junta is installed in Guatemala in a coup organized by the CIA. Under a succession of military rulers the country is soon plunged into a nightmare of terror and death squads.

Haiti, in 1957, elects its own tyrant in the disarming guise of a country doctor, François Duvalier. The Haitians soon have cause to regret their trust in Papa Doc. The next republic to succumb to a coup is Bolivia, where the military government installed in 1964 is sufficiently repressive for Che Guevara to decide, in 1966, that this is the most promising place in Latin America to launch a Marxist revolution.

The year 1973 brings appalling regimes to Uruguay and Chile, two republics which have previously achieved a better democratic record than most of their neighbours in Latin America. A military takeover in Uruguay results from the need to suppress a group of urban guerillas, the Tupamaros. And a violent coup in Chile, sponsored by the CIA, is the result of the perceived need in Washington to remove an elected Marxist government.

The list of shame ends with the two most recent generals to seize power and to maintain it with terror and torture - Videla in Argentina in 1976 and Noriega in Panama in 1983.

The USA, as head prefect of the continent, is discreetly involved (through the CIA) in almost everything that happens in these unstable republics. The only successful Communist coup in the hemisphere, in Cuba in 1959, leaves Washington obsessively nervous about Marxist infiltration among its neighbours. The result is US intervention against left-wing governments in Guatemala in 1954, in Chile in 1973 and in Nicaragua in 1984.

With hindsight, after the end of the Cold War, US apprehensions seem exaggerated. But an extremely dramatic intervention in 1989, involving the occupation of a capital city and the arrest of a head of state, relates to a problem which is likely to prove more intractable than Marxism.

In December 1989 George Bush sends 24,000 US troops into Panama to seize the local dictator Manuel Noriega. The reason is his suspected involvement with the unquenchable flow of illegal drugs from Latin America into the USA.

From the 1970s there is a steady increase in the USA in the use of cocaine and more recently crack, both derived from the coca plant grown in several Latin American countries (particularly Bolivia and Chile). The trade in these substances, bringing huge profits to the drugs cartels and much laundering of illegal funds, is a profoundly corrupting influence in central America. Unresolved high-level political murders in Guatemala in the mid-1990s are possibly drug-related.

Return to democracy: late 20th century AD

From the mid-1980s nearly all the Latin America republics, discarding their military regimes, contrive an often painful return to democracy (painful because in countries such as Chile the longing for revenge, by the relatives of those who have 'disappeared', clashes with the amnesty arranged for themselves by the retiring generals).

By the end of the century political parties, in nearly every country, are contesting elections at regular intervals without military interference. Corruption and chaos, long endemic in many parts of Latin America, cannot everywhere vanish overnight. But the situation looks brighter than ever before, in spite of financial crises in major economies such as Mexico and Brazil.
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