In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Central American Independence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historiographical Debate
  • Published Primary Sources
  • Bourbon Spain and the Imperial Crisis
  • Post-Independence Liberal Historiography
  • Central America in Transition
  • Collected Essays: Central America in Transition
  • Central America in Transition: Politics
  • Central America in Transition: Enlightenment Society and Economy
  • Central America and the Imperial Crisis
  • Independence and Nation Building

Atlantic History Central American Independence
Timothy Hawkins
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0385


Driven in large measure by bicentennial reflections and commemorations, as well as an explosion of interest in the Atlantic world and transatlantic revolutions, scholarship on Latin American independence has flourished in recent decades. Perhaps the most underdeveloped area of research within this field, however, concerns the former kingdom of Guatemala in Central America, a region whose unenthusiastic transition from isthmian colony to five barely viable nation-states failed to conform to the larger revolutionary narrative that developed around the collapse of the Spanish empire. In the 19th century, Latin American historians contributed to the nation-building process by constructing accounts of independence that celebrated heroic liberators and their patriotic supporters. By comparison, Central Americans looked back on the 1810s and witnessed an anemic separation from Spain, followed by a decade of confusion and hesitation that lacked any sense of national unity. Isthmian scholars applied the narrative framework established by their Latin American counterparts with limited success. By 1900, a liberal-informed consensus had solidified around a sclerotic stagnant paradigm that blamed the colony’s equivocation on extreme Spanish repression. While this narrative satisfied many Central Americans, it attracted little interest from foreign scholars. It was not until the 1960s, in fact, that the first substantive academic reevaluation and critique of the 19th-century independence historiography began. Since then, historians of Central America’s transition from colony to nation have been both prolific and creative, constructing a modern bibliography inspired by broader historiographical trends informing current research into Spanish-American independence. This new scholarship demonstrates interest in an expanded revolutionary chronology, which establishes connections and continuities between Atlantic world societies from 1750 to 1850. It has expanded beyond its traditional focus on political elites to include the roles of more marginalized social groups. It has also largely left behind the liberal depiction of independence as a Manichean battle between royalists and patriots, a shift that has encouraged consideration of the wide spectrum of political sentiment on the isthmus. While traditional studies focused on Guatemala and its capital city, a new generation of historians has explored both local and provincial responses to the imperial crisis, providing much-needed regional balance. Such work has enabled many to view the process of independence as integral to the difficult nation-building experience that followed, rather than simply the end of the colonial period. In general, the scholarship has confirmed that Central America deserves a place in any discussion of the Age of Revolutions.

General Overviews

Students of the period should begin with works that provide a general overview of the chronology and major themes that define Latin American independence. Given its longstanding influence on subsequent scholarship, the dominant account over the last half century has been Lynch 1973. This classic study, along with Domínguez 1980 and Chasteen 2009, constructs its narrative around royalist and patriot positions. Bethell 1995 and Rodríguez and Jaime 1998 provide somewhat more nuance, in particular through a more thorough consideration of the autonomist position. Langley 1996 places the Latin American experience in the larger revolutionary context of the Atlantic world. In some cases, as seen with Kinsbruner 2000, Central America receives minimal attention. In this respect, the general historiography continues to reflect the persistence of an independence narrative that prioritizes heroes, patriots, and active revolution. The most recent independence overview, however, Eastman and Sobrevilla Perea 2022, illustrates the impact of the most recent revisionist scholarship on the discipline.

  • Bethell, Leslie, ed. The Independence of Latin America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    A collection of five essays drawn from Volume 3 of The Cambridge History of Latin America, this scholarly overview of independence is carefully researched and comprehensive. Unlike many of the general histories dedicated to the period, this work pays particular attention to Central America.

  • Chasteen, John Charles. Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Written for a more popular audience, this short narrative history views the 1810s as the crucible of Latin America’s national experience. Taking a revolutionary perspective, which draws sharp battle lines between europeos and americanos, it seeks to draw connections between independence and nation building. Except for a few offhand references, this analytical approach excludes Central Americans from a story dominated by patriots with a clear national identity.

  • Domínguez, Jorge I. Insurrection or Loyalty: The Breakdown of the Spanish-American Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

    DOI: 10.4159/harvard.9780674330085

    This influential work helped introduce some nuance to the political debate concerning independence. As the title suggests, it explores the wide spectrum of responses in Spanish America to imperial crisis and a revolutionary age.

  • Eastman, Scott, and Natalia Sobrevilla Perea. Independence and Nation-Building in Latin America: Race and Identity in the Crucible of War. New York: Routledge, 2022.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781003011781

    This new history, which incorporates the experience of subaltern groups into the narrative, seeks to broaden the standard image of Latin American independence. While this narrative includes familiar figures, it also tells the story of long-ignored participants. The complex motivations that inspired both the defenders of empire and their opponents receive equal attention, and developments in Central America are incorporated into the larger story.

  • Kinsbruner, Jay. Independence in Spanish America: Civil Wars, Revolutions, and Underdevelopment. 2d rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

    A short narrative designed primarily for undergraduates, this account injects economic issues into what has largely been interpreted as a political event. Notably, it broadens the revolutionary experience to include civil wars within colonial societies. Central America is not mentioned.

  • Langley, Lester D. The Americas in the Age of Revolution, 1750–1850. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996.

    Best suited for a general audience, this history stands out as an attempt to popularize the connections among the American Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the Spanish- American revolutions. Like other works that adopt the “middle period” approach, it expands the chronology of independence. However, to achieve this broad overview it sacrifices some regional detail found in other accounts.

  • Lynch, John. The Spanish-American Revolutions, 1808–1826. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1973.

    Marketed as a “unified account” of independence, this classic narrative has introduced the period to multiple generations of students and scholars. Here, the focus is on the emergence of an American identity that fueled growing opposition to Spain. The history highlights the heroes of independence and frames the wars as a straightforward struggle between patriots and royalists. Given this approach, events in Central America receive little attention.

  • Rodríguez, O., and E. Jaime. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511721137

    Written for more advanced students and scholars, this monograph challenges more traditional accounts of the period that close the colonial experience in the 1810s. Concentrating on political culture, it presents independence within the context of larger political continuities in the Spanish empire. This work also depersonalizes the history, focusing instead on institutional reform and revolution. While far from a priority, the Central American experience is incorporated into the overall argument.

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