The Latin American wars for independence were perhaps the most important series of events that occurred on the American continent during the early part of the 19th century. From around 1810 to the 1820s, the dominance of Spain over much of the continent was broken, and many new republican states were created.

The enormous extension of the territory dominated by Spain led to the formation of many autonomous territories that approached the independence question in different ways, each one with their own kinds of social struggles, cultural identities, political complexities and economic structures.

In this series of articles, we will approach the independence wars in the northern part of South America, in the territory that would become the Republic of Colombia. We will look through the reasons that this specific land had for independence, and the many different events that led to the final formation of the new republican state.

Guillermo Morales explains.

 Pedro Messia de la Cerda, Viceroy of New Granada from 1761 to 1773.

Pedro Messia de la Cerda, Viceroy of New Granada from 1761 to 1773.

The Spanish Empire

To understand the series of events that resulted in the independence struggle, first it is important to understand the political, social and economic structures that existed in the region when it was a colony of the Spanish Empire.

The territory that would later become Colombia, in those times was known as the ‘Nuevo Reino de Granada’ (New Kingdom of Granada). After the Spanish conquest over the many native kingdoms that existed in the region, they established a governorship that was dependent on the viceroyalty of Peru. But in 1717, King Phillip V decided to create a new viceroyalty aside from the already existing ones in Mexico and Peru, so their American colonies, and the multiple riches in them, could be better administered. The viceroyalty of Nueva Granada existed at first from 1717 to 1723, when it was temporally abolished, but it was reinstated in 1739.

The viceroyalty was governed by a viceroy designated directly by the king. He was usually a military commander born in the Spanish peninsula, and who usually had never lived on the land he was to rule.  Alongside the viceroy a court body called the ‘Real Audiencia’ (Royal Audience) governed over the colony. Their members were called the ‘oidores’ (hearers) and their function was to apply the law of the kingdom over the viceroyalty.

The government was based in the city of Santa Fe de Bogota, high on the Andean mountains, in the center of what used to be the kingdom of the Muisca. The city was located near the center of the viceroyalty, and access to it was usually difficult. From the Caribbean coast travelers had to navigate through the broad Magdalena River, which went through dense jungles, and from there, ascend to the mountains on mules, horses or ‘silleteros’ (natives who carried chairs on their backs for travelers to sit on).

Another important city in the viceroyalty was the walled city of Cartagena, which was located along the Caribbean coast, and was one of the main ports in the American colonies, being a place where merchants sent gold, silver and jewels to Spain, or received slaves for the haciendas and mines in the colony. Also on the Caribbean coast was the port of Santa Marta, the oldest city in the colony. Down the Magdalena River were the river ports of Mompox and Honda, and located on the Andean cordilleras were the cities of Ocaña, Pamplona, Cucuta, Socorro, Tunja, Popayan, Cali and Pasto. There was also the port of Buenaventura on the Pacific coast. On the east of the Andean cordillera there were the so called ‘llanos orientales’ (eastern plains), an enormous extension of plains that were mostly uninhabited, with the exception of natives, ranchers called ‘llaneros’ (plain men), and missionaries trying to convert the natives to Catholicism.

Officially the territory of the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada comprised what now are the countries of Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, but the latter territories had a large degree of autonomy. Venezuela, with its capital in the city of Caracas, was governed by a Captain General designated by the king, so the region was named the ‘Capitania General de Venezuela’. Ecuador (which was known then as Quito, the same name as its capital city), had their own Audiencia, with its president as the main authority over the territory, so for this reason this region was known as the ‘Presidencia de Quito’.


Structure of Society

The Spanish conquerors, facing the enormous diversity found in the colony (white Europeans, native Americans, black slaves and people of mixed origins), built a heavily structured social pyramid based on the so called ‘pureza de sangre’ (blood purity). This system came from the times of the Spanish ‘Reconquista’ when the European Spaniards were at war with the Muslim ‘moors’ on the Iberian Peninsula. When they had control of all of the peninsula, they tried to differentiate themselves from the Muslim and Jewish people that still lived there, and also from the ones who converted to Catholicism, called ‘conversos’, who were mistrusted. They brought the same idea to the American colonies, but now differentiated the white Europeans from the Native Americans and the African slaves.

For this reason, the Spanish designated different names and scales of ‘mestizaje’ (mixed-blood), given that the conquistadors had a lot of children with the natives and the African slaves. For example, the child of a Spaniard and a native would be a ‘mestizo’, the child of a Spaniard and an African would be a ‘mulatto’, the child of an native and an African would be a ‘zambo’, the child of a mestizo and a Spaniard would be a ‘castizo’, the child of a mestizo and a native a ‘cholo’, and so on.

Usually the white Europeans represented the higher aristocratic class, while the mixed people and the natives represented a lower class, and the Africans were relegated to the lowest slave class. This was translated in the design of the cities, with the higher class living near the city main square, and the rest living in the outskirts of the city.

The race based system was used by the authorities to determine who was allowed in certain political, military or religious posts; whose children were allowed to enter in the important schools of the colonies; or who could buy an aristocratic title. For this, meticulous investigations over people’s lineage were made, so it could be determined that there was no ‘mala sangre’ (bad blood) in them. Because of this, many paid to erase any undesirable bad blood from their family trees.

The sole fact of being born on the colonies and not on the Spanish peninsula could reduce someone’s status. The criollos (white people who were descendants from Spaniards, but were born in the ‘Indies’), normally shared the same privileges as the peninsular whites, but they were not the preferred option for higher political posts, like oidor of the Real Audiencia, or viceroy. If they went to the Peninsula, they were treated as less than the Spanish-born whites, and called the disdainful title ‘manchado de la tierra’ (stained by the land).

But life was worse for mixed people, Africans, and natives. Native numbers were severely reduced after the ‘Conquista’ because of the brutality of the war, the introduced diseases and the forced labor that they had to do for the Spanish.  Still, the Spanish Crown tried to protect them from total annihilation, passing laws that forced the conquistadors not to mistreat them, and giving them some land, called ‘Resguardos’. Their towns were separated from the European cities, and were called ‘pueblos de indios’.

Black Africans had it even worse. As they were slaves, they were forced into brutal conditions on the mines or the haciendas. Many Spaniards considered the Africans to have no soul, so they were basically on the same level as animals, although some at least tried to give their slaves the chance to hear Mass. Some ran away from their owners, and managed to build settlements deep in the jungle, the so called ‘Palenques’, that were so distant from the European settlements, that in the end the Spanish authorities decided to leave them alone.

All this social and ethnic division led to severe tension between the different classes. For instance, the Criollos were upset that the natives were allowed to abandon the haciendas to move to the ‘Resguardos’, reducing the available workforce. Natives and Africans also mistrusted criollos, as they felt that any demand they made to the crown would be to worsen their own living conditions. This is why, later during the independence movement, some natives and Africans, disdainfully called ‘pardos’ (browns) by the whites, preferred to side with the crown. Even so, Spaniards were also severely mistrusted by the general population, who mockingly called them ‘chapetones’.


Decline of Spanish Rule

The increasing racial and social tensions, combined with the misinformed policies of the Spanish ‘Metropoli’ (the name given to the center of government), led to a path that ended in the independence wars. One of the policies was that manufactured goods were only to be produced on the Spanish peninsula, while the colonies produced raw materials that could only be sold to Spain, and not any other country. While this worked quite well in places like Peru (which was a major producer of silver), in Nueva Granada it was problematic, as there weren’t many mines for precious metal production, and the ones that existed, were located in places like the jungles of the Choco on the Pacific coast, which were far away from the major cities.

Because of this, the general population, being far away from the main economic activities of the colony, began to fall into poverty. The workers in the mines, being slaves or natives, essentially received no compensation for their work. Little wealth was produced, and when wealth was created, it was concentrated in Criollo and Spaniard aristocratic hands.

Spain established itself as the sole producer of manufactured goods for the colonies, blocking all commerce with other countries, and in general forbid the colonies from creating their own industries. Most people were unable to buy to expensive products brought from Spain, so a working class, called the ‘artesanos’ (craftsmen), supplied the general populace with products like clothing and furniture. Even so, they couldn’t create a colony based industry, as they mostly worked in an informal economy that usually was heavily restricted or even repressed by the colonial authorities.

This fragile economic system was very susceptible to any new policy implemented by Spain, like new taxes. This meant that the situation in the colonies by the end of the 18th century was very far from being stable, and that a collapse of Spanish authority would come sooner rather than later.


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