May Revolution - Causes - National Causes

National Causes

Spain forbade its American colonies to trade with other nations or foreign colonies, and imposed itself as the only buyer and vendor for their international trade. This situation damaged the viceroyalty, as Spain's economy was not powerful enough to produce the huge supply of goods that the numerous colonies would need. This caused economic shortages and recession. The Spanish trade routes favored the ports of Mexico and Lima, to the detriment of Buenos Aires. As a result, Buenos Aires smuggled those products that could not be obtained legitimately. Most local authorities allowed this smuggling as a lesser evil, even though it was illegal, and it occasionally equalled in volume the legal commerce with Spain. Two antagonistic factions emerged: the landowners wanted free trade so they could sell their products abroad, while the merchants, who benefited from the high prices of smuggled imports, opposed free trade because prices would come down.

The Spanish monarchy appointed their own candidates to most of the political offices in the viceroyalty, usually favoring Spaniards from Europe. In most cases, the appointees had little knowledge of or interest in local issues. Consequently, there was a growing rivalry between criollos and peninsulars (those born in Spain). Most criollos thought that peninsulars had undeserved advantages and received preferential treatment in politics and society. The lower clergy had a similar sentiment about the higher echelons of the religious hierarchy. Events developed at a slower pace than in the United States independence movement. This was in part because the clergy controlled the entire educational system in Spanish America, which led the population to hold the same conservative ideas and follow the same customs as in Spain.

Buenos Aires and Montevideo successfully resisted two British invasions. In 1806, a small British army led by William Carr Beresford seized Buenos Aires for a brief time; a Montevidean army led by Santiago de Liniers liberated the city. The following year, a larger army seized Montevideo, but was overwhelmed by the forces of Buenos Aires; the invaders capitulated and returned Montevideo to the viceroyalty. There was no aid from Spain during either invasion. Liniers organized criollo militias during the preparations for the second invasion, in spite of the prohibition against them. The Patricios Regiment, led by Cornelio Saavedra, was the biggest criollo army. These events gave criollos military power and political influence that they did not have before and, since the victory was achieved without any help from Spain, it boosted criollo confidence in their independent capabilities.

The Portuguese royal family left Europe and settled in colonial Brazil in 1808, after their escape from the Napoleonic invasion of Portugal. Carlota Joaquina, sister of Ferdinand VII, was the wife of the Portuguese prince regent, but had her own political projects. As she avoided the later capture of the Spanish royal family, she attempted to take charge of the viceroyalty as regent. This political project, known as Carlotism, sought to prevent a French invasion of the Americas. A small secret society of criollos, composed of politicians such as Manuel Belgrano and Juan José Castelli, and military leaders such as Antonio Beruti and Hipólito Vieytes, supported this project. They considered it an opportunity to get a local government instead of a European one, or a step towards a potential declaration of independence. The project was resisted by Viceroy Liniers, most peninsulars, and some criollos, including Cornelio Saavedra and the lawyers Mariano Moreno and Juan José Paso. They suspected that it concealed Portuguese expansionist ambitions over the region. The supporters of Carlota Joaquina intended her to head a constitutional monarchy, whereas she wanted to govern an absolute monarchy; these conflicting goals undermined the project and led to its failure. Britain, which had a strong influence in the politics of the Portuguese Empire, opposed the project as well: they did not want Spain split into several kingdoms, and considered Carlota Joaquina unable to prevent this.

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