The Military Institution in Colonial Latin America

Christon I. Archer

in Latin American Studies

ISBN: 9780199766581
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
The Military Institution in Colonial Latin America

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  • Regional and Area Studies
  • History of the Americas


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For much of the colonial epoch, there was limited danger of a major invasion and occupation of a Spanish American province. However, the wars of Europe in the 18th century became true global conflicts. During the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), the British illustrated their military, naval, and financial capabilities by undertaking large-scale invasions and occupations. In the negotiations that followed the 1762 British occupation of Havana, the Spanish were desperate to regain control. To do so, they had to give up sovereignty over Florida. These disasters compelled the Spanish imperial government to establish much stronger military forces in the overseas American provinces. After much discussion, the imperial military authorities decided to apply the Spanish system of provincial and urban militia units. In 1764, the captain-general of Andalusia, Lieutenant General Juan de Villalba y Angulo, was sent to reorganize the defenses of New Spain. By the 1790s the Spanish American provinces had small regular army forces of infantry, dragoons, and cavalry, backed by larger numbers of provincial militia regiments and battalions. During wartime, epidemics of vómito negro (yellow fever) killed or invalided many unacclimatized soldiers stationed in tropical climates at Veracruz, Havana, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, the organization of provincial militias, comprising disease-resistant criollos (whites), mestizos, and mulattoes, served to strengthen the defenses and deter enemy invasions. However, many Spanish administrators and army officers opposed the arming and training of potentially untrustworthy militiamen. In 1808, metropolitan Spain fell to Napoleonic invaders, and some Spanish American provinces confronted chaos as the population divided between patriots who desired independence or autonomy and royalists who remained loyal to the Crown. Civil wars destroyed prosperity and pitted royalist and patriot armies against each other. Depending upon the regions, fighting that commenced in 1810 continued until the achievement of independence in 1821 or even 1825. Except in Brazil, which followed a different course, the uprisings gave way to conventional warfare, guerrilla and counterinsurgency struggles, and entrenched banditry and guerrilla-style warfare on the insurgent side, and to brutal counterinsurgency by the royalists.

Article.  6426 words. 

Subjects: Regional and Area Studies ; History of the Americas

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