Decolonization of the Americas

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Decolonization of the Americas refers to the process by which the countries in the Americas gained their independence from European rule. Decolonization began with a series of revolutions in the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries. The status quo then prevailed for more than a century, excepting the independence of Cuba (whose war for independence culminated in the Spanish–American War).

Peaceful independence by voluntary withdrawal of colonial powers then became the norm in the second half of the 20th century. However, there are still many British and Dutch colonies in North America (mostly Caribbean islands), as well as the United States' possessions of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands; the French Republic has fully "integrated" most of its former colonies as fully constituent "departments" of France.

United States

The United States of America declared independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776 (although the event is now commemorated on July 4, the date when the Declaration of Independence was officially adopted by Congress), in so doing becoming the first independent, foreign-recognized nation in the Americas and the first European colonial entity to break from its mother country. Britain formally acknowledged American independence in 1783 after its defeat in the American Revolutionary War.

Although initially occupying only the land east of the Mississippi between Canada and Florida, the United States would eventually acquire various other North American territories from the British, French, Spanish and Russians in succeeding years, effectively decolonizing these areas formerly under European control.

Haiti and the French Antilles

The American and French Revolutions, had profound effects on the Spanish, Portuguese and French colonies in the Americas. Haiti, a French slave colony, was the first to follow the United States to independence, during the Haitian Revolution, which lasted from 1791 to 1804. Thwarted in his attempt to rebuild a French empire in North America, Napoleon Bonaparte turned his armies to Europe, invading and occupying many countries, including Spain and Portugal in 1808. This Occupation lead to the Peninsula War.

Spanish America

Places in the Americas by date of independence. Note that the United States did not complete its continental territorial expansion until 1867.

The Spanish Kingdoms in the Americas won their independence in the first quarter of the 19th century.

During the Peninsula War, Napoleon installed his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte on the Spanish Throne and captured the King Fernando VII. Several assemblies were established after 1810 by the Criollos to recover the sovereignty and self-government based in Seven-Part Code, for restoration the laws of Castilian succession to rule the lands in the name of Ferdinand VII of Spain.

This experience of self-government, along with the influence of Liberalism and the ideas of the French and American Revolutions, brought about a struggle for independence, led by the Libertadores. The territories freed themselves, often with help from foreign mercenaries and privateers. United States, Europe and the British Empire were neutral, aimed to achieve political influence and trade without the Spanish monopoly.

In South America, Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín led the final phase of the independence struggle. Although Bolívar attempted to keep the Spanish-speaking parts of the continent politically unified, they rapidly became independent of one another as well, and several further wars were fought, such as the Paraguayan War and the War of the Pacific.

A related process took place in Spain's North and Central American colonies with the Mexican War of Independence and related struggles. Independence was achieved in 1821 by a coalition uniting under Agustín de Iturbide and the Army of the Three Guarantees. Unity was maintained for a short period under the First Mexican Empire, but within a decade the region had also split into various nations.

In 1898, in the Greater Antilles, the United States won the Spanish–American War and occupied Cuba and Puerto Rico, ending Spanish territorial control in the Americas.


Unlike the Spanish, the Portuguese did not divide their colonial territory in the Americas. The captaincies they created were subdued to a centralized administration in Salvador which reported directly to the Crown in Lisbon. Therefore, it is not common to refer to "Portuguese America" (like Spanish America, Dutch America, etc.), but rather to Brazil, as a unified colony since its very beginnings.

As a result, Brazil did not split into several states by the time of Independence (1822), as happened to its Spanish-speaking neighbors. The adoption of monarchy instead of federal republic in the first six decades of Brazilian political sovereignty also contributed to the nation's unity.

In the Portuguese colony Dom Pedro I (also Pedro IV of Portugal), son of the Portuguese king Dom João VI, proclaimed the country's independence in 1822 and became Brazil's first Emperor. This was generally peacefully accepted by the crown in Portugal, although some guerrillas were fought between Portuguese troops and civilians. Portugal recognized Brazil's independence 3 years later upon compensation.


On July 1, 1867, Canada became a dominion within the British empire. At this point the Dominion of Canada included Upper and Lower Canada (southern Ontario and Quebec, respectively), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The British colonies of British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), and Newfoundland (1949, following World War II) would eventually join Confederation. Britain also ceded control of Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory (1870), and the Arctic Islands (1880) to Canada. The Canadian government acquired the Sverdrup Islands in the Arctic region from Norway in 1931 after the previous owner nation had them for two decades in part of polar explorer Roald Amundsen's claim to the North Pole for the Norwegian flag in 1908/09. This level of independence was achieved completely by political means through negotiations between the governments of the British North American colonies (Charlottetown Conference and Quebec Conference). There had been two attempts at achieving Canadian independence by armed force in both Upper and Lower Canada during 1837-1838 (The Rebellion of 1837) however both were put down by British authorities. Delaying the transfer of Rupert's Land to Canada was the Red River Rebellion in 1869, which sought independence and self-government but was put down by the new Canadian government, leading to the creation of the Royal North-West Mountain Police. The same region also fought for independence again in 1885 in the North-West Rebellion but the insurgency was met with armed force by Canadian troops and the RNWMP. In British Columbia, unceded territories of various native peoples remain in dispute, with numerous native governments refusing to recognize Canadian sovereignty since the province joined Confederation. The only formally treated areas of British Columbia are a small group of treaties near Victoria, the lands of the Nisga'a Nation flanking the Nass River, and the Treaty 8 lands in the province's northeast.

Newfoundland was also given Dominion status on September 26, 1907, although as noted above, this was superseded when it joined the Confederation in 1949.

From 1867 until 1931, Britain maintained control of foreign policy. The Treaty of Westminster transferred that control to Canada. Formal permission of the British Parliament, however, was required for some amendments to Canada's basic law, the British North America Act, 1867. With the passing of the Canada Act 1982, this last formal legislative link with the mother country was severed, and Canada assumed total independence from H.M. Government in London.

20th century

Other countries did not gain independence until the 20th century:

From the United Kingdom:

From the Netherlands:

Current non-sovereign territories

Some parts of the Americas are still administered by European countries or the USA:

The remaining non-sovereign territories of the Americas have generally retained this status by choice, and enjoy a significant degree of self-government. (Some have nevertheless been placed on the U.N. list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, an ongoing subject of controversy.) Aruba, for example, seceded from the Netherlands Antilles on January 1, 1986, and became a separate, self-governing member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Movement toward full independence by 1996 was halted at Aruba's request in 1990. French Guiana, Guadeloupe and Martinique are not considered colonies of France, but have been "incorporated" into France itself, as overseas départements (départements d'outre-mer, or DOM).


Country[1] Colonial name Colonial power[2] Independence date[3] First head of state[4] War for independence
United States Thirteen Colonies Britain September 3, 1783[5] George Washington American Revolutionary War
Haiti Saint-Domingue France January 1, 1804 Jean-Jacques Dessalines Haitian Revolution
Paraguay Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata Spain May 14, 1811 Junta[6] Paraguay campaign
Argentina Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata Spain July 9, 1816 Juan Martín de Pueyrredón Argentine War of Independence
Chile Captaincy General of Chile Spain February 12, 1818 Bernardo O'Higgins Chilean War of Independence
as part of Gran Colombia
Viceroyalty of New Granada Spain August 7, 1819 Simón Bolívar Bolívar's campaign to liberate New Granada
as part of Gran Colombia
Captaincy General of Venezuela Spain June 24, 1821 Simón Bolívar Venezuelan War of Independence, Battle of Carabobo
Costa Rica
as part of UPCA
Viceroyalty of New Spain Spain September 15, 1821 Gabino Gaínza -
as part of UPCA
Viceroyalty of New Spain Spain September 15, 1821 Gabino Gaínza -
as part of UPCA
Viceroyalty of New Spain British-Spain September 15, 1821 Gabino Gaínza -
as part of UPCA
Viceroyalty of New Spain British-Spain September 15, 1821 Gabino Gaínza -
El Salvador
as part of UPCA
Viceroyalty of New Spain Spain September 15, 1821 Gabino Gaínza -
Mexico Viceroyalty of New Spain Spain September 27, 1821 Agustín I Mexican War of Independence
Dominican Republic
as the Republic of Spanish Haiti
Captaincy General of Santo Domingo Spain November 20, 1821 José Núñez de Cáceres Haitian occupation of Santo Domingo
as part of Gran Colombia
Viceroyalty of New Granada Spain November 28, 1821 Simón Bolívar -
as part of Gran Colombia
Viceroyalty of New Granada Spain May 24, 1822 Simón Bolívar Ecuadorian War of Independence
Brazil United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves Portugal September 7, 1822 Pedro I Brazilian War of Independence
Peru Viceroyalty of Peru Spain December 9, 1824 Simón Bolívar Peruvian War of Independence
Bolivia Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata Spain August 6, 1825 Simón Bolívar Bolivian War of Independence
Uruguay Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata;
Cisplatina Province
Portugal; Brazil
May 18, 1811;
August 27, 1828 [7]
José Gervasio Artigas;
Juan Antonio Lavalleja
Battle of Las Piedras;
Cisplatine War
Dominican Republic Captaincy General of Santo Domingo Haiti February 27, 1844 Juan Pablo Duarte Dominican War of Independence
Dominican Republic Captaincy General of Santo Domingo Spain August 16, 1865 José María Cabral Dominican Restoration War
Cuba Cuba Spain; USA May 20, 1902 Tomás Estrada Palma Spanish–American War
Jamaica Jamaica Britain August 6, 1962 Alexander Bustamante -
Trinidad and Tobago Trinidad and Tobago Britain August 31, 1962 Eric Williams -
Guyana British Guiana Britain May 26, 1966 Forbes Burnham -
Barbados Barbados Britain November 30, 1966 Errol Barrow -
Bahamas Bahamas Britain July 10, 1973 Lynden Oscar Pindling -
Grenada British Windward Islands Britain February 7, 1974 Eric Matthew Gairy -
Suriname Suriname Netherlands November 25, 1975 Johan Ferrier -
Dominica British Windward Islands Britain November 3, 1978 Louis Cools-Lartigue -
Saint Lucia British Windward Islands Britain February 22, 1979 John Compton -
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines British Windward Islands Britain October 27, 1979 Milton Cato -
Belize British Honduras Britain September 21, 1981 George Cadle Price -
Antigua and Barbuda British Leeward Islands Britain November 1, 1981 Vere Cornwall Bird -
Canada Canada Britain 1867/1931/1982 Sir John. A Macdonald -[8]
Saint Kitts and Nevis British Leeward Islands Britain September 19, 1983 Robert L. Bradshaw -

See also


  1. Timeline list arranged according to current countries. Explanatory notes are added in cases where decolonization was achieved jointly or where the current state is formed by merger of previously decolonized states.
  2. Some territories changed hands multiple times, so in the list is mentioned the last colonial power.
  3. Date of decolonization. Subsequent mergers, secessions and civil and other wars in the period after decolonization and the resulting states and federations are not part of this list – see the list of sovereign states by formation date.
  4. First head of state after independence. For current and former Commonwealth realms instead of first head of state is listed the first head of government.
  5. After independence the United States colonized and later incorporated in their federal structure, territories on their own. The last acquisition in the Americas was in 1935, the last incorporation in 1959, but some of the territories remain unincorporated.
  6. Composed of the following leaders: Vicente Ignacio Iturbe Domínguez; Juan Valeriano de Zevallos; Fulgencio Yegros; Pedro Juan Caballero and José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia
  7. After gaining independence of Spain the territory of present-day Uruguay in 1817 was occupied and in 1921 annexed by Portugal to be administered as Brazilian province.
  8. The Rebellions of 1837 were a pair of Canadian armed uprisings that occurred in 1837 and 1838 in response to frustrations in political reform.