In Defense of the King: Observations on Spanish American Royalism in the Era of Independence

June 15, 2016

Among historians, Latin American independence has been and continues to be a thoroughly researched field. Beginning with the personal accounts of participants in the wars of independence published in the first half of the nineteenth century, decade after decade historians have produced a steady stream of scholarship on the events which gave birth to the multiple nations of the Americas. These generally pro-patriot accounts have customarily been framed within the margins of a nationalist narrative that serves to elucidate the origins of present-day states, even though the geographical and political contours of Spain’s American empire did not necessarily match modern-day configurations.[1] The same intensity of historical inquiry does not apply to those Americans who sided with the Spanish monarchy. Until recently, the royalists or realistas who defended the Bourbon king – though quite significant in number by any standard – have been largely forgotten.[2] These criollos, natives, mestizos, castas, free blacks, slaves, and long-term Spanish residents in the Americas form a distinct group from peninsulares sent from Spain for limited periods to govern the empire or engage in trade. Fortunately, innovative studies driven in part by the surge in social and cultural historiography in the late twentieth century have rediscovered a wealth of evidence on those segments of society that opted to retain allegiance to the Spanish crown. The results have been impressive and often surprising. Among the myriad features of Spanish American royalism, at least four elements stand out: the volatility of the independence process, religious factors, the multiple meanings of loyalty, and the activities of colonial subalterns. Each of these themes has received scholarly attention as of late.

From a hemispheric perspective, the struggle for Latin American independence was highly contentious, in no small measure because important sectors of the population supported the monarch. Many disputed areas were alternately under imperial or patriot authority at different junctures. New Granada is perhaps the most striking example of this near-perpetual state of flux. Within the vice-royalty, cities such as Cartagena de Indias and Bogotá sought total independence as the conflict unfolded, while others like Santa Marta, Rio Hacha and Pasto attempted to remain under the tutelage of the Bourbon dynasty. For all, resolution had to await the struggle’s end but, in the interim, each succumbed to the sweeping changes wrought by military and political developments. Like the rest of the empire, Cartagena was severed from the realm after Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula in 1808. Its reaction at that opening bell was to profess fidelity to the crown. The city then proceeded to declare independence in 1811, was reconquered by Spain’s expeditionary army in 1815, and retaken by patriot forces in 1821. Thus, over the span of little more than a decade, the port was governed locally as an autonomous entity within the grand imperial design, unshackled for a time from the royal standard, coerced into absolutist submission, and set free definitively from any and all allegiance to the mother country. Such a process was obviously not a recipe for stability. Its inhabitants – those that managed to survive the succeeding phases and remain or return – accordingly had to adapt to new rulers each step of the way. This volatility was the norm in much of the empire. Of the areas that eventually achieved independence, only the colonial jurisdictions of Peru and Rio de La Plata experienced any real sense of political continuity. In the former, fealty to the crown was sustained until the very end of the contest, a moment historians traditionally attribute to the “final” liberating battle at Ayacucho in 1824.[3] In the latter case, most of the Southern Cone east of the Andes retained a de facto independence from early in the movement onwards.[4] At the war’s conclusion, the territories in the Western Hemisphere under imperial dominion were reduced to the Caribbean islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico. An excellent study that demonstrates the volatility of the age is the collection of essays edited by Haroldo Calvo Stevenson and Adolfo Meisel Roca entitled Cartagena de Indias en la independencia.[5]

Embedded within this instability, the fortunes of royalists were subject to religious concerns. Fray Eugenio Torres Torres has edited an outstanding collection of essays on the Dominican Order which examines the role of this Roman Catholic institution during the independence era.[6] Latin American historiography has frequently highlighted the significance of clerics such as Father Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico in support of the patriot effort. For that reason, it is refreshing to find that scholarly contributors here have recognized the more pronounced complexity of the conflict and located the sympathies of the order’s priests, nuns, and affiliated lay brethren across both sides of the patriot-royalist divide. The royalist-inclined protagonists include a Dominican priest whose chameleonic affinities mirrored the ebbs and flows of the war in Chile, switching sides in accordance with the recurrent changes in regime; Dominican sisters in Argentina accused of disloyalty for establishing contact with prisoners of war from former elite social circles; and prosperous merchants in Buenos Aires devoted to the Dominican Third Order for lay people whose influence steadily dissipated as the region rejected monarchy and embraced republican rule. Perhaps the most intriguing royalist illustrations, however, were engendered by little-known events in New Spain, where Fray Ramón Casaus authored the Anti-Hidalgo in 1810 as a direct refutation of the work of the celebrated insurgent priest, while other realistas tried to counter the adoration of the Virgin of Guadalupe among pro-independence forces by actively espousing the divine intervention of the Virgen de la Soledad in Oaxaca on the side of King Fernando VII.[7]

Napoleon’s catalytic invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 1808 had profound effects across the Atlantic, setting off a chain of unintended consequences that threw the empire into disarray. The Spanish sovereign was held hostage by the invaders and a new regime under the leadership of the French emperor’s brother, Joseph I, was imposed on the country. Spaniards who considered Napoleon as an extension of the ideals of the French Revolution and the death knell of Bourbon absolutism welcomed the aggressors and declared allegiance to the new order. Most, however, defied the intruders. In response, the ethnically diverse regions of Spain formed their own local governments in opposition to the French and in support of the captive king. Thus was born the War of Spanish Independence. Peninsular actions led to the eventual creation of a Consejo de Regencia claiming to represent the entire nation. The problem was that their armies repeatedly failed in the field and Spaniards everywhere lost faith in the Council’s capacity to govern. This situation ultimately led to the formation of the Spanish Cortes or parliament in 1810 that included representation from imperial dominions overseas. Hence, when local governments in the Americas were faced with the core issue of allegiance to the common cause, the options were anything but clear. The matter quickly mushroomed into the broader question of loyalty to whom? One possibility was the new French monarch. Another was Spain’s hostage king. A third was commitment to the existing imperial structures, such as the vice-royalties or captaincies general, under Fernando’s appointed heads. A fourth was the burgeoning nationalist opposition in the patria – first the Regency Council, then the Cortes. Finally, locals could call on historical precedents from the medieval Reconquest and claim autonomy for self-governing local cabildos. The complexity of this intricate process was further compounded in 1814 upon Fernando VII’s reinstatement. He immediately turned on those who had fought in his name and sent forth a massive military expedition to recuperate his transatlantic possessions under absolutist rule. The king was deposed again in 1820, only to recover his throne in 1823 with the help of none other than France. Given the range of alternatives for members of such an extensive, unconnected, and multifarious empire, it is no surprise that different locales initially made different choices. Or that events got totally out of hand and many regions pursued the path of eventual independence.

Two recent texts deal with this dynamic of loyalty. Scott Eastman’s Preaching Spanish Nationalism Across the Atlantic examines how liberalism intersected with Catholicism to create a new ideology in defense of Spanish nationhood – it succeeded in helping defeat French arms on the peninsula but backfired in New Spain where the same synthesis paradoxically served to strengthen the cause of Mexican independence.[8] José Antonio Escudero’s colossal three-volume compilation entitled Cortes y Constitución de Cádiz, 200 Años also includes essays by top-notch scholars that explore the meaning of loyalty in the Americas under the political strains triggered by the French invasion. Though not intended as a work on realismo per se, the views expressed in the eighteen essays that specifically deal with the Americas – too numerous to relate here – provide a fascinating overview of diverse facets of the loyalty question confronted by Spanish subjects there.[9]

An integral component of the loyalty question also concerns subaltern groups in Spanish America who defended the prerogatives of the crown. Two recent studies provide a detailed analysis of the choices confronted by indigenous peoples, those of African descent, and those of mixed lineage, and the linkages of these groups to larger events.[10] The results at first glance appear to present awkward contradictions – for example, once-conquered Indians who garnered the respect of Spaniards for their continuing loyalty just as creoles of Spanish descent were generating only peninsular disdain for rebellion. In effect, ideology proved stronger than blood. Other instances are noteworthy. A key to upholding loyalty in Santa Marta was the boost local elites received from rural Indians who understood support for the king as a way of maintaining their privileges under the reigning imperial system. The Caquetío Indians of Coro, Venezuela likewise backed the Spaniards in order to preserve their status as libres, granted by diplomatic agreement with Spain in 1527. Another study explores the loyalty distinctions among blacks. Interestingly, recent slave arrivals from Africa tended to back the Spanish monarch while longer established free blacks and slaves affiliated with religious fraternities or artisan guilds usually supported the patriot side. The locus of subaltern fidelity reveals that loyalty in Spanish America was often constructed more on the basis of pragmatic local needs and aspirations than across any sort of broad ideological spectrum championing abstract principles of liberty.[11]

These observations demonstrate that Spanish American royalism carries the potential for becoming a well-developed historical subfield, as has already occurred on the British American side with the loyalists of the American Revolution.[12] The possibilities for research are endless. The recent studies of political volatility, religion, royalist ideology, and subalternity mentioned here constitute the tip of an iceberg. Gauging from what these and earlier investigations have disclosed to date, the struggle for independence may not have been as reassuringly transparent as we once supposed.


[1] For example, by the end of the eighteenth century today’s Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama were all part of the Vice-Royalty of New Granada; the countries of modern Central America were under the aegis of the Captaincy General of Guatemala; while Uruguay, Paraguay, and the greater part of Bolivia were within the Vice-Royalty of  Rio de La Plata.

[2] Exceptional studies of this group are more numerous for Peru than perhaps any other Latin American country and include: Daniel Valcárcel, “Fidelismo y separatismo en el Perú,” Revista de Historia de América 37/38 (Jan-Dec, 1954): 133-162; Armando Nieto Vélez, Contribución a la historia del fidelismo de el Perú, 1808-1810 (Lima: Instituto Riva Agüero, 1960); Raúl Palacios Rodríguez, “Notas sobre ‘fidelismo’ en la Minerva Peruana,” Boletín Instituto Riva Agüero 8 (1969): 757-806; Waldemar Espinoza Soriano & Luis Daniel Morán Ramos, “Reformistas, fidelistas y contrarrevolucionarios. Prensa, poder y discurso político en Lima durante las Cortes de Cádiz 1810-1814” (PhD Dissertation: Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos, Lima, 2008); César Félix Sánchez Martínez,  “Dispuestos a esgrimir nuestras espadas con los aleves enemigos: la reacción realista en el sur del Perú 1814-1825” Ahora Información 104 (Madrid, 2010).

[3] Recent research has identified violent conflicts that continued beyond this historically accepted grand finale. For example, see Heraclio Bonilla’s essay on the Indians of Iquicha in Indios, negros y mestizos en la independencia (Bogotá: Planeta / Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Facultad de Ciencias Humanas, 2010).

[4] The process in Chile west of the Andes does not fit this pattern.

[5] Haroldo Calvo Stevenson and Adolfo Meisel Roca, eds., Cartagena de Indias en la independencia (Cartagena: Banco de la República, 2011).

[6] Fray Eugenio Torres Torres, ed., Dominicos insurgentes y realistas, de México al Río de La Plata (México: Porrúa Miguel Ángel, SA, 2011).

[7] For a breakdown of the specific essays from this collection and other works referenced here, see René J. Silva and Victor Uribe-Urán, “Spanish American Royalism in the Age of Revolution,” Latin American Research Review, Vol. 49, No. 1, 2014, pp. 271-281.

[8] Scott Eastman, Preaching Spanish Nationalism Across the Atlantic, 1759-1823 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana University Press, 2012).

[9] José Antonio Escudero, Cortes y Constitución de Cádiz, 200 Años (Madrid: Espasa, 2011), 3 volumes.

[10] Heraclio Bonilla, ed., Indios, negros y mestizos en la independencia (Bogotá: Planeta, 2010); Jairo Gutiérrez Ramos, Los indios de Pasto contra la república, 1809-1824 (Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Antropología e Historia, 2007).

[11] Same as footnote 7.

[12] See René J. Silva, “Loyal and Royal: A Comparative Analysis of Adherents to the Crown during the American Revolution and the Spanish American Wars of Independence,” unpublished manuscript, 2013.

About Author(s)

Rene Jose Silva
René J. Silva is a PhD candidate in the Atlantic History program at Florida International University in Miami. His dissertation focuses on the reintegration of the Loyalists in the United States after the American Revolution, specifically in southeastern Pennsylvania. Other areas of scholarly interest include questions of comparative fidelity in British and Spanish America in the era of independence; issues of loyalty, race, trade, and political transition in East Florida during the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821); and Cuban society in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.