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Simon Bolivar cast off South America’s Spanish yoke

Posted in Famous battles, Heroes and Heroines, Historical articles, History, Politics, War on Monday, 30 April 2012

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This edited article about Simon Bolivar originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 697 published on 24 May 1975.

Simon Bolivar, picture, image, illustration

Simon Bolivar by Ron Embleton

On a summer’s day in 1805, Simon Bolivar stood on the warm green slopes of Monte Sacro, just outside Rome and made a vow. Black eyes glittering with fervour, he raised his hand and proclaimed: “I swear on my life and my honour that I shall not rest until I have liberated South America from the rule of Spanish tyrants!”

Simon Rodriguez, Bolivar’s tutor, who was with him on Monte Sacro, later recorded that, at the time, he thought his pupil was just playacting. In the years immediately after the French Revolution of 1789, many imaginative, fiery young men like Bolivar caught “freedom-fever”. They fancied that “liberty, equality, fraternity”, the slogan of the Revolution, was the cure for all the ills of civilisation. Usually, Rodriguez remembered, they recovered quite quickly and if, like Simon Bolivar, they were wealthy, aristocratic young men, they usually settled for the comfortable, carefree life to which they had been born.

However, when Rodriguez wrote that, in the late 1840s, he had had plenty of time to realise how utterly wrong his first judgement had been. For not only was Bolivar perfectly sincere when he made his vow, but at the age of 22, he already possessed the ruthless ambition and driving determination to make it come true. These qualities, all combined in one dedicated patriot spelled the death of an empire and the birth of several South American nations.

By 1805, South America had suffered the brutal burden of Spanish rule for over three centuries, ever since the conquistadores had come there in the wake of Christopher Columbus to exploit its enormous wealth in gold and silver and make slaves of its Indian inhabitants. When Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1783, Spain’s grip was still powerful and there seemed little hope that it would ever weaken. Then, at last, in 1808, that grip momentarily relaxed when disaster struck Spain itself: in that year, Napoleon invaded Spain and across the Atlantic, South Americans rushed to exploit the plight of their masters and claim their liberty.

Now came Bolivar’s chance to start realising his vow. “Let us lay the cornerstone of our freedom without fear!” he told a Venezuelan congress in 1811 when it met to proclaim Venezuela’s independence. Bolivar added brave deeds to brave words in the violent struggle with the Spaniards that followed. Although the freedom-fighters were thwarted this time, and Spain re-imposed its rule in 1812, Bolivar quickly acquired a hero’s reputation. When he fled to neighbouring New Granada – now Colombia – to escape the Spaniards, he was greeted with great enthusiasm. And when he told the New Granadians “I am here to serve the banner of freedom!” they flocked to join with him. In 1813, Bolivar led an expeditionary force back to Venezuela which stunned the Spaniards with its energy and determination. Bolivar and his men fought with such vigour that in six bloody, violent battles, the Spanish troops were swamped by the strength of their efforts.

On August 6, 1813, Bolivar rode in triumph through the crowd-crammed, decorated streets of Caracas. There were cheers and tears of joy and men and women rushed forward to kiss Bolivar’s hand and even kneel in homage to him. It was a heady moment, but soon it was ruined by tragedy. Not every Venezuelan was pleased to see men from New Granada liberate their country and before long, civil war broke out. Now, the streets that had rung with cheers for Bolivar, ran with blood. The violence was so extreme that Bolivar resorted to even greater violence. He proclaimed “war to the death” and when his men captured prisoners, he ordered them to be stripped, bound and stabbed to death in the back of the neck.

Now, it was the turn of the Spaniards to exploit their enemies’ weakness. They let loose among Bolivar’s beleaguered troops, thousands of roughneck “llaneros”, cowboys from the Orinoco Valley who were no better than savage barbarians. The “llaneros”, under their thug-like leader, Jose Boves, did the Spaniards’ work well. Bolivar was defeated and again fled into exile.

The Spaniards were not rid of him for long, though. Within a year, he was back with a stronger, better-equipped, more numerous army which included many British mercenaries. Bolivar found Spanish resistance was strong and it was not until June, 1819 that he was able to deliver a final death-blow to Spanish rule.

That blow was also fatal to many of Bolivar’s own men, because to achieve surprise, Bolivar marched them across the Andes Mountains. There were ten rivers to be crossed, mostly in crude boats that swirled about dangerously in fast-running currents. There was pass after mountain pass to be climbed in the face of freezing, howling winds. Snow and ice coated the scantily-clad men as they struggled to place one foot in front of the other, knowing that each step could take them slithering over the edge to crash into gaping ravines. At least 100 men died and all the horses perished before Bolivar led his men down upon the Spaniards in New Granada. The surprise Bolivar achieved was complete and a few skirmishes later, in early August, the Spaniards were thrashed at the battle of Boyaca. It was the end. The Spaniards surrendered in thousands.

Four months later, the Republic of Grand Colombia, consisting of Venezuela, New Granada and Quito (Ecuador), was proclaimed and Simon Bolivar became its President. In the next years, as Bolivar wiped out pockets of Spanish resistance, he extended his power through Ecuador and Peru to make himself master of an area that stretched from the Caribbean to the borders of Argentina.

Not surprisingly, South Americans regarded Bolivar as a great saviour, and some of them wanted to make him King. Bolivar refused. He preferred the simple title of “Liberator.”

Unfortunately, not everyone in the lands Bolivar had liberated, was pleased with what he had done. The Venezuelans chafed at their union with New Granada and Ecuador wanted nothing to do with either of them. Civil war exploded again and in July, 1829, Venezuela seceded from Grand Colombia. Bolivar’s distress was intense. The great independent state which he had struggled and suffered to create was falling apart and he was too worn-out and too ill to stop it.

Simon Bolivar died of tuberculosis on December 17, 1830, a deeply disappointed man. However, his death momentarily united the battling Grand Colombians. Out of respect for him, the contestants in the civil wars halted hostilities to hold public ceremonies of mourning. Perhaps, even in the heat and hatred of their violent rivalry, they realised that Simon Bolivar the Liberator belonged to them all.

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