The Top 6 Liberators of South America

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Great South American Patriots Who Fought the Spanish for Independence

Battle of Ibarra
Simon Bolivar leading rebel troops against the Spanish forces of Agustin Agualongo. De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

In 1810, Spain controlled much of the known world, its mighty New World Empire the envy of all the nations of Europe. By 1825 it was all gone, lost in bloody wars and upheavals. The Independence of Latin America was wrought by men and women determined to achieve liberty or to die trying. Who were the greatest of this generation of patriots?

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Simón Bolívar (1783-1830)

South American revolutionary leader Simon Bolivar
Simon Bolivar. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

There can be no doubt about #1 on the list: only one man earned the simple title "The Liberator." Simón Bolívar, greatest of the liberators.

When Venezuelans began clamoring for independence as early as 1806, young Simón Bolívar was at the head of the pack. He helped establish the First Venezuelan Republic and distinguished himself as a charismatic leader for the patriot side. It was when the Spanish Empire fought back that he learned where his true calling was.

As a general, Bolivar fought the Spanish in countless battles from Venezuela to Peru, scoring some of the most important victories in the War of Independence. He was a first-rate military mastermind who is still studied by officers today all over the world. After Independence, he attempted to use his influence to unify South America but lived to see his dream of unity crushed by petty politicians and warlords.

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Miguel Hidalgo (1753-1811)

Miguel Hidalgo statue in Orizaba, Veracruz, Mexico
Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

Father Miguel Hidalgo was an unlikely revolutionary. A parish priest in his 50's and a skilled theologian, he ignited the powder keg that was Mexico in 1810.

Miguel Hidalgo was the last man the Spanish would have suspected was a sympathizer with the growing independence movement in Mexico in 1810. He was a respected priest in a lucrative parish, well-respected by all that knew him and known more as an intellectual than as a man of action.

Nevertheless, on September 16, 1810, Hidalgo took to the pulpit in the town of Dolores, announced his intention to take up arms against the Spanish and invited the congregation to join him. Within hours he had an unruly army of angry Mexican peasants. He marched on Mexico City, sacking the city of Guanajuato along the way. Along with co-conspirator Ignacio Allende, he led an army of some 80,000 to the very gates of the city, overwhelming Spanish resistance.

Although his insurrection was put down and he was captured, tried and executed in 1811, others after him picked up the torch of liberty and today he is rightly considered the Father of Mexican Independence.

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Bernardo O'Higgins (1778-1842)

Abdication, by Bernardo O'Higgins, January 28, 1823. Chile, 19th century.

A reluctant liberator and leader, the modest O'Higgins preferred the tranquil life of a gentleman farmer but events pulled him into the War of Independence.

Bernardo O'Higgins' life story would be fascinating even if he weren't Chile's greatest hero. Illegitimate son of Ambrose O'Higgins, the Irish Viceroy of Spanish Peru, Bernardo lived his childhood in neglect and poverty before inheriting a large estate. He found himself caught up in the chaotic events of Chile's Independence movement and before long was named Commander of the patriot army. He proved to be a brave general and an honest politician, serving as the first President of Chile after liberation.

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Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816)

Precursor of Latin American Independence Francisco de Miranda in a Spanish prison shortly before his death.
Painting by Arturo Michelena (ca. 1896)

Francisco de Miranda was the first major figure of Latin America's Independence movement, launching an ill-fated attack on Venezuela in 1806.

Long before Simon Bolivar, there was Francisco de Miranda. Francisco de Miranda was a Venezuelan who rose to the rank of General in the French Revolution before deciding to try and liberate his homeland from Spain. He invaded Venezuela in 1806 with a small army and was driven off. He returned in 1810 to take part in the establishment of the First Venezuelan Republic and was captured by the Spanish when the Republic fell in 1812.

After his arrest, he spent the years between 1812 and his death in 1816 in a Spanish jail. This painting, done decades after his death, shows him in his cell in his final days.

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Jose Miguel Carrera

Jose Miguel Carrera (1785-1821), Chilean general and patriot, engraving. Chile,19th century.

Not long after Chile declared a provisional independence in 1810, brash young Jose Miguel Carrera took charge of the young nation.

Jose Miguel Carrera was the son of one of Chile's most powerful families. As a young man, he went to Spain, where he fought bravely against Napoleon's invasion. When he heard that Chile had declared independence in 1810, he hastened home to help fight for liberty. He instigated a coup that removed his own father from power in Chile and took over as head of the army and dictator of the young nation.

He was later replaced by the more even-keeled Bernardo O'Higgins. Their personal hatred of one another almost brought the young republic crashing down. Carrera fought hard for independence and is rightly remembered as a national hero of Chile.

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José de San Martín (1778-1850)

Jose de San Martin (1778-1850), General and Argentinean politician, Argentina, 19th century
DEA / M. SEEMULLER/Getty Images

José de San Martín was a promising officer in the Spanish army when he defected to join the patriot cause in his native Argentina.

José de San Martín was born in Argentina but moved to Spain at an early age. He joined the Spanish army and by 1810 he had reached the rank of Adjutant-General. When Argentina rose in rebellion, he followed his heart, discarded a promising career, and made his way to Buenos Aires where he offered his services. He was soon put in charge of a patriot army, and in 1817 he crossed into Chile with the Army of the Andes.

Once Chile was liberated, he set his sights on Peru, but he eventually deferred to the generalship of Simon Bolivar to complete the liberation of South America.

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Minster, Christopher. "The Top 6 Liberators of South America." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). The Top 6 Liberators of South America. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Top 6 Liberators of South America." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).