Napoleon’s invasion of the Iberian Peninsula is often seen as the proximate cause of the revolutions for independence in Spanish America. With the Portuguese court fleeing to Brazil, and the Spanish royal family hostage in Bayonne, where did sovereignty reside? Spaniards in the colonies had divided opinions, further complicated by Iberian Spaniards’ ambivalence towards the colonials’ participation in the provisional government. A liberal constitution, soon revoked, prompted diverse reactions in the colonies, but by this time virtually all had begun to move towards independence.

[41 & 42] Flight of the Portuguese Court 

Coutinho, José Caetano da Silva, 1767-1833. Memoria historica da invasão dos francezes em Portugal no anno de 1807.Rio de Janeiro: Impressão Regia, 1808.

Rylance, Ralph. A sketch of the causes and consequences of the late emigration to the Brazils.... London: J. McCreery, 1808. (From the estate of Maury A. Bromsen).


By 1806, Napoleon had crowned himself emperor of France and imposed the Continental Blockade forbidding British imports into Europe. The Treaty of Methuen (1703) was a military and commercial agreement that ensured that British textiles could enter Portugal without taxation. Portugal sought to remain neutral during the Napoleonic wars, and also to retain its commercial relationship with Britain, one that dated from 1373. In November of 1807, with the assistance of Spanish troops, France sent an army to invade Portugal. The Portuguese court, with the assistance of the British navy fled to Brazil on 29 November 1807.


[43] Spanish War of Independence 

Spain. Declaracion de guerra al emperador de la Francia Napoleon I. ... [Buenos Aires: Real Imprenta de Niños Expósitos, 1808.]

Through a series of machinations, Napoleon managed to produce a coup against Carlos IV to have him replaced by his son Ferdinand VII, then removed both to Bayonne where they were forced to abdicate in favor of Napoleon’s brother Joseph on 5 May. This began the Peninsular War, or the Spanish War of Independence. The declaration of war against Napoleon shown here was reprinted throughout Spain’s colonies.


Vera Cruz, Mexico. Proclama. Queridas compatriotas, la sangre que circula por nuestras venas ¿no es española? … Veracruz: [1808].

Resistance to Napoleon’s forces began even prior to the abdication of Carlos IV and Ferdinand. On 2 May, citizens of Madrid rose up, killing 150 French troops. The following day, in retaliation, the French slew hundreds in Madrid, and hundreds more in cities throughout Spain. Calls for patriotic support were printed in cities throughout the colonies, such as this unique copy of one done in Veracruz, Mexico.

[45] Recipe for Napoleons 

Adicion a la Minerva No. 9. … [Lima: 180?].

The following is a translation of a sonnet that also appeared in Salamanca, Badajoz, Valencia, and Santiago, Spain, all in 1808, and in Rio de Janeiro in 1809.


Grab a handful of corrupted earth,
a hundredweight of refined lie,
a barrel of distilled impiety
a half-gallon of well measured audacity.
The tail of a peacock, plucked, spread;
from the tiger, a bloody fingernail;
from the deer, the heart;
and the sly head of an aging fox.
All this, sewn in a big sack
with a pretty exterior, robust and soft,
set upon the fire of ambition.
Leave it to cook thoroughly,
and you will see, no doubt, how then
you will have a Napoleon flying around.

[46 & 47] Crisis of Sovereignity

Plan propuesto a todas las juntas que se formaron en España con motivo de los sucesos acaecidos en Bayona con nuestro amadísimo monarca Fernando VII. Sobre una Junta Suprema Central que reasuma en sí todo el alto gobierno de la Nación. Mexico: M. de Zúñiga y Ontiveros, 1808.

Real decreto: S. M. ha tenido á bien publicar el siguiente Manifiesto, fixando los dias en que se han de convocar y celebrar las cortes generales de la monarquia española. Españoles: por una combinacion de sucesos tan singular como feliz, la providencia ha querido, que en esta crisis terrible no pudiéseis dar un paso hácia la independencia, sin darle tambien hácia la libertad… Buenos-Ayres: [1809].

The abdication of Carlos IV and Ferdinand VII caused a crisis in sovereignty in the Spanish Empire. In Spain, local Juntas were formed, eventually coalescing under the Junta Central. In Spanish America, however, without the tradition of the Juntas, colonists were faced with the possibilities of upholding the authority of the Junta Central, forming their own Juntas in imitation of the Spanish Juntas, or striking out for independence. As one historian has written “If the Spanish claimed that in the absence of the king, sovereignty returned to the people, then the same was true for Americano subjects of Fernando VII.” European Spaniards in the colonies saw such arguments as dangerously close to a call for independence.  

Allen, John, M.D. Suggestions on the Cortes. [London: E. Blackader, 1809].

Britain also sent its suggestions via various channels. Here, its suggestion is sent via an anonymous pamphlet penned by John Allen, an advisor to Lord Holland (Henry Vassell-Fox, 3rd Barron Holland), an important Whig polit



"Thomas Jefferson milking a cow held by the horns by John Bull and by the tail by Napoleon" Newburyport, Massachusetts: [s.n., ca. 1808].

The United States sought to remain politically neutral during the Napoleonic conflicts, yet international trade suffered and U.S. shipping was open to attacks by both sides. In response to both Napoleon’s Continental system and Britain’s Orders in Council which restricted foreign trade—and thus made U.S. shipping vulnerable—the U.S. instituted the “Long Embargo” (1807-1809) to deprive both Britain [John Bull] and France [Napoleon] of trade while they were at war. Neutrality was difficult to maintain, however, and as the British Navy impressed U. S. merchant sailors into service, it was abandoned altogether, leading, in part, to the War of 1812.

[51 & 52] The Constitution of Cadiz

Proyecto de constitucion politica de la monarquia española presentado a las Cortes Generales y Extraordinarias por su Comision de Constitucion. Imprenta Real, 1811. (From the estate of Maury Bromsen)

Constitución política de la monarquia española. Promulgada en Cádiz á 19 de marzo de 1812. Cadiz: dicho año: en la Imprenta real. [Mexico]: M. A. Valdés, [1812].

The Constitution of Cadiz was a decidedly liberal document, foreseeing the separation of powers between an hereditary constitutional monarch and a unicameral legislature, equality of citizens before the law, and the recognition of individual rights, such as education, freedom of the press, and the right to property. As would be expected from such a document, it also suppressed the Inquisition.  
[53] Return to Absolution

The political constitution of the Spanish monarchy, promulgated at an assembly of the general and extraordinary Cortes, held at Cadiz, March 19, 1812. London: For J. J. Stockdale, 1813.

Within three years of its promulgation, the Trienio liberal with the restoration of Ferdinand VII as King of Spain, the Constitution of 1812 was revoked and absolutist rule reinstated. By this point, however, virtually all of the Spanish American colonies had declared de facto or de jure independence from Spain.