The struggle for Latin American independence at the dawn of the 19th century recounted in all its gritty glory.
Documenting this ugly birth, Chasteen (Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America, 2005, etc.) leaves no stone unturned. Maps of key territories, a portrait gallery, a list of important figures, a chronology and a glossary are just a few of the appendages to his vivid account, making this a comprehensive yet concise overview of a major turning point in Latin American history. Scholars are likely to be familiar with most of the material; the strength of Chasteen’s graphic retelling lies in the colorful splashes of language he deploys to transport the reader back to this tumultuous time. Great stories abound. A decapitated horseman is dragged through battle, still strapped to the stirrup of his horse. Mexican revolutionary leader Miguel Hidalgo hands sweets to the firing squad about to execute him. Defenders of the Mexican village Cuaatla, besieged by the Spanish, eat “leather, iguanas, rats, and insects.” Chasteen utilizes the travel writings of Prussian adventurer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt to describe Latin America before the battles broke out. The main events, sparked by Napoleon’s occupation of Spain and Portugal in 1808, allow the author to write eloquently on the actions and personalities of figures such as the mercurial and enormously ambitious Simón Bolívar (president of no less than five countries), Argentinean military leader Manuel Belgrano and a host of major and minor figures whose actions have been carefully brought back to life in this compelling account. In the concluding chapter, Chasteen offers his thoughts on the slow evolution of Latin American society in the aftermath of independence.
Strikes a neat balance between attentive commentary and dynamic storytelling.