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Reviewed by:
  • The Mexican Wars of Independence
  • Pedro Santoni
The Mexican Wars of Independence. By Timothy J. Henderson. New York: Hill & Wang, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8090-9509-4. Map. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxiii, 246. $27.50.

Spurred on by the upcoming bicentennial of Latin America’s struggle to free itself from Spanish control, scholars have in recent years explored neglected aspects of that process. For example, both Marixa Lasso’s Myths of Harmony: Race and Republicanism in the Age of Revolution, Colombia 1795–1831 (2007), and Peter Blanchard’s Under the Flags of Freedom: Slave Soldiers and the Wars of Independence in Spanish South America (2008) have shed light on the contributions of pardos (free people of African descent) and slaves to the cause of independence and early nation-building. Historians have also drawn on the latest research to elaborate new syntheses of these conflicts for the benefit of non-specialist readers, a trend exemplified by John [End Page 1329] Chasteen’s Americanos: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence (2008) and the work under review, which offers a finely honed assessment of the causes, development, and consequences of Mexico’s movement toward independence

Among the many virtues of Timothy J. Henderson’s volume are its vivid portrayal of the era’s military operations, and its nuanced analysis of those factors that affected the way the struggle unfolded (e.g., the role of the United States, the experiment in constitutional monarchy illustrated by Spain’s 1812 Cádiz constitution). The book also humanizes key participants like Miguel Hidalgo, José María Morelos, Agustín de Iturbide, as well as others who get short shrift in standard textbook histories. One such individual was Pedro de Garibay, the eighty-year-old who became New Spain’s interim viceroy–and the puppet of imperial interests–following the September 1808 coup that crushed autonomist aspirations. Garibay, according to Henderson, was “so feeble that he could not hold a pen and had to sign documents with a stamp” (p. 49). The Mexican Wars of Independence thus provides a terrific read about the major historical issues and characters from this tumultuous time, and also offers valuable nuggets of information so instructors can embellish their undergraduate lectures.

More significantly, Henderson builds on the work of historians like Timothy Anna to challenge some of the most cherished myths of Mexican official history and patriotic discourse–traditions that have turned Hidalgo into one of the country’s most epic figures, and condemned Iturbide for bearing much, if not all, of the responsibility for the country’s post-independence troubles. He argues that the distinct independence projects, particularly Hidalgo’s appeal to the rural masses in 1810 and Iturbide’s 1821 bid for consensus among insurgents and royalists, “failed for the same reason . . . the potent legacy of three centuries of Spanish colonialism” (p. 219). Henderson, who early on in his narrative explains the main features of imperial rule, demonstrates throughout that social inequality was perhaps that system’s most profound legacy, one that the decade-long armed conflict failed to overcome.

My only real quibble with Henderson is with his assertion that “as late as the 1750s Mexico’s defenses consisted only of a palace guard at Mexico City, and a handful of soldiers at the ports of Veracruz and Acapulco” (p. 42). Ben Vinson III demonstrated in Bearing Arms for his Majesty: The Free-Colored Militia in Colonial Mexico (2001) that by the 1600s a free colored militia had become a prominent feature of New Spain’s political and social landscape. This slight criticism, however, hardly detracts from this accessible and riveting book. It will be most useful in a classroom setting, particularly in survey courses about Modern Latin America where instructors must discuss the struggle for independence–with its multiple settings, differences, and commonalities–in a few broad overview lectures. Here’s hoping, then, that the publishers will soon issue a paperback edition. [End Page 1330]

Pedro Santoni
California State University
San Bernardino, California