Why did Spain's New World Colonies Rebel and Declare Themselves Independent?
As late as 1808, Spain's New World Empire stretched from parts of the present-day US west to Tierra del Fuego, from the Caribbean to the Pacific. By 1825, it was all gone except for a handful of islands in the Caribbean. What happened? How could Spain's New World Empire fall apart so quickly and completely? The answer is long and complicated, but here are some of the essential points.
No Respect for the Creoles
By the late eighteenth century, the Spanish colonies had a thriving class of creoles: men and women of European ancestry born in the New World. Simon Bolivar is a good example: his family had come from Spain generations before. Spain nevertheless appointed mostly native-born Spaniards to important positions in the colonial administration. For example, in the audiencia (court) of Caracas, no native Venezuelans were appointed from 1786 to 1810: during that time, ten Spaniards and four creoles from other areas served. This irritated the influential creoles who correctly felt that they were being ignored.
No Free Trade
The vast Spanish New World Empire produced many goods, including coffee, cacao, textiles, wine, minerals and more. But the colonies were only allowed to trade with Spain, and at rates advantageous for Spanish merchants. Many took to selling their goods illegally to British and American merchants. Spain was eventually forced to loosen some trade restrictions, but the move was too little, too late as those who produced these goods demanded a fair price for them.
By 1810, Spanish America could look to other nations to see revolutions and their results. Some were a positive influence: the American Revolution was seen by many in South America as a good example of colonies throwing off European rule and replacing it with a more fair and democratic society (later, some constitutions of new republics borrowed heavily from the US Constitution). Other revolutions were negative: the Haitian Revolution terrified landowners in the Caribbean and northern South America, and as the situation worsened in Spain, many feared that Spain could not protect them from a similar uprising.
In 1788, Charles III of Spain, a competent ruler, died and his son Charles IV took over. Charles IV was weak and indecisive and mostly occupied himself with hunting, allowing his ministers to run the Empire. Spain joined with Napoleonic France and began fighting the British. With a weak ruler and the Spanish military tied up, Spain's presence in the New World decreased markedly and the creoles felt more ignored than ever. After Spanish and French naval forces were crushed at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Spain's ability to control the colonies lessened even more. When Great Britain attacked Buenos Aires in 1808, Spain could not defend the city: a local militia had to suffice.
Americans, not Spaniards
There was a growing sense in the colonies of being different from Spain: these differences were cultural and often took the form of great pride in the region that any particular creole belonged to. By the end of the eighteenth century, the visiting scientist Alexander Von Humboldt noted that the locals preferred to be called Americans and not Spaniards. Meanwhile, Spanish officials and newcomers consistently treated creoles with disdain, further widening the social gap between them.