Although the processes of modernization and reform set the stage for the wars for independence, it was the Napoleonic wars, and more specifically, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, that triggered the wars for independence in Spanish America. This outline first looks at the rise of Napoleon and his efforts to dominate Europe. We then closely examine his invasion of Spain and Portugal, the flight of the Portuguese monarchy to Brazil, and the imprisonment of the king and crown prince of Spain. The French occupation of Spain and Portugal sets off a war of skirmishes and a British invasion. These events touch off a series of (mostly) failed wars for independence in Spanish America after 1808. The defeat of Napoleon and the return of Fernando VII in 1814 create another flashpoint that sets off a second series of wars in Spanish America, wars that largely succeed.
Although the processes of modernization and reform set the stage for the wars for independence, it was the Napoleonic wars in Europe, and more specifically, Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, that triggered the wars for independence in Spanish America.
A. Napoleon’s armies invaded Spain and Portugal in 1807–1808, deposing the Iberian monarchies and severing the connections between Iberia and the Latin American colonies.
- The Portuguese royal family fled Lisbon for Brazil in 1807, and Napoleon imprisoned the Spanish king and crown prince in 1808.
- The Spanish Americans would have to decide how to rule their own lands with their king under French control.
- Before we look at these invasions and their consequences, we must first return to the French Revolution and events in Europe.
B. After 1799, Napoleon emerged as the strongman in France; he led his armies across Europe until 1815, deposing monarchs and dominating the entire continent.
- Napoleon Bonaparte is one of the more extraordinary figures in the history of the West.
- In 1803, Britain declared war on France, and the Austrian and Russian Empires soon joined in a coalition against Napoleon.
- Napoleon concentrated on closing off the continent to English trade.
- After signing a peace treaty with the young Tsar Alexander I in 1807, Portugal and Spain were the only “holes” in the continental blockade.
The Spanish and Portuguese monarchies reacted in different ways to the Napoleonic invasions in 1807–1808.
A. The Portuguese had long been allies of the English and had been preparing for a French invasion for more than a decade.
- The Braganzas had been the ruling family since 1640; Maria I had ascended to the throne in 1777.
- With the rise of the French revolutionary army in the 1790s, the Portuguese monarchy secretly began to plan for a possible invasion.
- When the French sent forces across Spain into Portugal in late 1807, the royal family chose to evacuate to Brazil under British escort.
- The Braganza family would reside in Brazil from 1808–1821, ruling their empire from Rio de Janeiro.
B. Compared to the Spanish Bourbons, the Portuguese Braganzas appear to be one big, happy, and astute royal family.
- The Spanish monarch, Carlos IV, had assumed the throne at the age of 40 in 1788 on the death of his father, Carlos III.
- In the years leading up to the Napoleonic invasion, Manuel de Godoy (chief minister), the queen, the king, and the crown prince all conspired among themselves, against each other, and with Napoleon at various times.
- The wily Napoleon “invited” Carlos and Fernando to visit him in southern France in April 1808.
- Napoleon then placed his half-brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.
The Spanish people resisted the French occupation with tenacity and at great cost.
A. The Spanish confronted the overwhelming force of the French with a form of fighting that came to be known as guerrilla warfare.
- The great uprisings of May 1808 initiated a six-year struggle to regain Spanish independence.
- The Spanish attacked with regular troops and in irregular units that became justly famous.
- The British came to the aid of the Portuguese and Spanish to counter the French expansion.
B. Across the country and in the absence of the true king, citizens formed juntas to rule in the name of the imprisoned Fernando VII.
- Many of these juntas joined together to form a “supreme” Central Junta.
- Across Spanish America, the colonists also formed juntas.
- This was a pivotal shift, with the “people” ruling through the juntas rather than the king.
These momentous events in Spain triggered the wars for independence in Spanish America.
A. A first set of wars broke out after 1808, led by the first wave of rebels.
- Most colonists were reluctant to break with Spain and chose to remain loyal to Fernando in his absence.
- As we shall see in the next series of outlines, some did choose to seize the opportunity of the moment and call for independence from Spain.
- The rebellions that broke out were nearly all defeated, with the great exceptions of Paraguay and Argentina.
B. Ironically, the return of Fernando VII to power in 1814 triggered a second set of wars for independence.
- Fernando disappointed many loyal colonists by attempting to return to the absolutist, colonial regime of the 18th century, a stupid and disastrous move on his part.
- Combined with the great wounds and divisions opened by the first set of wars, Fernando’s rejection of constitutionalism and the Constitution of 1812 sparked the final collapse of Spain’s once-mighty empire in the Americas.
Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas