"Libertador" Simón Bolívar
Bolívar's death by Venezuelan painter Antonio Herrera Toro (1889)
Monument to Simon Bolivar, with flowers of Venezuela Government, at Venezuela square of Bilbao
Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco, commonly known as Simón Bolívar (Spanish pronunciation: [siˈmon boˈliβar]; July 24, 1783, Caracas, Venezuela – December 17, 1830, Santa Marta, Colombia) was a Venezuelan military and political leader. Together with José de San Martín, he played a key role in Hispanic-Spanish America's successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire, and is today considered one of the most influential politicians in Latin American history.
Born to wealthy Creoles in Caracas, Venezuela, on July 24, 1783, his father died when he was three and his mother six years later. Simon was reared by an uncle with a tutor who exposed him to the writers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, who were inspirations for the French Revolution. The tutor, Simon Rodriguez, fled the country when he was suspected of conspiring to overthrow Spain's colonial rule in 1796.
At 16, Bolivar was sent to Spain to complete his education and on the way, his ship stopped in Vera Cruz. During an audience with the viceroy, he audaciously praised the French Revolution and American independence, both of which made Spanish officials nervous.
In 1802, he married the daughter of a nobleman in Spain and returned to Caracas, only to have her die a year later from yellow fever. As a way of keeping his mind off of his grief, Bolivar decided to return to Europe to immerse himself in the intellectual and political world he had found so stimulating.
While in Paris, he met Alexander von Humboldt, the great naturalist who had just returned after five years in South America. As von Humboldt spoke of the enormous natural resources and wonders of the continent, Bolivar remarked, "In truth, what a brilliant fate--that of the New World, if only its people were freed of their yoke."
Von Humboldt responded, "I believe that your country is ready for its independence. But I can not see the man who is to achieve it." It was a fateful comment Bolivar was to vividly recall the rest of his life.
He also witnessed the coronation of Napoleon as emperor on December 2, 1804. Bolivar was appalled at what he felt was a betrayal of the principles of the Revolution, yet he took note of the ability of one man to change the course of history.
Bolivar had met up with his old tutor, Rodriguez, and the two traveled to Rome, where they again crossed paths with von Humboldt. On August 15, 1805, Bolivar found himself with Rodriguez on Monte Sacro (Aventine Hill), a place associated in Roman history with freedom from oppression. The 22-year-old feel to his knees and, grasping his teacher's hands, vowed to free his country. After returning to Paris, Bolivar sailed for America, stopping often along the east coast before arriving home in 1807.
The following year, France invaded Spain. By 1810, the city council of Caracas had grown bold enough to depose the Spanish viceroy and sent Bolivar to London to seek protection from the British government against any attempt by France to seize Venezuela. No help was forthcoming, but Bolivar recruited Francisco de Miranda, who had sprearheaded a prior revolt, to return to head the new independence movement. While in London, Bolivar also had his most famous portrait painted. On close examination, a medallion hanging from his neck reads, "There is no fatherland without freedom." When he left on September 21, he was never to return to Europe.
As is typical of revolutions before history is rewritten to present all the natives as patriots, what followed in South America was as much civil war as an effort to throw off the colonial yoke. The see-saw power struggle between revolutionary and loyalist factions and with the royal forces was to last 14 years (followed by several years of occasional conflict between factions in the liberated territories).
In March 1811, a national congress met in Caracas. Though not a delegate, Bolivar gave his first public speech to the group, saying, "Let us lay the cornerstone of American freedom without fear. To hesitate is to perish." The First Republic was declared July 5, Venezuela becoming the first colony anywhere in the Spanish empire to attempt to break free.
Like many in the aristocracy, Bolivar had slaves, and in the spirit and excitement of the independence movement he was the first to set them free. He was later to call for the abolition of slavery across the entire Western Hemisphere.
Although he had no formal military training and no battlefield experience, Bolivar was made Lieutenant Colonel serving under Miranda. He participated in his first engagement on July 19, an assault on the Spanish stronghold of Valencia in which he distinguished himself, but the rebel forces were repelled. A siege forced capitulation on August 19th after heavy losses on both sides. It was a harbinger of things to come.
Miranda and Bolivar had been having an increasing number of serious disagreements, from how to treat counterrevolutionary conspirators (Bolivar was for execution) to whether those born in Spain should be allowed to stay (Bolivar wanted them expelled). Meanwhile, on the political front the republicans were suffering from lack of governing experience. Within a few months, the captured royal treasury was spent and a Spanish blockade led to a worsening economic situation.
On March 26, 1812, two years to the day after the Caracas city council had deposed the viceroy, a severe earthquake hit the region, killing 10,000. Areas where loyalists to Spain resided were little affected and religious hysteria followed, blaming the independence movement for defying God's chosen monarch. The Spanish commander-in- chief, Juan Domingo de Monteverde, took advantage of the situation, marching out into the country, even finding rebel units eager to switch sides. However, Miranda, who had 5,000 men vs. Monteverde's 3,000, could have struck a decisive blow if he had gone on the offensive instead of being overly cautious. In the few times they clashed, Miranda held back his men from pursuit which could have annihilated the Spanish.
Bolivar was put in charge of the most important republican port, Puerto Cabello, where a large number of prisoners were kept at the main fort, as well as a large stockpile of arms and artillery (which played little role by either side in South America's fight for freedom) . The combination proved fatal: a traitor freed the prisoners who armed themselves and began bombarding Bolivar's position. He and his men barely escaped with their lives.
Bolivar felt disgraced by the loss and furious that Miranda had not responded to calls for help. Shortly thereafter, he and other officers turned Miranda over to the Spaniards.
As the Spanish completed their reconquest of the country, Bolivar escaped to Cartagena in New Granada (now Colombia), where rebels held power (though locked in civil war with a rival faction in Bogata).
There in 1812, he wrote the first of his many eloquent political manifestos, saying, "Not the Spanish, but our own disunity led us back into slavery. A strong government could have changed everything." He began championing a political system in which the nobility played a strong role, led by a president for life. He condemned the leniency against crime in general and against the state in particular that he felt had contributed to the fall of the First Republic. He began arguing that Venezuela should be liberated as the first step in creating an entire continent of independent states.
The government of New Granada authorized a revolutionary force to liberate the Spanish-held bastions in their territory and in Venezuela, headed by Pierre Labatut. Against orders, Bolivar took 200 of the men and boldly attacked a Spanish garrison, capturing supplies and boats. One small victory followed another and the rebel ranks swelled.
As a result of his actions, Bolivar was named commander-in-chief of the entire New Granadian army. He had to improvise tactics as he went along, finding European tactics he read about in books useless in a land of enormous mountain ranges, deep gorges, rushing rivers, vast plains, no roads, minimal ability to communicate over any distance, and sparse population.
Taking 650 men, he reentered Venezuela in May 1813. Facing 4,000 Spanish soldiers, Bolivar's expedition seemed foolhardy. Using speed and surprise, he would defeat units of the Spanish army and the population rose up to swell the ranks of the republicans. He also recruited from the enemy by offering amnesty for deserters, threatening to kill captured Spaniards. Though only occasionally carried out, he believed that only through such a drastic measure could the republicans win and avoid the slaughter and plunder of civilians that was inevitable if they lost.
After five swift victories, Bolivar had built up an army of 2,500, which came across 1,200 of the enemy, who retreated swiftly towards Valencia. He placed two men on each of 200 horses and had them ride around the Spanish through the night. The Spanish found their way blocked in the early morning of July 31 and in the Battle of Taguanes the revolutionaries crushed the royalists. It was Bolivar's first large-scale victory (by the small-scale standards of South American war).
The republican army reentered Caracas on August 7, where Bolivar, now 30, was given dictatorial powers, although half of Venezuela remained under control of the crown, which had 10 times the number of troops, who were, of course, much better equipped and trained.
Gradually, the population grew war-weary and sentiment turned against the independence movement, which was also hindered by being poorly equipped (the infantry typically had antiquated muskets which required six motions to load; often running out of ammunition, they resorted to bayonet attacks, when they had bayonets)!
The Spanish leaders also began recruiting the fierce llaneros, nomadic cattle-raising horsemen of the Amazon grasslands. They appointed Jose Tomas Boves, a former rebel embittered by having been imprisoned by his comrades, to head them. Known as the Legion of Hell, it consisted of as many as 10,000 riders using spears, knives, and bolos, easily superior to better-armed republicans, who were almost entirely infantry. They began waging an even more savage war, so the rebels responded in kind, even killing civilians who would not take up arms against the royalists. Prisoners were executed on the spot. There was no grand war strategy, no static fronts, just one pitched battle after another between a few hundred or few thousand.
On November 10, Bolivar inflicted what seemed to be a defeat on the llaneros and Spanish soldiers at Barquisemeto, but in the midst of the pursuit by the republicans, someone in their camped issued a call to retreat, throwing the army into confusion and the roles were reversed, the Spanish turning to pursue. It was Bolivar's first personal battlefield loss in one-and-a-half years. The first regiment to retreat was stripped of its medals, rank, and banners.
Then on December 5, at dawn, Bolivar's 3,000 attacked 5,000 Spanish forces under General Monteverde, who were on in the hills near Araure. The patriot's advance unit was immediately wiped out, but while Monteverde was reinforcing his flanks where he expected the next assault, rebels armed mostly with knives and sticks overran the center. After fierce hand-to-hand combat, Bolivar himself led the charge which scattered the Spanish. He gave chase until 2 a.m. the next morning, directing his men to kill even those who surrendered.
Over the next few months, the patriots found themselves fighting on so many fronts that they sometimes faced 7-to-1 odds. Bolivar's forces were nearly annihilated several times.
By February 1814, Bolivar had recruited some replacements and had dug in at San Mateo. The Spanish, who had 10 times the cavalry, made repeated attacks on his positions and nearly succeeded in overrunning them. At one point, they almost captured the supply and munitions depot, until the defenders blew themselves up to prevent its capture. The Spanish finally gave up after several months.
On May 28, Bolivar's 5,000 faced 1,000 entrenched royalists in hills above the Plains of Carabobo. Although his men were poorly armed, he knew that llaneros were on the way to reinforce the enemy, so he decided to risk everything again. The assault was so relentless that the Spanish fled.
But with his men nearly naked and the rainy season turning the region into a swamp, Bolivar found it increasingly difficult to follow up, final victory always slipping from his hands. On June 15, he gathered 3,000 soldiers at La Puerta against Boves' equal number, and this time the revolutionaries were trounced, Bolivar barely escaping from the field. As Boves marched onto Caracas with his numbers increasing by the day, 20,000 fled the city.
At Aragua, Boves caught up with remnants of the patriot army and 4,000 men, mostly Bolivar's, died in one of the bloodiest battles of the South American war for independence.
Bolivar shipped 24 chests of church silver and gems to a safe point to buy arms from British colonies and in September sailed to Cartagena. The royalists gained control of Venezuela by the end of the year, reinforced in May 1815 by 11,000 veterans of the Napoleonic wars, the biggest expedition the Spanish had ever sent to the Americas!
Ever the optimist, Bolivar wrote his fellow citizens, "I have been chosen by fate to break your chains…Fight and you shall win. For God grants victory to perseverance." He exhorted his men that misfortune was the "school of heroes."
The government of New Granada gave him an army to go after its own Spanish garrisons and rebellious cities He sent out a public letter, pleading with the factions to unite against Spain because "our country is America." But he was only partially successful in stopping the civil war and when a large Spanish army arrived from Venezuela in May, Bolivar sailed for Jamaica with most of his officers.
There, the prolific Bolivar wrote his most famous document, Letter from Jamaica, in which he declared, "A people that love freedom will in the end be free." He foresaw a great federation of Hispanic American republics which would deserve the same respect as European nations.
A man of great charm who could size up the people he met instantly, the indefatigable Bolivar set out to persuade the world to back his vision yet again. He was said to speak so eloquently on the spur of the moment that his speeches could be printed without editing. He answered every letter written to him, sometimes dictating to three secretaries at once.
Bolivar's pleas fell on deaf ears as far as governments went, with the exception of Haiti, whose president agreed to provide money and equipment. In March 1816, the first expedition sailed with 250 men in seven ships, an absurd force to engage the 10,000-strong royal army. They came across four Spanish vessels and were able to board two. They landed the next day at San Juan Griego and were warmly welcomed by the people. Another 300 joined what was called the Liberating Army. But shortly thereafter they were driven back and returned to Haiti for reprovisioning.
When Bolivar landed in Venezuela again in December1816, he was 33 and would remain there for the rest of his life. He had 500 men with him; a nearby fort had 1,500 of the enemy, never mind the 16,000 government soldiers in Caracas.
Bolivar began circulating proclamations, making up stories about supposed victories in various areas of the country, building an image of himself everywhere and invincible. In actuality, he operated mostly on the plains around the Orinoco river in the interior, headquartered in remote Agostura.
And Bolivar was actually spending much of his time quelling efforts by subordinates to usurp his command. Bolivar showed excellent political skills in maneuvering around the many internal roadblocks, but finally felt compelled to execute the leading conspirator, Manuel Piar, who was, unfortunately, was also the republicans' best tactician.
One man became indispensable to Bolivar's new strategy: Antonio Jose Paez, seven years his younger (who had an enormous bodyguard called the First Negro who had a knife so large no one else could wield it!). Paez had mastered the supreme difficulties of guerrilla cavalry warfare in the tropics. Some of the llaneros were so impressed by him that they changed sides. His lightning attacks achieved the first victories against the powerful army which had landed in 1815.
By May, the 2,000 republicans had achieved some significant victories. One incident illustrated how much they thrived on boldness. With 15 of his officers on a reconnaissance, Bolivar spotted a large number of Spanish soldiers lying in wait to ambush him as he rounded a corner. He shouted for his men to form up and prepare for an assault on the enemy position--as if his own army were right behind. The Spaniards retreated!
In January 1818, Bolivar's 3,000 soldiers marched 350 miles through a swampy region to join Paez's 1,000 cavalry. Armed mostly with lances and bows and arrows, they surprised one Spanish garrison after another. The commander if all Spanish forces in Venezuela and New Granada, Pablo Morillo, barely escaped.
But inevitably, Spanish numbers and arms turned the tide prevail. Bolivar retreated to El Semen with 2,000 men and while he was passing baggage over a ravine on March 25, royal forces attacked. The rebels were exhausted and Morillo killed half of them, capturing their materiel and papers, though Bolivar escaped. The Spanish were sure that he was finished this time.
But Bolivar was discouraged by the lack of popular support, but he still had Paez's 2,100 horsemen. He immediately began rebuilding the infantry by recruiting from convalescent hospitals and among teenage boys!
Gradually, though, he realized that the only way to achieve a level of professionalism to match the enemy was to form a foreign legion. He began raising money and his agents found great interest among the 30,000 recently discharged soldiers of the British army. The weather and the inability of the rebel army to meet payroll was discouraging to the mercenaries, but they adapted to conditions and became committed to the cause. Of the nearly 6000 who joined, 220 drowned on the way over, some deserted, and most were died from disease or in battle: only a few hundred survived the war.
In February 1819, a republican congress was convened to draw up a constitution for the Third Republic.
Meantime, guerrilla warfare was being successfully waged by Paez's cavalry. In one encounter, they lured the Spanish into a trap. The Venezuelans lost six, the Spanish 400. The Spanish withdrew from the region after losing half their 7,000 troops.
Bolivar began to conceive one of the most audacious military campaigns in history. He had been operating on the eastern part of the Plains of Casanare. On the western plains up against the Andes, Francisco de Paula Santander was conducting a guerrilla campaign the Spanish found impossible to suppress. During the rainy season when the plains were a virtual swamp, the royalist troops withdrew and in April, Santander sent a message to Bolivar that the area was free of the enemy.
Bolivar knew that the Andes were considered impassable during winter (in the southern hemisphere) and that the Spanish guarded the frontier of New Granada on the other side very lightly. He called a war council of his generals, all of them under 40, in a hut without furniture; they sat on the bleached skulls of oxen to discuss his idea on May 23.
Hannibal had spent years preparing for his epic trek through the Alps, as had San Martin of Argentina when he made his own climb over the Andes, both with seasoned soldiers. But within a week of making plans, Venezuela's 2,500 ragtag rebels set out to for the foot of the mountains. First, though, they had to cross 10 swollen rivers, as well as move through flooded plains with water often waist-deep, with the torrential rain constant. Half the cattle brought along for food drowned. Bolivar continually moved up and down his lines to exhort his men forward.
On June 25, they began the ascent into the mountains. The army consisted mostly of men from the plains and Britain and Ireland, none of them prepared for what they were about to face. The higher they went, the colder it became. By the time they were at 18,000 feet, the horses and cattle had died in the frozen wasteland. The half-naked men who had no wood for fire most of the time, took to flogging each other to keep circulation going. Nearly 1,000 men died along the way!
Those who made it to the other side of the range were half-starved and had dropped their weapons along the way, but found a population eager to resupply them. After Bolivar's men had a few skirmishes with Spanish government outposts, word reach the regional commander, who prepared to meet the rebels in a well-defended position with 3,000 soldiers on July 24 at Pantano de Vargas. After the revolutionaries' cavalry managed to charge in the steep terrain and the foreign legion seemed to cinch a victory with a bayonet assault, the Spanish pushed them back. It was a stalemate, but the commander sent a report to the viceroy: "The annihilation of the republicans appeared inevitable. But despair gave them courage. Our infantry could not resist them."
The Spanish retreated and the patriots pursued. At Boyaca, on August 7, the rebels prevented the royalists from crossing a bridge that would have allowed them to reach the garrison at Bogata. In a two-hour clash, they captured half of the 3,000 Spanish troops, the rest having been killed or fled the battlefield. It was the turning point for the independence movement in South America. The Spanish began to evacuate New Granada and word spread like wildfire that the empire was coming to an end. Desertions from the royal army increased and formerly neutral citizens began actively supporting Bolivar.
In December, the underground legislature of Venezuela assembled and declared its country and New Granada united as the Republic of Colombia (which included what is now Ecuador). Bolivar was made president and military dictator.
Political events in Spain provided impetus for negotiations with the republicans throughout 1820, but skirmishes continued. Bolivar and Morillo, the Spanish commander, met in November and signed an armistice. In the following months, the patriots built up their army and made plans for a campaign in the event a final agreement should not be worked out. The conflict resumed in April 1821.
On June 24, the Spanish general La Torre brought 5,000 troops to Carabobo to block both passes that could allow the rebels to move towards Caracas. He made some decisive mistakes in position: a weak right flank, no sharpshooters at the edges, and cavalry too far to the rear to be brought up in a timely manner.
Bolivar, with a total of 6,500 men, sent Paez with cavalry and infantry, including the British battalion, around to the enemy's right rear, but while cutting through the heavy bushes, that they were spotted. The Spanish reinforced their right and concentrated fire on Paez's troops, repelling the initial attack, which required the patriots to climb across steep ravines. But when the overconfident Spanish broke out and chased them, the royalists ran smack into the British veterans of the Napoleonic wars who cut them to pieces with disciplined heavy fire at close range. Running out of ammunition, the British charged with bayonets and the Spanish right collapsed.
The main forces of both sides had not yet engaged, but when Bolivar saw the outcome on the right, he ordered a full attack. One-third of the Spanish troops were captured and as many were killed or wounded.
The region between Cali (Colombia) and Guayaquil (Ecuador) remained a Spanish stronghold after the victory at Carabobo. Bolivar had sent General Antonio Jose Sucre south to aid the local revolutionaries and he had achieved some success. In March 1822, Bolivar set out with 3,000 soldiers, but one third of them perished from exposure or harassment from loyalist guerrillas.
On April 7, he came up against 1,800 Spanish troops in a seemingly impregnable position in thick woods at Bombana. Bolivar ordered an attack on the right at night under a full moon, losing a third of his 2,000 men under withering fire.
But over the next six weeks while the Spanish were concentrating on resisting Bolivar, his right-hand, Antonio Jose Sucre, had gone around them, defeated royalist troops positioned near Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and taken it. From that base, he was able to mop of Spanish forces and Bolivar went on to Guayaquil.
Forces under the generalship of Jose de San Martin, a 20-year veteran of service to the crown, and Bernardo O'Higgins, son of an Irishman who had become viceroy of Peru, had ended colonialism in Chile and Argentina. Between their armies and Bolivar's troops lay Peru, with 19,000 Spanish troops, the last of the empire. San Martin was well-provisioned and well-armed when he marched over the Andes with 4,500 veterans to take Lima in June 1821. However, had not been able to push further inland.
On July 26, 1822, San Martin and Bolivar met in Guayaquil to see how they could work together. There is no record of the meeting, but they didn't seem to get along well personally and had different visions for the continent. San Martin was so discouraged by Bolivar's impassioned insistence that his views would prevail that he retired immediately to France. Peru was left in Bolivar's hands.
In June 1824, Bolivar assembled an army of 9,000 in Peru to move 600 miles over the Andes to the high plateau. Inadequately clothed, suffering from sun-blindness, lack of oxygen, and the hazards of the dizzying precipces, they climbed to 12,000 feet. One English general, a long-time veteran in Europe, described it as the most difficult military operation he had ever undertaken.
At the top, Bolivar reviewed his troops and told them, "Soldiers, you are about to finish the greatest undertaking Heaven has confided to men--that of saving an entire world from salvery!"
On August 6, Bolivar reached the heights above the Plains of Junin. Below, he spotted part of the Spanish army moving across the plains. Bolivar sent 900 of his horsemen to attack the 2,000 royal cavalry at their rear. The engagement lasted 45 minutes, no shot was fired during the clash of lances and swords. The patriots lost 120 men, the Spanish, who retreated in wild disorder, 400. It was to be the last battle Bolivar would personally lead against the king's men.
Bolivar stepped down to attend to political matters and put nearly 5,780 soldiers under the command of Sucre. The Peruvian viceroy, La Serna, took 9,300 troops and began to pursue Sucre's forces. A cat and mouse game ensued through country crossed by steep ravines and deep rivers. Bolivar wrote Sucre that, "The axiom of Marshal of Saxony is being fulfilled. Feet spared Peru; feet saved Peru; and feet will again cause Peru to be lost. Fixed ideas always avenge themselves."
The Spanish finally trapped Sucre's army in the valley of Ayacucho on December 9. The republicans had only one 4-pounder gun, opposed to the crown force's 24 artillery pieces. As the Spanish marched down on the republicans, Sucre rode along his lines, shouting, "Upon your efforts depend the fate of South America." Knowing that some of La Serna's subordinates perpetuated massacres of surrendered troops, the rebels knew it was a fight to the finish. One of Sucre's lieutenants killed his horse, explaining to his soldiers, "I have now no means of escape, so we must fight it out together." The Spanish were startled by the fierceness of the republican resistance and when the latter charged with bayonets, the Spanish lost 2,000 men and 15 guns. La Serna was taken prisoner and the commanding general surrendered.
Sucre's report to Bolivar announced, "The war is ended, and the liberation of Peru completed."
Mop-up operations occupied 1825 and in the same year the people of upper Peru deciding to form a separate nation, which they named Bolivia in Bolivar's honor. He wrote its constitution and accepted the position of lifetime president.
The fight for the independence of Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Panama (a department of Colombia) had involved 696 battles, with an average of 1,400 soldiers per engagement, counting both sides together!
Bolivar received a letter from the then-old Marquis de Lafayette on behalf of the family of George Washington, along with a gold medallion coined after the capitulation at Yorktown. It read, "The second Washington of the New World." Bolivar was deeply moved.
Simon Bolivar began vigorously rebuilding and administering the devastated new states. He was at the height of his power when he convened a congress of Latin American republics in Panama in 1826. He envisioned a league of the fledgling Central and South American nations, but he was far ahead of his time.85
Soon thereafter, fighting between the states, personality conflicts, and resentment of his authoritarian ways caused his influence to wane. After an assassination attempt and with failing health, Bolivar resigned all his positions and died shortly thereafter on December 10, 1830.
But to Latin Americans, Bolivar remains immortal, one of the greatest military leaders in the history of the entire world.