Review: The Spanish American Revolution 1808-1826

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Review The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826

The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 is a 480-pages book written by Hispanist John Lynch and it’s a great overview about the Spanish American Wars of Independence of the early 19th century. The book isn’t extremely detailed, but it’s useful to get a general idea of the multiple wars of independence. John Lynch really did a good job, because it’s a complex issue and there were substantial regional differences.

This is what buyers say on Amazon:

Published decades ago, this book remains an unusually fine narrative and overview of the great Spanish-American revolutions of the early 19th century. This is a relatively difficult topic for a survey volume given the regionally dispersed and frequently parallel events occurring across the whole Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere. Lynch’s solution is to describe events regionally. He describes the events and course of the revolutions and ensuing civil wars in regions based roughly on political divisions within the Empire. His narrative opens with a set of chapters on events in the Rio de Plata, encompassing not only modern Argentina but also what became modern Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia. This is followed chapters on Chile, Peru (both modern Peru proper and Bolivia), Venezuela, Colombia (including modern Ecuador), a return to Peru for the conclusion of events in South America, and Mexico. These narrative sections are bookended by two analytic chapters, the first setting the background in Spanish-Colonial history for the revolutions, the final chapter a summation of the effects of the revolutions. Lynch’s narrative structure results in some redundancy across individual chapters but the overall effect is very successful. A more chronological approach would require constant jumping from region to region, probably producing greater fragmentation of the narrative. In addition, the quality of writing in excellent, which significantly enhances the readability of this book.” – R. Albin

John Lynch wrote a classic in Spanish-American Revolutions 1808-1826. He masterfully describes all the events that led to the independence of Latin America from Spain. The book starts in Rio de La Plata and ends in Mexico and Central America. Curiously one can note a common pattern of highly stratified societies lead by Spanish officials and merchants in not complete harmony with the Creole ruling class. The reluctance of Spanish Monarchy (and later even of liberals) led to independence basically motivated for the economic and social interests of the Creoles (Spanish born in America). For all of those who are interested in a better understanding of Latin American societies of today this great book is a must. Lynch cleverly combines historical and economic facts about the Hispanic American societies looking for free trade and in such a way clashing with the status quo of monopolies imposed by the decaying metropolis. Two thumbs up!” – Landser 08

This book was a very well written and looks at every aspect of the revolution. If you want to learn and understand the latin american revolution, then this book will be a good read. But, if you are looking for a creative book that exhibits insightful opinions, then look farther than this book. This was a very well written, but was brought down by its lack of flavor.” – Jamie Lynch

And this is what members of the Goodreads community say:

“The Spanish American Revolutions” is a traditional history originally written in 1973 and updated in 1986. The author, John Lynch, was professor of Latin American History at The University of London. I read this book because it gets high praise from Carlos Fuentes in his wide-ranging survey of the relationship between Spain and Latin America, “El espejo enterrado”.

With 50 pages of notes, and a 25 page bibliographically essay, Spanish American Revolutions is the result of extensive research and is packed full of information. It is not always an easy read, and can be dense and academic. Lynch concentrates on the underlying causes of the spate of revolutions and wars which resulted in the independence of most of Spanish America in the early 19th century. Many of those causes are economic, and Lynch dives right in with descriptions of trade deficits, taxation, capital investment, etc. Not always light reading, but very informative.

I found that the best way to engage with the book was to read sections out loud. This caused me to slow down and read carefully, and let me appreciate the clarity and precision of the author’s descriptions. For example:
“Mexico was pure colony. Spaniard ruled creole, creole used Indian, and the metropolis exploited all three. Liberation would be arduous in this the most valuable of all Spain’s possessions. In the course of the eighteenth century Mexican silver production rose continuously from five million pesos in 1702, past the boom of the 1770s and an increase from twelve million to eighteen million pesos a year, to a peak of twenty-seven million in 1804.”

The book is fairly encyclopedic, and covers the multiple revolutions that took place in the early 19th century. Beginning with Rio de la Plata, from which emerged Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, then moving west to Chile, then to the Northern part of South America, from which emerged Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador, then to the Spanish stronghold of Peru, which could only be liberated from Spain with military pressure from Chile and Argentina in the south, and Colombia in the north. Bolivia was originally known as “Upper Peru”, and spun off as a separate country basically because its mine owners could not bear to be controlled by either Peru or Argentina. Mexico followed its own path to independence. Spain was not interested in keeping Central American colonies without Mexico, so they became independent by default, initially attempting to form a federation with its capital in Guatemala, which broke apart after only a few years. The only Spanish colonies that remained after 1826 were the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

For me, the most interesting figure in the book is Simon Bolivar, a sort of South American George Washington. He was one of the few Latin American revolutionaries who seemed to be motivated by idealism and patriotism as opposed to pure self and class interest (though he was very wary of giving power to Blacks and Indians, believing that they had an understandable hatred for ruling class whites). He was the son of a rich Venezuelan creole family, with a brilliant mind and a great talent for leadership. Bolivar had the idea of forming one nation called Gran Colombia, comprised at least of Venezuela, New Granada, and Guayaquil in Northern South America. But his idea quickly gave way to the reality of suspicion and differing interests between the powerful groups in the various regions. In the end, Venezuela remained as a separate nation, Guayaquil came to be known as Ecuador, and all that remained of Gran Colombia was New Granada which was re-named Colombia and ruled for a time by Bolivar.

Bolivar also led troops in the liberation of Peru, and later, as one of the few trusted figures in the region became ruler of Upper Peru which was named Bolivia in his honor. Bolivar’s second dream was to form a federation of the Andean nations: Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. This too was not to be.

I highly recommend John Lynch’s work for anyone who wants a detailed understanding of how Spanish America gained independence from Spain. Although there were separate wars for independence in the various regions, this book does a great job of stitching them together and giving a clear view of the common factors and interactions that caused the entire hemisphere to become independent in the course of less than twenty years.

I want to note that the version of this book I got from the New York Public Library, published by W.W. Norton & Company, is probably the worst printed book I have ever read. The font is tiny, blurry and faded in places. It seems to be the result of several generations of photo-copying, or maybe a reject from a defective printing press. Not sure how a reputable publisher could put its name on this.” – Adam

The vastness of its subject matter hardly makes it for an easy read, but the craftsmanship of the good historian, John Lynch, saves it from the oblivion of the masses. Lynch goes by geographical areas starting at the southern cone up, ending with Mexico and, last of all, the Central American countries; and on these last nations very few pages are used. As one might expect the multitude of names, facts, and the different analyses that apply to each case does not help with the entertainment department, so to speak; but the idea is there to pick up. The general idea comes forth from the reading, as from a bird’s eye up above the scenery we see how different races and social echelons compete for a place in post-colonial Spanish America; how there is a lack of plan, in the sense of a revolution of the people (as in America or France) and it is only a fight to fill the vacuum left by the Peninsulares, a fight to take the reigns of the whatever-comes-after, whether it be a Republic, a Monarchy or whatever. The outcome, and this is the main point I gather, was not what mattered to the people in general; what mattered was who was going to rule: who was to be favored and who was to stay the same or get worse. The story is not a bit idealistic or romantic, I’m afraid: on liberty and justice for all, etc.

But that’s Spanish America, I mean, no Burke, no Jefferson, no Franklin, nobody. The Catholic Church and the aristocrats of Spain had for so long kept the hearts and minds of the spanish people in ignorance, isolated from the heretic Protestant world of northern Europe, that the word civilization did not quite apply to the cultural state of the Spanish people, in Spain or in America. Oh, you are thinking of Bolívar… of course, Bolívar, how could I forget. But Bolívar isn’t my cup of tea, either …yes, he did have some ideas, and he did look up to Britain and hoped to be in good terms with them. But he was not a democrat at heart; perhaps he was even a racist, definitely he was of the stuff despots are made of: arrogance, paternalism, elitism… and this guy was one of the few “good guys” you can find in the book. At least Lynch gives him the “good-guy” treatment. But here are Bolívar’s own words about Americans, so judge for yourself:

“I am convinced to the very marrow of my bones that America can only be ruled by an able despotism … we are the vile offspring of the predatory Spaniards who came to America to bleed her white and to breed with their victims. Later the illegitimate offspring of these unions joined with the offspring of slaves transported from Africa. With such racial mixture and such moral record, can we afford to place laws above leaders and principles above men?”

The last few pages are a brief overview of the aftermath of independence: petty countries, or countries-still-to-be, were the victims of caudillos, regional chieftains who warried among themselves for their own piece of turf: like the independence war before but on a neighborly scale. To milk the resources of the country and to curve any appetite for knowledge among the servile masses, that was -and still is- the only aim in Spanish-speaking America. Know any better recipe than tequila, mate, cocaine, and telenovelas to keep people dumbed-down for ever?” – JoséMaría BlancoWhite

Summary of reviews: all reviews are positive and the book has an average of 4/5 stars both on Amazon and Goodreads. It’s a highly recommended work from John Lynch to know about the Spanish American Revolutions of the early 19th century. ‘The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826’ isn’t a very detailed work for an academic audience, rather it’s a work for the general public to get the general idea of the Spanish American Wars of Independence.

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