Developments Leading to Independence

Developments Leading to Independence

Throughout the colonial period, events in Spain affected the political, economic, and intellectual state of the colonies. One such event was the ascension of the Bourbons to the Spanish throne in 1700. Upon the death of Charles II--the last in the line of the Spanish Hapsburgs--the Austrian Hapsburgs and Charles's nephew Philip of Anjou, a Bourbon and the grandson of French king Louis XIV as well the designated heir to the Spanish throne, contended for the Spanish throne. The War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14) ended in the triumph of the Bourbons over the Austrians, and the Treaty of Utrecht recognized the Bourbon succession in Spain on the condition that Spain and France would never be united under one crown.

Beginning with Philip of Anjou, now known as King Philip V (reigned 1700-46), the Bourbon kings placed themselves in more direct control of their colonies, reducing the power of the Supreme Council of the Indies and abolishing the House of Trade. In 1717 Philip V established the Viceroyalty of New Granada (present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador), and in 1739 Bogotá became its capital. Other Bourbon kings, particularly Charles III (reigned 1759-88), tried to improve the profitability of the American colonies by removing restrictions that had hindered Spain's economic development in the 1500s and 1600s. Such measures included the liberalization of commerce with the colonies and the establishment of additional authorized ports. In 1774 the crown allowed free exchange among the colonies of Peru, New Spain, New Granada, and Guatemala. These reforms allowed the crown control over the de facto trade among the colonies that previously had been illicit. When Charles III declared war on Britain in 1778, he levied taxes on the colonies to fund the war. These fiscal decrees affected imports and exports, the sale of general items--especially tobacco and alcohol--and the production of silver and gold. The crown demanded tribute from Indians and the church and expected the general population to fund the naval fleet that patrolled the Spanish American coast. Excessive and increasing taxation in the late 1700s contributed to the discontent of the criollos with the Spanish administration, which manifested itself in the Comunero Revolt of 1781, the most serious revolt against Spanish authority before the war for independence. The rebellion was a spontaneous but diffuse movement involving many towns. The most important uprising began among artisans and peasants in Socorro (in presentday Santander Department). The imposition of new taxes by the viceroy stimulated the revolt further.

Almost without exception, the rebels expressed their loyalty to the king and the church while calling for a repeal of new taxes and a modification of government monopolies. The rebels succeeded in getting government representatives to abolish the war tax, taxes for the maintenance of the fleet, customhouse permits, and tobacco and playing-card monopolies; to reduce the tribute paid by the Indians and the taxes on liquor, commercial transactions, and salt; and to give preference to those born in the New World for appointments to certain posts. Later, however, government negotiators declared that they had acted under duress and that the viceroy would not honor the agreements. The leaders of the rebellion were subjected to severe punishments, including death for the more prominent among them. The rebels had not sought independence from Spain, but their revolt against the king's administration and administrators, despite protestations of loyalty to the king himself, was not far removed from a fight for independence. In this light, the rebellion was a prelude to the struggle for freedom.

In the late 1700s, the Enlightenment served as a second major influence in the struggle for independence. After the Comunero Revolt, the outlook of the local upper-class and middle-class criollos changed as the ideas of the Enlightenment strengthened their desire to control their own destiny. This movement criticized the traditional patterns of political, economic, and religious institutions and as such was a threat to both the central state and the religious authorities. The North American and French revolutions also contributed intellectual foundations for a new society, as well as examples of the possibilities for change.

A third major event of the late colonial period that may have led to the struggle for independence was the Napoleonic invasion of the early 1800s. In 1807 Napoleon Bonaparte made his brother Joseph the king of Spain, forcing Charles IV to abdicate and his son Ferdinand VII to renounce the throne. In exile, Ferdinand VII organized royalist supporters under the Central Council Junta Central) of Seville, later called the Council of the Regency (Consejo de Regencia). This council constituted a provisional government for Spain and the colonies.

Both Napoleon and the royalists competed for support of Spain's colonists in the New World. Napoleon wrote a liberal constitution for Spain in which he recognized the colonies as having rights equal to those of Spain. In competition for the colonies' loyalties, the Central Council offered them certain privileges, such as participation in Spanish courts. Colonists, however, were not satisfied with the council's measure because of the larger representation accorded the representatives from Spain. Despite conflict with the peninsulares holding colonial authority in the viceroyalty, additional concessions to criollos to win their support resulted in the creation of a criollo governing council in Bogotá on July 20, 1810. The new local government passed reforms favoring power-sharing by the criollos and peninsulares and loosened the economic restrictions previously placed on the colony. Most of the old Spanish laws remained in effect, however. The establishment of other criollo governing councils laid the basis for the first attempts at independence from Spain.

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