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Period of Imperial Crisis (revised)

© 2001 Donald J. Mabry


    The affairs of the Spanish Empire were tremendously complicated by international wars and revolutions. The French Revolutionary-Napoleonic wars lasted from 1792 until 1815, an extremely long time. Spain foolishly joined these wars on different sides at different times but primarily as an ally of the French.  The  wars were costly and destroyed communications. Spain had a difficult time paying for them and lost territory because of its participation. French Revolution and its wars turned things topsy turvy. One consequence was the Haitian revolt, which scared the hell out of other slave owners. During the Napoleonic phase of these wars, Spain suffered badly.

    The British conquered  South Africa. Admiral Homes Popham and Colonel William Carr Beresford sailed  from South Africa  and attacked the viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata (Montevideo and Buenos Aries) in 1806. After initial victories in Buenos Aries, they were driven out by porteños, as the inhabitants of the city were called. The next year Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke invaded but withdrew after fierce resistance by the porteños. That the viceregal government did little to defend the city of Buenos Aires created dissension among the porteños, for they, not the Spanish, had protected the city from the British. Effectively, Buenos Aires was independent from this time onwards. In fact, the cabildo deposed Viceroy Sobremonte and chose Santiago Liniers, a Frenchman, to take his place. It was Liniers who persuaded Whitelocke to surrender before his troops were slaughtered.

    In spite of these difficulties, the colonies were still loyal to the Spanish crown. That was soon to change.

Imperial Crisis, 1808-1814

    Napoleonic troops passed through Spain in 1807 during their invasion of Portugal, Britain's ally, and narrowly missed capturing the Portuguese royal family. It and its retainers had escaped on British ships to Brazil. Charles IV and Godoy considered fleeing but didn't.

    By a secret convention reached at Fontainebleau in October 1807, Spain agreed to support France against Portugal.  A palace revolution on March 19th deposed King Charles IV and his favorite, Godoy, and placed his son, Ferdinand VII, the instigator, on the throne. Taking advantage of the ensuing machinations and bitterness between the two factions, Napoleon got the two kings to come to Bayonne,  France, and had them agree that Joseph Bonaparte would be king. This produced a constitutional crisis. Who should the Spanish obey? Meanwhile, the Spanish common people refused to accept Napoleon's puppet and fought guerrillas (little wars) to drive the French imperial army out of Spain. These guerrilleros tied down hundreds of thousands of French troops and were soon supported by British troops.

    The constitutional crisis interrupted communications and connections between Spain and America. Some colonials began using the independent realms argument, that they had a common king with Spain but weren't colonies, per se. They said they were reynos, kingdoms, just as Castille and Aragón were. For example, in 1810, the Buenos Aires junta voted that Rio de la Plata "kingdom" was equal to the other kingdoms.    A few accepted Joseph Bonaparte but there wasn't much sympathy for the French and their advanced ways in Spanish territories. Most argued that the government had to be preserved for the legitimate king, Ferdinand but some of those really wanted more autonomy and, even, independence.

    In Spain, 1808-10 were the most important years. The constitutional connection was interrupted and the Americans had not yet begun to act on independence. Period of crisis was over at different times in different places. Don't know what would have happened if the Spanish Crown had been more liberal. Charles  IV was stupid and stolid; Ferdinand VII was stupid and active. Manuel de Godoy, Charles IV's chief minister, ran the government under Charles. Godoy was the lover of the queen.  His running of the government caused some dissatisfaction in both Spain and Spanish America. Created some contempt for the government and was one of the reasons Ferdinand garnered support for the overthrow of his father.

    Napoleon created the Statute of Bayonne on 8 July 1808. It equalized taxation, abolished torture, reduced church and feudal rights; and instituted other liberal measures.   It gave representation to America and the Philippines. Napoleon was a great believer in constitutions. The Bonaparte constitution had over one hundred Spanish collaborators but essentially was the work of Napoleon. Contained moderate liberal ideas of law and equality of taxation. The privileged didn't like it, of course. People of Spain were uninterested in the Bayonne document.  It was an imposed French document.

    In Spain, juntas were formed, the most important of which was the Junta Suprema Centrativa Gubernativa de España e Indias (Central and Governing Junta of Spain and the Indies) in Sevilla.  An 1809 decree granted 9 members of the Ultramarine (the colonials) the right to be members of the Central Junta. Spain had 39. Some dissatisfaction on the part of the colonials because, in an earlier decree, the Americans had equal representation with Spain.  Its consistency was questioned. Other juntas were created around the monarchy.

    The Spanish juntas asked the colonies to join them but the New World colonies argued for criollo equality. The Spanish didn't mean that! The colonies created their own juntas which then assumed governing authority in the name of Ferdinand VII.  When the Junta Centrativa tried to assert authority over the colonials, the latter refused. In 1810, the central junta was replaced by the Cortés, the Spanish parliament, which it had called. The  Cortés began meeting in September in Cádiz. The Cortés, unrepresentative of all political opinions in Spain, was radical and called for equal treatment for the Americans, the end of Indian tribute, a free press, and such. The central Junta was pushed by the French to Cádiz on the coast. It created the Council of Regency and dissolved itself. The Council was conservative.

    Elite Spaniards disagreed as to what the government should do and who could participate. The Junta,  Cortés, and the Council of Regency all three had American representatives. Who they should be and how much power they should have was never solved to satisfaction of the Americans, for the Spanish always wanted control. Floridablanca, a man of Enlightenment as far as economics,  was scared silly of the French  Revolution and led the  conservatives in the Central Junta. The liberals were led by Jovellanos, who was an upper class partisan of monarchic government. The liberal faction was a small minority but became more influential as time went on. Got more and more radical and, therefore, out of touch with Spanish reality. There was real fear of undercutting the monarchy. Permitted the Jesuits to return. Stopped the change in church land. Restricted press. More conservative than the Regency.

Cortés and Constitution

    A number of places in America drew up  instructions for their delegates. Socorro, Colombia issued decrees to emancipate slaves and to allow unrestricted commerce (indicative). One of the clear results of independence was the liberation of slaves. Indicates that somebody had been reading the writings of the Enlightenment. Advocated the extension of education (conservatives opposed this). Spoke of the "ideas of humanity." New  Granada, among others, sent no representatives. The big problem was that America only had 9 representatives. The Central Junta was the most recognized in America, then the Council of Regency, and then the Cortés.

    Council of Regency had only 5 American members. 1) freed labor more (2) sent out warnings against Frenchmen. Historically, the Spanish upper class and many other Spaniards were xenophobic.

Cortés (1810-1814)

In May, 1809, the Junta Central approved the meeting of the Cortés but the Council of Regency delayed calling it. Lots of discussions within the Council. What was the legality of calling one and its possible powers were important topics. It called by estates (roughly, social classes) which were going to meet separately (the clergy and the nobility saw themselves as superior to everyone else), but,  after an argument, the upper classes decided to meet with the others. The meeting of the Cortés stirred up beliefs that created a lot of debate and the passage of many laws. Election by each town council of partidos. Americans selected from residents in Spain. Americans wanted equal representation with Spain. Three hundred deputies in all. Began meeting in September, 1810. Eleven propositions made. End of restrictions; equality of the colonials, abolition of the Inquisition were among those passed. This was radical legislation for Spain.

Constitution of 1812

Constitutional Committee met in December, 1810. Consisted of 6 liberals, 1 independent, and 7 absolutists. In August, 1811 made its first proposal. Constitution was published in March, 1812. Signed by 134 peninsular members and 51 Americans and Filipinos. Created a unicameral legislative (Cortés) body which would meet annually. Indirect elections were held to become a member. It had broad powers. Gave the king a suspensive veto.  King's orders had to be counter-signed by a Spanish minister. Declared that sovereignty eissentia11y resided in the nation. Constitution was aborted, however.

    Napoleon lost and Ferdinand VII came back to rule. Although he promised to be bound by it, he soon repudiated the Constitution of 1812. Begins to backtrack in an effort to restore the absolute monarchy. Repudiation came with a dull thud in America.

    Because of the 1820 revolt in Spain, Ferdinand agreed to restore the Constitution but sought French help to quash the rebellion. The conservative Concert of Europe agreed to French military invention to restore Ferdinand's full powers. restored, Ferdinand adopted absolutism again. he made a concerted effort to regain the American colonies but it was too late. Too many were too accustomed to running their own affairs by 1823. even Mexico, a conservative nation, had successfully revolted in 1821 rather than be part of a liberal Spain. Had they waited, Spain would have been conservative again in a few years but that wasn't the point. Neither conservatives nor liberals wanted to take orders from Spain. Moreover, Spain couldn't have done much. The British used their control of the high seas to prevent other European nations from interfering.

You can read about other topics in colonial Latin American history by buying and reading
Colonial Latin America by Don Mabry.

Click on the book cover or the title to go to Llumina Press.