With a foreign occupier in control of Spain and the royal family in exile in France, people in the Spanish territories in the Americas found themselves at a crossroads.
The Criollos are Restless
Those who felt most affected by this situation were the criollos, people of Spanish descent born in the New World. They were proud of their Spanish heritage and the deeds of their ancestors, many of whom had played a role in conquering the Americas for Spain. Nevertheless, criollos were barred from holding the highest positions in colonial administration and felt resentful, especially under the centralizing Bourbon administration.
Already in 1808, the audiencia of New Spain (today’s Mexico) had to address calls from criollos to participate in governing the Viceroyalty. The answer was harsh and repressive and only served to create further resentment. All over Spanish America, similar calls for criollo participation in government were heard as far south as today’s Argentina.
Resistance Takes Hold in New Spain: Miguel Hidalgo
By 1810, however, criollo resistance had solidified in many places. In April of that year, the cabildo or city council of Caracas (in today’s Venezuela) declared itself to be a self-governing entity “in the name of Ferdinand VII,” the exiled king of Spain. Throughout the South American continent, other important cities followed suit.
In New Spain, however, the movement for independence took on a different character. Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a parish priest and criollo in the town of Dolores in what is today the state of Guanajuato, concerned with the conditions of poverty and injustice among his rural parishioners, led a movement of revolt.
In September of 1810, after an uprising against the Spanish government in the city of Querétaro had been suppressed, Hidalgo rallied a large group of the inhabitants of the local area with his famous Grito de Dolores (Cry of Dolores), exhorting them to rise up against Spanish authorities and attack Spaniards wherever they might be.
Hidalgo’s exhortations coalesced a group of over 20,000 rural poor of to take up arms and begin a march on the city of Guanajuato behind a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe. In just a couple of months, Hidalgo’s army grew to as many as 80,000 and was poised to attack Mexico City. But the violence of Hidalgo’s soldiers and their indiscriminate attacks on anyone Spanish turned the criollo population against him. By mid-January, the tide had turned, and forces loyal to Spain managed to defeat the priest’s rag-tag army. In the summer of 1811, Miguel Hidalgo was executed.
Hidalgo’s execution did not end the independence movement in New Spain, however. Another firebrand priest, José María Morelos y Pavón, an ally of Hidalgo, had raised an army along the southern Pacific coast. Between 1811 and 1813, Morelos’ small but well-disciplined force successfully captured Oaxaca and eventually Acapulco.
In 1813, however, Morelos was defeated at the hands of Agustín de Iturbide, an ambitious young military officer.
Morelos was not captured and executed, however, until 1815. In the intervening years, his supporters issued a constitution in 1814 based on the one drafted by the Cortes of Cádiz in 1812, the first Mexican constitution.
In 1813, after a number of military defeats, Napoleon was forced to allow the return of the Spanish King, Ferdinand VII, to the throne of Spain. Ferdinand, who in exile had acquired the nickname of El Deseado (the Longed-For One), returned to Spain in March of 1814. Ferdinand set about reversing many of the constitutional reforms of the Cortes of Cádiz and restoring the absolutism of his father and grandfather. He also dedicated himself to providing resources to putting down the uprisings in Spanish America.
In New Spain, despite military defeats, insurgent movements continued throughout the years between 1815 and 1820. Nevertheless, unlike in South America, they never managed to gain the support of the criollo population.
In 1821, however, things changed. Widespread disappointment with the harsh rule of Ferdinand, as well as the Spanish unwillingness to allow for any form of independence, had been growing amongst criollos in New Spain. Agustín Iturbide, the army officer who had helped seal the fate of Morelos, allied himself with Vicente Guerrero, one of the most important insurgent leaders, to create a plan for independence. Known as the Plan of Iguala, it called for a Mexican constitutional monarchy separate from but tied to Spain. It also called for the equality of Spaniards and native-born Mexicans and affirmed Catholicism as the national religion.
In early 1822, the Spanish Cortes declared the Plan of Iguala and Mexican independence illegal. In response, the newly formed Mexican congress voted to declare Iturbide “Agustín, Emperor of Mexico,” and a coronation took place in Mexico City in July of that year.
Iturbide’s reign did not last long, however. In 1823, after months of uprisings against him, the emperor abdicated and went into exile in Europe. He returned to Mexico in 1824, hoping to… and was apprehended and executed.
The same year, Mexico declared itself a republic of federated states, with an executive, a legislative and a judicial branch, a structure that would endure until the present day.
Echoes in Alta California
To the people of Alta California, the events in Mexico and the rest of Spanish America were but a distant echo. For the most part, people carried on, unaware of the upheavals taking place far away, and governors for the territory continued to be appointed and sent north. Nevertheless, the disturbances made themselves felt indirectly. In 1811, ships bringing supplies to Alta California ceased to arrive regularly. Over the next several years, the lack of supplies placed a burden on both the missions and presidios of Alta California, who were forced to make do without much-needed provisions.
The only time the area was directly touched by the fighting in the rest of Spanish America was in 1818, when a French privateer named Hippolyte Bouchard (known in Spanish as Hipólito Bouchard), led a series of raids along the coast. Bouchard, whose ships were flying the flag of the United Provinces of Río de la Plata (newly independent Argentina), aimed to harass Spanish military installations and incite people to rise up against the Spanish government.
Juana Machado, a Californiana girl living in San Diego, many years later recalled the Bourchard attacks. “After they were in Monterey, where they wreaked all kinds of havoc, they went to the Ortega rancho at El Refugio. There they caused all sorts of damage…Later they went ashore at San Juan Capistrano and dumped out all the wine and olive oil that was in the storehouses. It was said that they stole silver ornaments and other items from the church.”
Change Comes to Alta California
Juana also recalled the proclamation of Mexican independence in 1822 and the visit of a Mexican official who oversaw a change of flags.
“The infantry, cavalry and a few artillerymen were ordered to line up in formation in the Presidio Plaza. They placed the cannons outside the plaza, at the gate of the guardhouse, so that they would face the ocean. A corporal or soldier held the Spanish flag in one hand and the Mexican flag in the other. Both of the flags were attached to little sticks. In the presence of Officer Don José María Estudillo [Captain at the San Diego Presidio], Commander [of the Presidio] Ruiz gave the cry ”Long live the Mexican Empire!” Then the Spanish flag was lowered and the Mexican flag was raised amidst salvos of artillery and fusillade. After this, the soldiers received nothing” (Testimonios, pp. 125-129).
Although the change of government may have seemed superficial, its effects would be profoundly felt in the years to come.