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!Viva la Libertad!
The Struggle for Spanish American Independence

British Library, London
24th May – 20th August 2010
Review by Cardinal Cox


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After Columbus "sailed the ocean blue in 1492" and subsequently a pope divided the Earth’s new lands between Spain and Portugal, the peoples of the Americas were to dream of freedom and the rights of self-determination. This exhibition at the British Library looked at movement in Spanish America for independence from distant European masters.

Emboldened by the Eighteenth century American War of Independence, a slave revolt in the Dutch colony of Surinam and then the Haitian independence from France in 1804, various Latin American movements emerged. In Mexico Miguel Hidalgo (1810) and in Venezuela Simon Bolivar (1811) were both leading figures of the movement that was taking advantage of the French conquest of Spain. Rio de la Plata (now Argentina), Chile and Paraguay all declared independence in quick succession.

The wars continued with a defeat for Bolivar in Venezuela in 1816 and his retreat then to Haiti. Encouraged by what he saw there, when he re-invaded in 1817 he declared that all black slaves should be free. Chile finally earned its independence from Spain after the Battle of Maipo, lead by Bernardo O’Higgins. Bolivar in 1819 unites Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama into Greater Colombia under his presidency. The Argentinean Jose de San Martin (who had been a major figure in the Chilean independence) returned to his struggle for Peru. Assisted by the Chilean fleet under Lord Thomas Cochrane, his Army of the Andes return to Peru in 1821, then after forming alliance with Bolivar in 1822, the country is finally liberated in 1825 and Upper Peru is renamed Bolivia.

With only 18% of the continent pure Spanish, what had attracted the non-white majority to join these revolutions was the promise of both liberties for slaves and agrarian reforms. Into these new lands many British and Irish entrepreneurs travelled, writing books of their adventures, and I wondered if this was the origin of the Welsh communities in Patagonia. These new countries also fostered popular and revolutionary publishers free from the European influence.

The exhibition ended with the continuing popular movements in South America. These include the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920 (which was a coincidence as earlier that day I’d seen something claiming to be Pancho Villa’s mummified trigger finger at a freak show in Shoreditch). Plus the Cuban Revolution of 1956-1959; Hugo Chavez election in 1998; and Evo Morales election in 2005, the first leader of a South American nation to be of indigenous descent since the sixteenth century.

Bolivar, sometimes called the Napoleon of South America, was of Creole blood and had studied law in Madrid. He had been inspired initially by Francisco de Miranda. His founding of Greater Colombia in 1819 is a lasting achievement equal to Napoleon’s unification of much of Europe. The Pan-American Congress of 1826 failed to unite all the states of South America and Venezuela and Ecuador ceded from Greater Colombia in 1828 after Bolivar declared himself dictator. In 1830 he abdicated from his presidency and in December of that year died.

A small but interesting exhibition that shed light onto a sometimes forgotten (especially in Britain) aspect of history that still has an influence today.


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