South America: Chapter XXII

(by William Henry Koebel)

The Independence of Spanish America


Having followed the course of the Brazilian fortunes from the elevation of the province to a kingdom, from its promotion to an Empire, and from its Imperial status to its modern Republican condition, it is necessary to revert again to the Spanish-speaking territories of the Continent.

It must be admitted that the epoch that immediately followed the war of liberation was one of strife and bitter disillusion.
A certain number of the leaders had foreseen the chaotic phase which had necessarily to be undergone before the benefits of independence and enlightenment could be enjoyed.

These, however, were restricted to the very small intellectual minority.
The great bulk of the population of the late provinces, now nations, had anticipated nothing of the kind.

In their eyes the period of transition had been pictured as fleeting and as of no account.
It had, indeed, been popularly considered as but a step from a condition of oppression and dependence to that of complete freedom and self-government.

It was not long before the fallacy of all such theories was shattered.
Indeed, the very earliest periods of independence were ominously prophetic of what Spanish South America was destined to suffer before it emerged from the chaos of blood and strife, and before its various nations were enabled to stand firmly on their own feet.


In some respects, but only in some, South America, freed from the Spaniard, resembled the ancient Britain deprived of its Roman rulers and garrison.

It is true that the Spanish army had been forced, struggling, from the Continent by means of battle and blood, and that the Roman legions had left the coasts of Britain amid the lamentations of the natives.

One thing, however, is quite certain, that neither race was prepared to govern itself. Washington was duplicated in the south by Bolivar and San Martin, but the influence of Bolivar and San Martin died very shortly after the dramatic events in which they took part.


It would be more correct, perhaps, to say that this influence was overlooked for the time being and forgotten, since, those periods of all-absorbing anarchy notwithstanding, the influence of Bolivar and San Martin has manifested itself strongly from time to time during every generation which has succeeded.

That the age of petty and local tyrants should have followed so closely on the skirts of the great national and Continental revolution was inevitable in the circumstances.

Spanish South America was Royalist by custom and tradition. Whatever the nations might in the first instance term themselves, their inhabitants were bound by these very traditions and instincts to find some leader whom they could put in the place of the once revered, but never seen, monarch.


Thus the rather curious circumstance arose that South America flung off the Spanish dominion (which during its last decade had grown by comparison with the past considerate and beneficent), in order to replace it by the far more tyrannical Governors of their own creation.

It was doubtless the fact that these despots who ruled so unmercifully over the South Americans were men of their own race and country that tended to reconcile the private citizens to the very real perils and oppressions which they now had to endure.

The social upheaval had been such that, although many of these caudillos or despotic chieftains were descended from aristocratic Spanish colonial families, others were mere children of opportunity, whose ancestry and origin could bear no comparison with their feats, dark though these latter may have been.


In the eyes of many European contemporaries, and even in those of a multitude of their own people, the condition of the erstwhile Spanish South American colonists showed no glimmer of hope for a considerable time after the much-desired liberation had actually been obtained.

Yet all this time the leaven was working very slowly, but very surely.
The fact, indeed, was that, although the acts and circumstances, politically speaking, of the River Plate provinces grew wilder and more desperate, the human substance of the nation was steadily improving and becoming enlightened - a somewhat curious paradox!

Even during the tyranny of the most remorseless of the caudillos the enlightenment was working its way among the mass of the people.


The influx of foreigners alone worked an enormous influence in this direction.
A country which until the revolution had been governed in a more autocratic fashion than probably any other in the modern history of the world had suddenly opened its doors, and its people stood blinking in the powerful light shining from the European civilization - an outer world, of which the majority of the colonists had had no previous conception.

That many of these should have lost their heads was quite inevitable. A number of intellectuals took France's Jean-Jacques Rousseau and her other contemporary prophets as models, or rather as gods, before whom they fell down and worshipped.

The trend of the nation became strongly and even curiously materialistic. In this respect it must be confessed that Argentina and Uruguay more especially have continued to follow the French school of thought.


This departure in itself was enough to cause a profound disturbance in the breasts of the majority of those in themselves neither leaders nor intellectuals, but plain men imbued with the very true, if intensely narrow, devotion and piety of the old-fashioned Spaniard.

The force of the convulsion was doubled from the mere fact of its astonishing suddenness, and the religious and political earthquake, once started, went rumbling and roaring ceaselessly the length of the startled Continent.

Speaking quite frankly, there seems very little doubt that in the two countries mentioned the influence of religion died in the birth struggles of the Republics.

In the course of the innumerable civil wars which tortured these lands for half a century and more afterwards, religious emblems were from time to time employed, and priests were occasionally attached to one faction or the other; but the records of these latter are such as to show that they had entirely lost to sight their sacred calling, and a number, such as Felix Aldao, became politicians and leaders of these bands, and executed and drank with the wildest of their men.


On a few occasions a religious pretext was actually seized upon by one or two caudillos, who in the most barefaced fashion endeavoured to make this cloak serve their ends.

A notable instance of this was afforded by the famous Argentine chieftain Quiroga.
This worthy was altogether one of the wildest of his kind. Indeed, at one period he stood self-confessed as a land pirate by the ensign which he adopted - a black flag, with a skull and cross-bones.

On one occasion, however, when a religious dispute had broken out among his more intellectual neighbours, Quiroga determined to intervene on behalf of religion.
So, when he next made his appearance at the head of his cavalry, not a little amazement was mingled with the dread with which the spectators were wont to regard his grim personality.

For the skull and cross-bones had disappeared from the chieftain's banner, and in their place floated the words, "Religion or death." It was evident that Quiroga was determined that whatever he took up should be seriously undertaken!


On several occasions Rome endeavoured to intervene, but on each occasion was met with rebuff.
Leaders, such as Francia of Paraguay, appointed their own clergy, and, quite regardless of any outside authority whatever, made or unmade priests, and, in fact, dealt in sacred things to their hearts' content.

Francia retained his Bishop in a capacity which was little more than that of a body-servant.
This Bishop he had himself promoted from the most ignorant country priest of a most ignorant country.

Probably no other portion of the history of the modern world shows such unbridled licence as was exercised in almost every Republic of the Continent during the first half of its freedom.


Perhaps one of the most curious phenomena of the post-revolutionary era of South America was the rapidity with which the majority of the original leaders disappeared from the stage of public life.

San Martin had voluntarily forsaken the scene of his triumphs.
In one sense he was fortunate, since the fierce rivalry which arose at the conclusion of the War of Independence left his colleagues little chance of making their congé with a similar amount of dignity.

Bolivar died impoverished and exiled, one of the most sublime and tragic figures of the revolution. O'Higgins, it is true, divested himself of his insignia of office by a spontaneous act.
This, however, only came about when the opposing parties had stretched forth their hands to clutch at each other's throats. In the majority of cases the ending of the careers of these early patriots was equally abrupt.


Nothing of this, however, was foreseen when the age of liberty first dawned; then the men who had organized the campaign and who had won the battles were still heroes in the eyes of the people.

Bolivar was frenziedly acclaimed as the deliverer of Peru, an honour which, in the absence of San Martin, none could dispute with him.
Although it was obvious that the circumstances about him were changing, and that the once high ideals of many were becoming affected by sordid considerations, Bolivar's exaltation of spirit seems to have continued unimpaired.

That he had become sterner and more imperious there is no doubt.
Many anecdotes are told of him at this period, one of which shows him in a light rather uncommon in South America, where gallantry towards ladies is apt to be carried to the extreme.


It is said that at a ball a lady insisted on singing his praises with an admiration that was positively fulsome.
Bolivar, according to the story, reproved her by these words: "Madam, I had previously been informed of your character, and now I perceive it myself. Believe me, a servile spirit recommends itself to no one, and in a lady is highly to be despised."

No doubt the reproof was well earned, but at the same time the language reveals a gruffness which scarcely tallies with Bolivar's usual conduct.

Another anecdote will suffice to show the various situations with which the Liberator had to contend.

At a public dinner given to Bolivar at Bogotá a fervent admirer of his uttered an incautious toast: "Should at any time a Monarchical Government be established in Colombia, may the Liberator, Simon Bolivar, be the Emperor!"

A stern patriot, Señor Paris, then filled his glass and exclaimed: "Should Bolivar at any future period allow himself to be declared Emperor, may his blood flow from his heart in the same manner as the wine now does from my glass!"
With these words he poured the wine from his glass upon the floor.


Bolivar, far from being offended, sprang up and, approaching Señor Paris, embraced him, exclaiming: "If such feelings as those declared by this honourable man shall always animate the breasts of the sons of Colombia, her liberty and independence can never be in danger."

The story is pretty enough, and doubtless it occurred much in the way related at the moment; but it must not be forgotten that convictions on the part of public men must frequently wait on policy, since it is well known that Bolivar's own views for the independence of South America ran rather in the direction of Empires than Republics.

Simon Bolivar, indeed, worked on large and Imperialistic lines.
As has been said, he dreamed of a single State of Spanish South America, of a great community with a single heart.

It is not surprising that he found opponents to this scheme, the chief of these being Chile and Buenos Aires.
Even in his own country these stupendous plans of his, though they were conceived in a disinterested and loyal spirit, led to troubled and harassing times.


Thus revolutions against his authority broke out in Venezuela, and even in parts of Colombia itself. International complications followed.
In 1827, Peru declared war against Colombia, alleging that Bolivar was attempting to place her in a state of vassalage to Colombia.

Discord was now arising on every side. Bolivar saw the majestic turrets of his castle of state fall with a crash to the ground almost ere they had had time to rear themselves against the darkening horizon.

The tragedy was too much even for his enthusiastic spirit. Broken and spent, he retired to Santa Marta in New Granada, where his grief brought him to a death in solitude in 1830.
Thus his fate supplied yet another link between his career and that of San Martin, whose death in Boulogne on the French coast, when it occurred, scarcely occasioned a passing notice.


In Chile, as has been said, the career of the famous Bernardo O'Higgins, although shorn of so many of the tragic elements that attended that of Bolivar, had ended with almost equal abruptness.

It is true that the great Chilean for his part had the satisfaction of performing one of the greatest acts of his life at the close of his official existence.

When, faced by the deputation of those who were in revolt against his authority, he stepped forward to confront them, and, with deliberation and calmness, tore from his person his insignia of office, he knew that his deed had been echoed through the whole length of Chile, and that it had caused a shock of astonishment and sympathy in the breasts of even those most strenuously opposed to his policy.

In other respects the results were much the same as in the case of Bolivar.
The great O'Higgins had retired from the eye of the nation and from the scene of his struggles and self-sacrifice.


In Argentina the tale was similar, notwithstanding the enlightened and progressive influence of intellectual men, such as Belgrano, Rivadavia, and numerous others.
The tide of civil strife burst out, and its mad eddies swept away many of those who had proved themselves heroes in the cause of independence.

The severing of ties and of friendship was necessarily abrupt, and occasionally claimed a victim.
Among these was Liniers, who in the last days of the Spanish régime had gathered together a local force on the River Plate, and had dislodged the British forces from Buenos Aires.
This, however, did not prevent his execution by the patriots soon after the outbreak of the war.


To enter into the details of individual cases is impossible here, since volumes could be written on every separate decade, and on a score and more of the personalities of this particular epoch in Argentina alone.

Paraguay stood out as an exception to the rest.
In that State the reins of power fell into the hands of Dr. Francia, a merciless autocrat, who suffered nothing whatever to be disturbed within the frontiers of his country, and who now ruled with a ferocious tyranny, such as had scarcely been approached even in the darkest days of the early colonial age.


After that Paraguay was destined to undergo its baptism of fire as well as the rest; the process seemed inevitable.

In Paraguay it had not been avoided; it had merely been postponed.



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