Why Did Cartagena Declare Independence? – Historic Background to November 11

A photo of the Act of Independence declaring why Cartagena declared independence.

On November of 1811, Cartagena declared independence from Spain.  It was the first area of modern day Colombia to set up a truly functioning, independent government that rejected Spanish rule.  However, the city had been a bastion of Spanish power and trade.  Why did Cartagena declare independence?  Read on to learn the causes of Cartagena’s independence in this article covering the historic background leading up to November 11, 1811.

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A photo of the Act of Independence declaring why Cartagena declared independence.
The Act of Independence, declaring why Cartagena declared Independence.

The Enlightenment’s Ideas Reach the Americas

The Enlightenment is one of those snazzy sounding words we historians use to describe complex processes and events that we have decided had an outsize impact on history.  The historical definition of the Enlightenment is a series of ideas about citizens’ rights and government’s job that emerged in the 16th to 18th century and would go on to influence the War for Independence in the United States, the French Revolution, and independence movements in the rest of the Americas, including Colombia.

Among the most powerful of the ideas of the Enlightenment was the idea of a people having the right to overthrow their government if it violated people’s natural rights from John Locke and the idea that government should follow the general will, or desire of the majority of the population, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

These ideas had an enormous impact on how people in Europe and beyond, including in Europe’s American colonies, thought about their governments.  The increasing use of the printing press and proliferation of newspapers and published works around this time helped spread the ideas even more.

These ideas were reflected in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776 and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789.  The dual impact of these actions and their consequences, especially the latter, would play a key role in the independence movements in Latin America.  Recognizing that their interests may no longer have been best served by their colonial rulers, some in the colony of New Granada, roughly encompassing modern day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador, began considering the idea of self-government.

Map showing the territory of New Granada with Quito in red, Cundinamarca blue, and Venezuela in yellow.
Map showing the territory of the colony of New Granada. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Criollos vs Peninsulares

Particularly important was a growing discontent among criollos, or people of Spanish descent born in the Americas.  Criollos often held positions of economic and social importance, owning plantations or working as merchants or lawyers.  They often were among the wealthiest people in the colonies.  However, despite their socio-economic status, they were denied the very highest positions in the colonial government.  These positions were reserved for peninsulares, or people born in Spain.

The criollos began to increasingly resent this arrangement.  In addition to being wealthy, many were also educated at the leading universities in Europe, among them the leader of Colombian independence Simón Bolívar.  This education brought them into contact with the Enlightenment ideas emerging at the time.

Many came back not necessarily wanting independence, but still aware of a situation not based on merit, but only on birth.  This awareness increasingly led to a desire to be treated equally to the Spanish born peninuslares.  In fact, Benedict Anderson, the author of the seminal work on nationalism Imagined Communities, has identified the common experience of the leading criollos, being educated at elite universities in Europe and collectively denied the high positions in Spanish colonial government as among the earliest forms of nationalism in history.

However, it is important to note that the overwhelming majority of criollos were not calling for independence.  In fact, outside of perhaps a few radicals and crazy uncles at family dinners, there was no fermenting movement or organization for independence.  The criollo elite still benefited from a status quo that saw them above the majority, especially in a city like Cartagena, where pardos of mixed race made up the vast majority.

Even once the wheel was set in motion, most of the elite moved conservatively and the desire for independence only crystallized as events developed and as different political factions began jockeying for power.  But for the time being it was the king and his agents that held that power, and despite perhaps some grumbling about fairness, there were very few who seriously considered challenging that authority.  It would take a political crisis to set the wheel in motion.

Photo of the statue of Simón Bolívar in Cartagena.
Statue of Simón Bolívar in Bolívar Plaza.

French Occupation of Spain Sets Off a Crisis

That political crisis was Napoleon’s French occupation of Spain.  Under the justification of warring with Portugal, Napoleon had received permission to send his armies into Spain.  However, discontent with the decision caused the deposition of the Spanish king Carlos IV in favor of his son, Fernando VII.  Unlike the Portuguese, who fled to Brazil, the Spanish royal family stayed.  Napoleon soon forced King Fernando to abdicate in favor of his brother Joseph Bonaparte.  This led to a crisis of legitimacy and void of power, as many in the Americas rejected French rule but also eventually came to see the deposed Spanish monarchy as weak.

In Spain proper, in the absence of the king, locals set up governing councils known as Juntas de Gobierno that claimed to rule in Fernando’s name.  While still professing loyalty to the king, the symbolic passage of sovereignty from the monarch to the people was not insignificant.  In May of 1808, an uprising in Madrid was ruthlessly crushed by the French, with the execution of hundreds.  A long and bloody guerilla war of resistance began against the French occupation.  With the crisis in Spain, the wheel that would drive the Americas towards independence began turning.

New Granada Lurches Towards Self Government

However, it began slowly.  New Granada remained loyal to Fernando and to the Junta Central created to represent him.  The Spanish resistance to the French was successful at first, but by late 1808, the occupation was reinforced when Napoleon himself led an army into Spain.

The situation in Spain continued to deteriorate, and by January 1810, the Junta Central  had collapsed.  The Consejo de Regencia de España e Indias, a 5 man regency replaced it.  In the Americas, faith in the Spanish government was fading.  The new regency council was not seen as representative and was also in danger of being captured by the French at any time.

To preserve their independence from French rule, colonies in the Americas began to form their own Juntas de Gobierno.  These juntas rejected the colonial administrators sent from Spain and called for the right to exercise local control until the Spanish monarch could be restored.

In Cartagena, local leaders affirmed their loyalty to Spain in May of 1810, but also insisted on their own junta.  A month later, a coup expelled the Spanish appointed governor of Cartagena and by August the Junta Suprema de Cartagena was created.

The Junta Suprema included the 12 members of the Cabildo, or colonial city council, 6 members representing the people, and one representative from each of the 4 other municipalities in the province.  While still dominated by wealthy criollo whites, artisans, regardless of skin color were allowed to serve in the council, a symbolically significant step towards equality.

Meanwhile, Bogotá declared its own junta and threw out the Spanish Viceroy of New Granada on July 20, 1810.  July 20th is celebrated as Independence Day in Colombia today, however this declaration was not one of absolute independence nor was it any more of a radical step than Cartagena had already taken.  Like the junta in Cartagena it affirmed continued loyalty to the exiled Spanish King Fernando VII while rejecting the authority of the regency.  Still, as it was the capital of the colony, it was important and essentially started an experiment in self-government in all of New Granada.  The wheel now began to turn faster, and calls for a complete break from Spain would start to grow.

The Caribbean Leads the Way Towards Full Independence

It’s no surprise that the province containing Cartagena is known today as Bolívar, named after the great independence leader.  The area was a hotbed of support for independence and eventually took a leading role in the complete break with Spain.

It was the important river port town of Mompox that was the first place in Colombia to declare absolute independence on August 6, 1810.  Led by the brothers Germán and Gabriel Guitiérrez de Piñeres, Mompox took the radical step of not only creating a junta but also rejecting Spanish authority and allegiance to Fernando entirely in favor of independence.

Photo of a statue holding a sword with broken chains on his wrists.
Monument to Independence in Mompox.

However, Mompox was under Cartagena’s colonial jurisdiction.  In fact, at least part of the motivation for the declaration was Mompox’s desire to get out from under Cartagena’s administrative control.  In Cartagena, there was growing conflict between radical independistas who favored immediate independence, autonomistas, who favored conservative moves towards self-government, and realistas, who favored continued loyalty to Spain.

Overall, the elites in Cartagena were not quite ready for full independence and wanted to keep the vital cog in trade along the Magdalena River under their control.  A force from Cartagena brought Mompox back under its control by January of 1811.

These types of conflicts between Cartagena and Mompox speak to the complexity of the movements for independence in New Granada.  With the vacuum of power created by the collapse of the Spanish monarchy, different factions rushed to fill it.  As a key motivation in Mompox’s declaration had been ridding itself of Cartagena’s authority as the provincial capital, a key motivation in Cartagena’s had been ridding itself of Bogotá’s as the colonial capital.

This fact sheds light on two characteristics that came to define the movements towards independence in New Granada.  First, the was constant rivalry and conflict between different regions, each vying to secure their best interests.  Bogotá favored a central government, and the provinces, such as Cartagena, favored a federal system where they largely retained local autonomy.  The centralist vs federalist conflict continued for the next several years.

The other is how support or not for independence came to be a differentiating mark of different political factions.  As different elites sought political power, where they stood on the independista, autonomista, o realista scale came to define them.  In many cases these two factors went hand in hand.  For example, Santa Marta, a port city to the north of Cartagena, remained loyalist in part to differentiate itself from its richer neighbor to the south, just as Mompox had done the opposite earlier.  Both of these characteristics would be key factors in the failure to unify that characterized the first attempt at self-government, known as the Patria Boba, or “Foolish Fatherland.”

Returning to the situation in Cartagena at the start of 1811, the liberal but moderate José María García de Toledo headed the junta, but calls for a move to declare absolute independence were growing.  In fact, a declaration of independence was even drawn up, but there remained debate and hesitation.  It would not be until nearly the end of year when the independistas would finally win out and the moment became ripe for a vote on declaring absolute independence from Spain on November 11, 1811.


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This is part 2 of an 11 part series on the celebration and history of Cartagena’s Independence.  Check out the other parts below:


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