Review of Americanos: Latin America's Struggle for Independence

In considering survey texts for a DP1 History of the Americas class I’d not at first considered Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence. At first I reviewed those texts that I’d read for my Global Histories Class with Dr. Maia Ramnath at NYU.The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic or The Americas in the Age of Revolution: 1750-1850 both seemed sensible. I knew full well that The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 would be too difficult for students so I didn’t even consider that. Looking through the class notes I read that the book was already assigned over the summer by the previous teacher and had an assignment with is already so I decided to forego such deliberations and read it to see how best to use it.

Americanos focuses solely on Latin America and the Iberian Peninsula, unlike the other books I was considering that also include descriptions of developments in North America, I found it’s tight treatment of the various developments in the inchoate Latin American nations and their relationships to events in Europe more reading level appropriate to my students than the others. I wouldn’t say that it’s a simpler book, but that those not somewhat versed in political economy might miss the nuances described therein.
Following the American and French Revolutions criollos, who would later become americanos, began to feel that they had the tide of historical development on their side and thus a greater opportunity to greater press their claims for greater participation within the colonial governments and to liberalize trade relationship for greater personal profit.

Organized political action against the monarchy, however, was very limited due to the might of Spanish force and as there was little consensus as to how exactly this would occur. Following the invasion of Spain by France during the Peninsular War, the capture of the Spanish king Carlos IV, the ascension of Joseph Bonaparte to the throne, the formation of the Cadiz Cortes and Britain’s increased desire to establish enduring trading relationships with Latin America negated the traditional glues holding the colonies in thrall to Spain. Whereas previously those that had advocated for home rule were considered seditious, now one could make the same argument under what Chasteen calls the “Mask of Fernando” and attract supporters. After all, the self-elected bureaucratic body that was claiming to be the inheritor to the Spanish monarchy didn’t have the military personnel to protect themselves much less assert themselves across the ocean. While it was still dangerous to propagandize for a Republican model of government, a political orientation that was seen as French and thus unpalatable, those behind this mask were increasingly whipping up a nativist sentiment against “foreign” rule that though primarily elitist in its goals was populist in rhetoric.

Chasteen excels here at illustrating the cultural realities and historical situatedness and contradictions that the criollos and europeos faced and how circumstances across the ocean could rapidly change things in Latin America. National and regional developments were causing alliances to harden, split, pivot and reformulate with new political actors. Chasteen describes these shifts from the standpoint of the various Viceroyalties with great attention to the experiences of those leading them. Hidalgo, Morelos, San Martin, Simon Bolivar failures and success all lead to new conditions in a landscape of accelerating conflict and desire to eject the penninsulares/europes from power. Chasteen goes into extensive detail about Simon Rodriguez and his relationship to Simon Bolivar. From this vantage point the French inspiration for these conflicts comes to greater light.

While there are recurrent descriptions of the various forces and rhetorical tropes guiding the interests and actions of those seeking to overthrow the colonial yoke (and replace it with a neo-colonial one based upon raw goods exportation) I liked that Chasteen waited until the last chapter to have a thorough multi-page analysis of all of these social upheavals. Merely hinting at it in the prologue, here he goes into greater detail about the problems with importing the “Western” political values in Latin America. The previously only lightly touched upon nature of the state formation in these places is expounded upon (even deeper analysis can be found here) as well as the problematics of founding nations that are imagined predominantly by the elites and not the masses of workers.

Another aspect I liked about the book was how helpful it is to assisting students unfamiliar with the historical terms of political economy and those that have difficulty visualizing people. There is a directory of the people at the beginning that also contains pictures of those that are available in the front. My students expressed to me that this helped them picture the personages acting on the world historical stage with greater clarity. There is also a glossary in the back that contains definitions of the various racial caste terms and socio-economic terms used by the Spanish in the new world, i.e. encomienda, pardo, cabildo, etc. Also worth noting is that the book is well suited for viewing with the filmThe Liberator.