Argentine War of Independence (1806–1816)
PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Argentine Royalists (including
Spanish regulars) vs. Nationalists (with aid from Great
Britain, and France) and Argentina
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and
the Río de la Plata areas
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: In the chaos created
by the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, Great Britain, cut
off from its customary trade in South America, invaded
Spanish Argentina, which, led by liberal revolutionaries,
broke from French-controlled Spain, which led in turn
to much internal struggle.
OUTCOME: Argentina became independent of Spain in 1816.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:
Royalists, 7,500; Nationalists, 6,000
CASUALTIES: Royalists, 4,000 killed, wounded, or taken
prisoner; Nationalists, 1,200 killed, wounded, or taken
The impact of the NAPOLEONIC WARS was felt outside
Europe most spectacularly in Latin America. Napoleon’s
1808 invasion of Iberia led to a destabilization of the
mother country that ultimately cost Spain all its holdings
in the New World, for when Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–
1821) placed his brother Joseph (1768–1844) on the Spanish
throne, he dealt Spanish-speaking republicans in Central
and South America a winning hand. All Creole society
united in its opposition to the despised Joseph, and—at
first shouting “Long Live King Ferdinand!”—mobs drove
French emissaries out of capitals across the lower half of
the Western Hemisphere. Then Spanish officialdom itself
came under attack. For a year Spanish viceroys clung to
power, but in 1810 Latin America’s Creole population as a
whole, acting in remarkable unanimity, arose in a huge
spasm of republican anger and desposed their already powerless
rulers. The rebellions struck almost every Latin
province in the New World but Peru.
In Argentina rebellion began when Great Britain, cut
off from its erstwhile trading partners by Napoleon’s European
boycott, in 1806 sent an expedition to the Río de la
Plata between Argentina and Uruguay and attempted to
grab pieces of the surrounding territory. The Spanish
colony’s militia took up arms and, under the command of
Santiago de Liniers (1756–1810), repelled the British
invaders from Buenos Aires. But before Liniers was able to
force the British out of the Río de la Plata region, a larger
expedition of some 8,000 arrived in 1807 to seize both
Buenos Aires and Montevideo.
When news of Napoleon’s advance into Spain (see
PENINSULARWAR) and his deposing of King Ferdinand VII
(1784–1833) reached Buenos Aires, colonial liberals,
encouraged by the British, removed the Spanish viceroy
and replaced him with a provisional junta that included
Cornelio Saavedra (1760–1828), Mariano Moreno (1778–
1811), and Manuel Belgrano (1770–1820). Setting up the
United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, they exiled royal
officials and eased trade restrictions, all the while feigning
loyalty to the true Spanish Crown. Meanwhile, back in
Europe the liberals in the Cortes, Spain’s traditionally
weak parliament, were playing much the same game, leading
the resistance against the French in the old king’s
name and promulgating reforms during the political chaos
created by Napoleon’s invasion.
The Río de la Plata junta invited the former Spanish
provinces under the same viceroyalty as themselves—Argentina,
Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia—to join their cause but
had no success, and the revolutionaries fell to fighting internally.
By September 1811 a triumvirate had replaced the
junta. The following year Spain itself established a representative
government under the liberal Spanish Constitution of
1812. Provincial legislatures and town councils cropped up
everywhere in both the mother country and the empire.
Belgrano sought to capitalize on the increasing weakness
of Spain’s central authority by mounting an all-out campaign
to drive the Spanish out of Argentina altogether. In
1812 he led 1,000 citizens of Buenos Aires together with
some 800 gauchos in blocking a Royalist invasion from Peru.
This accomplished, he won a substantial victory against
some 3,000 Royalists at Tucumán on September 24, 1812.
The Royalists lost 450 killed and 687 prisoners, whereas Belgrano’s
forces suffered the loss of 80 killed and 200 wounded.
He fought next at Salta on February 20, 1813, killing 481 of
the Royalist’s 3,400-man force; 114 were wounded and a
spectacular 2,776 were taken prisoner. Belgrano’s losses were
103 killed and 433 wounded of 3,700 men engaged.
Unfortunately for Belgrano, his attempt later in 1813
to invade upper Peru ended in the rout of his army at Vilcapugio
on October 1. Of 3,500 troops, a mere 500 escaped
death, wounding, or capture. On November 26, 1813,
Belgrano again suffered defeat, at Ayohuma, losing 300
killed, 200 wounded, and 600 captured of 2,832 men
engaged. Nevertheless, the independence movement was
firmly launched in Argentina, as in the rest of South America,
and the Spanish presence was simply worn down by
1816, when an Argentine congress at Tucumán declared
the country independent and adopted a constitution.
As the world witnessed the beginnings of the great
Central and South American liberations led by such men as
José de San Martín (1778–1850), Simón Bolívar (1783–
1830), and Bernardo O’Higgins (1778–1842) (see COLOMBIAN
WAR OF INDEPENDENCE; PERUVIAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE;
VENEZUELAN WAR OF INDEPENDENCE), Juan Martín
de Pueyrredón (1776–1850) took power in Argentina as
supreme dictator (July 9, 1816), heading up an Argentine
legislature drawn from Buenos Aires and nearby provinces.
See also CHILEANWAR OF INDEPENDENCE; PARAGUAYAN
WAR OF INDEPENDENCE; URUGUAYAN REVOLT.
Further reading: Robert Harvey, Liberators: Latin
America’s Struggle for Independence 1810–1830 (New York:
Overlook Press, 2000); Daniel K. Lewis, The History of
Argentina (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).