Early Independence from Spain

Between 1808 and 1831, a long series of uprisings and independence movements culminated in the creation of independent republics throughout the New World. French occupation of Spain by Napoleon Bonaparte sparked the beginning of a period of unrest, leading to the eventual dissolution of Spanish monarchical rule in the Western Hemisphere. While documents from New Spain in 1808 reflect the initial rejection of Bonapartist rule and their loyalty to the Spanish crown, those from the 1820s illustrate efforts to enlist popular sectors – especially pardos (free people of color) and indigenous populations – to gain independence from Spain. Similar documents from the First Republic of Colombia (modern Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela) document relations between leading government officials as they tried to form a legitimate independent new republic. Through various letters and government documents, this exhibit discusses how modern Latin America emerged, through multiple transfers of power and the dissolution of imperial rule. It also discusses how historical actors saw independence during this time and how independence was remembered and commemorated in the late 19th century.

An eagle wearing a crown sits at the top of the page, a seal representing the monarchy which the Mexican insurgency is hoping to overthrow. This letter was written in 1813 by José Sotero de Castañeda, a Mexican insurgent during the Mexican War of Independence. He highlights the growing tide towards abolition in Spanish America during the early nineteenth century, a period characterized by an urgency for independence. This letter urging José María Morelos, a rebel leader, to abolish slavery in Chilpancingo, suggests that Mexicans were far more willing to move forward with abolition compared to other nations in the region, partly for selfish reasons. Abolition would mean free slaves could serve as soldiers in war, revealing the complexities behind the emancipation of slaves and race relations in early Latin American history.

"Demonstrations of fidelity of the City of Mérida de Yucatán," title page

Fidelity Demonstrations of the City of Mérida in Yucatán is a concise, organized expression of Mexican loyalty to the Spanish crown, divided into three main sections and printed on yellowed parchment. The document was created in 1809, and it illustrates Mexico’s unity as a region through their widespread resistance to the French occupation of Yucatán. It is a part of the “Arrigunaga Family Collection of Yucatecan Broadsides and Manuscripts,” a larger work relating to the complex governmental tension present throughout the early nineteenth century. The demonstration of fidelity serves to contextualize the widespread rejection of Napoleon Bonaparte’s attempts to establish power in New Spain and the revived support of Spanish King Ferdinand; events that sparked the disorder that led to Mexico’s eventual sovereignty. This nationalism was largely evident in the politics of this time period as a whole, with the growing significance of town meetings and elections showcasing the formation of early Mexican identity.

"On the weight and standard of gold and silver," page 1

This official document, printed on faded, yellow parchment with a handwritten note from 1821 was an official decree of the Republic of Colombia. Remembered as Gran Colombia by historians, this republic was among the first to declare independence from Spain, and claimed to rule the territories now recognized as Colombia, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador. This document seeks to enforce the circulation of the 1821 Constitution of Colombia and includes precise rules for the enforcement of its laws. The strict authority expressed in the rules of the document was expected, as this was a time of great political unrest. Despite the commanding language of this text, Gran Colombia proved to be unstable, only lasting for 12 years due to differing opinions of governing officials. Many of the officials involved in Gran Colombia’s eventual dissolution signed this document, most notably Carlos Soublette, who would later become the president of Venezuela in 1837.

"Memoirs of General Rafael Urdaneta," title page

Memories of General Rafael Urdaneta is an extremely complex and all-encompassing autobiography that details the life of Rafael Urdaneta, a Venezuelan General who fought alongside Simon Bolivar for the country’s independence (1810-1819). Urdaneta’s autobiography recounts his life as a war general during Venezuela’s independence and his role in early political conflicts in Venezuela through the 1840s. The writings in the autobiography originated as a collection of notes Urdaneta had written throughout his life that culminated into this memoir. He never published this account during his lifetime, however. His sons collected Urdaneta’s notes and published the them posthumously in Caracas, Venezuela in 1888, 100 years after Urdaneta was born. By 1888, Venezuela had finally achieved some political stability and the publishing of Urdaneta’s biography during this time gives a nod to one of the country’s most significant leaders during it’s fight for independence.

"Letter from the Indians of Tontonapeque to the Mexican Thinker," page 1

The stained pages of a small booklet from 1820 show a letter sent to Jose Joaquin Fernandez the “Mexican Thinker”, claiming to be from an indigenous community. Fernandez invented this indigenous community. He tried to appeal to a non-indigenous elite audience by writing in broken Spanish, revealing more about white elite expectations and prejudices about indigenous people the thoughts of indigenous people themselves.The letter reinforces the romantic stereotype of the savage where they are victimized by the Spaniards but still uncivilized, subject to outside help. They reject the cruel Spanish rule and address their concerns in the face of their subjugation and lack of rights over their land. Since this document was published by an educated white person, his perspectives on the indigenous people were heard by peoples from his social circle. The extent to which his words actually helped indigenous peoples further their interests among elite whites is a question worth exploring.

"General Meeting Celebrated in Mexico," title page

Old, stable and surprisingly resistant ... very similar to the Spanish empire of early 19th century Then Napoleon took over Spain in 1808— France He sneezed and the Spanish empire caught a cold. Viceroy José de Iturrigaray declared his loyalty to the overthrown Bourbon king Ferdinand VII. He believed that Fernando VII was the legitimate ruler of the Spanish Empire. But their actions in August 1808, recorded in this document, marked the first time that the Spanish colonies separated from their rulers in the homeland. Although this document does not declare the independence of Spain, it cuts off the relationship between the new Bonapartist rulers of Spain and the rulers of the Spanish colonies, who were loyal to Fernando. But that loyalty did not last. In twenty years, since the publication of the document, New Spain was independent. It marked the beginning of the end for New Spain and a new beginning for the New World.