Periodization of the flow of events that we subsume under one of the meanings assigned to the word history has always provided fertile ground for debate and suggested alternatives. Alianza Editorial’s new Historia de América Latina, volume 3 by Tulio Halperín-Donghi, does away with the customary division of Latin American history at the Wars of Independence. His title and theme are the reform and dissolution of the Iberian empires, 1750-1850. In Spain and Portugal, the ideas of the Enlightenment led to far-reaching projects of reform, aimed at tightening colonial ties and rendering the overseas realms more profitable to the home country. Meanwhile, a wider range of ideas of the Enlightenment brought convulsions in Europe, which, spreading to the New World, ultimately led to the independence of almost all of the colonies. Subsequent attempts to reconstruct orderly societies in the newly independent countries met with apparent failure in all but Brazil and Paraguay at midcentury. Halperín-Donghi indicates, however, that much of the apparent chaos represented struggles within small elites and power plays among the officers of the victorious armies. Remarkably, what emerged in the central Andes and Mexico was the dominance of royalist creole generals adhering late to the cause of independence.

Accompanying a masterful summary of the interaction of factions, families, group interests, and class pressures (to the extent to which they existed), is a careful depiction of the basic economic changes which before independence altered the economies of the two colonial empires. Before independence, there had been steady penetration of British commerce. After independence, the mining economies of Peru, Mexico, and Bolivia were left in comparative decay, while the growth of trade with Europe promoted the economic development of Venezuela, parts of Colombia, the River Plate area, and Chile. The author delineates in summary form, with great clarity, the military aspects of the wars; a highly complicated series of campaigns becomes much more understandable. Even the turns and twists of factional politics become clearer as his treatment lays bare the known and probable motives and relationships. The prose of this book is notable in that Halperín-Donghi’s normally sesquipedalian sentences, with clause balancing clause in eighteenth-century style, have been brought to relatively short crisp statements. The subtlety remains; this is prose that one must read carefully, but one reads with pleasure and quicker understanding.