Latin America

History of Latin America

Dates of independence for Latin American countriesDates of independence for Latin American countries From the 1500s onwards, the region now described as Latin America (South America, Mexico and Central America) was ruled by Spain, with the important exception of Brazil, which became part of the Portuguese Empire. The countries of Latin America won their independence from European rule in the early 1800s. Millions of European immigrants arrived to start new lives in countries that were often governed by dictators and fighting each other over land and resources. Today the entire continent is largely at peace and under democratic government

Spanish soldiers and the defeated Aztec peopleSpanish soldiers and the defeated Aztec people

Colonial rule

The Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in South America in the 1530s, added to their conquest of the Aztec Empire in Mexico and Central America in the 1520s, gave the Spanish the second biggest empire in world history to date, after the Mongol Empire of the 1200s. The Spanish destroyed the ancient cultures they found, while European diseases wiped out much of the local population. Spanish rule was restricted mainly to the big cities and road systems, with the more sparsely inhabited interior still only partly colonized by 1800. The main benefit of the empire was the huge wealth of silver mined in Bolivia and brought back to Spain in fleets that regularly crossed the Atlantic Ocean. This wealth funded Spanish armies in Europe and underpinned all European trade.

A bandeirante, a capturer of Indian slavesA bandeirante, a capturer of Indian slaves

Portuguese Brazil

In 1494 Spain and Portugal agreed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which gave all land west of an imaginary line of longitude drawn on the globe to Spain and all land east of the line to Portugal. This allowed Portugal to colonize Brazil, which they had discovered in 1500. From around 1540 large numbers of Portuguese settled in Brazil to set up sugar plantations. Some settlers penetrated the interior, looking for gold and for Native slaves to work on the plantations. Portuguese landowners soon turned to importing millions of slaves from Africa instead. The main threat to the Portuguese came from the Dutch, who overran northeast Brazil in 1630 and kept the territory they had gained until they were expelled in 1654. 

Slaves on a farm in Brazil, 1876Slaves on a farm in Brazil, 1876

Brazilian independence

In 1807 French forces under Napoleon threatened Portugal. In response, the Portuguese royal family fled to Brazil. The royal family prospered there, founding the country’s first national bank. In 1815 the Portuguese crown established the United Kingdom of Portugal and Brazil, giving the colonizer and colony equal ranking. In 1821 King Joao VI returned to Portugal, leaving his son Prince Pedro as Regent. 


When the Lisbon government tried to re-establish Brazil as a colony, the country revolted and declared its independence in 1822. Pedro now became emperor of the new Empire of Brazil. The new country was still strongly involved with slavery of Africans from across the Atlantic. The transatlantic trade was abolished in 1850 but it was not until 1888 that slavery itself was finally abolished in Brazil. A year later, the country overthrew the emperor and declared itself a republic.

Simón Bolivar leads his troops into battleSimón Bolivar leads his troops into battle

Independence from Spain

In 1808 Napoleon of France invaded Spain and placed his brother Joseph on the throne. These events promoted revolts across the Spanish Empire. In 1811 Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolivar (1783–1830) began his campaign in the north that led to victory at Boyacá in 1819 and the independence of Gran Colombia, from which emerged independent Venezuela and Ecuador in 1830. In the south, Paraguay became independent in 1811. 

José de San Martín leads an army across the AndesJosé de San Martín leads an army across the Andes

Argentina won its independence in 1816. Argentine general José de San Martín (1778–1850) then took an army across the Andes to win independence for Chile in 1818 and Peru in 1821. When Bolivia gained its independence in 1825, the entire continent was free of colonial rule except for the French, Dutch and British colonies in Guiana in the northeast.

Fighting during the War of the Triple AllianceFighting during the War of the Triple Alliance

South American wars

The newly independent countries of South America were ruled by local caudillos (dictators). They also inherited the former Spanish colonial frontiers, leading to many vicious border wars. In 1864–70 War of the Triple Alliance, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil fought Paraguay, which lost much of its territory and 60% of its population. In 1879–84 the War of the Pacific between Peru, Bolivia and Chile led to Bolivia’s losing its Pacific Ocean coast.

German immigrants, Brazil (1875)German immigrants, Brazil (1875)

Economies and immigration

Meanwhile, foreign money funded new railways and harbours in South America. British firms mined the phosphate reserves of Peru and Chile while American investment led to a boom in Brazilian coffee. Argentina exported wool, leather and beef, helped by the development of refrigerated sea transport in the 1880s. Populations across the continent increased rapidly as immigrants flooded in from southern Europe. More than 4.5 million settled in Uruguay and Argentina after the 1850s, with another 3 million immigrants arrived in Brazil. Chinese and Japanese labourers also arrived to help build railroads and work in the mines.


The Mexican War of IndependenceThe Mexican War of IndependenceMexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810, but fighting continued until Spain finally granted the rebels' demands in the Treaty of Córdoba of 1821. The Republic of Mexico was established in 1824. The northern region of Texas, populated by English-speaking settlers, broke away in 1836 to became an independent country, Mexico lost another vast amount of territory to the United States following its defeat in the Mexican-American War of 1846–48. 

Emiliano ZapataEmiliano Zapata
The Republic suffered a further setback when French forces invaded the country in 1862, but Mexico enjoyed a long period of stability and prosperity between 1876 and 1911. Nothing was done to improve the lot of the peasants, however, and the Mexican Revolution was unleashed in 1910. Fighting lasted for 10 years. The Revolution was led by, among others, Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. During fierce fighting, a tenth of Mexico's population was killed. But the Revolution ended the system of landed estates (haciendas) owned by the wealthy, that had existed since Spanish colonial times in the 16th century.

Buenos Aires docks, 1915Buenos Aires docks, 1915

South America in the 20th century

Many Latin American nations relied heavily on a single productChile on copper, Colombia and Brazil on coffee—and suffered badly when world prices fell. During the early 20th century, quarrels over resources led to wars between countries. Chile and Peru clashed over nitrates in 1929 while from 1932 to 1935 Paraguay and Bolivia fought the Chaco War over disputed oil reserves. In fact, the reserves did not exist—but the war was nonetheless one of the most violent conflicts in the world that broke out between 1918 and 1939. In 1942 Ecuador lost the potentially rich Amazon region to Peru. 

Eva and Juan Perón, 1950Eva and Juan Perón, 1950


Juan Domingo Perón (1895–1974) was three times elected as President of Argentina. During his first period in office (1946–52) he was supported by his second wife, Eva Duarte. Popular amongst Argentines, the couple took a number of steps to eliminate poverty in their country. Eva, who came from a humble family background herself, showed particular concern for the poor and the sick and fought for women's suffrage (women's right to vote), which was granted by law in Argentina in 1947. The Eva Perón Foundation, which was established in 1948, funded hundreds of schools, doctors' visits, household goods and other benefits for the needy.

Affectionately known as "Evita", Eva Perón died of cancer in 1952. Juan Perón increasingly faced opposition from many influential people in Argentina and was forced into exile after a military takeover of the country in 1955.

The bombing of the Chilean presidential palace, 1973The bombing of the Chilean presidential palace, 1973


Throughout the century, much of Latin America was mainly ruled by military dictatorships. Rebel forces, locally known as guerrilleros, took up arms against them in Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia and Venezuela. Left-wing government have also taken power. In 1973 the elected socialist government in Chile was overthrown with American support. In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez took power in 1998 pledging to start a Bolivarian Revolution to reform the country. Today democratic governments rule the entire continent.


 Consultant: Philip Parker

Simón Bolívar's full name was: Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco.

At a rough estimate, 24 million (around 60% of the total population) Argentinian people are thought to have some Italian ancestry. Italians made up about 45% of Argentina's entire immigrant population between 1857 and 1940—more than from any other country.

Argentina invaded and occupied the British-owned Falkland Islands (which they called the Islas Malvinas) in 1982. The Argentinians were expelled after a British task force sailed thousands of kilometres nearly the length of the Atlantic Ocean to fight them.

The Chaco War (1932–35) was fought between Bolivia and Paraguay. Most of the Bolivian soldiers were native Indians who were used to living at altitudes of more than 3700 m (12,000 ft). Fighting in tropical conditions at near-sea-level altitudes was alien to them. More died from diseases such as malaria than from battle.

The Mexican revolutionary movement of the 1990s, the Zapatistas, takes its name from the followers of Emiliano Zapata during the Mexican Revolution of 1910–20.

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