Argentinian Independence

Around the turn of the 18th century, enlightenment ideas, social rivalries, and prohibitions on trade fueled the desire for social change.
When the Spanish first arrived in Argentina in the early 1500s, the area was populated by many different indigenous groups, each with their own language and culture. In the northwest of Argentina, the local populations had been conquered by Inca armies and incorporated into their empire around 1480, only a few decades earlier.

After the Spanish conquest, the American territory was divided into two viceroyalties that directly represented the Spanish king: The Viceroyalty of New Spain (first established after the fall of the Aztec Empire in 1521), which at its peak included the Spanish colonies of North America, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and most of Central America, and the Viceroyalty of Peru, founded after the fall of the Inca Empire in 1534, which included Panama and almost all of South America (the Portuguese gained control of present-day Brazil). The area we now know as Argentina formed part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which had its capital in Lima.

In the 18th century, the Spanish split the Viceroyalty of Peru into two new viceroyalties: New Granada and Río de la Plata. The Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata, established in 1776 with Buenos Aires as its capital, encompassed modern-day Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and part of Brazil.

In the political structure imposed by Spain, most of the people the monarchy chose to occupy important positions were peninsulares, people born in Spain, which angered the criollos, Europeans born in Latin America. This rivalry, along with the ideas of the American and French revolutions and the prohibition on trade with other nations and foreign colonies, fueled the fire of the criollos’ desire for social change.

They got a chance to act in 1806, when a British fleet attacked and captured Buenos Aires. The Spanish viceroy, a peninsular named Rafael de Sobremonte, fled the city with the public treasury during the battle, following a 1778 law stating that treasuries must be kept safe and viceroys must avoid capture during an invasion so they cannot be forced to sign an official surrender. Despite this law, Sobremonte was widely seen as a coward. In his absence, Santiago de Liniers managed to liberate Buenos Aires from the British in 1806 using criollo militias. The Audiencia of Buenos Aires barred Sobremonte from returning and named Liniers an interim viceroy. Fearing subsequent invasions, the population of Buenos Aires, including criollos and slaves, was armed and arranged into military bodies. When the British attacked again in 1807, the militias forced them to surrender.

After the two military victories, Liniers was a revolutionary hero. However, his situation soon changed. Back in Europe, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Spain in 1808, with Spanish King Ferdinand VII abdicating the throne on May 6 of the same year. Although he had served with the Spanish military for many years, Liniers was a Frenchman (in fact, his birth name was Jacques de Liniers, although he is better known by the Spanish version of his name). Some people in the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata thought that with Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, a Frenchman had no place as a viceroy of a Spanish territory. The peninsular Martín de Álzaga led a mutiny and tried to force Liniers out of office in an open cabildo (a special type of assembly). Most of those who supported the mutiny were peninsulares, but a small number of criollos also joined. However, the criollo militias led by Cornelio Saavedra surrounded the plaza where the cabildo was and forced the rebels to disperse. As a price for the failed mutiny, the rebel peninsular militias were disarmed, thus increasing the power of the criollos.

In part to calm the rising tensions between the peninsulares and the criollos, the Junta of Seville, formed in Spain after Napoleon’s invasion, sent peninsular Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros to replace Liniers as Viceroy of Río de la Plata in 1809. General Manuel Belgrano encouraged Liniers to fight the appointment, but he decided not to put up any resistance.

As time went on, French troops gained more and more control of Spain, finally taking Seville on February 1, 1810. The Junta of Seville moved to Cadiz and dissolved itself, though the Council of Regency of Spain and the Indies was created to replace it. The news that the Junta of Seville was no more reached Buenos Aires on May 18, sparking the May Revolution, lasting from May 18 to May 25, 1810.

In Buenos Aires, group of criollo lawyers and military officials quickly organized an open cabildo on May 22 to discuss the future of the viceroyalty. The delegates agreed that Cisneros had no right to govern since the government he had been appointed by no longer existed. In his place, a junta was formed to govern the viceroyalty. Initially, Cisneros was appointed president of the Junta, but this was met with so much popular resistance by the angry crowds that formed outside the cabildo (in what is known today as the Plaza de Mayo) that he was forced to resign. On May 25, 1810 Argentina’s first independent government, the Primera Junta (First Assembly), was formed. The stated role of the Primera Junta was to rule the viceroyalty in name of the deposed Spanish King Ferdinand VII, but Spain would never regain control of the region. Today, May 25 is a public holiday in Argentina that honors the Primer gobierno patrio or the First National Government.

The Primera Junta was formed by representatives from Buenos Aires, who sent word to other cities in the viceroyalty and asked them to send deputies. However, the other main cities refused to acknowledge the new Junta and armed conflict between the new government and those loyal to the Spanish crown began in 1810.

After years of many battles on multiple fronts, on July 9, 1816, the Congress of Tucumán formally declared the independence of the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata from Spain. Today, this is the day Argentina celebrates Independence Day, although the Argentinian War of Independence did not officially conclude until 1818.

Important Figures in the Argentinian War of Independence

José de San Martín (1778-1850)
A national hero in both Argentina and Peru, in 1811 San Martín resigned from his military career fighting for Spain in Europe and Africa and returned to his home country of Argentina to join the revolutionary movement. San Martín was an important war general and helped Argentina, Peru, and Chile gain independence. Today, most Argentinian cities have a statue of San Martín, and in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral there is an eternal flame, lit in 1947 and burning ever since, in tribute to General San Martín and the Unknown Soldier of the War of Independence.
Manuel Belgrano (1770-1820)
Another one of Argentina’s libertadores, Belgrano was an important criollo in Buenos Aires who fought against the two British invasions (1806 and 1807), supported the May Revolution and served in the Primera Junta, fought in the Argentinian war of independence, and created the flag of Argentina in 1812. He also played a role in the independence of Bolivia and Paraguay.