Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Want to speak to the American, Argentinian or British A17ers today? They’ll be quiet because its Memorial Day in the United States, May Revolution in Argentina and Spring Bank Holiday in the UK.

For a brief introduction to this series, see Easter

Spring Bank Holiday

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Its origins are Whit Monday, or Pentecost Monday but because the UK is a secular country, the religious link has been dropped. Its the day after Pentecost, which for Christians is the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles. I can’t really make sense of how this actually manifested itself but it seems some wind and fire are involved, which caused people to speak, possibly in tongues, possibly while drunk but in a way that everyone understood in a way they couldn’t before. Afterwards Peter preached his first sermon to 3000 people and its considered that this is the birth of the Church.

In England its often called Whit Monday after Whit Sunday, which is either because people often got baptised wearing white or because wit originally sort of meant understanding rather than sharp humour as it means today.

Handily this holiday happens whilst Jewish people celebrate Shavout, a feast that celebrates the day God gave the Torah to Moses and others gathered at Mount Sinai. I think he delivered this orally as opposed to free copies of his book or an email or something. What I can say is that reading Jewish historical sources is harder than Christian ones because of all the Hebrew names.

Memorial Day

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Originally called Decoration Day, this holiday is to remember those who died serving in the armed forces of the United States. It originally started to decorate the graves of the Union and Confederate dead during the American Civil War. And I mean decorate, not just flowers, but sculpted gardens, cleaning, maintaining and generally pausing to respect, honour and remember those who died. Its worth pointing out that the American Civil War was the deadliest war in United States history (because combatants on both sides where American). The total loss of American lives in that one war is roughly the same as the American loss of lives in World War 2, World War 1, Vietnam and, well, pretty much every other war the United States has been involved in, combined.

United States armed forces are still engaged in conflict and are still loosing service people in this conflicts. Yet for most Americans I gather Memorial Day is the official start of summer, a day to have BBQs and go shopping. Perhaps this annoys me more than it should. Pausing to think about those who died to allow us to be free is somewhat drilled into us here in England, especially around Armistice day so now I feel strongly that the historical context is important. Celebrating the “day off” seems somewhat distasteful to me; maybe I’m just a grumpy old man in a grumpy old mans body.

Memorial Day weekend has hosted the Indianapolis 500 race now for a 100 years. This year an Australian with an incredibly American sounding name – Will Power – won the race. He nearly won in 2015 but lost to, Juan Pablo Montoya, who has a name that sounds like he could be on of our Argentine developers, but who is from Columbia. Tenuous link to..

May Revolution Day

To be honest, I found this subject way more interesting than the others, especially in the context of Latin American revolutions at large. Also, this story isn’t all Britain’s fault!

The holiday commemorates the day the last viceroy of Spain, stepped down in Buenos Aires on May 25th 1810. This later led to Argentina declaring its independence, in Tucumán on July 9th, 1816.

Tucumán being the city were our A17 Argentina office is located: Hola, cómo estás Tucumán!

So, before 1816 there was no Argentina?

Nope. Its a pretty young country. Not as young as South Sudan (2011), Kosovo (2008), Montenegro and Serbia (2006) but compared to the UK (1284 or 1536 or 1603 or, er, 1707) and Japan (660BC!) it is. Actually there are LOTS of countries that became countries in the last 100 years, largely due to colonies of the UK, France, Italy, Spain and Russia gaining independence from their colonial powers.

What was Argentina before 1816?

Initially a bunch of different groups of hunters and gatherers and some farmers with some Inca influences.

In the 1500s the Spanish arrived in South America and set about imposing themselves on the people. They split America, that is the continent and not just the bit we call the United States today, into the Viceroyalty of New Spain (bits of North America, Central America) and the Viceroyalty of Peru (most of South America except for the Portuguese owned Brazil).

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

They mostly set up farms and looked for gold. They didn’t find much gold, but they did find Potosí, a mountain made of silver. They mined the mountain using local natives who were forced to work for tiny wages, not slaves as such, but not far off. Back then they used mercury to refine silver and mercury is incredibly toxic to humans.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

This made Spain very rich. Very very rich. The richest country in Europe.

A result of the influx of all this silver into Spain was to cause inflation, really really bad inflation. Worse, the Spanish tax system took the same amount of tax all the way through, but the value of the money they took was worth less. Coupled with this, being richer led Spain to get involved in wars. Wars in which it didn’t do all that well, especially when going up against the Dutch who had a much better system of finance and when going up against the British weather (the Spanish Armada was largely sunk by our weather after they’d lost the initiative of the battle).

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Spanish Armada vs British weather

Back to Latin America

Oh yes. But the deviation is important, you can’t talk about the revolutions of Latin America without mentioning Europe. And thats not just my European ego talking.

Latin America was basically controlled by:

  • the Spanish/Portuguese,
  • the Catholic Church.

And culturally split basically by:

  • Peninsulares, that is Europeans living in South America,
  • Creoles, whites born in Latin America,
  • Native Americans, er, locals,
  • African Slaves 😞

Back to Argentina

Buenos Aires had been settled by the Spanish in 1536 and abandoned a few years later, the value of its estuary as a port wasn’t seen until 1776 when the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata was formed. Tucumán was founded in 1565 and moved to its present location in 1685. I suspect it was then they laid the internet cables down. The Spanish also founded the city of Londres in 1558. It was named in honour of Mary I of England, whom Philip II of Spain was married too. He later proposed to her younger sister, Elizabeth I and eventually decided he would try and kill her. Did I mention his Armada was sunk by our weather?

The Spanish didn’t allow their colonies to trade with anyone else. The problem here was that the Spanish economy wasn’t healthy enough to buy/sell at large enough quantities or provide adequate safety to trading ships. Countries like Britain had state sponsored piracy and so Spanish colonies resorted to having trade ships escorted by war ships, which was expensive. And smuggling was a massive problem.

Peninsulares held all the positions of power and they were often picked somewhat arbitrarily by the royal families back in Spain and Portugal and so they had no real interest in Latin America or its people. The lower cast Creoles disliked the privileges of the Peninsulares and the social prejudices put upon them by the Peninsulares.

To the United States!

Towards the end of the 1800s the United States emancipated from Great Britain. This led the Creoles in Latin America to see that independence from Spain could be achieved.

The United States largely afforded the war with Britain because of sponsorship from France, which bankrupted France. This set up the seeds for Napoleon and the French Revolution. Ideas like the divine rights of kings really came into question. This upset much of Europe, who mostly had kings by divine right and so some declared war on Napoleon and France. That didn’t go well for Spain either. Or Portugal.

Back to Europe!

For us here in the United Kingdom, this was good. The industrial revolution had started and now we could once again trade with North America and make lots of money. But annoyingly Napoleon stopped us trading with much of Europe because we were at war with France and Napoleon controlled much of Europe. So, Britain invaded bits of South America, notably the Rio de la Plata. The Brits were not successful but the Spanish scored an own goal by not sending help from Spain, instead the local Creoles formed militias to defend their territories. And now, because of the militias the Creoles had formed, the Creoles had more power than ever before.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Jon Heder

Portugal decided to start trading with Britain. This annoyed Napoleon so he invaded. Their royal family fled to Brazil, a country they were reluctant to leave even after the French had left. From Portugal, the French invaded Spain and Napoleon put his brother, Joseph on the throne of Spain. This upset the Spanish, who changed sides and allied with Britain.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Joseph Bonaparte

Back to Argentina!

The news of events in Europe and especially in Spain, was taken to Buenos Aires by British ships. I said it wasn’t all Britains’ fault, but I didn’t promise Britain wasn’t involved 😉. Initially the ruling Viceroy tried to hide the news but it leaked out; the Creoles in Buenos Aires recognised now that the government that put their government in place no longer existed and so questioned its legitimacy.

The Viceroy suggested that he continue to rule and that they all should pledge allegiance to the deposed Spanish Spanish king. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t a popular suggestion. They instead asked for an open debate or he would be removed from power by whatever means was necessary. Bizarrely for revolutionaries they seemed preoccupied with not appearing to be outlaws, so the legal system was being altered to hurry along their process.

Even more bizarrely, on the night of May 20th, after informing the Viceroy that they no longer wanted to be related to the fate of Spain, the revolutionaries went to watch a theatre production called “Rome Saved”. The play ended with a speech about the need for strong leadership for the Romans who were under attack from the Gauls (early French people). The speech encouraged the revolutionaries spirits, a cry for the freedom of Buenos Aires was made and a fight broke out. I guess its a bit like how I felt when I left the cinema at the end of Fast and the Furious 7. Only I resisted the urge to fight anyone or declare independence and instead went to Five Guys for a burger.

The open meeting was to go ahead, but the Viceroy only invited the wealthiest citizens, citizens likely to support himself. But he left printing the tickets to the Creole revolutionaries; who changed the guest list somewhat and distributed the tickets among themselves.

During the meeting, which lasted over 12 hours, it was argued that for Buenos Aires to decide the legitimacy of the Viceroy would be wrong, as theirs wasn’t the only city he controlled. And others argued that they had to act, because of the from Napoleons armies. They didn’t know he’d gone mad and had Russia in his sights.

After a vote was taken, it was decided to allow the Viceroy to maintain his position, only now at the top of a new Junta, while they gathered representatives from other cities. Fears of a population lead revolution began and on the morning of the 25th a crowd gathered – it demanded the Junta be recalled and another formed. More discussion, more voting and some bad weather meant that by the time a decision had been made, most people had gone home. If it had been a nicer day, who knows, maybe things would have been different.

The new government was called the Primera Junta.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Primera Junta

Not everyone in the old Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata supported the Primera Junta, most did, but Córdoba and the cities in upper Peru and Paraguay remained loyal to the royals. The Primera Junta faced counter revolutionary uprisings. One method they chose to deal with this was by sending military expeditions to other cities to demand they support of the Junta.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

José San Martin

Chile had its own revolution, although its first Junta was defeated by royalists and the Argentines led by José San Martin, defeated the Chilean royalists. And then he pushed on to defeat the Peruvian loyalists in Lima, gaining the independence of Peru. This reflected a greater push of the wars of independence from Spain moving to north South America.

Vive la révolution!

Napoleon putting his brother on the Spanish throne this upset the ruling Peninsulares in Mexico, because they were loyal to the old King of Spain, who had put them in their positions of power in the first place. The Creoles there, took the opportunity to align themselves with the new Spanish King, who was French. And revolution began.

Revolution in Brazil was easier. The royal family preferred life in Brazil, but after Napoleon had been defeated and had left Portugal, the Portuguese wanted their king back to govern them. A few years later he reluctantly went back but he left his son in charge of Brazil. His son was convinced by creoles there to declare himself king of Brazil and so he did.

Revolution also began in Venezuela, but wasn’t so straight forward there as the Illaneros supported Spain. Step up Simon Bolivar, known as the Liberator. He set about appealing to a common sense of being from South America a successful strategy that allowed him to capture Bogota, Caracas and Quito.

Mike’s Historical Half Truths: Spring Bank Holiday, Memorial Day and May Revolution Day

Simon Bolivar

Between Bolivar and San Martins contributions, the Spanish had a hard time in Latin America. The 300 year control of South America by the Europeans was over and in 1824 the last Spanish Viceroy finally stood down.

Consequences for Argentina

The revolutions deposed European rule but in other aspects, they weren’t all that revolutionary. The social structure of wealthy elites stood, the church kept its power, rights for women were terrible, lots of people died and the stability of Argentina, and other Latin American countries, was low for a long time afterwards. And could be argued, still is today.

Why?

Possibly in Latin America, many of the regions controlled by Spain previously were only associated because of Spanish rule – they had little in common otherwise. And so now after Spanish rule they have little in common to relate to as nations.

It could also be argued that European countries have a strong sense of country largely because of the international wars we have had; something for a countries population to get behind together – something that really South America countries haven’t done.

Also, freedom and revolution mean different things to different people at different times. Libertarian ideals that helped propel the spirit of these revolutions suited some more than others. If “all men are created equal”, as taken from the United States Declaration of Independence, then why where some men able to hold slaves? Any why did women get so little rights? Those that sought freedom only sought the freedoms that they wanted, for themselves.

The thing I find interesting about this whole story is that I’ve been guilty of thinking of the connected world as a modern thing but here is an example from 250 years ago of a very connected world. And really, this connected nature of the world goes back much further.


Also published on Medium.