The colonial economy of Ecuador’s Sierra region revolved around textiles and other light manufactures, while the coastal economy, based largely in Guayaquil, relied on shipping and trade. The eighteenth century brought hardship to Spain, and consequently, to its colonies. Ecuador suffered a severe depression throughout most of the eighteenth century. Textile production, the staple of the Sierra economy, fell to less than half of its seventeenth century height. The weak economy hurt the “haves” more than the “have-nots”; by some accounts, the situation actually improved for Ecuador’s native population during the colony’s economic decline.
At the same time the Spanish colonial economy began to fail, messages of the Enlightenment being wrought in Europe penetrated Quito’s cultural isolation and began to be disseminated throughout the country on the backs of missionaries. Enlightenment ideals embodied notions of nationalism and individualism and the concepts of equality and freedom. The failing economy and flagging administrative authority of the Quito Audencia combined with the introduction of Enlightenment ideals set the stage for Ecuador’s independence.
Criollos formed the thrust that finally lead to independence.
Civil disturbances plagued the Quito
Audencia, particularly in the Sierra, from the mid-eighteenth century until the end of the colonial era. However, it was not until the criollos (persons of pure Spanish descent born in the New World) entered the revolutionary picture that independence really began to take form. The criollos resented the privileges afforded to the peninsulares (persons from Spain) and, as a result, sought independence from the crown.
Antonio José de Sucre Alcalá lead the Ecuadorian separatist forces to victory.
Ecuador’s criollo population tried several times to take control of the Quito Audencia in the decade that followed Napoleon’s invasion of Spain, but it was not until 1820 that the criollos had enough force to realize emancipation from Spanish colonial rule. In October of 1820, in Guayaquil, a junta under the leadership of José Joaquín Olmedo declared Ecuador’s independence from its colonial master. Unlike the earlier juntas, Olmedo appealed to Argentina and Venezuela for support. Ecuador’s identification with the wider South American independence movement – led principally by Venezuelan Simón Bolívar Palacios and the Argentinean José de San Martín – was ultimately what permitted it to throw of the shackles of Spanish domination as early as it did. Without help from Bolívar and San Martín, Ecuador likely would have languished under colonial rule for at least a few more decades.
Bolívar and San Martín heeded Olmedo’s call for help, sending him significant contingents of troops and a number of skilled offers. Antonio José de Sucre Alcalá led the combined Ecuadorian and foreign forces to a number of successive victories before finally being stopped at the city of Ambato in the highlands south of Quito. The royalist success was short lived, Martín sent Sucre the necessary reinforcements and the brilliant young lieutenant went on the offensive again. After another series of triumphs and a decisive victory at the Battle of Pichincha on May 24, 1822, Ecuador achieved its independence. Within hours of his victory on the slopes the volcano outside of Quito, Sucre received the formal surrender of the Quito Audiencia.