Anticolonialism in Latin America
The Latin American movement most closely associated with anticolonialism corresponds to the period at the beginning of the nineteenth century during which most of the region gained its political independence from European colonial powers. This "postcolonial era began before many territories became colonial," Robert Young notes, and "before some European imperial powers, such as Germany and Italy, had even become nations themselves" (p. 193). As in the United States, independence represented a shift of economic wealth and political power from a colonial elite to a domestic elite. In Latin America, this was expressed as a struggle between peninsulares (those born on the Iberian peninsula, i.e., Spain and Portugal) and creoles (those born in the New World). Independence did not result in any corresponding shift in social relations, nor did it result in the abolition of slavery or more rights for women. In fact, without the paternalistic protection of the European crowns the position of peasants and Indians actually worsened.
The 1780 Tupac Amaru uprising in the South American Andes is one of the largest, earliest, and most significant anti-colonial movements in the history of Latin America. The leader of this uprising, José Gabriel Condorcanqui (d. 1781), a descendant of the Incas, first attempted to petition for the rights of his people through legal channels. When legal attempts failed, he took the name of the last Inca ruler (Tupac Amaru) and led an uprising that quickly spread throughout the southern Andes. The insurgents sacked Spanish haciendas and obrajes (textile mills), driven by messianic dreams of a renewed Inca empire that would free the indigenous peoples from hunger, injustice, oppression, and exploitation. The Spanish captured Tupac Amaru and other leaders of the uprising six months later and executed them in Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca empire. This did not end the rebellion but shifted its focus south to Bolivia, where under the leadership of Aymara people it entered a more radical, violent, and explicitly anti-colonial phase. In this phase, the insurgents captured and held the city of La Paz for several months and threatened the silver mines at Potosí—a direct challenge to Spanish wealth and power. The Spanish finally captured and executed the leaders and the uprising eventually collapsed. This revolt has sometimes been seen as a forward-looking antecedent to the successful creole independence movements that came forty years later and sometimes as a reactionary messianic movement that sought to return to the time of the Inca empire. Sinclair Thomson positions these uprisings in the context of local struggles against abusive colonial practices and for self-determination and equality. Although the uprising ultimately failed, it reveals a widening gap between the colonial elites and the subaltern masses, as well as a refusal of indigenous peoples to passively accept their marginalized role in society.
The Haitian slave revolt provides another stark contrast to the creole independence movements and in essence underscores the lack of a compelling anticolonial discourse in those events. Haiti was a French colony, and its production of sugar, cotton, and indigo made it one of the most important colonies in the world. Soaring sugar profits for French planters in the eighteenth century led to a dramatic increase in the number of African slaves they imported to work the plantations. By the end of the century, about 80 percent of the Haitian people were overworked and underfed slaves. Nevertheless, Haitian independence movements began in 1789 not as a slave revolt but from the small elite class of planters, who had been influenced by the French Revolution's rhetoric of "liberty, equality, fraternity." For the planters, liberty meant home rule and freedom from French tariff structures. The whites armed the slaves to fight the French, but instead, under the leadership of Toussaint L'Ouverture (1743–1803), slaves took advantage of the opportunity to revolt and destroyed the old society. The result was perhaps one of the few true social revolutions the world has ever seen, in which members of a mass movement completely obliterated the ancien régime and claimed power for itself. By the time Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared Haitian independence in 1804, the sugar economy had disappeared, having been displaced by subsistence agriculture. The example of a black slave republic sent a terrifying chill through creole elites, which had begun to agitate for independence elsewhere in Latin America. The only other independent country in the hemisphere, the United States, refused to recognize the Haitian government. The dangers exemplified by the first successful anticolonial movement in Latin America put the brakes on other independence movements, delaying their completion by perhaps a generation.
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