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Ploughing the Sea? The Spanish American Wars of Independence, 1750-1830 - Semester 1 - HIS00170H

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  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Helen Cowie
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2024-25
    • See module specification for other years: 2023-24

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 semester 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 semester 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. The module engages with the key historiographical debates surrounding the wars of independence and draws upon a wide range of primary source material, including speeches and pamphlets, political tracts, soldiers’ memoirs, scientific treatises, newspaper reports, literary sources and contemporary paintings.

Related modules

Students taking this module must also take the second part in Semester 2.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

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

Students will attend a 1-hour briefing in week 1 and a 3-hour seminar in weeks 2-4, 6-8 and 10-11 of semester 1. Weeks 5 & 9 are Reading and Writing Weeks (RAW). Students prepare for and participate in eight three-hour seminars in all.

Seminar topics are subject to variation, but are likely to include the following:

  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
  6. Revolution at a Distance: North America, France and Haiti
  7. Imperial Melt-down: The Napoleonic Wars and Spain’s Imperial Collapse
  8. Argentina and Chile: Independence Won and Lost

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

For formative work, students will produce a text commentary.

The summative assessment will consist of two parts, to be submitted together:
a) Two text commentaries of 500-750 words; and
b) One 1,500-word essay.

The commentaries comprise 50% and the essay 50% of the overall mark for this module. Summative assessments will be due in the assessment period.

Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
Text Commentaries and Essay
N/A 100

Module feedback

Following their formative task, students will typically 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 formative work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For summative assessment tasks, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 25 working days of the submission deadline. 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 semester 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:

  • Anthony McFarlane, War and Independence in Spanish America (London: Routledge, 2014).
  • Scott Eastman and Natalia Sobrevilla Perea, Independence and Nation-Building in Latin America (New York: Routledge, 2022).
  • Rebecca Earle, The Return of the Native: Indians and Myth-Making in Spanish America, 1810-1930 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007)

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores 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. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.