Colonial History after Invasion

Rumours of great wealth in South America had brought Spanish and Portuguese adventurers and vast amounts of gold and silver were mined in the 16th and 17th C’s. Large-scale slave importation, largely from Angola, began soon after Conquest. ‘... the slave trade was authorised by Spain for the first time in 1518… Paradoxically, the slave trade was supported by the defenders of the Indians. African slaves were considered to be more efficient than American Indians, particularly for working on Tropical plantations… The slave trade ceased in the early 19th century.’ (NEB. 1991. Macropaedia. vol. 27: 683).

South America continued to be ruled from Europe, but the colonists were becoming increasingly restive. It was the Napoleonic Wars that gave them the chance of freedom, Bonaparte’s invasion of the Iberian peninsula leaving the colonies uncontrollable. The Spanish colonies set up their own juntas and made the first attempts at independence beginning with Venezuela, under the leadership of Francisco de Miranda, in 1811. Venezuela was finally freed in 1821, and by 1826 Spanish presence in South America was at an end. Brazil had separated from Portugal in 1822, although the country did not establish itself as a republic until 1889.

Bolivar and San Martin

The wars of independence were brought to a successful conclusion by two famous South American heroes - ‘El Libertador’ Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) and General José Francisco de San Martin. At the time, northern South America consisted of Gran Granada (renamed Gran Colombia and consisting of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador), Peru, and upper Peru (Bolivia). Bolivar was a creole born to wealth and position in Venezuela. It was during his education in Europe that he conceived the idea of independence for Hispanic America, which he began to implement a year after his return to South America, aided by the weakening of Spain’s position by the Napoleonic Wars.

In 1810, the freedom campaign was begun when the Spanish governor of Venezuela was deprived of his powers. Thereafter, the war of independence see-sawed, now favouring Bolivar, now the Spanish. Bolivar enlisted the help of Francisco de Miranda, who had tried to liberate Venezuela single-handedly in 1806, and the Spanish enlisted the help of the llaneros, or cowboys, led by José Tomás Boves. The latter constituted a savagely effective cavalry which defeated Bolivar on numerous occasions.

Whilst in exile from this campaign, Bolivar wrote two famous documents:- El Manifesto de Cartagena and La Carta de Jamaica. Bolivar had a grand vision of a series of constitutional republics throughout South America, modelled on the government of Great Britain - i.e an hereditary upper house, an elected lower house, and with a President for life. He held to this last idea throughout his life, but it was the weakest of his concepts.

By 1815, Spain had sent the largest expeditionary force that had ever crossed the Atlantic under the command of Pablo Morillo. Bolivar received help from Haiti, which had freed itself from French rule, and from a significant number of British and Irish mercenaries. Success was by no means immediate, but gradually Venezuela, Colombia (in 1819), Ecuador and Peru were liberated.

Bolivar met the Argentinean revolutionary, José de San Martin, in Peru. San Martin had done for the south what Bolivar had done for the north of the continent, but he was no match for Bolivar, and disappeared from the political arena soon after the meeting. At his height, Bolivar’s power spread from the Caribbean to the Argentina-Bolivian border, but his vision for South America, which was continental in nature, evaporated in the face of national identities which emerged. Civil War enveloped Gran Colombia, and Peru invaded Ecuador. Bolivar’s health, which had been poorly on a number of occasions, was failing and he realised that his presence posited a threat to the nations that owed their very independence to him. Accompanied in the latter years by his lover, Manuela Sáenz, Bolivar went to Santa Marta intending to seek refuge in Europe. There, after learning of the death of his friend and fellow general, Sucre, he died of tuberculosis in 1830.

Post-revolutionary South America

Incapable of living up to Bolivar’s vision for them, the original Spanish colonies formed themselves into ten independent republics, the boundaries of which were based on the limits of the original colonial divisions.

‘Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador arose out of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Most of the South American countries adopted a republican form of government with strong executive power. The semi-feudal economic conditions of these countries caused antagonism between the conservative and powerful landowners and liberals, who sought industrial progress and social reform; this situation gave rise to periodic revolution. Vaguely defined national boundaries were often the subject of territorial dispute…[leading to]... major wars such as the Paraguayan War (1864-70) and the War of the Pacific (1879-84).’ (NEB. 1991. Micropaedia. vol. 11: 37). By 1949, only three European colonies remained; British and French Guiana and Surinam (Dutch Guiana).

Prior to colonial separation into republics, most immigrants were Spanish and Portuguese. Since then, there has been considerable immigration from other European countries to the East coast, but less to the West, with the exception of Chile which received heavy German immigration.