Biography of Simon Bolivar

Liberator of South America

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Simon Bolivar.

Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) was the greatest leader of Latin America's independence movement from Spain. A superb general and a charismatic politician, he not only drove the Spanish from northern South America but also was instrumental in the early formative years of the republics that sprang up once the Spanish had gone. His later years are marked by the collapse of his grand dream of a united South America.

He is remembered as "The Liberator," the man who liberated his home from Spanish rule.

Early Years

Bolivar was born in Caracas (present-day Venezuela) in 1783 to an extremely wealthy family. At that time, a handful of families owned most of the land in Venezuela, and the Bolivar family was among the wealthiest in the colony. Both of his parents died while Simon was still young: he had no memory of his father, Juan Vicente, and his mother Concepcion Palacios died when he was nine years old.

Orphaned, Simon went to live with his grandfather and was raised by his uncles and his nurse Hipólita, for whom he had great affection. Young Simon was an arrogant, hyperactive lad who often had disagreements with his tutors. He was schooled at the finest schools that Caracas had to offer. From 1804 to 1807 he went to Europe, where he toured around in the manner of a wealthy New World Creole.

Personal Life

Bolívar was a natural leader and a man of great energy.

He was very competitive, often challenging his officers to contests of swimming or horsemanship (and usually winning). He could stay up all night playing cards or drinking and singing with his men, who were fanatically loyal to him.

He married once early in life, but his wife died shortly thereafter.

He was a notorious womanizer who took dozens if not hundreds of lovers to his bed over the years. He cared greatly for appearances. He loved nothing more than making grand entrances into cities he had liberated and could spend hours grooming himself. He used cologne heavily: some claim he could use a whole bottle in one day.

Venezuela: Ripe for Independence

When Bolívar returned to Venezuela in 1807, he found a population divided between loyalty to Spain and a desire for independence. Venezuelan Francisco de Miranda had attempted to kick-start independence in 1806 with an aborted invasion of Venezuela's northern coast. When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and imprisoned King Ferdinand VII, many Venezuelans felt that they no longer owed allegiance to Spain, giving the independence movement undeniable momentum.

The First Venezuelan Republic

On April 19, 1810, the people of Caracas declared a provisional independence from Spain: they were still nominally loyal to King Ferdinand, but would rule Venezuela by themselves until such a time as Spain was back on its feet and Ferdinand restored. Young Simón Bolívar was an important voice during this time, advocating for full independence. Along with a small delegation, Bolívar was dispatched to England to seek the support of the British government.

There he met Miranda and invited him back to Venezuela to participate in the government of the young republic.

When Bolivar returned, he found civil strife between patriots and royalists. On July 5, 1811, the First Venezuelan Republic voted for full independence, dropping the farce that they were still loyal to Ferdinand VII. On March 26, 1812, a tremendous earthquake rocked Venezuela. It hit mostly rebellious cities, and Spanish priests were able to convince a superstitious population that the earthquake was divine retribution. Royalist Captain Domingo Monteverde rallied the Spanish and royalist forces and captured important ports and the city of Valencia. Miranda sued for peace. Bolívar, disgusted, arrested Miranda and turned him over to the Spanish, but the First Republic had fallen and the Spanish regained control of Venezuela.

The Admirable Campaign

Bolivar, defeated, went into exile. In late 1812 he went to New Granada (now Colombia) to look for a commission as an officer in the growing Independence movement there. He was given 200 men and control of a remote outpost. He aggressively attacked all Spanish forces in the area, and his prestige and army grew. By the beginning of 1813, he was ready to lead a sizeable army into Venezuela. The royalists in Venezuela could not beat him head-on but rather tried to surround him with a number of smaller armies. Bolívar did what everyone least expected and made a mad dash for Caracas. The gamble paid off, and on August 7, 1813, Bolivar rode victoriously into Caracas at the head of his army. This dazzling march became known as the Admirable Campaign.

The Second Venezuelan Republic

Bolívar quickly established the Second Venezuelan Republic. The grateful people named him Liberator and made him dictator of the new nation. Although Bolivar had outfoxed the Spanish, he had not beaten their armies. He did not have time to govern, as he was constantly battling royalist forces. At the beginning of 1814, the "infernal Legion," an army of savage Plainsmen led by a cruel but charismatic Spaniard named Tomas Boves, began assaulting the young republic. Defeated by Boves at the second Battle of La Puerta in June of 1814, Bolívar was forced to abandon first Valencia and then Caracas, thus ending the Second Republic. Bolívar went into exile once again.

1814-1819

The years of 1814 to 1819 were tough ones for Bolívar and South America. In 1815, he penned his famous Letter from Jamaica, which outlined the struggles of Independence to date. Widely disseminated, the letter reinforced his position as the most important leader of the Independence movement.

When he returned to the mainland, he found Venezuela in the grip of chaos. Pro-independence leaders and royalist forces fought up and down the land, devastating the countryside. This period was marked by much strife among the different generals fighting for Independence.

It wasn't until Bolivar made an example of General Manuel Piar by executing him in October of 1817 that he was able to bring other Patriot warlords such as Santiago Mariño and José Antonio Páez into line.

1819: Bolivar Crosses the Andes

In early 1819, Venezuela was devastated, its cities in ruins, as royalists and patriots fought vicious battles wherever they met. Bolívar found himself pinned against the Andes in western Venezuela. He then realized that he was less than 300 miles away from the Viceregal capital of Bogota, which was practically undefended. If he could capture it, he could destroy the Spanish base of power in northern South America. The only problem: between him and Bogota were not only flooded plains, fetid swamps and raging rivers but the mighty, snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains.

In May of 1819, he began the crossing with some 2,400 men. They crossed the Andes at the frigid Páramo de Pisba pass and on July 6, 1819, they finally reached the New Granadan village of Socha. His army was in tatters: some estimate that 2,000 may have perished en route.

The Battle of Boyaca

Nevertheless, Bolivar had his army where he needed it. He also had the element of surprise. His enemies assumed he would never be so insane as to cross the Andes where he did. He quickly recruited new soldiers from a population eager for liberty and set out for Bogota. There was only one army between him and his objective, and on August 7, 1819, Bolivar surprised Spanish General José María Barreiro on the banks of the Boyaca River. The battle was a triumph for Bolivar, shocking in its results: Bolívar lost 13 killed and some 50 wounded, whereas 200 royalists were killed and some 1,600 captured. On August 10, Bolivar marched into Bogota unopposed.

Mopping up in Venezuela and New Granada

With the defeat of Barreiro's army, Bolívar held New Granada. With captured funds and weapons and recruits flocking to his banner, it was only a matter of time before the remaining Spanish forces in New Granada and Venezuela were run down and defeated. On June 24, 1821, Bolívar crushed the last major royalist force in Venezuela at the decisive Battle of Carabobo. Bolívar brashly declared the birth of a New Republic: Gran Colombia, which would include the lands of Venezuela, New Granada, and Ecuador. He was named President, and  Francisco de Paula Santander was named Vice-President. Northern South America was liberated, so Bolivar turned his gaze to the south.

The Liberation of Ecuador

Bolívar was bogged down by political duties, so he sent an army south under the command of his best general, Antonio José de Sucre. Sucre's army moved into present-day Ecuador, liberating towns and cities as it went. On May 24, 1822, Sucre squared off against the largest royalist force in Ecuador. They fought on the muddy slopes of Pichincha Volcano, within sight of Quito. The Battle of Pichincha was a great victory for Sucre and the Patriots, who forever drove the Spanish from Ecuador.

The Liberation of Peru and the Creation of Bolivia

Bolívar left Santander in charge of Gran Colombia and headed south to meet up with Sucre. On July 26-27, Bolivar met with José de San Martín, liberator of Argentina, in Guayaquil. It was decided there that Bolívar would lead the charge into Peru, the last royalist stronghold on the continent. On August 6, 1824, Bolivar and Sucre defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Junin. On December 9 Sucre dealt the royalists another harsh blow at the Battle of Ayacucho, basically destroying the last royalist army in Peru. The next year, also on August 6, the Congress of Upper Peru created the nation of Bolivia, naming it after Bolivar and confirming him as President.

Bolívar had driven the Spanish out of northern and western South America and now ruled over the present-day nations of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama. It was his dream to unite them all, creating one unified nation. It was not to be.

Dissolution of Gran Colombia

Santander had angered Bolivar by refusing to send troops and supplies during the liberation of Ecuador and Peru, and Bolivar dismissed him when he returned to Gran Colombia. By then, however, the republic was beginning to fall apart. Regional leaders had been consolidating their power in Bolivar's absence. In Venezuela, José Antonio Páez, a hero of Independence, constantly threatened secession. In Colombia, Santander still had his followers who felt that he was the best man to lead the nation. In Ecuador, Juan José Flores was trying to pry the nation away from Gran Colombia.

Bolívar was forced to seize power and accept dictatorship to control the unwieldy republic. The nations were divided among his supporters and his detractors: in the streets, people burned him in effigy as a tyrant. Civil War was a constant threat. His enemies tried to assassinate him on September 25, 1828, and nearly managed to do so: only the intervention of his lover, Manuela Saenz, saved him.

Death of Simon Bolivar

As the Republic of Gran Colombia fell around him, his health deteriorated as his tuberculosis worsened. In April of 1830, disillusioned, ill and bitter, he resigned the Presidency and set off to go into exile in Europe. Even as he left, his successors fought over the pieces of his Empire and his allies fought to get him reinstated. As he and his entourage slowly made their way to the coast, he still dreamed of unifying South America into one great nation. It was not to be: he finally succumbed to tuberculosis on December 17, 1830.

Legacy of Simon Bolivar

It is impossible to overstate Bolívar's importance in northern and western South America. Although the eventual independence of Spain's New World colonies was inevitable, it took a man with Bolívar's skills to make it happen. Bolívar was probably the best general South America has ever produced, as well as the most influential politician. The combination of these skills on one man is extraordinary, and Bolívar is rightly considered by many as the most important figure in Latin American history. His name made the famous 1978 list of the 100 most famous people in History, compiled by Michael H. Hart. Other names on the list include Jesus Christ, Confucius, and Alexander the Great.

Some nations had their own liberators, such as Bernardo O'Higgins in Chile or Miguel Hidalgo in Mexico. These men may be little known outside of the nations they helped free, but Simón Bolívar is known all over Latin America with the sort of reverence that citizens of the United States associated with George Washington.

If anything, Bolívar's status now is greater than ever. His dreams and words have proved prescient time and again. He knew that the future of Latin America lay in freedom and he knew how to attain it. He predicted that if Gran Colombia fell apart and that if smaller, weaker republics were allowed to form from the ashes of the Spanish colonial system that the region would always be at an international disadvantage. This has certainly proven to be the case, and many a Latin American over the years has wondered how things would be different today if Bolívar had managed to unite all of northern and western South America into one large, powerful nation instead of the bickering republics that we have now.

Bolívar still serves as a source of inspiration for many. Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez has initiated what he calls a "Bolivarian Revolution" in his country, comparing himself to the legendary General as he veers Venezuela into socialism. Countless books and movies have been made about him: one outstanding example is Gabriel García Marquez's The General in His Labyrinth, which chronicles Bolívar's final journey.

Sources:

Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.