The Enemy Within

It was Maundy Thursday in 1810, when the social tension that had been simmering for decades within the Spanish Colonies of America finally came to a boil. On April 19, two hundred years ago this Monday, the first decisive blow to end Spanish dominance in South America was landed, more or less spontaneously, by a significant portion of the Creole elite resident in Santiago de León de Caracas, the capital of the Captaincy General of Venezuela.

Several times before, the threat of an upheaval of the masses had been placated with the use of brute, unyielding, force by the Spanish administration. Such had been the case in Quito (present day Ecuador), less than one year before, where a provisional Junta had taken the reins of government with full autonomy for 75 days, before being forced back into the Spanish fold; such, too, had been the case two years earlier, when the Creole elite (white descendants of Spaniards, born in the Colonies) staged a minor revolt at the Cabildo of Caracas that ended in little more than embarrassment.

But the lessons of early shortcomings had been learnt and assimilated, and on the morning of April 19, 1810 vociferous protests were organized to demand for an extraordinary meeting of the Council to decide upon the question of regency, given the state of things in the Motherland, where Napoleonic forces were in full control of the Government, to the point where the Bourbon king had been deposed in favor of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph, aka, Pepe Botella. The Spanish Captain General, Vicente Emparan, met these requests with skepticism, and chose, instead, to attend mass. But this time the Creole bourgeoisie had mustered support from all quarters, including the clergy. Emparan was, quite literally, forced to return to the Cabildo, and the chain of events that followed will never be known with any degree of certainty. In Venezuelan lore, long discussions between the Captain General and leading members of the Creole elite bore no fruit, until Emparan stepped outside, faced the crowd at the Plaza Mayor and asked them if they wanted him to remain in power, upon which a priest by the name of Madariaga, who stood behind him, silently encouraged the crowd to answer negatively.

Despite the romantic appeal of such early instance of people empowerment, it is likely that the real facts came closer to those described in the Act of April 19, 1810, whereby it is stated that Emparan, perhaps pressurized by the growing clamor outside, relinquished all power during negotiations with the discontented Creoles. Whatever the case, the Junta that replaced Emparan’s, and therefore Spanish, rule was anything but liberal. Revolutionary, it might have been, insofar as it sought full autonomy from the Motherland. However, the shift of power was never meant to be a reversal of fortunes for the poor or the disenfranchised, in the vein of modern revolutionary rhetoric. On the contrary, the Creole bourgeoisie’s dissatisfaction stemmed from the Crown’s oppressive economic and political policies for the Colonies, which limited the political role of Creoles to the most pedestrian local administrative roles and which imposed far-reaching commercial restrictions upon the Colonies, both in terms of the sort of products they were entitled to produce, and the channels they were allowed to use in order to carry out trade (i.e., only through the vehicles stipulated by the Spanish Crown).

Flag of the Junta Suprema de Caracas. Photo: Wikipedia.

In other words, a good portion of the Creole bourgeoisie felt their role was being restricted just to that, bourgeoisie, by a protectionist apparatus imposed upon them by the distant Courts of Spain. The intention, at least initially, was not necessarily to sever all ties with these Courts, but to achieve a higher degree of autonomy from them to secure a richer development of the Colonies and to access more influential positions in the echelons of power. However, in order to achieve this, the initiative needed to count with widespread support from the population in general. It was, perhaps, as a means to garner enthusiasm, not so much among the large amount of slaves, but among the substantial mixed-race community – the equivalent to the gens de couleur – that the Junta that took control of the Captaincy General after April 19, 1810 outlawed slave trade just four months later.

Six days after the dissolution of the official government the Junta was named and put in charge of the affairs of the Captaincy General. Its first resolve was to lure the remaining Provinces of the Captaincy General to join the cause and declare their allegiance to the dethroned King of Spain, Fernando VII, severing ties with French-ruled Spain. The presence of important members of the Creole bourgeoisie in the Junta meant that the vast majority of the Provinces jumped on board either immediately or soon thereafter. Cumaná and Barcelona declared their allegiance to Fernando VII on April 27, just two days after the formal establishment of the Junta in Caracas. Margarita and Barinas followed on May 4 and 5, respectively. Guayana made a positive pronouncement on May 11, only to revoke it less than one month later, as soon as news arrived of the establishment of a Regency Council in Spain, on behalf of the dethroned King. Finally, the Provinces of Mérida and Trujillo joined the Republican cause on September 16 and October 9 respectively. Meanwhile, the long-standing rivalry between the Province of Coro and that of Caracas meant the former remained loyal to Spain; also the Province of Maracaibo, more closely linked to the Viceroyalty of New Grenada than to that of Venezuela, stayed out of the “revolution,” which encouraged Spain to enforce a maritime blockade on the splintering cells. This division was to determine the course of the War of Independence for the following decade and beyond.

Vicente Salias (1876-1814), patriot extraordinaire. Image: venezuelatuya.com.

As well as incorporating the remaining Provinces of the territory, priority was given by the Junta to developing a successful campaign to muster support from abroad. Envoys were sent to the USA, to Curacao and Jamaica, to New Grenada and to the United Kingdom. The latter expedition was comprised by the young Simón Bolívar, accompanying Andrés Bello, one of the country’s most illustrious intellectuals, and Luis López Méndez. The British, suddenly allied with the Spanish in their struggle against Napoleon, offered little official support. However, the recruitment of Francisco de Miranda, who would later be put at the helm of the Republican forces, and the establishment of the “Sociedad Patriótica” in August 1810, a supportive association of sorts which proved highly effective in raising funds and enthusiasm among private individuals, would count among the modest accomplishments of the makeshift Republic. Meanwhile, Vicente Salias and Mariano Montilla, sent on the mission to Curacao,landed a vital victory for the cause when they secured support from the ever-enterprising Dutch, who were willing to conduct trade with the rebellious Provinces, despite Spain’s efforts to enforce its blockade.

Before the end of 1810, the de facto Republic sent forces to the western end of the country, seeking to capture the Province of Coro and to mount an attack on the Province of Maracaibo from there. By this time, however, the Regency Council in Spain had already sent reinforcements and the Republican offensive failed. Shortly thereafter elections were held in the seven Provinces, and the first Congress of Venezuela was called on March 2, 1811. This Congress formally declared Independence less than four months later, on July 5, 1811: the scene was set for the bloodiest war in the history of Venezuela to forever shift the balance of power in the New World.

 

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON APRIL 17, 2010.

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