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Ploughing the Sea? The Spanish American Wars of Independence, 1750-1830 - HIS00093H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Helen Cowie
  • Credit value: 40 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

The Spanish American wars of independence were complex, protracted and violent conflicts. Triggered in 1808, by Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, they dragged on until 1826, when the last Spanish garrison was ejected from the Peruvian port of Callao. In their wake, they left a trail of devastation, social upheaval and political ferment, as different parts of the Empire forged their own distinctive paths to freedom. From Mexico’s abortive social revolution to Venezuela’s brutal civil war, the experience of conflict touched everyone, shaping the continent’s future for years to come.

This module examines the causes and consequences of the Spanish American wars of independence and considers why one of Europe’s largest and most enduring empires crumbled within a mere two decades. In Term 1, we study the build-up to the conflict, as a new dynasty, the Bourbons, attempted to reform the governance of their colonial possessions and a brutal Indian rebellion briefly threatened the survival of Spanish rule in Peru. In Term 2 we focus on the wars of independence themselves, tracing their progress in different regional theatres of action and placing them within a broader transatlantic context. As well as examining the political and military developments that influenced the outcome of the struggle, the module looks in detail at the social and cultural dynamics of independence, asking how far it changed the lives of African slaves, indigenous Americans and Spanish America’s large mixed-race population. We also assess the role of key revolutionary leaders, from Túpac Amaru to Simón Bolívar, and explore how they have been remembered, commemorated and reinvented in the two centuries since independence.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Autumn Term 2021-22 to Spring Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To introduce students to in depth study of a specific historical topic using primary and secondary material;
  • To enable students to explore the topic through discussion and writing; and
  • To enable students to evaluate and analyse primary sources.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Grasp key themes, issues and debates relevant to the topic being studied;
  • Have acquired knowledge and understanding about that topic;
  • Be able to comment on and analyse original sources;
  • Be able to relate the primary and secondary material to one another; and
  • Have acquired skills and confidence in close reading and discussion of texts and debates.

Module content

Teaching Programme:
Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 of the autumn term, and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-5 and 7-9 of the autumn term and weeks 2-5 and 7-10 of the spring term. Both the autumn and spring terms include a reading week for final year students and so there will be no teaching in week 6. Students prepare for and participate in fifteen three-hour seminars. One-to-one meetings will also be held to discuss the assessed essay.

Seminars will likely cover the following areas:

Term 1: The Road to Revolution

  1. The Habsburg Legacy – Colonial American government, economy and society before 1750
  2. The Bourbon Reforms
  3. Rebellion in the Colonies Part I: The Rebellion of the Barrios and the Comunero Revolt
  4. Rebellion in the Colonies Part 2: The Túpac Amaru Rebellion
  5. Science and Empire in Bourbon Spain
  6. Revolution at a Distance: North America, France and Haiti
  7. Imperial Melt-down: The Napleonic Wars and Spain’s imperial collapse

Term 2: America at War

  1. Argentina and Chile: Independence won and lost
  2. Venezuela and Colombia: War, race and violence
  3. Peru: Resisting the Revolution
  4. Mexico: Vicars, virgins and violence
  5. Creole Reactions or Social Revolutions? The social consequences of independence
  6. Civilisation and Barbarism: The rise of the caudillo in post-independence America
  7. Representing Revolution at Home and Abroad: Museums, exhibitions and national iconographies
  8. Remembering the Revolutions: The legacy of independence


Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 4,000 word essay
N/A 50
Online Exam
Online Exam
8 hours 50

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative assessment, students will be given the opportunity to do practice gobbets and then required to write a 2,000-word procedural essay relating to the themes and issues of the module in either the autumn or spring term.

For summative assessment, students complete a 4,000-word essay which utilises an analysis of primary source materials to explore a theme or topic relating to the module, due in week 5 of the summer term.

They then take a three-hour closed examination for summative assessment in the summer term assessment period comprising: one essay question relating to themes and issues, but showing an awareness of the pertinent sources that underpin these AND one ‘gobbet’ question (where students attempt two gobbets from a slate of eight).

The essay and exam are weighted equally at 50% each.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay : 4,000 word essay
N/A 50
Online Exam
Online Exam
8 hours 50

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline unless submitted in week 5 of the summer term, in which case these are available within 25 working days. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

McFarlane, Anthony. War and Independence in Spanish America. London: Routledge, 2014.

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions, 1808-1826. London: Norton, 1986.

Rodríguez, Jaime E. The Independence of Spanish America. Cambridge: CUP, 1998.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.