South America: Chapter XV

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Last Days of Empire


We have now arrived at the most critical of all the periods which Spanish South America has undergone in the course of its history, the decade or so which preceded the actual outbreak of the revolutionary wars.

In order to arrive at a just appreciation of the situation it is necessary to realize that, although the policy of Spain had consistently demonstrated itself as discouraging towards learning and progress in every direction, to such an extent had the population of the colonies grown that this task of repression of the intelligence of a Continent had now become Herculean and altogether beyond the powers of the moderately energetic Spanish officials.

Despite every precaution, the colonists had succeeded in educating themselves up to a certain point; moreover, a number of them, flinging restrictions to the wind, had now begun to travel abroad, and had visited European centres.

These sons of the New World had adapted themselves admirably to the conditions of Europe.
They had been received by notable personages in England and France, who had been struck with the intelligence and ideals of the South Americans.

These latter, for their part, had benefited from an exchange of views and from conversations concerning many subjects which were necessarily new to them. With an intercourse of this kind once in full swing it was inevitable that the regulations of Spain should automatically become obsolete and, in the eyes of the Americans, ridiculous.

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In South America itself, nevertheless, the social gap between the Spaniard and the colonial continued entirely unbridged, and the contempt of the European officials for the South American born was as openly expressed in as gratuitous a fashion as ever.

Indeed, as the opportunities for education broadened for the colonists, it would seem that their Spanish alleged brethren affected to despise them still more deeply - no doubt as a hint that no mere learning could alter the solid fact that their birth had occurred without the frontiers of European Spain.

The ban upon mixed marriages continued, and neither Viceroys, Governors, nor high officials might lead to the altar any woman born in America, however beautiful she might be, and however aristocratic her descent.

A few minor privileges had been accorded to these oversea dwellers, it is true. A system of titles had been instituted throughout the colonies, for instance.
By means of this it was hoped to pander to the vanity of the Americans, and to bring into being a new tie of interest which should cement the link between the Old and the New World which was proving so profitable to Spain.


As a matter of fact, none took the trouble to grant these titles in return for merit or service; it was necessary to buy them and to pay for them. Their grandeur was strictly local.

Thus a Marquis or a Count in Lima or elsewhere in the Southern Continent would have been crassly unwise to leave the shores of South America, for once in Spain his title fell from him like a withered leaf; he became plain "Señor" and nothing beyond, for in Spain these colonial distinctions were a matter for jeers and mockery.

What remained, therefore, for the poor local noble but to hasten back to the spot where his nobility held good!
It was better to bask as a Marquis in the sunshine of the south than to be cold-shouldered as a plebeian in stately Castile.


Commercial and more material distinctions which favoured Spain as against her colonies remained equally marked.
Bartolomé Mitre has appropriately explained the situation which preceded the Revolution:


"The system of commercial monopoly which Spain adopted with respect to America immediately on the discovery of the Continent was as disastrous to the motherland as to the colonies.

Employing a fallacious theory in order that the riches of the New World should pass to Spain, and that the latter country should serve as sole provider to her colonies, all the legislation was in the first instance directed to this end.

Thus in America all industries which might provide competition with those of the Peninsula were forbidden.
In order that this monopoly might be centralized, the port of Seville (and afterwards that of Cadiz) was made the sole port of departure and of entry for the vessels carrying the merchandise between the two continents.

In order to render the working of this system doubly efficacious, no commercial communication was permitted between the colonies themselves, and the movements of all merchandise were made to converge at a single point.

This scheme was assisted by the organization of the galleon fleets, which, guarded by warships, united themselves into a single convoy once or twice a year.
Portobello (with Panama on the other side of the narrow isthmus) was the sole commercial harbour of South America.

Merchandise introduced here was sent across the isthmus and down the Pacific coast, and eventually penetrated inland as far as Potosi.

To this place the colonists of the south and of the Atlantic coast were obliged to come in order to effect their negotiations, and to supply themselves with necessities at a cost of from 500 to 600 per cent. above the original price.

These absurd regulations, violating natural laws and the rules of good government, as well as the colonial monopoly, could only have emanated from the madness of an absolute power supported by the inertia of an enslaved people....

When Spain, enlightened by experience, wished to alter her disastrous system of exploitation, and actually did so with sufficient intelligence and generosity, it was already too late.

She had lost her place as a motherland, and with it America as a colony.
No bond, whether of force, affection, or of any other interest, linked the disinherited sons to the parent country.
The separation was already a fact, and the independence of the South American colonies merely a question of time and opportunity
."


What would have happened had the position of Spain herself in Europe remained unimpaired is idle to conjecture, but it is practically certain, with the new light which was now beginning to flood the new Continent, that the struggle for independence would have been postponed for a few years only.

The first herald of the great struggle for liberty which was to ensue was Francisco Miranda. The character of Miranda resembled not a little that of Bolivar. Both men were of exalted and enthusiastic temperaments; both were skilled in the arts of oratory and the management of men, and both possessed a visionary side.
For each the situation in the New World formed an ample and, indeed, justifiable field.


Long before the first outbreak of hostilities in America Miranda had played the part of stormy petrel in other continents. Born in Venezuela, he had the advantage of a wider knowledge of the world than many of his compatriots; he had already taken an active part in the struggle between North America and Great Britain, and he had joined with Lafayette in the territories of the then British Colonies in order to assist the revolutionaries in their campaign.

No ill-will appears to have been borne him by the English for the part he played in this war; for some while afterwards we find him residing in England, and corresponding with many prominent men of the period.

He is said to have gained the friendship of Fox, and it may have been due to his efforts, whether direct or indirect, that Canning gave such whole-hearted support to the South American cause.


As has already been said, it was largely due to Miranda's persuasions and assertions - somewhat premature and optimistic though these eventually proved themselves - that the various British expeditions sailed for the River Plate.

The result was disastrous in every respect save that it lent to the colonials a new confidence in their own powers.
In any case Miranda's good faith and honour were unquestionable, although at a later period he appears to have fallen somewhat under the suspicion of his fellow-patriots.


It was not long before the efforts of Miranda began to be seconded by those of other distinguished and high-spirited South Americans.

Simon Bolivar, the liberator himself, accompanied by a tutor, was sent by his parents to gain an intimate knowledge of Europe and of the polite arts of the Old Continent.
Here he had plunged himself into Latin classics and the French philosophy, and his remarkable personality is said to have created no small impression upon those with whom he came into contact.

Venezuela has every right to be proud of the fact that, although the seeds of liberty had already been sown throughout the Continent, and especially in the River Plate Provinces, they first sprouted into material activity in Venezuela, for Bolivar, having been born at Caracas, could claim Miranda as a fellow-countryman, or rather as a neighbour, since theoretically, in the colonial days, all South Americans were fellow-countrymen.


British warships under Anson's command plundering Pyta (Northern Peru) in  1741
British warships under Anson's command plundering Pyta (Northern Peru) in 1741

It is certain that during this early European tour of Bolivar's he had already become strongly imbued with the idea of freeing his country and Continent from the rule of Spain.

At one period of his travels he was at Rome, and he is said to have chosen the holy city as the spot in which to swear a solemn oath to take his share in the liberation of his native land - an oath which, as history proves, he fulfilled in generous measure, since the first desperate fights in the north of the Continent were conducted on the patriot side under his auspices and those of Miranda.

In the face of all the trials and injustices which they had undergone, it is important to remember that the temperament of the South Americans was one which urged them strongly to remain loyal to the Mother Country.

Although it had now become evident that a rupture was inevitable, the colonists viewed the snapping of the ties which bound them to Spain with reluctance and unease.
As fate would have it, it was the situation in Europe which arose to solve the difficulty, and to remove the last doubt from the breasts of the South American patriots.


The news of catastrophe after catastrophe filtered slowly through from the peninsula to the colonies.
The Napoleonic armies had overrun the country; the Corsican's talons were now fixed deeply in its soil, and the rightful Sovereign had abdicated while the throne was being seized upon by Joseph Buonaparte.

Then came the news of a Spanish junta, formed as a last resource to organize a defence of the harassed country; after this followed tidings of dissensions among the numbers of these defenders themselves, of the formation of other juntas, and, in fact, of the prevalence of complete desolation and catastrophe and of the wildest confusion.


In the midst of the reports and rumours, contradictions and confirmations which followed one another at as great a pace as the methods of communication of the period would allow, there came at last definite proofs of the chaos which reigned in Spain.

An envoy arrived in Buenos Aires, sent by Napoleon in his capacity of Lord of Spain, in order to announce the fact to the colonies, and to open up negotiations for future transactions.

Almost simultaneously arrived another envoy - a special messenger this, sent from the Junta of Seville, who claimed that Spain still belonged to the Spaniards, and that the Junta of Seville represented Spain.


In one direction the colonial authorities were enabled to act without hesitation. Napoleon's envoy was sent packing back in haste to where he had come from!
The messenger from the junta, on the other hand, was received with every consideration; but his presence failed to dispel the doubts from the minds of the South Americans.

For the downfall of Spain was now patent to all, as well as her impotence, not only to maintain communication with her colonies, but to move hand or foot to free herself from the grasp of the French.


Peasants of Saint Michael proceeding to Del Gado
Peasants of Saint Michael proceeding to Del Gado

The situation as it now presented itself would have been sufficiently bewildering even in the case of colonies who had enjoyed fair treatment on the part of the Madre Patria.
Amid the chaos which prevailed in Europe it was practically impossible to discover in whose hands the actual authority lay in Spain.

The Spanish King, his rival Prince, Joseph Buonaparte, the Junta of Seville - all these reiterated their claims to the supreme authority.

The storm of contradictions and disclaimers ended by proving clearly to the colonists what was actually the case.
In Spain no single supreme authority existed. This in consequence lay with themselves.


From the moment that this became clear the passive submission to the local royal garrisons and to the powers of Spain set above them began to give way to active protests. In ordinary circumstances these would probably have continued for some while, and efforts would have been made to avoid the actual resort to arms.

So fiercely, however, were the first claims to their rights on the parts of the colonists resented and opposed by the Spanish officials that the South Americans, disgusted and embittered, threw caution to the wind, drew the sword in turn, and met force by force, while the flare of battle burst out from the north to the south of the great Continent.



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