Revisiting April 19th, 1810: The Path to Venezuelan Independence

Celebrated historian, writer and professor Rafael Arráiz Lucca sets the record straight about the events of April 19, 1810. The road to independence and freedom is never as clear (or easy) as we thought.

Original art: ModoGráfico

April 19, 1810 marked the end of a process that started in 1808, the year Napoleon invaded Spain. Not long had the horses of the napoleonic army been pasturing at leisure in the Iberian peninsula, when a judicial tempest broke out to determine the vessel of people’s sovereignty. If this vessel was Ferdinand VII, then sovereignty returned to the people when he was illegitimately replaced by José Bonaparte, since there was no pre-existent agreement of consent between them and the new monarch, either explicit or tacit. This was the argument that peninsular provinces asserted through the creation of Supreme Juntas; but in American provinces, the representatives of the Supreme Central Junta unfairly thought it could not happen the same way. This is why Regent Mosquera, sent from the metropolis, started a process of persecution against the first Junta constituted in Caracas, to the shock and dismay of loyal mantuano subjects, who could not understand why they were being persecuted for defending the deposed King and, also, for proceeding the same way that Spanish provinces did.

It appears that the peninsula saw the creation of American Juntas with distrust, which reveals a certain “bad conscience” from the metropolis, regarding American provinces. Moreover, there are abundant documents that expressed this distrust, emphasizing that the constitution of the Juntas would eventually lead to independence. So we are left with the following scenario: a sector loyal to the Crown that took the path of the Juntas, mirroring the peninsular institutions; another minority sector that could certainly glimpse in the Juntas a first step toward independence and, lastly, Regent Mosquera, who disregarded the former’s existence and viewed them with absolute distrust, without exceptions.

This episode highlighted the bulk of the difference, at times profound and others not so much, in the way the Crown treated overseas provinces. Not in vain, this is one of the main topics of the Jamaica Letter, dated in Kingston on September 6, 1815, where Bolívar remarks:

We are a small human community; we live in a different world, surrounded by great seas. We are young in the ways of almost all the arts and sciences, although, in a certain manner, we are old in the ways of civilized society. I look upon the present state of America as similar to that of Rome after its fall. Each part of Rome adopted a political system conforming to its interest and situation or was led by the individual ambitions of certain chiefs, dynasties, or associations. But this important difference exists: those dispersed parts later reestablished their ancient nations, subject to the changes imposed by circumstances or events. But we scarcely retain a vestige of what once was; we are, moreover, neither Indian nor European, but a species midway between the legitimate proprietors of this country and the Spanish usurpers. In short, though Americans by birth we derive our rights from Europe, and we have to assert these rights against the rights of the natives, and at the same time we must defend ourselves against the invaders. This places us in a most extraordinary and involved situation.

A paragraph later, he is even more explicit in the relation with the situation of white Creoles; he says:

Under the current Spanish system, and perhaps more strongly now than ever, Americans have no other place in society but that of slaves fit for work and, at best, that of mere consumers.

El Libertador spoke from his social condition; how could he do otherwise: he is speaking as a white creole. And they were the pioneers of the Independence movement; they were later joined by other social strata, it could even be said that some rather belatedly. The significance beats and breathes in the fact that the events in 1808 left mantuanos, who would later promote independence, no room for doubt that they were not treated the same as peninsular citizens. Being a white creole set them apart from the peninsula and this was evidently the port from which the ships would set out and reach the beaches of the republic’s creation.

“La ley respetando la virtud y honor” refers to the Spanish virtue and honor, not the French; and “el pobre en su choza” demands freedom from the napoleonic rule, not the Spanish crown.

Once the Mosquera affair was resolved, when the Central Junta replaced him and restored the honor of caraqueños framed as criminals, the Regency of Spain invalidated all Juntas, so the problem returned to the starting point. Ferdinand VII’s subjects did not accept another King. This is the cornerstone of the events in April 19, 1810, when the Parliament of Caracas, presided by Martín Tovar Ponte and José de las Llamozas, enforced the popular sovereignty residing in the City Council. Then the Junta for the Defense of the Rights of Ferdinand VII was created and Captain General Vicente Emparan along with the other officials of the deposed Crown were invited to join, but they did not support the project. However, they signed the Declaration of April 19 and in the following days, they left the province of Venezuela, which was still a year away from being a republic.

Not all Parliament members and signatories of the Declaration were the same who created the Junta in 1808, and no doubt the Junta of 1810 was even less loyal to Spain than the former. Mosquera’s abuses were not ignored. These are the days of the “Gloria al bravo pueblo,” which refers to these events and so “la ley respetando la virtud y honor” refers to the Spanish virtue and honor, not the French; and “el pobre en su choza” demands freedom from the napoleonic rule, not the Spanish crown. This comes from the wonderful study made by Alberto Calzavara about the History of Music in Venezuela, just like the matter of the so-called “mantuano plot” is sufficiently studied by Inés Quintero in the eponymous book.

It is true that these events of constitutional identity held the seed of the Republic of 1811, but these men were not doing this for their revolutionary fervor, as certain historiography claims. They were defending their King and stated that sovereignty resided on the people represented by Parliament, and this is why they did not accept any other monarch, without their consent.

A different story started on April 19, 1810, and ended on July 5, 1811. The fifteen months between one and the other were crucial for Venezuela. On the one hand, the constituted Junta issued a proclamation on April 27, clearly stating the causes that led to the Junta’s creation:

We have the same reasons to imitate the attempts of our brothers in Europe, which so far we have only admired, the same justice sustains us, the same energy with which we must vindicate our violated rights…

Later, the same Junta headed by José de las Llamozas and Martín Tovar Ponte, with Juan Germán Roscio already working as Secretary of State, issued a speech and a call for elections to choose the lawmakers of the entire Capitanía General who would complete the work done by caraqueños on April 19, 1810. This call was made on June 11, 1810, and it explained that the main is the one I just mentioned: give national reach to what was done in the capital and to hand the fate of the Capitanía General and the appointment of its authorities to people’s sovereignty.

Those who see the actors of April 19, 1810 as revolutionaries are exaggerating; those who point out that the process started in 1808, came to a head in 1810 and concluded on July 5, 1811 are right.

The Regulation for the Election of Lawmakers established the method for parishioners to choose lawmakers, and how many corresponded to each district. It established that, once elected, the lawmakers would create the General Deputation Junta of the Venezuelan Provinces. This was the first election held in the free Venezuela. It was indirect, second-grade, and restricted to men over 25 and owners, which evidently, reduced the electoral universe considerably. The elected lawmakers met on March, 1811, and what would originally become the aforementioned Junta, became the Constituent Congress of Venezuela, which would declare the independence on July 5, 1811, and would appoint Juan Germán Roscio and Francisco Isnardi to draft the National Constitution of 1811, sanctioned by the Legislative Branch on December 23 of that year.

Once we’ve made a cursory review of this process, we can conclude that, certainly, starting on April 19, 1810, the province of Venezuela made a government for itself, even though it was through the creation of a Junta to defend the rights of a deposed king. And this is a clear expression of the freedom that inspired the actions of these men, once sovereignty reverted back to them, after the events of Bayona, the place where Napoleon received the claudication of Carlos IV and set a trap for Ferdinand VII, which left his brother José as Emperor of Spain. So starting on April 19, 1810, the members of the province of Venezuela elected their first authorities (de las Llamozas and Tovar) and the Junta established the legal framework for the election of the first lawmakers chosen in 1811, who in turn approved the first National Constitution which served as the basis for electing the first Triumvirate in charge of the Executive Branch, with Cristóbal de Mendoza as the first of the three in exercising the Presidency.

Those who see the actors of April 19, 1810 as revolutionaries are exaggerating; those who point out that the process started in 1808, came to a head in 1810 and concluded on July 5, 1811 are right. It’s important to remember that there were many hues, that the thirst for independence was not unanimous at first. Reality is always complex, believing that it can be organized simplistically, in reductionist black-and-white plots, is the expression of a poor view of the world or even worse, a selfish, ideological view, seeking to reshape reality to its will. Both stances distort the truth, a treasure that is already quite complex to find and a titanically difficult to reach. Since there are always a myriad interpretations about history, we must return over and over to these events, to prevent the black hand of misrepresentation from changing facts. This is what I’ve modestly tried to do for you in this memorable date.