San Martín and Argentine Independence

José de San Martín is the counterpart of Simón Bolívar in southern South America. Like northern South America, the region around the La Plata was on the periphery of the Spanish Empire. Along with Venezuela, Buenos Aires was one of the early leaders in the break from Spanish rule. San Martín emerged as the great military figure in the struggle for independence. This outline focuses on the process of independence in Argentina (and Uruguay) and the figure of San Martín. The son of a Spanish soldier, born in the interior of the viceroyalty in 1778, San Martín served loyally and well in the Spanish army in North Africa and Europe in the 1790s. His conversion to the causes of independence and his leadership of the armies that liberated Argentina and Chile would make him one of the great leaders of the era.

While Simón Bolívar was the great Liberator of northern South America, José de San Martín emerged as the Liberator of southern South America.

A. Like northern South America, the region around the La Plata was on the periphery of the Spanish Empire.

    1. From northern South America, Bolívar would descend on Peru with his forces.
    2. From southern South America, San Martín would ascend with his forces in a great pincers movement on Spain’s colonial center.
    3. The fall of Peru, the wealthy viceregal capital, would mark the completion of the liberation of Spain’s South American colonies.
    4. This outline focuses on the process of independence in Argentina (and Uruguay) and the figure of San Martín.

B. San Martín’s early years somewhat paralleled those of Miranda and could not be more different than the easy early life of Bolívar.

    1. San Martín was born in 1778 in the interior of Argentina, the son of a Spanish army officer.
    2. At the age of 7, he returned to Spain and began a military career at age 11, eventually rising to lieutenant colonel.

C. At this moment, San Martín experienced a conversion to the cause of Spanish American independence, a conversion we know little about.

    1. In September 1811, after 22 years in the army and having lived most of his life in Spain, San Martín deserted the Spanish army and, with the help of the British, arrived in London in December.
    2. At the old home of Miranda, now occupied by Bolívar’s Venezuelan friend Andrés Bello, he met other rebels in exile.

The nature of the independence movement in Argentina owed a great deal to its geographical position and late development as a colony.

A. For most of the colonial era, the La Plata basin was one of the backwaters of the empire.

    1. On the periphery of the viceroyalty of Peru, the pampas became a breeding ground for cattle and mules, and Buenos Aires was a small center for smuggling.
    2. In 1776, Spain created the viceroyalty of La Plata, and Buenos Aires grew to a thriving port, with some 40,000–50,000 inhabitants by 1800.
    3. Along with Venezuela, Buenos Aires was one of the early leaders in the break from Spanish rule.

B. Two British invasions triggered the struggle for independence.

    1. In 1806, Sir Home Popham and Colonel William Beresford took control of Buenos Aires.
    2. A second invasion in February 1807 was repelled under the leadership of Liniers.
    3. Although the Spanish king soon stamped the move with his approval, the powerful and wealthy local elites on both sides of the La Plata acted on their own.
    4. Spaniards were now fighting Spaniards for control of the colony and undermining royal authority in the process.

The process of Argentine independence, and its early years of nationhood, was shaped by a struggle between Buenos Aires and the provinces of the interior.

A. In May 1810, local notables formed a junta that marked a turning point in the move to independence.

    1. In August 1809, the junta in Seville had sent out a new viceroy, Baltasar Cisneros, to take over from Liniers.
    2. When notables called for a cabildo abierto, or “open town meeting,” in May 1810, they seized and deported Cisneros and claimed governing authority in the name of the captive Fernando VII.
    3. Although the junta did not declare independence, in Argentine history, the “Revolution of May 1810” is celebrated as the moment of national independence.

B. A series of committees and individual rulers struggled to assert control over the powerful leaders of the provinces of the interior.

    1. The leaders of the first junta were an odd mix of politicians.
    2. The so-called unitarians called for a strong centralized government, while federalists argued for a loose confederation of provinces.
    3. In March 1812, San Martín and a number of Argentines returned from England.
    4. San Martín had become a powerful figure and the moving force behind a coup in October 1812 that overthrew the junta.

C. While the struggle between Buenos Aires and the interior provinces continued to hold back the completion of the war for independence in Argentina, the people of the eastern shore of the La Plata moved to achieve independence from both Spain and Buenos Aires.

    1. The major figure in the struggle for Uruguayan independence was José Gervasio Artigas.
    2. As the chief of the easterners, he led an independence struggle with greater and more broad-based participation by the masses than perhaps anywhere else in the Americas, save Haiti.
    3. Uruguay would not achieve its independence until 1828, after a long struggle between the government in Buenos Aires and the new Brazilian nation.

D. In the midst of this battle over centralism versus federalism, San Martín secured an appointment in the northern province of Cuyo; he would spend nearly eight years preparing and carrying out his plan to liberate all of southern South America.

    1. From 1814–1817, while political leaders fought over control of the “nation,” San Martín recruited and trained an army.
    2. He recruited Chileans fleeing Spanish forces, in particular, the future hero of Chilean independence, Bernardo O’Higgins.
    3. His march across the Andes would be one of the most dramatic moves in the epic of Latin American independence.

Return to The Age of Revolution in the Americas

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