It was a rainy Friday morning on May 25, 1810, when a crowd of disgruntled Porteños and local militia gathered on the old Plaza de la Victoria (since renamed Plaza de Mayo), and demanded to know what was going on inside the government house, the Cabildo.
If you have a pop quiz tomorrow, this is the short answer: Viceroy Baltasar Cisneros was resigning, and Argentina was taking its first step toward independence from Spain.
The rain ceased as if by magic, the clouds broke and May sunshine washed over the plaza. This explains why the Sol de Mayo appears on Argentina’s flag and coinage. (Still not sure why that sun has a face, though.) The End.
Of course, the full story takes a bit more telling. The May Revolution didn’t happen in one day. It unfolded over the course of a whole week and was (like the US and French Revolutions before it) propelled by political, economic and cultural tensions that had been ratcheting up for decades and generations.
So lets rewind.
Napoleon Conquers Spain
In 1810, Argentina was not yet a thing. Buenos Aires was the capital and commercial center of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, a vast territory that also encompassed modern-day Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia. Cisneros was the man appointed by Spain to rule this meaty chunk of empire.
But the so-called “Spanish Empire” had been a joke for years — and soon it would be a fiction. Just a decade earlier in 1800, under pressure from Napoleon Bonaparte, Spain had signed over the Louisiana Territory (along with its lunch money) to the French, who promptly (and rather predictably) sold it to the United States and used the proceeds to launch a full-scale invasion of Spain itself.
By 1808, Napoleon had deposed King Ferdinand VII and installed his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte, on the throne of Spain. A short-lived provisional government called the Junta attempted to rule in Ferdinand’s absence, leading a doomed resistance from the remaining free Spanish cities against the French occupiers. Napoleon’s troops finally overran these positions in early 1810, and the collapse of Spanish self-government was complete.
Rumors about the fall of Spain had been swirling in the colonies for some time already, until a British ship arrived in Buenos Aires on May 18 with newspapers confirming that the “Spanish Empire” was no longer either of those things. Spain was now a colony of France. How embarrassing.
Who, then, would rule her colonies?
In truth, the subjects of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata had already been looking after themselves for years and increasingly felt that they owed nothing to Spain except taxes. The sudden crisis of legitimacy for Spain’s colonial governors was merely the perfect opportunity to make their independence official.
Spain Hasn’t Done Much For Her Colonies Lately, Except Take Their Money
Without oversimplifying too much, these were three principal gripes leveled against Spain by her soon-to-be-former colonies:
A jealous and stifling economic relationship with the mother country left her colonial subjects little choice but to go behind her back to survive. In an arrangement known to economists as monopsony, Spain forbade her American colonies from trading with other nations —yet Spain’s own economy was not nearly robust enough to provide everything her colonies needed, nor to consume everything they produced.
Inevitably, a black market developed and thrived: by the beginning of the 1800s, roughly half of all trade in the Viceroyalty was illegal — a state of affairs that can exist only under a “government” that has become irredeemably and unapologetically corrupt.
Locally-born criollos chafed under the haughty misrule of Spanish-born peninsulares who held most of the key government positions, exploited their privileged status for personal gain and generally swaggered around like they owned the place.
When the British invaded the Viceroyalty — twice — in 1806 and 1807, Spain didn’t lift a finger to help. I mean, come on. Thanks in part to the torrent of foreign black marketeers and smugglers flooding freely in and out of colonial markets that were supposed to be off limits, word quickly got around that Spain was losing her grip. The British reckoned they could take a crack at her territories on the River Plate, and Spain wouldn’t do a thing about it. They were right.
What they hadn’t counted on, however, was the fierce resistance that local criollo authorities were able to marshal against the invading British Army troops, who were among the most disciplined and effective in the world. And they certainly hadn’t counted on losing to a mere colonial militia and old women hurling chamber pots from the windows.
The invasions ended in humiliating defeats for the British, and for the newly-empowered criollos, the takeaway was twofold: they realized that they would have to fight for themselves, and they now had an independent military force to do just that.
Here Comes The Sun
Three years later on rainy May 25th, it was the presence of that same militia force that helped persuade Viceroy Baltasar Cisneros to step down and get the hell out of town while he still could. According to legend, the rain abruptly ceased, the clouds broke and May sunshine washed over the Plaza de la Victoria, which was soon re-christened The May Plaza.
Exactly one year later, the Pirámide de Mayo (Buenos Aires’ oldest national monument) was dedicated to commemorate this tipping point in Argentina’s independence movement. But this is only the beginning of that story, and the wars of independence were yet to be fought.
Tune in on July 9th for the next episode, when we celebrate Argentina’s formal declaration of independence.