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War and Nation: identity and the process of state-building in South America (1800-1840)

1816 The Spanish have Re-conquered America apart from Río de la Plata

By the middle of 1816, the forces sent by Fernando VII had been successful in establishing Spanish Royal rule in most parts of the Americas. The exception was the Río de la Plata region. In the Viceroyalty of Peru, Viceroy Abascal was an able ruler and he quickly quelled the development of juntas in the region. Lima was a stronghold for Spanish colonial power for many years and Abascal sent expeditions from Peru to re-establish Royal rule in the Chile. The revolutionary forces of O’Higgins and Carrera tried to work to overcome the royalists but were unable to do so and the viceroyalty of Peru secured Chile in 1815.

The Río de la Plata region proved more difficult for the Royalists to re-conquer and, in fact, San Martín used Mendoza in the Río de la Plata region as a base from which to develop his Army of the Andes. San Martín was determined to develop a professional army with uniforms and artillery. The people of Mendoza helped him in this pursuit and he recruited people who had been slaves as soldiers as well as the soldiers who were fleeing from Chile. San Martín worked in collaboration with Bernardo O’Higgins and spent years devising a complex strategy of attack for overthrowing the royalists in Chile. San Martín then led his army over the Andes splitting the troops at one point to create different columns that would cross the mountains using different routes creating a pincer formation. This assault led to the famous Battle of Chacabuco, which helped to seal the liberation of Chile. The battle itself is described in the podcast below by Dr Alejandro Rabinovich.

The Battle of Chacabuco was a decisive victory in the liberation of most of Chile. The Royalists retreated to Peru and an interim assembly in Santiago initially sought to San Martín as governor of Chile. Martín declined the offer and a new assembly then appointed Bernardo O’Higgins as the Supreme Director of Chile. Much of Chile welcomed the liberators, but there was still a Royalist stronghold in the South of the region.

While Chile was being liberated, the situation in the former viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata was being shaken by internal tensions. A leader known as José Gervasio Artigas Arnal had created and army known as the Liga de los Pueblos Libres (the League of Free Peoples) and he used it to create autonomy for Montevideo, which had previously been under the control of Buenos Aires. This was part of an internal struggle in the region between Unitarios (“Unitarians”) and Federales (Federalists), who had different conceptions of how the region should be governed. In general the Unitarians wanted a centralist system with Buenos Aires as the hub, while the Federalists wanted more autonomy for the regions. It is also fair to say that an intellectual battle between liberals and conservatives was entangled in this struggle, with the Unitarians notoriously conservative and many of the federalists holding liberal values.

Artigas was a caudillo and so it is no surprise that his army was made up of horsemen. In battle he used lancers on horseback and bands of indigenous fighters. This proved effective against the Unitarians of Buenos Aires, but eventually Artigas’s Federal League was also attacked by a well-equipped Portuguese army, who had been posted to Brazil and then attacked Montevideo. Eventually Artigas went into exile in Paraguay, a region that had been independent since 1811.
Although Artigas had been taken out of the picture, the regional differences in the Rio de la Plata region were not resolved. Gauchos from the provinces of Santa Fe and Entre Ríos replaced Artigas in the conflict with Buenos Aires.

While the struggle between Federalists and Centralists began early and was especially prominent in the Río de la Plata region, it was a pattern that would be played out in almost all of the new territories. In many regions it led to the adoption of federalism. By 1826 the Río de la Plata region was fragmented into several nations and Buenos Aires was just one state within a loose federation of states. Part of the Eastern Shore of the region now belonged to Brazil and Bolivia and Paraguay, which had both been part of the Río de la Plata Viceroyalty in colonial days, were now independent countries.

International players would have a key role in the shaping of the country we now know as Argentina, with Britain in particular having an interest in the region due to the importance the ports played in trade routes. Gaining international recognition for the newly independent states was crucial and in the podcast below, Monica Henry speaks about the attempts to get US recognition and the relationship between the US and the Río de la Plata in 1817 and 1818.

Further Reading

Entin, Gabriel and Alejandro Rabinovich Crear la Independencia. Historia de un problema argentino Buenos Aires: Editorial Capin, 2016.