The May Revolution, Argentina’s first giant step towards independence

In today’s world, events that take place in one continent have an immediate ripple effect across the globe. It is usually about the economy, like the price of crude oil. Sometimes, it is political events that cause upheavals, like revolutions.

Now, imagine a time when news took weeks or even months to spread. Letter and newspapers were shipped across the ocean. By the time they reached their destination, the news was already old.

That is what happened in the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in 1810. Events across the world and old news impacted the destiny of a fledgling nation.

The Cabildo of Buenos Aires, where these historic events took place.

The Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata

Located in the southern tip of South America, the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata was one of the many Spanish colonies in the New World. King Carlos III had issued orders to create a buffer viceroyalty in 1776 to decentralise the rule of his large empire and to beef up military defences to stop the Portuguese from encroaching on the king’s lands. The viceroyalty comprised what is now Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, and Paraguay.

Napoleon Bonaparte

It is hard to imagine nowadays how two seemingly unconnected events across the ocean trigger the independence process in Argentina. And it all comes down to one man: Napoleon Bonaparte.

Part of the strategy of Napoleon’s war against Britain was to blockade trade and thus destroy British commerce. Neutral nations and French allies were not permitted to trade with Great Britain. Thus, the Brits set out to find new, albeit captive, markets for their products.

On the other hand, French forces had invaded Spain and Bonaparte placed his brother Joseph on the throne. Spanish loyalists created juntas that ruled in the named of the exiled king Ferdinand VII.


British forces attempted to invade Buenos Aires twice, in 1806 and 1807. Local militia repelled them both times. This stirred rumblings of independence from Spain. The criollos (Argentine-born Europeans) figured that if they could defend the city without support from the Motherland, they could well rule themselves.

ON THE ROAD TO SELF-RULE: the may revolution

Now, the criollos believed that the dominions had the right to govern themselves in the absence of the lawful king. However, the viceroyalty was under the aegis of the Junta Nacional de Sevilla. The junta fell in January, but the news reached these shores on May 14, 1810. This definitely set the independence movement in motion.

An abridged history of the May Revolution, the fledgling nation of Argentina's giant first step towards full independence from Spain.
The room where most of the decisions were made.

While Viceroy Cisneros tried to placate the population, a group of prominent citizens met in secret to plot against the Crown. They decided to ask Cornelio Saavedra, who played a key role in the defense of Buenos Aires against the British, to ask the viceroy for a cabildo abierto (an open council meeting). Cisneros ignored the petition.

By May 21, tempers ran high. A crowd gathered outside the Cabildo demanding the viceroy’s resignation.

Viceroy Cisneros authorised an open meeting on May 22. Criollos and royalists discussed what to do. The royalists were obviously loyal to the Crown. The criollo faction wanted a new government. They eventually voted the viceroy out.

On May 24, a new junta was created, headed by none other that the deposed Viceroy Cisneros. It didn’t sit well with the criollos.

The following day, tempers ran even higher. After many rows and much shouting from the crowd outside, the Cabildo accepted the viceroy’s resignation as head of the junta.

the may revolution in full swing

By 3 pm, a new government led by criollos was put in place: the Primera Junta de Gobierno. The people gathered outside celebrated the first giant step towards sovereignty. Argentina gained full independence from Spain in 1816.

Another view of the Cabildo in central Buenos Aires

We celebrate the May Revolution (la Revolución de Mayo)  with traditional foods like hot chocolate and pastelitos (fried pastries filled with quince or sweet potato jam) in the afternoon and locro for lunch.

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An abridged history of the May Revolution, the fledgling nation of Argentina's giant first step towards full independence from Spain.

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