In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Military Institution in Colonial Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews

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Latin American Studies The Military Institution in Colonial Latin America
Christon I. Archer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0034


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.

General Overviews

The military organization and defense of Spanish and Portuguese America from the Seven Years’ War through the Atlantic conflicts before and after the American and French revolutions, through the age of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Spanish American Wars of Independence, is a massive subject; to examine it fully would require years of research by dedicated teams of historians. As a response, military historians (with some exceptions) have focused upon individual Spanish American provinces or Brazil. The Iberians and their subjects in the Americas left behind exceptional archival resources on military matters that have survived until the present. Even with fires, floods, or political turbulence that occasionally damaged or destroyed some archives, many collections are remarkably complete. Marchena Fernández 1992 provides broad overviews of military institutions and ordinances. Albi 1987 is a useful survey of the establishment of the regular and militia forces. Gómez Ruiz and Juanola 1989–2006 provides excellent background materials on the organization of the Bourbon army. Rodríguez O. 1998 is an outstanding synthesis on the epoch of Spanish American independence. Anna 1983 adds an important study on the failure of Spain to satisfy the aspirations of Spanish Americans. Cervera Percy 1992 and Torres 1992 cast new light upon the roles of the Spanish royal navy during the Independence epoch. Hamnett 1997 reexamines the different forms and chronologies of the Ibero-American independence movements. Finally, Archer 2000 presents translated and original contemporary documents and the reinterpretations of recent historians.

  • Albi, Julio. La Defensa de las Indias (1764–1799). Madrid: Ediciones Cultura Hispanica, 1987.

    A succinct introduction to the establishment and operation of 18th-century Spanish regular army and provincial militia forces in Spanish America. Albi includes a useful appendix for 1799 that lists all of the regular forces (tropas veteranas); the disciplined provincial infantry, cavalry, and dragoon militias; and the urban militias for all the Spanish American provinces.

  • Anna, Timothy E. Spain and the Loss of America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

    After researching and writing about the independence of Mexico and Peru, Anna returned to the archives to study the Independence epoch from the perspective of the metropolis. His research convinced him that independence was not necessarily inevitable, but stemmed from the failures of individuals who were unable to work out policies that would satisfy Latin Americans who wanted a larger share in decision making.

  • Archer, Christon I., ed. The Wars of Independence in Spanish America. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.

    This edited work includes key documents that illustrate the brutal nature of the wars, contemporary views, and recent research by modern scholars on the epoch of Independence. Some of the documents are made available for the first time in English translation.

  • Cervera Pery, José. La marina española en la emancipación de Hispanoamérica. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1992.

    Although the Spanish or royalist naval side of the Wars of Independence is not well known, the navy was important in the transport of troops and arms from Spain to the Americas and in patrolling to stop arms importation and combat insurgent activities at sea. With the loss of the Americas, Spain also lost control over the important Pacific route from Acapulco to Manila.

  • Gómez Ruiz, Manuel, and Alonso Juanola. El Ejército de los Borbones: Organización, uniformidad, divisas, armamento. 7 vols. Madrid: Servicio Histórico Militar, 1989–2006.

    A work on the formation and operation of the different branches of the metropolitan Spanish army during the epoch of the early Bourbon monarchs.

  • Hamnett, Brian R. “Process and Pattern: A Reexamination of the Ibero-American Independence Movements, 1808–1826.”Journal of Latin American Studies 29.2 (1997): 279–328.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0022216X97004719

    This important article represents a strong effort to reinterpret the complex processes at work during the various independence movements. Hamnett concluded that Mexico was the only new nation that may have represented a vibrant revolutionary tradition.

  • Marchena Fernández, Juan. Ejército y milicias en el mundo colonial Americano. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1992.

    This study by one of the leading Spanish specialists on the military in this period offers a broad overview of the military institutions of Spanish America from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

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

    An impressive and carefully researched interpretive overview of the Independence epoch that synthesizes knowledge and adds the author’s own extensive research on the political side. Rodríguez has undertaken extensive studies on the Independence period and organized international conferences of leading specialists.

  • Torres, Bibiano. La marina en el gobierno y administración de las Indias. Madrid: Editorial MAPFRE, 1992.

    This useful volume of documents and readings provides background on the naval side of the Spanish American Wars of Independence. Important naval commanders such as Juan Ruiz de Apodaca also served first as captain-general of Cuba and later as the last actual viceroy of New Spain (1816–1821).

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