Simon Bolivar and Jose de San Martin: The Guayaquil Conference

Bolivar meets San Martin
Bolivar meets San Martin. El Comercio Archive

In 1810, Spanish colonies from Mexico to Chile declared their independence, and for the next fifteen years, patriot and royalist armies fought it out in the mountains, forests, rivers, cities and plains of Spanish America before Spain's colonial power was thrown off. In northern South America, Simon Bolivar, the Liberator, battled the Spanish like a man possessed, ruthlessly driving his soldiers and officers to win.

In southern South America, the methodical Jose de San Martin masterminded the liberation of Argentina and Chile with the cold precision of the professional military officer that he was. These two great men had much in common, but they only met once, in the city of Guayaquil on July 26, 1822. What did the two greatest patriot generals talk about?

Prelude to the Guayaquil Conference

By early 1822, Spanish forces were on the defensive in South America. In the north, Bolivar had effectively liberated Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. With his stunning victory at the Battle of Boyaca, he had established himself as the greatest of the northern generals, and he turned his attention to two things: the creation and rule of the nation of Greater Colombia and the liberation of Peru. In the south, San Martin had liberated Argentina and Chile with the help of Chilean General Bernardo O'Higgins.

With Chile finally free after the 1818 Battle of Maipu, San Martin also turned his eyes to Peru. San Martin invaded Peru and captured Lima in mid-1821, but there were still powerful Spanish armies in the interior. The question became: how to defeat those armies, and who would lead the patriot forces?

Bolivar Snatches Guayaquil

The city of Guayaquil, part of present-day Ecuador, was an important port which had secured its own independence by 1820. It was close to Bolivar's greater Colombia, which was by then stretching down into the Ecuadorian Andes. It is also close to Lima, and San Martin had assumed that the important port would one day become part of a free Peruvian territory. At the very least, the topic of Guayaquil's allegiance under the new independence was something he wanted to talk to Bolivar about at the summit they had planned for July of 1822.

Before the conference, however, Bolivar effectively annexed Guayaquil to Greater Colombia. After Bolivar had agreed to meet San Martin in Guayaquil to discuss the liberation of Peru, he hurried to Guayaquil and beat San Martin there by more than a week. Bolivar's top lieutenant, Antonio Jose de Sucre, was already in Guayaquil, having traveled there following his stunning victory at the Battle of Pichincha in May of 1822 in which he had liberated Quito. Bolivar surreptitiously ordered his men to run up the flag of Greater Colombia in front of his residence, and then had the warboats in the river salute it before officially disavowing having anything to do with it.

Then, he encouraged the town council to accept annexation as a province of Greater Colombia.

When San Martin arrived, he was surprised to be officially welcomed to Guayaquil, a city of the republic of Greater Colombia. At first, he was so irritated that he refused to come ashore, but he eventually relented and was greeted on shore by Bolivar himself, who warmly embraced him.

Bolivar and San Martin

Although Generals Bolivar and San Martin had much in common, they two men could not have been less alike personally. Bolivar was small of stature, full of nervous energy, and he had a great love for pageantry, awards, dancing and chasing women. San Martin, on the other hand, was a serious, dour man who hated public spectacles. When a girl from Guayaquil put a laurel wreath on San Martin's head, he was perceptibly uncomfortable; Bolivar, on the other hand, loved that sort of thing.

The relative fortunes of both men were at odds, as well. Bolivar was riding high after his liberation of the north and Sucre's success in Ecuador (ironically, Sucre won the Battle of Pichincha in part with troops sent by San Martin). He had the support of the government of Greater Colombia, where he was still technically president. On the other hand, San Martin was getting bogged down in Peru, where royalist armies were organizing, reinforcing, and preparing to fight. He had little support from Argentina and Chile and although he held Lima, he was not particularly popular there. When the two men met, Bolivar held most of the cards and both Generals knew it.

The Guayaquil Summit

The two men met for several hours over the course of July 26-27, 1822. Unfortunately, there is no record of what they spoke about exactly, as they met alone and neither explicitly described their conversations later. The best documentation we have about their meetings consists of a handful of letters written by Bolivar's aides to officials in Gran Colombia.

Some topics were discussed by Generals Bolivar and San Martin. The topic of Guayaquil was certainly addressed, but because it was a done deal by the time he arrived, San Martin did not insist on bickering over whether it belonged to Colombia or Peru. Both men had an interest in removing the Spanish from Peru, and San Martin offered to join forces and even serve as Second-in-Command under Bolivar. Bolivar declined, as he did not want to share the glory of the eventual liberation of Peru with anyone, not even San Martin.

According to the letters written by Bolivar's people, the two men discussed the political future of the Americas. San Martin allegedly suggested importing a monarch from a royal family of Europe, but Bolivar resisted the idea. This allegation is probably false, as San Martin would have been unlikely to suggest such a thing.

After the conference, Bolivar threw a gala ball for himself and San Martin. He toasted San Martin: "To the two greatest men in South America - San Martín and myself." The humble San Martin instead drank to "the early end of the war, the organization of the various republics of the continent, and the health of the Liberator of Colombia." San Martin left before the ball was even concluded, but Bolívar chased him down to give him one last present: a miniature portrait of himself.

Aftermath of the Guayaquil Summit

San Martin came away from the Guayaquil conference convinced of two things: the ambitious, brilliant and charismatic Simón Bolívar was more than up to the challenge of mopping up the final Spanish forces in Peru, and Bolívar did not need or want San Martín's help. He already knew that he did not have the forces to do the same job without Bolívar, so there was nothing left for him to do except honorably remove himself from the situation. He wrote a bitter letter to Bolívar: "...my presence is the only obstacle which prevents you from coming to Peru with the army at your command." San Martín returned to Argentina via Chile, and from there he went into exile in Europe: he would never return to South America, except for one short trip to Uruguay later in his life.

Bolívar took command of the invasion of Peru and succeeded. In August of 1824 he defeated the Spanish at the Battle of Junin, and in December of that same year Bolívar's protégé Sucre crushed the last major Spanish army in South America at the decisive Battle of Ayacucho.

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.