Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Wars of Independence: New Overviews and Underviews (Reviews of books by Fletcher, McFarlane and Paez Victor)

In 2013, as in previous years, lots of new books and articles continued to be published on the subject of the wars of independence in Spanish America, as the wave of interest in the history of the period catalysed by the first bicentennial celebrations left its mark. In this post I want to draw your attention to three completely different books on the subject published in English in 2013.

They are John Fletcher's The Wars of Spanish American Independence 1809-29 (Osprey Publishing), Maria Paez Victor's Liberty or Death! The Life and Campaigns of Richard L. Vowell, British Legionnaire and Commander - Hero and Patriot of the Americas (Tattered Flag) and Anthony McFarlane's War and Independence in Spanish America (Routledge).

John Fletcher's The Wars of Spanish American Independence 1809-29 (Osprey Publishing) is a lavishly illustrated and splendidly presented concise (96 pages) overview of the wars, aimed at the reader who has been bewildered by the complexity of the subject and its intricate regional variations and chronological overlaps. Each period of the wars is broken down and described region by region, with clear attempts to introduce the protagonists. The author has written gamers-guides on the conflict before and this book provides the historical background and context to complement them. The book is built around narratives of the military campaigning, providing some clear maps of the progression from battle to battle, and accessible introductions to the military strategies adopted. These are the strongest sections of the book; but the political summaries are succinct and useful as well, especially for a reader new to the subject. Historians who are well versed in the social, political and cultural histories of independence, but would like to dip a toe into the military history, would be well advised to start here.

Anthony McFarlane's War and Independence in Spanish America also puts warfare at the centre of its analysis. Rather than narrating the battles, however, McFarlane (Emeritus Professor of Latin American History at the University of Warwick) argues that understanding the social, political and economic consequences of warfare is fundamental to understanding the processes and meanings of independence. This massive book of 450 pages covers the long build-up to war, digs deep into the crucial 1810-1815 period, and then broadens out into the 'final' period of 'reconquest and liberation' of 1815-1825. It is based on many years of  research in dozens of libraries and archives.  I am reviewing this book for the journal War in History so I won't write any more for now. Suffice to say for now that anyone studying and researching the wars of independence from now on will have to read this book.

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Finally, after two very different overviews, a view of what the wars of independence looked and felt like from the outsider who got as far under the radar as was possible. Maria Paez Victor's Liberty or Death! The Life and Campaigns of Richard L. Vowell, British Legionnaire and Commander - Hero and Patriot of the Americas tells the story of the life of Richard Longfield Vowell, the Somerset-born adventurer who dropped out of Oxford University, served under Simon Bolivar in Venezuela, joined the Chilean navy under Lord Cochrane and spent a total of eleven years in South America in a variety of military and naval postings. With a wealth of observations and notes he returned to Bath and wrote a magnificent travel narrative and two novels set in Venezuela. The author quotes liberally from these accounts, and gives a good sense of what an insightful person Vowell was. When I wrote the entry on Vowell for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography a few years ago, we worked out that Vowell had been deported from Britain after publishing his three books in the early 1830s, and that he had ended up in Australia. Maria Paez Victor has put in the hard yards chasing Vowell's story across continents, to great avail, and the reader of the book's final chapters is rewarded with an astounding tale (which I won't give away) ending with his death in Casterton, Victoria, Australia in 1870.

When historians talk of the writing the 'global history' of the nineteenth-century, they often focus on ideas, or networks, or products, or diseases. Richard L. Vowell was one of those people who lived defiantly global lives. Anthony McFarlane's book reveals the big picture behind lives like Vowell's, in which imperial geopolitics, anti-colonial warfare and nascent states and nations came into conflict across Spanish America. The three books surveyed here are excellent, readable and original, and will certainly change the way their readers think about the conflicts of two centuries ago.


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