William R. Shepherd.

Hispanic Nations of the New World; a chronicle of our southern neighbors online

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Produced by The James J. Kelly Library Of St. Gregory's
University, Dianne Bean, Joseph Buersmeyer, and Alev Akman



By William R. Shepherd

New Haven: Yale University Press

Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Co.

London: Humphrey Milford

Oxford University Press


















At the time of the American Revolution most of the New World still
belonged to Spain and Portugal, whose captains and conquerors had
been the first to come to its shores. Spain had the lion's share, but
Portugal held Brazil, in itself a vast land of unsuspected resources.
No empire mankind had ever yet known rivaled in size the illimitable
domains of Spain and Portugal in the New World; and none displayed such
remarkable contrasts in land and people. Boundless plains and forests,
swamps and deserts, mighty mountain chains, torrential streams and
majestic rivers, marked the surface of the country. This vast territory
stretched from the temperate prairies west of the Mississippi down to
the steaming lowlands of Central America, then up through tablelands in
the southern continent to high plateaus, miles above sea level, where
the sun blazed and the cold, dry air was hard to breathe, and then
higher still to the lofty peaks of the Andes, clad in eternal snow or
pouring fire and smoke from their summits in the clouds, and thence to
the lower temperate valleys, grassy pampas, and undulating hills of the
far south.

Scattered over these vast colonial domains in the Western World were
somewhere between 12,000,000 and 19,000,000 people subject to Spain, and
perhaps 3,000,000, to Portugal; the great majority of them were Indians
and negroes, the latter predominating in the lands bordering on the
Caribbean Sea and along the shores of Brazil. Possibly one-fourth of
the inhabitants came of European stock, including not only Spaniards and
their descendants but also the folk who spoke English in the Floridas
and French in Louisiana.

During the centuries which had elapsed since the entry of the Spaniards
and Portuguese into these regions an extraordinary fusion of races had
taken place. White, red, and black had mingled to such an extent that
the bulk of the settled population became half-caste. Only in the more
temperate regions of the far north and south, where the aborigines were
comparatively few or had disappeared altogether, did the whites remain
racially distinct. Socially the Indian and the negro counted for little.
They constituted the laboring class on whom all the burdens fell and for
whom advantages in the body politic were scant. Legally the Indian under
Spanish rule stood on a footing of equality with his white fellows,
and many a gifted native came to be reckoned a force in the community,
though his social position remained a subordinate one. Most of the
negroes were slaves and were more kindly treated by the Spaniards than
by the Portuguese.

Though divided among themselves, the Europeans were everywhere
politically dominant. The Spaniard was always an individualist. Besides,
he often brought from the Old World petty provincial traditions which
were intensified in the New. The inhabitants of towns, many of which had
been founded quite independently of one another, knew little about their
remote neighbors and often were quite willing to convert their ignorance
into prejudice: The dweller in the uplands and the resident on the coast
were wont to view each other with disfavor. The one was thought heavy
and stupid, the other frivolous and lazy. Native Spaniards regarded the
Creoles, or American born, as persons who had degenerated more or less
by their contact with the aborigines and the wilderness. For their part,
the Creoles looked upon the Spaniards as upstarts and intruders, whose
sole claim to consideration lay in the privileges dispensed them by the
home government. In testimony of this attitude they coined for their
oversea kindred numerous nicknames which were more expressive than
complimentary. While the Creoles held most of the wealth and of the
lower offices, the Spaniards enjoyed the perquisites and emoluments of
the higher posts.

Though objects of disdain to both these masters, the Indians generally
preferred the Spaniard to the Creole. The Spaniard represented a distant
authority interested in the welfare of its humbler subjects and came
less into actual daily contact with the natives. While it would hardly
be correct to say that the Spaniard was viewed as a protector and the
Creole as an oppressor, yet the aborigines unconsciously made some
such hazy distinction if indeed they did not view all Europeans with
suspicion and dislike. In Brazil the relation of classes was much the
same, except that here the native element was much less conspicuous as a
social factor.

These distinctions were all the more accentuated by the absence both
of other European peoples and of a definite middle class of any race.
Everywhere in the areas tenanted originally by Spaniards and Portuguese
the European of alien stock was unwelcome, even though he obtained a
grudging permission from the home governments to remain a colonist. In
Brazil, owing to the close commercial connections between Great Britain
and Portugal, foreigners were not so rigidly excluded as in Spanish
America. The Spaniard was unwilling that lands so rich in natural
treasures should be thrown open to exploitation by others, even if the
newcomer professed the Catholic faith. The heretic was denied admission
as a matter of course. Had the foreigner been allowed to enter, the risk
of such exploitation doubtless would have been increased, but a middle
class might have arisen to weld the the discordant factions into a
society which had common desires and aspirations. With the development
of commerce and industry, with the growth of activities which bring
men into touch with each other in everyday affairs, something like a
solidarity of sentiment might have been awakened. In its absence the
only bond among the dominant whites was their sense of superiority to
the colored masses beneath them.

Manual labor and trade had never attracted the Spaniards and the
Portuguese. The army, the church, and the law were the three callings
that offered the greatest opportunity for distinction. Agriculture,
grazing, and mining they did not disdain, provided that superintendence
and not actual work was the main requisite. The economic organization
which the Spaniards and Portuguese established in America was naturally
a more or less faithful reproduction of that to which they had
been accustomed at home. Agriculture and grazing became the chief
occupations. Domestic animals and many kinds of plants brought from
Europe throve wonderfully in their new home. Huge estates were the rule;
small farms, the exception. On the ranches and plantations vast droves
of cattle, sheep, and horses were raised, as well as immense crops.
Mining, once so much in vogue, had become an occupation of secondary

On their estates the planter, the ranchman, and the mine owner lived
like feudal overlords, waited upon by Indian and negro peasants who also
tilled the fields, tended the droves, and dug the earth for precious
metals and stones. Originally the natives had been forced to work under
conditions approximating actual servitude, but gradually the harsher
features of this system had given way to a mode of service closely
resembling peonage. Paid a pitifully small wage, provided with a hut of
reeds or sundried mud and a tiny patch of soil on which to grow a
few hills of the corn and beans that were his usual nourishment, the
ordinary Indian or half-caste laborer was scarcely more than a beast of
burden, a creature in whom civic virtues of a high order were not likely
to develop. If he betook himself to the town his possible usefulness
lessened in proportion as he fell into drunken or dissolute habits, or
lapsed into a state of lazy and vacuous dreaminess, enlivened only by
chatter or the rolling of a cigarette. On the other hand, when employed
in a capacity where native talent might be tested, he often revealed a
power of action which, if properly guided, could be turned to excellent
account. As a cowboy, for example, he became a capital horseman, brave,
alert, skillful, and daring.

Commerce with Portugal and Spain was long confined to yearly fairs and
occasional trading fleets that plied between fixed points. But when
liberal decrees threw open numerous ports in the mother countries
to traffic and the several colonies were given also the privilege of
exchanging their products among themselves, the volume of exports
and imports increased and gave an impetus to activity which brought a
notable release from the torpor and vegetation characterizing earlier
days. Yet, even so, communication was difficult and irregular. By sea
the distances were great and the vessels slow. Overland the natural
obstacles to transportation were so numerous and the methods of
conveyance so cumbersome and expensive that the people of one province
were practically strangers to their neighbors.

Matters of the mind and of the soul were under the guardianship of the
Church. More than merely a spiritual mentor, it controlled education and
determined in large measure the course of intellectual life. Possessed
of vast wealth in lands and revenues, its monasteries and priories, its
hospitals and asylums, its residences of ecclesiastics, were the finest
buildings in every community, adorned with the masterpieces of sculptors
and painters. A village might boast of only a few squalid huts, yet
there in the "plaza," or central square, loomed up a massively imposing
edifice of worship, its towers pointing heavenward, the sign and symbol
of triumphant power.

The Church, in fact, was the greatest civilizing agency that Spain
and Portugal had at their disposal. It inculcated a reverence for
the monarch and his ministers and fostered a deep-rooted sentiment of
conservatism which made disloyalty and innovation almost sacrilegious.
In the Spanish colonies in particular the Church not only protected the
natives against the rapacity of many a white master but taught them the
rudiments of the Christian faith, as well as useful arts and trades. In
remote places, secluded so far as possible from contact with Europeans,
missionary pioneers gathered together groups of neophytes whom they
rendered docile and industrious, it is true, but whom they often
deprived of initiative and selfreliance and kept illiterate and

Education was reserved commonly for members of the ruling class.
As imparted in the universities and schools, it savored strongly of
medievalism. Though some attention was devoted to the natural sciences,
experimental methods were not encouraged and found no place in lectures
and textbooks. Books, periodicals, and other publications came under
ecclesiastical inspection, and a vigilant censorship determined what was
fit for the public to read.

Supreme over all the colonial domains was the government of their
majesties, the monarchs of Spain and Portugal. A ministry and a council
managed the affairs of the inhabitants of America and guarded their
destinies in accordance with the theories of enlightened despotism
then prevailing in Europe. The Spanish dominions were divided into
viceroyalties and subdivided into captaincies general, presidencies,
and intendancies. Associated with the high officials who ruled them were
audiencias, or boards, which were at once judicial and administrative.
Below these individuals and bodies were a host of lesser functionaries
who, like their superiors, held their posts by appointment. In Brazil
the governor general bore the title of viceroy and carried on the
administration assisted by provincial captains, supreme courts, and
local officers.

This control was by no means so autocratic as it might seem. Portugal
had too many interests elsewhere, and was too feeble besides, to keep
tight rein over a territory so vast and a population so much inclined
as the Brazilian to form itself into provincial units, jealous of the
central authority. Spain, on its part, had always practised the good old
Roman rule of "divide and govern." Its policy was to hold the balance
among officials, civil and ecclesiastical, and inhabitants, white and
colored. It knew how strongly individualistic the Spaniard was and
realized the full force of the adage, "I obey, but I do not fulfill!"
Legislatures and other agencies of government directly representative of
the people did not exist in Spanish or Portuguese America. The Spanish
cabildo, or town council, however, afforded an opportunity for the
expression of the popular will and often proved intractable. Its
membership was appointive, elective, hereditary, and even purchasable,
but the form did not affect the substance. The Spanish Americans had
an instinct for politics. "Here all men govern," declared one of the
viceroys; "the people have more part in political discussions than in
any other provinces in the world; a council of war sits in every house."


The movement which led eventually to the emancipation of the colonies
differed from the local uprisings which occurred in various parts
of South America during the eighteenth century. Either the arbitrary
conduct of individual governors or excessive taxation had caused the
earlier revolts. To the final revolution foreign nations and foreign
ideas gave the necessary impulse. A few members of the intellectual
class had read in secret the writings of French and English
philosophers. Others had traveled abroad and came home to whisper to
their countrymen what they had seen and heard in lands more progressive
than Spain and Portugal. The commercial relations, both licit and
illicit, which Great Britain had maintained with several of the colonies
had served to diffuse among them some notions of what went on in the
busy world outside.

By gaining its independence, the United States had set a practical
example of what might be done elsewhere in America. Translated into
French, the Declaration of Independence was read and commented upon by
enthusiasts who dreamed of the possibility of applying its principles
in their own lands. More powerful still were the ideas liberated by the
French Revolution and Napoleon. Borne across the ocean, the doctrines of
"Liberty, Fraternity, Equality" stirred the ardent-minded to thoughts
of action, though the Spanish and Portuguese Americans who schemed
and plotted were the merest handful. The seed they planted was slow to
germinate among peoples who had been taught to regard things foreign as
outlandish and heretical. Many years therefore elapsed before the ideas
of the few became the convictions of the masses, for the conservatism
and loyalty of the common people were unbelieveably steadfast.

Not Spanish and Portuguese America, but Santo Domingo, an island which
had been under French rule since 1795 and which was tenanted chiefly
by ignorant and brutalized negro slaves, was the scene of the first
effectual assertion of independence in the lands originally colonized
by Spain. Rising in revolt against their masters, the negroes had
won complete control under their remarkable commander, Toussaint
L'Ouverture, when Napoleon Bonaparte, then First Consul, decided to
restore the old regime. But the huge expedition which was sent to reduce
the island ended in absolute failure. After a ruthless racial warfare,
characterized by ferocity on both sides, the French retired. In 1804 the
negro leaders proclaimed the independence of the island as the "Republic
of Haiti," under a President who, appreciative of the example just set
by Napoleon, informed his followers that he too had assumed the august
title of "Emperor"! His immediate successor in African royalty was the
notorious Henri Christophe, who gathered about him a nobility garish
in color and taste - including their sable lordships, the "Duke of
Marmalade" and the "Count of Lemonade"; and who built the palace of
"Sans Souci" and the countryseats of "Queen's Delight" and "King's
Beautiful View," about which cluster tales of barbaric pleasure that
rival the grim legends clinging to the parapets and enshrouding the
dungeons of his mountain fortress of "La Ferriere." None of these black
or mulatto potentates, however, could expel French authority from
the eastern part of Santo Domingo. That task was taken in hand by the
inhabitants themselves, and in 1809 they succeeded in restoring the
control of Spain. Meanwhile events which had been occurring in South
America prepared the way for the movement that was ultimately to banish
the flags of both Spain and Portugal from the continents of the New
World. As the one country had fallen more or less tinder the influence
of France, so the other had become practically dependent upon Great
Britain. Interested in the expansion of its commerce and viewing the
outlying possessions of peoples who submitted to French guidance as
legitimate objects for seizure, Great Britain in 1797 wrested Trinidad
from the feeble grip of Spain and thus acquired a strategic position
very near South America itself. Haiti, Trinidad, and Jamaica, in fact,
all became Centers of revolutionary agitation and havens of refuge for.
Spanish American radicals in the troublous years to follow.

Foremost among the early conspirators was the Venezuelan, Francisco
de Miranda, known to his fellow Americans of Spanish stock as the
"Precursor." Napoleon once remarked of him: "He is a Don Quixote, with
this difference - he is not crazy.... The man has sacred fire in his
soul." An officer in the armies of Spain and of revolutionary France
and later a resident of London, Miranda devoted thirty years of his
adventurous life to the cause of independence for his countrymen. With
officials of the British Government he labored long and zealously,
eliciting from them vague promises of armed support and some financial
aid. It was in London, also, that he organized a group of sympathizers
into the secret society called the "Grand Lodge of America." With it,
or with its branches in France and Spain, many of the leaders of the
subsequent revolution came to be identified.

In 1806, availing himself of the negligence of the United States and
having the connivance of the British authorities in Trinidad, Miranda
headed two expeditions to the coast of Venezuela. He had hoped that his
appearance would be the signal for a general uprising; instead, he was
treated with indifference. His countrymen seemed to regard him as a tool
of Great Britain, and no one felt disposed to accept the blessings
of liberty under that guise. Humiliated, but not despairing, Miranda
returned to London to await a happier day.

Two British expeditions which attempted to conquer the region about
the Rio de la Plata in 1806 and 1807 were also frustrated by this
same stubborn loyalty. When the Spanish viceroy fled, the inhabitants
themselves rallied to the defense of the country and drove out the
invaders. Thereupon the people of Buenos Aires, assembled in cabildo
abierto, or town meeting, deposed the viceroy and chose their victorious
leader in his stead until a successor could be regularly appointed.

Then, in 1808, fell the blow which was to shatter the bonds uniting
Spain to its continental dominions in America. The discord and
corruption which prevailed in that unfortunate country afforded
Napoleon an opportunity to oust its feeble king and his incompetent son,
Ferdinand, and to place Joseph Bonaparte on the throne. But the master
of Europe underestimated the fighting ability of Spaniards. Instead of
humbly complying with his mandate, they rose in arms against the usurper
and created a central junta, or revolutionary committee, to govern in
the name of Ferdinand VII, as their rightful ruler.

The news of this French aggression aroused in the colonies a spirit of
resistance as vehement as that in the mother country. Both Spaniards and
Creoles repudiated the "intruder king." Believing, as did their comrades
oversea, that Ferdinand was a helpless victim in the hands of Napoleon,
they recognized the revolutionary government and sent great sums of
money to Spain to aid in the struggle against the French. Envoys from
Joseph Bonaparte seeking an acknowledgment of his rule were angrily
rejected and were forced to leave.

The situation on both sides of the ocean was now an extraordinary
one. Just as the junta in Spain had no legal right to govern, so the
officials in the colonies, holding their posts by appointment from a
deposed king, had no legal authority, and the people would not allow
them to accept new commissions from a usurper. The Church, too,
detesting Napoleon as the heir of a revolution that had undermined the
Catholic faith and regarding him as a godless despot who had made
the Pope a captive, refused to recognize the French pretender. Until
Ferdinand VII could be restored to his throne, therefore, the colonists
had to choose whether they would carry on the administration under
the guidance of the self-constituted authorities in Spain, or should
themselves create similar organizations in each of the colonies to take
charge of affairs. The former course was favored by the official element
and its supporters among the conservative classes, the latter by the
liberals, who felt that they had as much right as the people of the
mother country to choose the form of government best suited to their

Each party viewed the other with distrust. Opposition to the more
democratic procedure, it was felt, could mean nothing less than
secret submission to the pretensions of Joseph Bonaparte; whereas the
establishment in America of any organizations like those in Spain surely
indicated a spirit of disloyalty toward Ferdinand VII himself. Under
circumstances like these, when the junta and its successor, the council
of regency, refused to make substantial concessions to the colonies,
both parties were inevitably drifting toward independence. In the phrase
of Manuel Belgrano, one of the great leaders in the viceroyalty of La
Plata, "our old King or none" became the watchword that gradually shaped
the thoughts of Spanish Americans.

When, therefore, in 1810, the news came that the French army had overrun
Spain, democratic ideas so long cherished in secret and propagated so
industriously by Miranda and his followers at last found expression in
a series of uprisings in the four viceroyalties of La Plata, Peru,
New Granada, and New Spain. But in each of these viceroyalties the
revolution ran a different course. Sometimes it was the capital
city that led off; sometimes a provincial town; sometimes a group of
individuals in the country districts. Among the actual participants
in the various movements very little harmony was to be found. Here
a particular leader claimed obedience; there a board of self-chosen
magistrates held sway; elsewhere a town or province refused to
acknowledge the central authority. To add to these complications, in
1812, a revolutionary Cortes, or legislative body, assembled at Cadiz,
adopted for Spain and its dominions a constitution providing for
direct representation of the colonies in oversea administration. Since
arrangements of this sort contented many of the Spanish Americans who
had protested against existing abuses, they were quite unwilling to
press their grievances further. Given all these evidences of division
in activity and counsel, one does not find it difficult to foresee the

On May 25, 1810, popular agitation at Buenos Aires forced the Spanish
viceroy of La Plata to resign. The central authority was thereupon
vested in an elected junta that was to govern in the name of Ferdinand
VII. Opposition broke out immediately. The northern and eastern parts
of the viceroyalty showed themselves quite unwilling to obey these
upstarts. Meantime, urged on by radicals who revived the Jacobin

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Online LibraryWilliam R. ShepherdHispanic Nations of the New World; a chronicle of our southern neighbors → online text (page 1 of 12)