Saturday, May 28, 2011

May Revolution

The Cabildo at Plaza de Mayo
The May 25 national holiday in Argentina commemorates the events that culminated in the country’s May Revolution, which in 1810 was the prelude to Argentina’s eventual independence from Spain.

Towards the end of the 18th century revolution was doing the international rounds. Independence for what became the US demonstrated that the colonies in the Americas could go it alone, and the French Revolution in 1789 encouraged many to question the concept of the divine rights of kings.

The Spanish monarchy of course was not so convinced by the liberal and anti-nobility ideas coming out of France, and despite actually aiding the thirteen North American colonies who won freedom from British rule in 1776, was not disposed to relinquishing control over its own colonies in the Americas.

Problems at home however, chiefly the Peninsular War of the early 1800s which resulted in Spain’s King Ferdinand VII’s abdication to Napoleon in 1808, made maintaining control over faraway lands increasingly challenging.

Buenos Aires was the capital of what was then known as the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata – an area which included present day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia.

As is the case in most colonies, with each generation the bond with the colonising nation dwindles; and in South America the Criollos, who were citizens of pure Spanish ancestry born in the Americas, had long been at odds with the Spanish born Spaniards, known as Peninsulars, who enjoyed a certain degree of privilege in the New World where they ranked top in the colonial caste system.

The Peninsulars were generally a land owning class and defended Spain’s monopoly over South American trade. They also occupied nearly all of the senior political positions in the colonies at the appointment of the Spanish monarchy.

This changed in 1806 when after attempting, with temporary success, to invade Buenos Aires, a small British army led by William Carr Beresford was defeated by an army from Montevideo under the command of Santiago de Liniers.

De Liniers and his army of Criollos defeated the British without any Spanish aid, and the French born officer converted himself into somewhat of a local hero, upstaging the then Viceroy Rafael de Sobremonte, who fled Buenos Aires.

De Liniers took over as the Viceroy of the Rio de la Plata and in doing so became the first Spanish Viceroy not appointed on the say of the Spanish monarchy.

He went on to block a second British invasion, but despite his popularity with the Criollos and an eventual confirmation of authority from the Spanish King, he was not so fancied by the Peninsulars.

When King Ferdinand VII abdicated to Napoleon once the French had turned on the Spanish during the Peninsular War, legislative power went to the Junta of Seville, which to keep the Peninsulars happy, chose to replace de Liniers with Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros, a veteran naval officer of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Cisneros officially became Viceroy of the Rio de la Plata in June 1809 and his new government immediately had a lot to deal with. Not only did it face the concerns over the war in Spain, but was also at odds with the revolutionary ideas rife amongst the Criollos. In what later came to be rather commonplace in twentieth century Argentina, Cisneros set up political surveillance courts to seek out dissidents, chiefly afrancesados (those with liberal and enlightened pro French sympathies) in an attempt to maintain control over the colony. He was however fighting a losing battle.

Cornelio Saavedra
It’s not time yet, let the figs ripen then we will eat them – Cornelio Saavedra.

The patriotic Criollos were waiting for the opportune moment which arrived on May 14, 1810 when, despite Cisneros’ desperate attempts to block their distribution, the British ship HMS Mistletoe arrived on the shores of Buenos Aires with newspapers announcing the fall of the Junta of Seville and the successful French invasion of the Andalusian city.

The patriots, led by figures whose names now label city streets and neighbourhoods throughout Argentina, (Saavedra, Belgrano, Rodriquez Peña, Castelli, Viamonte, Diaz Velez etc) immediately argued that Cisneros, who was made Viceroy by the fallen Junta, no longer had a legitimate claim to power and so went about forcing change.    

Some were in favour of violently taking control of the country while others sought to do so through political means.

On May 18 and 19 Cisneros called for an allegiance to the King and continued to deny the news coming from Spain; but the patriots were making plans. After various public protests, political fighting and debate, they eventually convinced Cisneros to hold an open cabildo to discuss his fate.

After a long day’s debate about the legitimacy of the viceroy, the votes were cast and the largely Criollo turnout went against the viceroy. It was decided however that Cisneros would be president of a provisional ruling Junta with two Criollos and two Peninsulars. But the boisterous crowd gathering outside the cabildo, in what is now known as Plaza de Mayo, was not willing to accept that Cisneros play any part in the new Junta and on May 25 amongst much confusion, he posted his resignation.

The Primera Junta with Criollo Cornelio Saavedra as President declared itself loyal to Spain but despite King Ferdinand VII’s restoration in 1813, the May revolution had sent Argentina well on its way down the road to freedom from colonial rule and the country officially declared its independence from Spain on July 9, 1816.   


  1. very interesting, didn't know most of that. Another thing that I'm interested in is what kind of differences there are between Argentinian Spanish and Spanish Spanish, i.e. similar to the differences between American and English English e.g. diapers / nappies etc? Is that worth an instalment? (don't know if you do requests!) Terry

  2. Terry,

    Like the request - Argentine Spanish is certainly very different to Spanish Spanish and I should imagine it would be interesting to write something about it (without mentioning nappies/diapers)..Will knock a blog up on the subject for you in the near future

  3. excellent cheers