Latin America between 16th - 20th century. Spaniards and Portuguese in a new world. Spanish and Portugal colonial administrations. Latin America's struggle for Independence. Bolivarian Republic. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

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.

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.

La Navidad: First European Settlement in the Americas

On the night of December 24-25, 1492, Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Marнa, ran aground off the northern coast of the island of Hispaniola and had to be abandoned. With no room for the stranded sailors, Columbus was forced to found the La Navidad (“Christmas”), first European settlement in the New World. When he returned the following year, he found that the colonists had been massacred by natives.

Spaniards in a new world: 16th century

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 Mara la Antigua del Darin (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: from1519

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: 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: 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 Doa 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: 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.

Spaniards and Indians: 16th - 18th century

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, Bartolom 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 c.

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 Contratacin, 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

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 donatrios. 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 donatrios 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 Uruguay. 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

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 donatrios). 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.

American mission settlements: 16th - 18th century

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 Bartolom 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.

Latin America's struggle for Independence.  

Ripples from Europe: 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.

First stirrings of independence: 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 Jos 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 Martn'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 Bolvar in Venezuela.

Bolvar and Gran Colombia: 1810-1822

Simn Bolvar, 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 Bolvar'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.

Bolvar 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 Bolvar has once more lost Caracas. He marches instead to Bogot, 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. Bolvar 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 Bogot.

In 1819 Bolvar'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 Boyac, on 7 August 1819, the Spanish army surrenders. Three days later Bolvar enters Bogot. 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 Bolvar's favourite general, the young Antonio Jos 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 Bolvar'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 Martn, whose wars of independence have begun in Argentina.

Argentina and San Martn: 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, Jos de San Martn.

When San Martn 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 Martn.

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 Martn 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 Martn: 1817-1820

For three years San Martn 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 Martn and O'Higgins enter Santiago three days later.

San Martn 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 Martn 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.


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 Martn. 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 Martn 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 Martn 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 Martn is attempting to secure his hold over Peru, Simn Bolvar 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. Bolvar gets there first. San Martn 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.


Bolvar and San Martn later write differing interpretations of their conversation at Guayaquil, but a common theme emerges. It is succinctly put in a phrase of San Martn's: 'Bolvar 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 Martn is well aware that Bolvar is the greater general. He realizes that nothing will prevent him entering Peru with his army. If he is opposed by San Martn, the result would be (in San Martn's words) 'a humiliating scandal'.

On the surface the conversation is more specifically about the proper government for an independent Peru. San Martn 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). Bolvar 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 Martn recognizes that on his own he is unlikely to achieve this. He offers to serve under Bolvar in the joint enterprise. Bolvar, 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 Martn 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.

BOLVAR AND PERU: 1823-1824

Although unwilling to collaborate with San Martn, Bolvar 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 Bolvar 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 Bolvar and his talented chief of staff, Antonio Jos de Sucre, successfully confront them there. Together they win a victory at Junin on 6 August 1824. Bolvar 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 Bolvar entrusts this final task to Sucre.


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 Potos, 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 honor of their liberators the delegates propose to name the new republic after Bolivr and to rename as Sucre the historic city (Chuquisaca) in which they are meeting.

The nation is duly proclaimed on 6 August 1825 as Repblica Bolvar, soon to be better known to the world as Bolivia. Bolvar 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 Bolvar 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 Bolvar 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.


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 Bolvar and San Martn, 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: 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 Caldern, 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 Jos Mara Morelos y Pavn, 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.

Agustn de Iturbide: 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, Agustn 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 Cordba 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 Agustn 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.

New republics: 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.