Gateway to the Classics: A Child's History of Spain by John Bonner
A Child's History of Spain by  John Bonner

The Spanish-American Colonies

A.D. 1810-1822

When Ferdinand the Seventh came to the throne, Mexico, Central America, several of the West India islands, and all of South America, except Brazil, belonged to Spain. When he died, nothing was left to Spain but Cuba and Porto Rico.

The successful revolt of the British colonies against England set the people of the Spanish colonies to thinking; when convulsions spread through Europe after the French revolution, and during the reign of Napoleon, the thinking was of independence. When Ferdinand sold his birthright to Napoleon for a castle and a pension, the Spanish Americans said to each other that he should not sell them. They had, moreover, grievances of their own. They were heavily taxed for the benefit of Spain. They were not allowed to buy goods of any nation but Spain. And all the offices in Spanish America were filled by natives of Spain. There were Spanish garrisons in the strong places, and Spanish priests in the churches; the Inquisition was in full feather, and good Catholics in America, as well as in Europe, were beginning to think it was not as grand an institution as they had once supposed. As in Spain, the Church had got most of the property in Spanish America into its hands. It was, in fact, the ruler of the country. In all Spanish America the priests would not allow one Protestant church to be opened.

The first gun was fired in Mexico. In the year 1810, Miguel Hidalgo, a Spanish priest of Dolores, in the State of Guanaxuato, raised the standard of rebellion. He was a white-haired man of fifty-eight, tall and stout, with a strong face and powerful limbs; a man who had been a reader and a thinker, and who had satisfied himself that Mexico ought to cut loose from Spain. He called his people to arms, mustered quite a large army, beat the government troops in several battles, took city after city, and had nearly attained his purpose when fortune forsook him. He was not a soldier, and after a time he began to lose battles. Then his men deserted him. His officers were captured. The Spanish officials hunted him hotly, and in March, 1811, they caught him.

He was shackled hand and foot, and carried on a mule to Chihuahua. After his trial, which you may be sure did not puzzle the judges much, he was made to kneel, and his priestly garments were torn from his back. Then he was shackled again. Before daylight on the morning of July 31st he was taken, limping from his irons, into the back yard of the prison, and set in front of a platoon of soldiers. He laid his hand upon his heart. But they missed it, and three shots had to be fired into his body after he had fallen to make an end of the old hero.

When he died another priest named Jose Morelos arose to take his place, and for three or four years led the insurgents with success. At one time all southern Mexico, including the City of Mexico and Vera Cruz, was in his hands. He was a daring leader, who never counted odds. The common people adored him. On one occasion a young lady who had a sweetheart serving under him was caught sending letters and money to her lover, and for this was locked up in a convent, with a fine chance of losing her head. A party of Morelos's young men got together one night, dashed up to the convent, broke open the doors, tore the young lady out of her prison, and carried her off to the camp where her sweetheart was on duty.

But the Spanish authorities now mustered into their service a young soldier named Iturbide, who was quite as dashing as Morelos, and more skilful in the business of war. He took the priest's conquests from him one by one, separated his forces, and beat them in detail. Gradually he drove the rebels into the mountains, and there, in a range not far from the City of Mexico, he at last, in November, 1815, penned up Morelos in a glen without an outlet. As the Spanish cavalry galloped up, Morelos dismounted to take off his spurs so as to climb the mountain on foot.

"Surrender!" shouted the leader of the cavalry.

"Ha!" replied Morelos, taking his cigar from his lips, " Senor Carranco, we meet again."

He met the usual fate. His gown was stripped from his shoulders, and he was sentenced to die. The Inquisition jailer—think how times had changed!—offered to let him escape. But he declined, saying,

"God forbid that I should imperil your innocent family to prolong my own life."

On the execution-ground he prayed:

"Lord, thou knowest if I have done well; if I have done ill, I implore Thy mercy!"

As he knelt to meet his end, he was shot in the back.

The war lasted five years more, the advantage being always on the side of the royalists. The insurgents were driven from place to place, their chiefs executed, their friends thrown into prison. In 1820 the rebellion looked as if it was thoroughly ended. It was just at that very moment that it triumphed. The story is quite curious.

General Agostin Iturbide, of whom I have told you, had fallen out with the Spanish viceroy, had thrown up his command, had travelled abroad, and on his return had lived quietly on a ranch. He now formed a plan to play in Mexico the part which Napoleon played in France. He suddenly sought and got command of the troops, under pretence of stamping out the last embers of the revolution. Putting a long distance between him and the viceroy, he opened negotiations with the remaining rebel chiefs, and got them to join him with their forces. The news spread far and wide that the great general who had led the Spaniards was now on the side of the patriots, and Mexicans who had given up the struggle as hopeless sprang to arms once more.

Iturbide soon found himself at the head of a force which it would have been folly to resist. He marched to the City of Mexico without striking a blow, and General O'Donoju, who represented Spain, agreed to evacuate the country. Iturbide entered the city on September 27th, 1821, and proclaimed the independence of Mexico.

I may as well tell you here—though it is not part of the history of Spain—that eight months after he proclaimed the independence of the Mexican republic, Iturbide declared himself emperor. He was overthrown in less than a year, and ordered to leave the country, being warned that if he returned it would be at his peril. He did return, and the colonel in charge of the port where he landed had him shot without consulting his superior officers.

The only other story of the independence of the Spanish colonies which you would care to hear is that of Bolivar. Originally, the province of Peru included Chili, Paraguay, Buenos Ayres, Ecuador, New Granada, and Venezuela. These several states gradually separated, and had viceroys of their own. In 1810 and 1811, just at the time when Mexico began to strike for independence, Chili and Venezuela did the same; and New Granada and Ecuador followed the lead of their neighbor Venezuela. For several years the royalist troops were able to put clown the insurrections. But at last there arose in Venezuela a leader who belonged to the kind of men that win.

This was Simon Bolivar, a native of Caracas, and a colonel in the army; he was then thirty-two years old. He had no regular army and no money. But he had grit and genius; and after a war of nearly seven years, he met the royalists in a pitched battle at a place called Bocaya, on September 19th, 1819, and defeated them so thoroughly that they agreed to evacuate the country.

Then he crossed over into New Granada, and set that State and Ecuador free, too; and he gave the Spanish Americans of South America such heart that Chili won her independence likewise; and Buenos Ayres, which is now the Argentine Confederation, was not long in following suit. Even Peru, which was the slowest to move, joined the procession at last, and the Spanish flag disappeared from South America.

When Bolivar returned to his capital, after securing the independence of his country, he was called "The Liberator," and was unanimously elected president. He performed his duties well and faithfully, but at the close of his term he refused a re-election. The president who was chosen in his place did not please the Venezuelans, and they begged Bolivar to take office again. But he would not. They entreated him, saying that they would elect him whether he chose or not. Then he left the country, assuring the people that there were many men as capable of being president as he, and that he would not be accused of having been led by ambition in what he had done.

After a time, he returned to Venezuela, and found political strife hot between rival parties. He labored faithfully to reconcile them, and succeeded. But some small-souled creatures accused him of having been actuated by base motives in what he had done, and their gibes wounded him to the heart. He was fifty years old, had spent his life in active work and warfare, and was broken down. He withdrew to his farm, and there moaned and writhed under the injustice of his countrymen, until his constitution gave way, and he died.

I do not think that this Child's History has ever had to deal with a purer, honester, and braver man than Simon Bolivar.

There is one little story about him, which may give you a side-light upon the man, and the people who lived with him.

Somewhere in Venezuela there was a statue of the Virgin, which was much thought of, because, at one time, when King Ferdinand was sick, a good woman had prayed to the statue for his recovery, and he, when he did recover, repaid the service by sending the statue a golden crown. The statue became so famous after this that the Spanish women, when in sorrow, used to kneel before it and chant their plaintive wail, which is so simple that I think you can understand it, though it is not in English. It runs—

Santa Maria,

Madre de Dios,

Madre de gratia,

Madre purissima,

Madre castissima.

One day, the priest of the church in which the statue stood observed, to his horror, that its crown was gone. Hue and cry was at once started, and pretty soon it was found that the crown had been taken by a young soldier named Manuel. The archbishop hastened to Bolivar, denounced the thief, and demanded his punishment. The liberator was shocked. Manuel was one of his favorite soldiers, a young man of great promise. But sacrilege was the most heinous of all crimes, punishable with death, and, according to the old law, with torture besides.

A court was convened, and Manuel was brought before the general, by whose side sat the archbishop.

"Didst thou steal the crown?" roared Bolivar.

"I did, general; I cannot deny it. I did. The way of it was this: When I got home from our last campaign, I found my poor old mother starving. Just think, a poor old woman, over seventy, and no food to eat! Oh! it killed me to see her. Madre de Dios! Seventy years old, and no food; I had no money to give her. You know, general, we were not paid off." (The general nodded his head, and the archbishop blew his nose.) "I had nothing, not even a crust of bread, to give her. I went out of my mind. My poor old mother, who would have given her life for me, starving! I went out and entered the church. I knelt down before the Blessed Virgin, and prayed to her for help. I was praying even for so little as a piece of bread, when—I am afraid you will not believe me, gentlemen, but it's true—the Blessed Mary of Grace stepped off her pedestal, took off her crown, and laid it in my hand."

"What! the statue?" shouted Bolivar.

"The statue, as true as I am a living man."

There was a dead pause in the trial.

"I think, general," said the archbishop, after a long silence, with a queer twinkle in his eye, "that this is a case of a miracle."

The general looked at him for a moment, and a queer twinkle came into his eye, too.

"Prisoner," said he, in a voice which was not as harsh as he perhaps intended it to be, "the archbishop says this was a miracle, and he is a judge of miracles. Miracles are his business. You can't be punished for a miracle, so you are acquitted. But if I ever hear again of your fooling with statues, I'll have you shot. The court-martial is adjourned."

And I dare say the two good old men, as they walked off arm in arm, thought they would eat their dinner that day with a better appetite, because they had not sentenced the young soldier to death.

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