Don Jose de San Martin - Anna Schoellkopf

Causes of the War

The outstanding causes of the War of Independence in South America were the injustices which the Creoles  and Mestizos  felt Spain heaped upon them. Categorically they were: bad government, a strangulation of industries, and class legislation.

In the beginning of the Spanish regime Spanish America possessed twelve Audiencias, these subdivided into Gobiernos  or governments. Later the reforming King Charles III gave the country a new set of officials known as Intendentes. The heads of the government controlled finance, justice, the policies to be enforced and public welfare. Corruption was rampant. The French engineer, Freizer, visiting South America at the beginning of the eighteenth century, says that the public functionaries regarded their short time of office as a kind of jubilee.

South America


The policy of the Spanish crown was that colonial trade and emigration should remain the monopoly of the Spaniards. For the most part this trade was reserved to a single Spanish port, Sevilla.

The Journal of Captain Basil Hall, R.N., R.R.S., on the Coast of Chile, Peru, and Mexico in the Years 1820, 1821, 1822 says:

"The sole purpose for which the Americans existed was held to be that of collecting precious metals for the Spaniards; and if the wild horses and cattle which overran the country could have been trained to perform this office, the inhabitants might have been perfect. Unfortunately, however, for the system, the South Americans, finding that the Spaniards neither could nor would furnish them with an adequate supply of European products, invited the assistance of other nations. To this call the other nations were not slow to listen, and in process of time there was established one of the most extraordinary systems of organized smuggling which the world ever saw. This was known under the name of contraband or forced trade, and was carried on in armed vessels, well manned, and prepared to fight their way to the coast, and resist the coast blockades of Spain. This singular system of warlike commerce was conducted by Dutch, Portuguese, French, English, and latterly by North Americans. In this way goods to an immense value were distributed over South America, and . . . along with goods no small portion of knowledge found entrance, in spite of the increased exertions of the Inquisition. . . . Many foreigners, too, by means of bribes and other arts, succeeded in getting into the country, so that the progress of intelligence was encouraged, to the utter despair of the Spaniards, who knew no other method of governing the colonies but that of brute force."

For protection and commercial monopoly, especially the latter, there existed the famous system of fleets and galleons—merchant ships accompanied by war vessels. Twice a year Spain sent these to and from Portobello, Panama and Vera Cruz. Upon arrival of the fleet a six weeks' fair took place, and the profits of the middlemen were fantastic, averaging 40,000,000 pesos at a fair. Trade, in the hands of a privileged few, realized profits from one to three hundred per cent. Prices were kept high by systematically understocking the market.

The most vicious instance of Spain's commercial tyranny was the enforced dependence of Buenos Aires on Peru. The rich La Plata region was entirely neglected in favor of Peru with its precious metals. Lest the monopolistic system of fairs and trading fleets might suffer, all goods were sent to Panama, transshipped to Peru, and carried overland to their destination. Thus such merchandise sold in Buenos Aires for six times its original cost. When in 1620 Buenos Aires was allowed to export two small shiploads of local products there was such violent protest from Lima that a string of custom-houses was set up on all roads leading from Buenos Aires. Likewise all trade between the Philippines and Argentina was forbidden, a hardship to both countries.

Spanish trade suffered during the seventeenth century when such gallant buccaneers as Drake and Hawkins flourished. Being human and resenting the tyrannical restrictions imposed on their legitimate commerce, the colonists made these smugglers welcome at Buenos Aires, and so benefited by the advantages of their mutual barter that for a time a greater prosperity ensued than was known in the Spanish communities east of the Andes.

The mother country consistently discouraged, or forbade, the pursuit of any competing industry. The cultivation of grapes and wine-making were not allowed. The growth of olives was outlawed. As late as 1803 an order was given to uproot all grapevines in certain provinces of Peru because of the complaint of the wine-merchants of Cadiz. Sugar mills were forbidden and textile industries so taxed that they were automatically abandoned. Under the system of closed ports the cattle raisers' profits were so reduced that an ox brought one dollar, a sheep from three to four cents, and a mare ten cents.

It was also Spain's policy to discourage colonization. Permission to enter the country necessitated a royal grant dependent on proof that for two generations no member of the family had come under suspicion of the Inquisition. Under this astringent decree the total number of inhabitants during the colonial period never rose above three hundred thousand. The Creoles had no voice in affairs of state. Although the Spaniards represented the smallest percentage of the population, they held all the public offices of Church and State. Of the one hundred and eleven Viceroys, five hundred and eighty-eight Captain Generals, Governors and Intendentes only eighteen were Creoles. The Mestizos, next lower in social caste, were a mixed race of Spanish and native Indian blood. Since Spain had forbidden unmarried women to come out to the colonies there was the natural result of intermarriage between the colonists and the Indian women, and this half-breed race numerically far and away dominated the population. In the time of the Revolution these "Mestizos" furnished the rank and file of the liberating armies. The Argentine guacho, "with the fatalism of the Arab and the strength of the Cossack," was the ideal type for those cavalry regiments which won such glorious fame. The llaneros (men of the plains) were the most valiant of Columbia's soldiers. The rotos  (native farmers) of Chile won victories over the trained Spanish troops which had resisted Napoleon.

In the early years of the nineteenth century these races found a new name for themselves: they were "Americanos" and the new word was a symbol. They forgot petty differences and as Americanos they were bound together to resent the injustice, the tyrannical arrogance and cruelty of a government representing a vicious minority control by a few hundreds of Spanish overlords.

Ill feeling between Spaniard and Americanos steadily became more intense. The influence of the French Revolution had permeated these colonies notwithstanding interdictions on the works of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. It needed only leaders now and leaders were coming! Of these both Miranda and Bolivar had been participators in the French Revolution. Miranda, "patriot, scholar, dreamer, revolutionist," had set sail from New York in 1809 with a few hundred men bound on an expedition to free Venezuela. He failed in his purpose, but Miranda's fiasco struck the first fire to the national spirit of South America.

One pauses to recall the notable irony of history: Spain was the first European country to recognize the independence of the United States, an act wherein she appears, as to her colonial system, to have sounded her own death knell.

In the meanwhile England had not been idle. Pitt's policy had been for the emancipation of these colonies, but after his death a different policy one of conquest was promulgated. In 1806 after the British had taken Cape Colony from the Dutch and were returning home by way of the River Plate, Sir Home Popham, as Commander of the Fleet, and General Beresford, commanding the troops, succeeded in seizing and occupying Buenos Aires. This success on the part of the British was achieved practically without resistance. Nevertheless, the advantage so easily gained was not to endure, for very shortly a brilliant French officer, Jacques de Liniers, leading the native militia of Buenos Aires, forced Beresford to surrender. The following year the British under General Whitelock captured Montevideo and afterwards attacked Buenos Aires. The assault failed and Whitelock was forced to retire, to be later recalled in disgrace. With this failure England again reversed her policy and made no further effort to conquer South America. The English military policy had failed, but out of the disaster to her arms she none the less commercially sucked her Biblical "small advantage," for her merchant ships had followed the fighting squadron and the markets of Buenos Aires were flooded with cheap English goods to the complete ruin of Spanish trade.

The Argentine colonists were naturally inspired with self-confidence, and justifiably, when it is remembered that they had wrested two victories from the superior and well-equipped British forces.

However, the final separation of the colonies from Spain was precipitated by the quarrel between Charles IV and his son. In 1808 Napoleon determined to bring Spain within the orbit of his Empire, taking advantage of this quarrel to force them to resign their royal rights, whereupon he placed his brother Joseph upon the Spanish throne.

The Spanish refused to accept him as their king, an attitude followed by the colonies. With the latter it proved a crisis. Many intelligent and influential Creoles contended that the suppression of the Bourbon dynasty automatically severed the bonds of allegiance between the colonies and the mother country, with the result that various provinces, while still protesting their loyalty to the imprisoned King, resolutely set about establishing provisional independent governments of their own, pending, as they professed, the restoration. Creoles of Miranda's type saw in this movement a God-sent opportunity for permanent independence. The Spanish officials viewed with hostility and apprehension these self-constituted local governments, and rightly, for this sympathetic revolt of the colonists against the French intruders at home became the final revolt against all Spanish authority. The rupture, though not yet complete, became merely a matter of time. It was not until 1822 that the Republics of South America were recognized by the United States. This famous message said:

"The people of South America have a right to break the chains which bind them to their mother country, to assume the rank of nations among the sovereign nations of the world, and to establish institutions in accordance with natural laws dictated by God himself."

As a consequence of this recognition the United States in the year 1823 promulgated the Monroe Doctrine which, in opposition to the Bull of Alexander VI, established a new principle of international law under the formula "America for Americans." England, who at first inclined favorably towards emancipation, began in 1818 to lean towards Spain and the Holy Affiance, advocating an arrangement on the basis of the "Commercial Freedom" of the colonies. The diplomatists of Washington interfered in favor of complete emancipation, and Lafayette, in support of the idea, declared to the Government of France: "Any opposition which may be made to the Independence of the New World may cause suffering but will not imperil the idea."

Accordingly, long before the cause of freedom was actually acknowledged by Spain, the emancipation of the continent was an accomplished fact. The attitude of the United States, supported by England, turned the scales of diplomacy in its favor in the year 1823. When at the Congress of Verona the party of reaction proposed a contrary policy, Canning, Prime Minister of Great Britain, wrote to Grenville those memorable words, the echo of which was heard through two hemispheres:

"The battle has been fierce, but it is won. The nail is clenched; South America is free. Novus Saeclorum nascitur ordo!"

The Battle of Ayacucho was the response to these words, and Canning could then exclaim:

"I have called a new world into existence to redress the balance of the old."