Reform, Revolution and Nation Building in Latin America, 1750-1900

Tutor:  Helen Cowie

Module type: Histories and Contexts

Module Code: HIS00064I

Spain and Portugal ran the biggest and, for centuries, the most lucrative empires in the Americas; then, in just a few years, those empires fell apart. The independent states that were forged in this convulsive period faced an uncertain future in the nineteenth century as they tried to establish themselves as modern nations. ‘America is ungovernable’, despaired independence hero Simón Bolívar, as he reviewed the state of the continent at the end of his life. ‘Those who have served the Revolution have ploughed the sea’.

This module examines Latin America's transition from imperial rule to independence, and explores both the Atlantic world that shaped American empires and the political and social turbulence that followed the formation of independent Latin American states. Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, the module looks at the attempts made by the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies to reform and modernise their respective colonies. It then goes on to study the revolutions of 1810-1826, emphasising their wider transatlantic context. The second half of the module focuses on the creation of new nations in the Americas and the construction of national identities in the former Spanish and Portuguese states. Concentrating on three countries as case studies - Mexico, Brazil and Argentina – we explore how slavery, immigration and racial theory shaped the politics, economies and societies of postcolonial Latin America, and how national governments attempted to modernise and ‘civilise’ their respective populations.

The lecture programme will include the following:

Week Two: Colonial Latin America

  • From Conquest to Castas: Colonial Identities in Spanish America to 1750
  • Sugar and Slaves: The Colonisation of Brazil

Week Three: Reform and Reaction in 18th-Century Latin America

  • Enlightenment and Reform in the Americas
  • Colonial Rebellions and the emergence of Creole Patriotism

Week Four: Independence in Transatlantic Perspective

  • Imperial Implosion: The Independence Movement to 1816
  • Defeat and Liberation: Independence from 1816-1826

Week Five: Nation Building

  • ‘Pianos on the pampas’: Bringing Civilisation to Latin America in the 1820s
  • ‘America is ungovernable’: The Rise of the Caudillo in Spanish America

Week Six: Mexico

  • Mexico in the Age of Santa Anna
  • Mexico 1855-1910: Reform and Dictatorship

Week Seven: Argentina

  • Disappearing cultures: Gauchos, Afro-Argentines and the Conquest of the Desert
  • ‘Hello Buenos Aires’: Immigration, Europeanisation and the Emergence of the Tango

Week Eight: Brazil

  • End of slavery, end of empire
  • The Brazilian Republic to 1914: ‘Order and Progress’?

Week Nine: Nation and Culture

  • Presenting Latin America to the world: Museums and World Fairs
  • ‘The Only Good Indians are Dead Indians’: Indian Heritage and Creole Identity in Post-independence Spanish America

Discussion groups will deal with the following:

  • What role did race play in the structuring of colonial society?
  • Were the eighteenth-century rebellions precursors to independence?
  • Were the wars of independence in Latin America social revolutions?
  • How can we explain the rise of the caudillo in Spanish America? (Case study of Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas)
  • What was the relationship between food and national identity in nineteenth-century Mexico?
  • What was the relationship between race and civilisation in nineteenth-century Argentina?
  • How successfully did Brazil modernise itself in the second half of the nineteenth century? (Case study of the millenarian movement at Canudos in Bahia and its suppression)
  • What role did indigenous people play in the construction of national identities in Spanish America?


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.