This day in 1821 was an historic day for much of Central America as, after almost three centuries of colonial rule, the nations of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, gained independence from Spain. As The Captaincy General of Guatemala, the region had been run as a Spanish overseas administrative division since 1609, overseen by a Captain General based in the regional capital, Guatemala City.
The Spanish had begun their colonial expansion in the early 16th century, conquistadors such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Hernández de Córdoba leading expeditions into the Central American interior, establishing settlements in what would become present day Nicaragua and Honduras. The indigenous Mayan population, consisting of a multitude of different tribes and ethnic groupings, was swiftly subordinated by the Spanish colonisers, and the area was rapidly brought under the yoke of Spanish rule. The establishment of the Roman Catholic diocese helped administer the region, and a strategy of engineering hostilities between neighbouring indigenous groups, promoted a system of divide and rule that helped cement Spanish supremacy. The disparate territories of Central America were finally unified as The Captaincy General of Guatemala in 1609, with King Philip III of Spain as head of state.
Throughout the 18th century, in an effort to increase efficiency and control in its overseas territories, Spain introduced a number of reforms that would help shape the political map of Central America. The area was divided into Intendants, which roughly correspond to the present-day countries in the region. These divisions had the unforeseen effect of establishing and solidifying separate cultural and national identities, and inadvertently led to the rise in dissatisfaction with colonial rule.
Independence movements elsewhere had galvanised those in The Captaincy who were keen to secede from Spanish rule–the end of British governance in the United States providing a particularly powerful example of what could be achieved. Capitalising on the unrest caused by Spain’s involvement in the Peninsular Wars, the independence movements gathered momentum, and there were several unsuccessful attempts to overthrow Spanish rule in the early 19th century. Eventually, the elite of the region allied themselves with the independence movement in New Spain, which would lead to the creation of the First Mexican Empire. In effect, the independence movement in Central America piggybacked on that of its northern neighbour, gaining independence within two months of Mexico.
Following the secession from Spanish rule, the newly independent states were unified as The Federal Republic of Central America, based on the principals of the United States, but this was a short-lived entity. The union proved unsustainable, and following Honduras’s decision to withdraw from the federation in 1838, the region descended into civil war. The federation was officially disbanded in 1840.
Despite the problems that beset the region following the end of Spanish colonial rule, 15 September 1821 is still regarded as the birth date of many of the sovereign states, and Independence Day celebrations are held on this date throughout Central America.