Robert Mackenzie.

America. A history

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The North American possessions of England became an inestimable blessing to England and to the human family, because they were the slow gains of patient industry. Their ownership was secured not by the sword, but by the plough. Nothing was done for them by fortune; the history of their growth is a record of labour, undismayed, unwearied, incessant. Every new settler, every acre redeemed from the wilderness, contributed to the vast aggregate of wealth and power which has been built up slowly, but upon foundations which are indestructible.

The success of Spain was the demoralizing success of the fortunate gambler. Within the lifetime of a single generation ten or twelve million of Spaniards came into possession of advantages such as had never before been bestowed upon any people. A vast region, ten times larger than their own country, glowing with the opulence of tropical vegetation, fell easily into their hands. Products of field and of forest which were eagerly desired in Europe were at their call in boundless quantity. A constant and lucrative market was opened for their own productions. Millions of submissive labourers spared them the necessity of personal effort. All that nations strive for as their chief good – territorial greatness, power, wealth, ample scope for commercial enterprise – became suddenly the coveted possession of Spain. But these splendours served only to illustrate her incapacity, to hasten her ruin, to shed a light by which the world could watch her swift descent to the nether gloom of idleness, depopulation, insolvency, contempt.


For three hundred years Spain governed the rich possessions which she had so easily won. At the close of that period the population was about sixteen million – a number very much smaller than the conquerors found on island and continent. The increase of three centuries had not repaired the waste of thirty years. Of the sixteen million two were Spaniards; the remainder were Indians, negroes, or persons of mixed descent.

Spain ruled in a spirit of blind selfishness. Her aim was to wring from her tributary provinces the largest possible advantage to herself. Her administration was conducted by men sent out from Spain for that purpose, and no man was eligible for office unless he could prove his descent from ancestors of unblemished orthodoxy. It was held that men circumstanced as these were must remain for ever true to the pleasant system of which they formed part, and were in no danger of becoming tainted with colonial sympathies. This expectation was not disappointed. During all the years of her sordid and unintelligent rule, the servants of Spain were scarcely ever tempted, by any concern for the welfare of the colonists, to deviate from the traditional policy of the parent State. Corruption fostered by a system of government which inculcated the wisdom of a rapid fortune and an early return to Spain was excessive and audacious. Those Spaniards who had made their home in the colonies were admitted to no share in the administration.

Many of them had amassed great wealth; but yielding to the influences of an enervating climate and a repressive Government, they had become a luxurious, languid class, devoid of enterprise or intelligence.

In course of years the poor remnants of the native population which had been bestowed, for a certain number of lives, upon the conquerors, reverted to the Crown, and their annual tribute formed a considerable branch of revenue.3535
  This tribute varied in the different provinces. In Mexico it was about four shillings annually, levied on every male between eighteen and fifty years of age. It produced latterly about half a million sterling from all the colonies, and was collected with difficulty, owing to the extreme poverty of the Indians.

The Indians had been long recognized by the law as freemen, but they were still in the remoter districts subjected to compulsory service on the fields and in the mines. They were no longer, however, exposed to the unrestrained brutality of a race which they were too feeble to resist. Officers were appointed in every district to inquire into their grievances and protect them from wrong. In their villages they were governed by their own chiefs, who were salaried by the Spanish Government; and they lived in tolerable contentment, avoiding, so far as that was possible, the unequal companionship which had brought misery so great upon their race.

In the early years of the conquest, negroes were imported from Africa on the suggestion of Las Casas,3636
  A suggestion of which the good man bitterly repented, when the enormous evils which sprang from it began to develop themselves.

and for the purpose of staying the destruction of the native population. Negro labour was soon found to be indispensable, and the importation of slaves became a lucrative trade. The demand was large and constant; for the negroes perished so rapidly in their merciless bondage that in some of the islands one negro in every six died annually. France enjoyed for many years the advantage of supplying these victims. 1713 A.D. But England having been victorious over Spain in a great war, wrung from her the guilty privilege of procuring for her the slaves who were to toil and die in her cruel service. After the Treaty of Utrecht, the Spanish colonists were forbidden to purchase negroes excepting from English vessels.

Down to the period of the conquest the Indians had utterly failed to establish dominion over the lower animals. Excepting in Peru, there was almost no attempt made to domesticate, and in Peru it extended no higher than to the sheep. There was no horse on the continent; there were no cattle. It was the fatal disadvantage of being without mounted soldiers which made the subjugation of the Indians so easy. The Spaniards introduced the horse as the chief instrument of their success in war. From time to time as riders were killed in battle, or died smitten by disease, their neglected horses escaped into the wilderness. 1548 A.D. Fifty years after the discovery of the New World a Spaniard introduced cattle. On the boundless plains of the southern continent the increase of both races was enormous. In course of years countless millions of horses and of cattle wandered masterless among the luxuriant vegetation of the pampas. Their presence introduced an element which was wanting before in the population. The pastoral natives of the pampas, to whose ancestors the horse was unknown, have become the best horsemen in the world. They may almost be said to live in the saddle. They support themselves mainly by hunting and slaughtering wild cattle. The submissiveness of their fathers has passed away. They are rude, passionate, fierce; and, as the Spaniards found to their cost, they furnish an effective and formidable cavalry for the purposes of war. A few thousands of such horsemen would have rendered Spanish conquest impossible, and given a widely different course to the history of the continent.

In spite of the indolence of the colonial Spaniards and the mischievous restrictions imposed by the mother country, the trade of the colonies had largely increased. Especially was this the case when certain ameliorations, which even Spain could no longer withhold, were introduced. 1748 A.D. The annual fleet was discontinued; single trading ships registered for that purpose sailed as their owners found encouragement to send them. 1765 A.D. By successive steps the trade of the islands was opened to all Spaniards trading from the principal Spanish ports; the continental colonies were permitted to trade freely with one another, and 1774 A.D. a few years later they were permitted to trade with the islands. These tardy concessions to the growing enlightenment of mankind resulted in immediate expansion, and increased the colonial traffic to dimensions of vast importance. 1809 A.D. At the time when the colonies raised the standard of revolt their annual purchases from Spain amounted to fifteen million sterling, and the annual exports of their own products amounted to eighteen million. The colonial revenue was in a position so flourishing that, after providing for all expenses on a scale of profuse and corrupt extravagance, Spain found that her American colonies yielded her a net annual profit of two million sterling.

The Spaniards, although, as one of the results of their prolonged religious war against the Moorish invaders, they had fallen under a debasing subserviency to their priests, cherished a hereditary love of civil liberty. The Visigoths, from whom they sprang, brought with them into Spain an elective monarchy, a large measure of personal freedom, and even the germs of a representative system. During the war of independence the cities enjoyed the privilege of self-government, and were represented in the national councils. 1504 A.D. Queen Isabella, in her will, spoke of “the free consent of the people” as being essential to the lawfulness of taxation. A few years afterwards, the King’s Preachers, in their noble pleading for the Indians, assert that “a King’s title depends upon his rendering service to his people, or being chosen by them.” Three centuries later, the Spaniards gave unexpected evidence that their inherited love of democracy had not been extinguished by ages of blind superstition and despotism. 1812 A.D. While Europe still accepted the practice and even the theory of personal government, there issued from the Spanish people a democratic constitution, which served as a rallying cry to the nations of Southern Europe in their early struggles for liberty and representation.

The successful assertion of their independence by the thirteen English colonies of the northern continent appealed to the slumbering democracy of the Spanish colonists, and increased the general discontent with the political system under which they lived. 1780 A.D. A revolt in Peru gave to Spain a warning which she was not sufficiently wise to understand. The revolt was suppressed. Its leader, after he had been compelled to witness the death by burning of his wife and children, was himself torn to pieces by wild horses in the great square of Lima. The Spanish Government, satisfied with its triumph, made no effort to remove the grievances which estranged its subjects and threatened the overthrow of its colonial empire.

For thirty years more, although discontent continued to increase, the languid tranquillity of the Spanish colonies was undisturbed. But there had now arisen in Europe a power which was destined to shatter the decaying political systems of the Old World, and whose influences, undiminished by distance, were to introduce changes equally vast upon the institutions of the New World. Napoleon had cast greedy eyes upon the colonial dominion of Spain, and coveted, for the lavish expenditure which he maintained, the treasure yielded by the mines of Peru and Mexico. 1808 A.D. He placed his brother on the throne of Spain; he attempted to gain over the Viceroys to his side. Spain was now a dependency of France. The colonists might have continued for many years longer in subjection to Spain, but they utterly refused to transfer their allegiance to her conqueror. With one accord they rejected the authority of France; and, having no rightful monarch to serve, they set up government for themselves. At first they did not claim to be independent, but continued to avow loyalty to the dethroned King, and even sent money to strengthen the patriot cause. But meantime they tasted the sweetness of liberty. Four years later the usurpers were cast out, and the old King was brought back to Madrid. Spain sought to replace her yoke upon the emancipated colonies, making it plain that she had no thought of lightening their burdens or widening their liberties. The time had passed when it was possible for Spanish despotism to regain its footing on American soil. Many of the provinces had already claimed their independence, and the others were prepared for the same decisive step. The ascendency of Europe over the American continent had ceased. But Spain followed England in her attempt to compel the allegiance of subjects whose affection she had forfeited. In her deep poverty and exhaustion she entered upon a costly war, which, after inflicting for sixteen years vast evils on both the Old World and the New, terminated in her ignominious defeat.

The provinces which bordered on the Gulf of Mexico had a larger intercourse with Europe than their sister States, and were the first to become imbued with the liberal ideas which were now gaining prevalence among the European people. They had constant communication with the West India islands, on one of which they had long been familiar with the mild rule of England, while on another they had seen a free Negro State arise and vindicate its liberties against the power of France. 1797 A.D. The island of Trinidad, lying near their shores, had been conquered by England, who used her new possession as a centre from which revolutionary impulses could be conveniently diffused among the subjects of her enemy. Bordering thus upon territories where freedom was enjoyed, the Colombian provinces learned more quickly than the remoter colonies to hate the despotism of Spain, and were first to enter the path which led to independence.

1810 A.D. Seven of these northern provinces formed themselves into a union, which they styled the Confederation of Venezuela. They did not yet assert independence of Spain. But they abolished the tax which had been levied from the Indians; they declared commerce to be free; they gathered up the Spanish Governor and his councillors, and, having put them on board ship, sent them decisively out of the country. Only one step remained, and it was speedily taken. Next year Venezuela declared her independence, and prepared as she best might to assert it in arms against the forces of Spain.

One of the fathers of South American independence was Francis Miranda. He was a native of Caraccas, and now a man in middle life. In his youth he had fought under the French for the independence of the English colonies on the Northern Continent. When he had seen the victorious close of that war he returned to Venezuela, carrying with him sympathies which made it impossible to bear in quietness the despotism of Spain. A few years later Miranda offered his sword to the young French republic, and took part in some of her battles. But he lost the favour of the new rulers of France, and betook himself to England, where he sought to gain English countenance to the efforts of the Venezuelan patriots. He mustered a force of five hundred English and Americans, and he expected that his countrymen would flock to his standard. But his countrymen were not yet prepared for action so decisive, and his efforts proved for the time abortive. It was this man who laid the foundations of independence, but he himself was not permitted to see the triumph of the great cause. 1812 A.D. The patriot arms had made some progress, and high hopes were entertained; but the province was smitten by an earthquake, which overthrew several towns and destroyed twenty thousand lives. The priests interpreted this calamity as the judgment of Heaven upon rebellion, and the credulous people accepted their teaching. The cause of independence, thus supernaturally discredited, was for the time abandoned. Miranda himself fell into the hands of his enemies, and perished in a Spanish dungeon.

His lieutenant, Don Simon Bolivar, was the destined vindicator of the liberties of the South American Continent. Bolivar was still a young man; his birth was noble; his disposition was ardent and enterprising; among military leaders he claims a high place. His love of liberty, enkindled by the great deliverance which the United States and France had lately achieved, was the grand animating impulse of his life. But his heart was unsoftened by civilizing influences. Under his savage guidance, the story of the war of independence becomes a record not only of battles ably and bravely fought, but of ruthless massacres habitually perpetrated.

For ten years the war, with varying fortune, held on its destructive course. Spain, blindly tenacious of the rich possessions which were passing from her grasp, continued to squander the substance of her people in vain efforts to reconquer the empire with which Columbus and Cortes and Pizarro had crowned her, and which her own incapacity had destroyed. She was utterly wasted by the prolonged war which Napoleon had forced upon her. She was miserably poor. Her unpaid soldiers, inspired by revolutionary sympathies, rose in mutiny against the service to which they were destined. But still Spain maintained the hopeless and desolating strife.

When the terrors of the earthquake had passed away, the patriots threw themselves once more into the contest, with energy which made their final success sure. On both sides a savage and ferocious cruelty was constantly practised. The Royalists slaughtered as rebels the prisoners who fell into their hands. Bolivar announced that “the chief purpose of the war was to destroy in Venezuela the cursed race of Spaniards.” Soldiers who presented a certain number of Spanish heads were raised to the rank of officers. The decree of extirpation was enforced against multitudes of unoffending Spaniards – even against men in helpless age, so infirm that they could not stand to receive the fatal bullet, and were therefore placed in chairs and thus executed. In South America, as in France, the revolt against the cruel despotism of ages was itself without restraint of pity or remorse. The severity which despotism calmly imposes, under due form of law, is in the fulness of time responded to by the passionate and savage outburst of the sufferers’ rage. It is lamentable that it should be so; but while tyrant and victim remain, Nature’s stern method of deliverance must be accepted.

When Miranda first sought the help of England, he received a certain amount of encouragement. Englishmen served in the ranks of his first army, and English money contributed to their equipment. 1810 A.D. A little later England was in league with Spain for the overthrow of Napoleon, and her Government frowned upon “any attempt to dismember the Spanish monarchy.” But when the purposes of this union were served, the inalienable sympathy of the British people with men struggling for liberty asserted itself openly and energetically. 1819-20 A.D. Ample loans were made to the insurgent Governments; recruiting stations were established in the chief towns of England; many veterans who had fought under Wellington offered to the patriot cause the invaluable aid of their disciplined and experienced courage.

Thus reinforced, Bolivar was able to press hard upon the discouraged Royalists. The protracted struggle was about to close. June, 1821 A.D. Four thousand Spaniards, unable now to meet their enemies in the field, lay in a strong position near Carabobo. Bolivar with a force of eight thousand watched during many days for an opportunity to attack. Of his troops twelve hundred were British veterans. Bolivar succeeded at length in placing his forces on the flank of the enemy and compelling him to accept battle. The Spaniards at the outset gained important advantage, and broke the first line of the assailants. Unaware of the presence of British auxiliaries, they advanced as to assured victory. But when they saw, through the smoke of battle, the advancing ranks and levelled bayonets of the British, and heard the loud and defiant cheers of men confident in their own superior prowess, their hearts failed them and they fled. The victory of Carabobo closed the war in the northern provinces. Henceforth the liberty of Venezuela was secure.

The revolutionary movement which originated on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico extended itself quickly into all the continental possessions of Spanish America. The overthrow of government in Spain imposed upon every province the necessity of determining for itself the political system under which its affairs should be conducted. The course pursued in all was substantially identical. There came first the establishment of a native government, administered in the King’s name. Gradually this insincere acceptance of an abhorred yoke was discarded, and the colonies were unanimous in their resolution to become independent. In each there was a Royalist element which struggled bravely and bitterly to uphold the ancient rule of the mother country, with all its pleasant abuses and unfathomable evils. In each it was the care of Spain to strengthen the Royalists and maintain the contest. During many years Spanish America was the theatre of universal civil war. Evils of appalling magnitude flowed from the prolonged and envenomed strife. Population sunk in many localities to little more than one-half of what it had formerly been. The scanty agriculture of the continent became yet more insignificant. Commerce lost more than one-half its accustomed volume. The supply of gold and silver well-nigh ceased. In some years it fell to one-tenth, and during the whole revolutionary period it was less than one-third of what it had been in quieter times. Never before had war inflicted greater miseries upon its victims or extended its devastations over a wider field.

Peru was the last stronghold of Spanish authority. Spain put forth her utmost effort to maintain her hold upon the mineral treasures which were almost essential to her existence. The desire for independence was less enthusiastic here than in the other provinces; the insurrectionary movement was more fitful and more easily suppressed. When independence had triumphed everywhere besides, the Peruvian republic was struggling, hopelessly, for existence. The Spaniards had possessed themselves of the capital; a reactionary impulse had spread itself among the soldiers, and numerous desertions had weakened and discouraged the patriot ranks. The cause of liberty seemed almost lost in Peru; the old despotism which had been cast out of the other provinces seemed to regain its power over the land of the Incas, and threatened to establish itself there as a standing menace to the liberty and peace of the continent.

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