What does Napoleon have to do with Latin American independence?
When Napoleon's troops went to occupy Spain and Portugal, they set off a chain reaction of events that had massive effects on the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Latin America - including, eventually, independence. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Prior revolutions in America, France, and Haiti at around this time
With three major revolutions in America, France, and Haiti, it was a time of change and upheaval. The American Revolution had been declared in 1776, the French Revolution in 1789, and the lesser-known Haitian Revolution in 1804 - the first successful slave revolt in history. Since that last revolution is not as well-known as the other two, it might be good to explain briefly that the island of Haiti was a French colony in the Caribbean, which was a center of the African slave trade, until the momentous events of this revolution.
Storming of the Bastille - Paris, 1789
Haiti had a successful slave revolt against the French
The revolt actually began in 1791 - only two years after the Storming of the Bastille, when France was in the midst of its own revolution, focused exclusively on events at home. (The more that France's troops were kept at home to fight in the French Revolution, the less that they could be sent overseas to maintain their control of Haiti. Thus, France's iron grip on Haiti was lost, and the slave population of that island managed a successful revolt against the French.) When Haiti declared independence in 1804, the French Revolution had ended, but the mother country was now busily fighting the Napoleonic Wars, and the chaos in Europe continued. The French had more important things on their mind than reestablishing control of distant Haiti at this point, and so Haiti's freedom was basically assured.
Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution
Napoleon's invasion of Spain and Portugal: Setting the stage
But the chain of events leading to Latin American independence really began in 1808, when Napoleon's troops crossed through Spain - which was then allied with Napoleon's France - to invade that other country on the Iberian Peninsula of Europe, which was Portugal. The Spaniards were initially reluctant to allow Napoleon to march his armies through their country at will, but they had little choice but to allow Napoleon to do it; and their reluctance turned out to be well-justified, since Napoleon double-crossed the Spaniards and invaded Spain as well. Thus, the Iberian Peninsula (which includes Spain and Portugal) became the scene of a major war between Napoleon and various other combatant countries, which became known in the English-speaking world as the Peninsular War, involving the British in a fight for Spanish and Portuguese independence. The Spanish-speaking world knows this as the Guerra de la Independencia Española ("the Spanish War of Independence"), and it is ironic that a country that denied independence to its overseas colonies in Latin America was having trouble staying independent itself. The king of Spain was quickly deposed, and Napoleon's brother Joseph Bonaparte was installed in his place.
Ferdinand VII, the king of Spain who was deposed by Napoleon
Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon who was made king of Spain
The Europeans pulled more troops back home, and away from Latin America
The events of the mother countries had great importance for their colonies in Latin America, as the mother countries were now officially ruled by Napoleon's France; and by extension, the colonies as well - or at least, that's what everyone thought. In practice, neither the mother countries nor their French conquerors had the ability to send large numbers of troops to Latin America, as they were all busy with more pressing business closer to home. Thus, the European grip on Latin America began to unravel, paving the way for Latin American independence. The Napoleonic Wars were having massive repercussions half a world away - repercussions which changed the world in a truly epic way.
The morning after the Battle of Waterloo, which ended the Napoleonic Wars
The complicated story of Latin American independence (explained briefly)
The story of Latin American independence is a complicated one, with a timeline that goes something like "Country A rebels against the mother country, Country B rebels against the mother country, Country A declares independence, Country B declares independence," and so on - I will not try to distill this timeline here. Rather, I will say briefly that one portion of Spanish America after another became independent from Spain, and that Brazil became independent from Portugal. The upheaval began seven years before Waterloo, and did not end until long after the Napoleonic Wars had already ended. When Napoleon was kicked out of Spain, the Spanish tried once again to reestablish control of the Americas; but the momentum for independence was strong, and it was far too late to undo what had been done. Thus, the independence of Latin America was here to stay; and it is an accomplished fact to this day. The world map would be radically different, if Latin America had not become independent.
Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, a major leader of the Mexican War of Independence
Simón Bolívar, leader of the independence movement in much of South America,
and the person that the country of Bolivia was named after
The "Monroe Doctrine": Americans wanting to keep Europeans out of the New World
It is noteworthy for fellow Gringos that this is the time that the United States declared the "Monroe Doctrine," or the doctrine that the United States would oppose European influence on the New World - a major development in the history of the Americas, which is a product of this time. Written principally by John Quincy Adams (then the American Secretary of State), it was declared by then-President James Monroe, whose name the declaration is now known by. Though it is important primarily for Americans, this doctrine is of tremendous importance for Latin Americans as well, as their independence is still supported today by affirmations of the Monroe Doctrine. It is still quoted, still invoked, and still used; and the independence of Latin America has been greatly protected by this declaration. (Historical context of all kinds has been cited for it, but first and foremost are the events of Latin America, with the massive clamor for independence from the mother countries.)
James Monroe, then President of the United States
John Quincy Adams, the principal author of the Monroe Doctrine
(who later became President of the United States himself)
Conclusion: The Latin American independence movements were of vital importance
The story of Latin American independence is a complicated one, and I am sure that my brief treatment here has not really done the subject justice. Nonetheless, I hope that I have given people an overview of the momentous events of Latin American independence, and the important role of the Napoleonic Wars in the way that they turned out.
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Spanish Conquest program (a.k.a. "Conquistadors")
"Napoleon" (PBS Empires miniseries)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848 (PBS miniseries)