Napoleon Bonaparte has a similar impact on the Atlantic world that the Mongols had on Eurasia. He shakes things up, wipes the slate clean, and opens the door for a new age. When Napoleon conquered Spain and Portugal, he set off a chain of events that will lead to those countries losing almost all of their colonies through the Latin American Revolutions.
Across Spanish America, when the Spanish king was thrown in prison and Napoleon put his brother on the throne, the colonists rebelled and instated colonial governments that would rule on behalf of the true king. This is nice and all, but a lot of people in these colonial governments quickly realized that they didn’t need Spain at all – ruling themselves was kind of nice. So even when Napoleon was defeated and the Spanish king returns, they’re like, “Yeah… we’re good.”
The Casta system
These revolutions don’t turn out to be very revolutionary – kind of like in the U.S. – because they end up being led by creoles. So if you remember from last era, the Latin American colonies develop a racialized caste system. The people at the very top are peninsulares – people born on the Iberian peninsula in Spain or Portugal. They’re the 1’s. Below them are the creoles – people who are 100% European but born in the New World. Even though they are completely European, the fact that they weren’t born in Spain gives them less rights and power than the peninsulares. They’re the 2’s and they’re pissed about it.
So the creoles turn around to the 3’s – all the other castes: the mestizos, mulattoes, and natives – and they rile them up to rebel. In South America this is led by two creole military officers – Juan de San Martin in the south (modern-day Argentina, Chile, and Peru) and Simon Bolivar in the north (modern-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia – named after him).
They successfully fight off the Spanish – who are busy rebuilding after Napoleon destroyed everything – and establish new modern republics with themselves on top. They had a vision of a united South America. Simon Bolivar dreamed of a “Gran Colombia” but regional differences and infighting leads them to break up into different countries.
The Mexican Revolution
In Mexico, things started out pretty revolutionary. A priest named Father Miguel Hidalgo led a revolution from the bottom, the 3’s – his followers were peasants and natives. He famously issued his Grito de Dolores – or Cry of Dolores (a town in Guanajuato, Mexico). Father Hidalgo, and other priests after he died, led a guerrilla-style war against the creoles, peninsulares, and Spanish. But, things back home in Spain complicated the issue.
When the Spanish monarchy returned to power after Napoleon, they implemented a new, really liberal constitution in an attempt to make their colonies happy and make them want to stay with Spain. It allowed for universal male suffrage and land reform, among other things. In Mexico, the creoles looked at that constitution and realized that they were about to lose a lot of their power and privilege. So they switched sides. Through the Plan de Iguala, the Creole military officers united with the native insurgents and from that point, took control of the revolution. Basically they realized that it would be better to be on the winning side and get to establish their own new government where they kept their power than risk staying with Spain and possibly losing their privilege in this new constitution. So shady.
When they won, they established a short-lived Mexican empire under a monarch but they eventually set up a republic in 1823. But the point is that the revolutions in Latin America were less than satisfying, especially to the lower castes. They are going to constantly be pulling back and forth between relatively autocratic governments led by the former creoles and the military and more democratic, populist governments that try to represent the peasants. In Mexico, they are going to fight another revolution 100 years after this one. In 1910, in an attempt to finish this first revolution and truly give representation to the peasants, various groups will overthrow the republic and set up a new one that is still in Mexico today.
Side note: Cinco de Mayo. Let’s talk about it. Cinco de Mayo has nothing to do with the Mexican War for Independence. Mexican Independence Day is September 16 – the day of Father Hidalgo’s “Grito de Dolores.” Cinco de Mayo celebrates a day later in the 1800s when Napoleon’s nephew and president of France, Napoleon III, tried to conquer Mexico. I guess it runs in the family. The Mexicans defeated the French on May 5th. Today we just drink margaritas and culturally appropriate sombreros. But I just thought you might want to know.
The Haitian Revolution
Now, for a revolution that is entirely revolutionary. Haiti. Haiti was a French colony and so during the chaos of the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon, slave owners on the island start taking power for themselves. But there is a disagreement between the different types of slave owners. There is a disagreement between white plantation owners and the mixed-race small farmers (who also own slaves and want to be involved in the new government). While all the slave owners are distracted and fighting, the slaves look around and are like, “Um… should we do something about this?”
Enter: Touissaint L’Ouverture. He was a former slave who was given a basic education by his former master and eventually allowed to buy his freedom. He did not start the revolution, but he saw the chaos and disorganization of the slave revolts and stepped in, but not before he helped his former master escape the island.
He trained the slaves in guerrilla warfare tactics and orchestrated an alliance with the Spanish – who were at war with France and controlled the other side of the island (now known as the Dominican Republic). He used the Spanish allies to fight the French and eventually he used his success as leverage to switch over and deal with the French. He negotiated with them, arguing that he and his former slaves would rather stay with France since they just abolished slavery during their revolution. The French agreed and named L’Ouverture lieutenant governor of Haiti.
Still a colony of France, L’Ouverture allowed some of the planters to return and had the former slaves return to work – although now they were free and paid. But defying orders from Napoleon (never a good idea), he invaded the Spanish side of the island, defeated the Spanish, and freed their slaves too. He established himself as Governor of the entire island for life, which sort of pissed off Napoleon. Napoleon had kind of cornered the market on “leader for life” and he didn’t like to be upstaged. But also, by freeing all of the slaves L’ouverture had made it hard for France to keep profiting off the sugar plantations – you see, they were fine with abolishing slavery in France. But not in their colonies where they made all their money. You get it.
L’ouverture was eventually taken prisoner by the French and killed under interrogation. Ultimately, the revolution picked up again and the island successfully fought for full independence from France, making Haiti the first former colony to be governed by black people.
Further south in Brazil, the Portuguese saw this and thought “Oh crap. We have way more slaves than Haiti.” So they just negotiated with the Creoles to create a constitutional monarchy with their son, Pedro I, on the throne sharing power with the plantation owners. Brazil will be the last country to formally abolish slavery in 1888.
So Spain and Portugal lose basically all of their colonies right around the time other European countries are going to be putting their colonies to use fueling a new revolution. But this revolution won’t be political, it will be… industrial…