Although history is full of men and women who carried extraordinary feats, few can claim to have liberated no less than five nations from one of the largest empires in history: the Spanish Empire. And this man is no other than Simón Bolívar, whose single-minded determination and dogeddness in fighting on materialised in the independence of the modern nations of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Not impressed? What if I told you that the territory he liberated was larger than that of the U.S. or the E.U., and much more geographically diverse? If you’re eager to discover how an unimpressive squalid man achieved such titanic enterprise, keep scrolling.

1# Origins

Simón Bolívar was born in Caracas on July 24th 1873, the fourth son of Juan Vicente Bolívar y Ponte, and María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco. The Bolívars were a wealthy creole family with roots in the Basque Country (Spain), and were amongst the most illustrious of the Captaincy General of Venezuela, then one of the administrative districts of colonial Spain.

The Spanish Empire on the eve of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in Europe. Author: Nagihuin. Source

Expected to lead the traditional and comfortable life as a creole, Simón lost his father to tuberculosis when he was three, and six years later in 1792, her mother succumbed to the same disease. Left to the devices of his lazy uncle Carlos Palacios, Simón grew unruly and wild while Carlos squandered his fortune. Only his teacher, Simón Rodríguez, seemed to understand the child’s needs for a vigorous education, with emphasis on the physical and outdoor learning.

2# Youth and wife

Like many young creoles, Simón was sent to Spain to further his studies when he was 16. His other uncle Esteban, who lived in Madrid, knew the Spanish Prime Minister and was the housemate of Manuel Mallo, the queen’s lover. In his time there Simón gained some insight into the corrupt Bourbon court, and probably his strong republicanism was shaped there.

Equally important was his falling in love with María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro, a girl of creole extraction and cousin of his childhood friend, Fernando del Toro. In May 1802 they married and returned to Caracas, to start what promised to be a blissful life as landed gentry. Her sudden contraction of yellow fever and death within five months of arrival not only changed Bolívar’s life, it altered the course of history.

Painting depicting the weeding between Simón Bolívar and María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro. Author: Tito Salas. Photography by Santy Cardenas. Source

3# Oath

Shattered by grief and haunted by thoughts of what could have been a happy life with his dead wife, he sailed to Europe to obtain some distraction. This time to France, where he found some comfort on the arms of Therèse Laisney, the first of a long list of conquests on the battlefield of love. But loyal to María Teresa’s memory, Bolívar had taken an oath never to remarry, a promise he kept to the last.

Accompanied by his teacher of old, Simón Rodríguez, and his friend Fernando del Toro, Bolívar travelled to Italy and Rome. There, on top of Monte Sacro, pondering about the reluctance of Roman patricians to grant rights to plebeians in Ancient Rome, he made yet another oath: he would never rest until his country would be free from Spain. 

4# First Republic of Venezuela

Although Spain was hardly the dominant European power it had been in the past, it was still a force to reckon with. How to break free then? The answer came with Napoleon Bonaparte’s deposition of King Charles IV of Spain and his son Ferdinand VII, to give the Spanish crown to his brother, Joseph Bonaparte. Although some Spanish Americans eagerly profered loyalty to the Juntas that now claimed sovereignty of Spain―as opposed to the French―others prefered autonomy and self-government, although swearing loyalty to Ferdinand VII all the same.

King Ferdinand VII (1784-1833) King of Spain. He was forced to abdicate by Napoleon Bonaparte. He’d return to rule after Napoleon’s first defeat in 1814. Author: Vicent López Portaña. Colection of El Prado. Source

But Bolívar, who had seen enough of kings in Spain and France, it was to be complete freedom or nothing. Regardless, when the colonies begun overthrowing Spanish garrissons and declaring autonomy in the name of Ferdinand VII, Bolívar offered his services to the new government of Venezuela and went to London as an ambassador. On his return, republicanism had gained ground and the first Venezuelan republic was born on July 5th.

5# Defeat and exile

It didn’t last long. Under the political and military leadership of Miranda, they failed to grant freedom to slaves and rights to the pardo and mixed-races that constituted the majority of the populace. In effect, the first white-led republic aspired to mantain the status quo, by replacing the Spanish administrators for creoles. With nothing to gain, the non-whites were all to happy to side with the Spanish troops led by Monteverde. 

Bolívar saw action for the first time in those days, failing to held the crucial Puerto Cabello, although it was lost to treachery and no fault of his own. With the Republic sinking fast,  Miranda signed an armistice with Monteverde, an act which Bolívar and his cronies saw as treason, for which they captured Miranda and delivered him to Monteverde. For his apparent service to Spain, Bolívar was granted a passport to leave the country in exile. Monteverde had just spared the architect of the destruction of his people’s empire.

6# Admirable Campaign

After spending a few months in Curaçao, Bolívar and a small band of comrades resumed their liberating activities, this time in the neighbouring New Granada. New Granada (roughly corresponding to modern Colombia) had been another of the Spanish colonies, formerly known as the Viceroyalty of New Granada. It was there that Bolívar begun its legend, first by shaping up the dregs of an army, with which he struck like a lightning bolt to secure the integrity of New Granada, by defeating the Spanish General Correa in the Battle of Cúcuta.

Bolívar understood that while Spain mantained a foothold in South America, independence would never be fully secured. With the liberation of his native Venezuela in mind, he set off in May 1813 at the head of a Granadian army. From the liberated city of Trujillo, Bolívar issued his infamous ‘Decree of War to the Death’, allowing crime and extrajudicial murder to be visitied to any Spanish-born (except those fighting for the republican side) and exonerating South Americans who fought for Spain.

The Admirable Campaign which resulted in the liberation of Venezuela and the birth of the Second Republic of Venezuela. Author: C Arango. Source

His army destroyed Monteverde’s on the outskirts of Valencia, as he advanced on Caracas. Although he had counted with less men, weapons, and resources than the enemy, thanks to trickery, ingenuity, guerrilla tactics and swiftness, Bolívar had turned the tables.  He triumphantly entered Caracas on August 6th 1813, quickly taking there Josefina ‘Pepita’ Machado as his lover, and overseeing the foundation of the Second Republic of Venezuela, with Bolívar as head of government. ‘El Libertador’ (The Liberator) was born.

7# Second exile

The second Venezuelan Republic didn’t last long either. Yet again the creoles failed in understanding the importance of bringing the coloured classes to their side, while Spain offered them to fulfill the long-awaited chance of wreaking reveange against the exploiting white masters. Led by the Spaniard José Tomás Boves, a mixed horde of black, pardos, and mestizos turned the conflict into a racial, civil war. His ‘Legions of Hell’ opened up the most bloody phase of the conflict, wreaking havoc on the countryside, killing, raping and looting indiscrimantely. Routed by Boves in La Puerta and Valencia, Bolívar was forced to evacuate Caracas. He and Mariño, the liberator of western Venezuela, were accused of treachery by their respectives second-in-command, Ribas and Piar, and were deposed.

Bolívar returned to New Granada, where fractionalism had also mortally wounded its republic. He set sail to Jamaica, and then to Haiti, the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, which had succesfully abolished slavery. He met its president, Pétion, who gladly gave him ships, guns, and men to kickstart his attempts to liberate Spanish America. Pétion had only one condition: slavery had to be abolished. A condition which Bolívar had nonetheless come to see as indispensable if Venezuela and New Granada were to be free.

Portrait of Bolívar in 1816, during his stay in Haiti. Author: Anonymous. Source

8# Abolition of slavery and march over the Andes

Bolívar made good of his promise to Pétion and declared the end of slavery, even recruiting indians and pardos to his side. His greatest recruit was no other than José Antonio Páez, who in a common twist of events during the Wars of Independence in South America, had brought the fearsome horsemen of the deceased Boves to his side. Opposing them was General Morillo, the commanding officer of the veteran expeditionary force dispatched by Spain, now that Napoleon had been defeated in Europe.

This time Bolívar accepted no fellow generals and warlors acting independently. To defeat the Spanish he was to be the commander-in-chief with absolute authority. He based his headquarters and capital of the liberated territories of Venezuela in Angostura (modern Ciudad Bolívar), and was duly elected president. By then both sides were worn out, but it was Bolívar and not Morillo who received more help, in the shape of weapons and British veterans of the Napoleonic Wars arriving to Venezuela in search of plunder and employment under the already world-famous Liberator.

Bolívar was finally ready to launch one of his bold, unpredictable manoeuvres to catch the enemy off guard. Knowing that Morillo would withdraw and quarter his men with the onset of the rainy season, Bolívar completely switched the theatre of operations by crossing the Andes at the head of 2.500 men and surprising the Spaniards at Tunja, New Granada. The feat was no less impressive or harsher than Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Bolívar and his men first endured rains and floods that covered them waist-high, with mosquitoes and tropical diseases, climbing then to the barren, wind-battered, snowbound cordillera of the Páramo de Pisba. The manoeuvre, although costly in manpower, situated his army between the Spanish army led by Barreiro and  Bogotá, the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. The decisive Battle of Boyacá, August 7th 1819, was a resounding victory for the patriots, and completed the final expulsion of Spain from New Granada.

The Campaign of Liberation of New Granada. Author: Colegio Cristo Rey. Source

9# Liberation of Venezuela

Leaving General Santander in charge of New Granada, Bolívar set to complete the liberation of Venezuela and the consequent fulfillment of his greatest political goal: the union of Venezuela and New Granada into a new nation, the Greater Colombia. Bolívar’s brainchild was born during the Congress of Cúcuta in December 1821, where the Liberator was also swiftly elected as its first president, with Santander as vice-president.

By then Morillo had had enough of South America and its rebels, and signed an armistice with Bolívar. With Morillo gone to Spain, however, the war resumed in six months. Bolívar did use the lull wisely to reinforce his army, but it was a mutiny of soldiers in Cádiz (as they awaited to be shipped to Venezuela to fight) that put the final nail to Spanish presence in Greater Colombia. With the victories of Carabobo in 1821 and Maracaibo in 1823, the Spanish evacuated Venezuela, never to return.

Simón Bolívar during the battle of Carabobo. Portrait by: Arturo Michelena. Collection by Galeria de Arte Nacional. Source

10# Simon Bolívar and José de San Martín

Bolívar didn’t stop there. Together with his new favourite general, Antonio José de Sucre, he advanced on Quito and Guayaquil (modern Ecuador), both secured and annexed to Greater Colombia. Elated by Bolívar’s mounting successes and fame, Panama voluntarily joined Greater Colombia. The taking of Guayaquil wasn’t appreciated by José de San Martín, the liberator of Argentina and Chile, who had come at Bolívar’s request to meet him and discuss the fate of South America. Guayaquil was disputed between Colombia and Peru, where San Martín was fighting to expel the Spaniards.

But San Martín came as a beggar, his military and political situation in Lima deteriorating fast, and left empty-handed too. Discouraged and dissapointed by Bolívar’s reluctance to aid him, he relinquished his remaining men to Bolívar and departed to exile.

José Francisco de San Martín y Matorras (1778-1850) was the other great liberator of South America, and was responsible for liberating Argentina, Chile, and Lima. Author: Anonymous. Photography by: Instituto Nacional Sanmartiniano. Source

11# Liberation of Peru and Bolivia

Now it was a race against time to liberate Peru, the most royalist of the Spanish colonies and the richest one too. First went in Sucre under Bolívar’s orders, and when the Liberator obtained permission from the Congress of Greater Colombia, he followed suit. The victories at the battles of Junín and Ayacucho in late 1824, finally saw the fulfillment of Bolívar’s oath in Rome so many years ago, the liberation of his native land from the opressor.  

Antonio José de Sucre y Alcalá (1795-1830). He was Bolivar’s favourite general and the second President of Bolivia after Bolivar himself. He also served as President of Peru. Author: Arturo Michelena. Source

With the war over, Bolívar set his sights in the consolidation of Greater Colombia, Peru, and Bolívia, a republic named after himself and formed out of a region colloquially known as Upper Peru. Everyone seemed on a hurry to honour and rain down honours on the greatest liberator of South America, who refused most of them, including his official salaries. International recognition at last came from Britain and the U.S., and with Sucre as first president of Bolivia, Peru offered its presidency to Bolívar, which he combined with his presidency of Greater Colombia.

12# Family, beliefs, goals and assassination attempt

With the enemy gone, the petty warlords and generals that Bolívar had united under his banner soon turned on each other and against their leader. As for the people, they became apathic and lethargic, the war having ravished their land and means of subsistence, while corruption was rampant in all levels of government. The land was too vast, too poorly communicated and diverse to be ruled by one man, as Bolívar proposed in his model of constitution. Although a firm enlightened thinker, he believed people in South America were too uneducated and unprepared for a democracy based on that of the U.S..

His consitution was reluctantly adopted in Bolivia and Peru, only to be overthrown shortly after. His Conference in Panama to unify the whole of South America in a similar way to that of the U.S., was a resounding failure. Peru demanded him and his army out, while at the same time begging him to stay in the knowledge that his departure meant anarchy. A pattern that would be repeated to in Greater Colombia.

Bolívar was worn out, he had wanted others to carry his political dream of unification while he enjoyed the glory and admiration for his military deeds. But he had never wanted to rule. As fragmentation and petty rivalries emerged, he saw no other way to save the integrity of Greater Colombia than taking dictatorial powers, but it was to no avail. Sucre was expelled from Bolivia, war broke out between Peru and Greater Colombia; and Paez, overseeing Venezuela, declared its independence from the union. Bolívar’s relationship with Santander, his vice-president for Greater Colombia, was also strained as a result, culminating in a nearly-succesful plot to kill Bolívar in 1828.    

For his part Paez spread the rumour Bolívar aspired to be king, a title Paez himself had urged Bolívar to take in the past. Gradually, the people Bolívar had liberated turned against him, they no longer wanted or needed him. Venezuela, his native land, was the first one to forbid him to return. It must have been an even lonelier period for Bolívar, who had led a lonely life. The only two people alive who truly cared for him were his manservant, José Palacios, and his last and most important lover, Manuela Sáenz, who also saved his life during the assasination plot of 1828. His only remaining family were his sisters, Maria and Juana, and his newphew Fernando, who had been sent to study in the U.S.. 

Manuela Sáenz de Vergara y Aizpuru (1797-1856). Natural from Quito, she was Bolivar’s most famous lover. She saved his life in 1828 and took part in battles with his army. She remained loyal to Bolivar’s memory to the last of her days, even when she was exiled and denigrated for her relationship with him. Author: Marco Salas Yepes (1919-1994) copy of Tecla Walker. Collection of Quinta de Bolivar. Source

13# Cause of death

Aged prematurely and disillusioned, Bolívar came to believe South America was too racist and feudalistic to be effectively governed. His former generals like Paez or Santander, only too happy to revert to their petty warlord ways, to tear the union apart and claim a small chunk which they could rule as a personal fiefdom. Worn out and in poor health, Bolívar finally resigned the presidency of Greater Colombia in 1830. By then he could barely walk, ate little, and slept even less. He was destitute and a pension from the new government in Greater Colombia wouldn’t be forthcoming, thus impeding his intention to retire in London with Manuela.

But more than ingratitude, it was the news of Sucre’s assassination that dealt him the greatest blow. Of him he had said that if God allowed for a man to choose his family, he would have chosen Sucre as his son. Too weak to travel by ship, he was moved to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, a sugar plantation in Santa Marta (modern Colombia). With the end in sight, Bolívar dictated his will, forgiving his enemies and declaring his hopes that his death would at least serve to heal and fortify Greater Colombia. On December 17th 1830, the man who had transformed the fate of a continent, succumbed to tuberculosis like both his parents. He was only 47 years old.   

Possibly the last drawing made of Bolivar, during his last days in 1830. Author: José María Espinosa. Source

14# From reviled leader to legend

The story of Simón Bolívar didn’t end there, it only grew larger that than the nations which he had bestowed freedom upon. 12 years would have to pass before his remains interred at Santa Marta would return to Caracas with great fanfarre. 12 years before the people revered him as a hero yet again. Suddenly, Bolívar the man became an unstoppable snowball that rolled him into a legend, and then a myth.

His statues were erected in in all the countries he had liberated, as well as abroad. Streets, squares and universities were renamed in his honour. Bolivia still bears his name today, so does Venezuela, rebranded as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. The currencies of both countries are named after him too. In death, his liberation of no less than five nations eclipsed his failures as a politician. In war, his uncanny flexibility and personal charisma to bring his generals to toe, had become in peace into a gross oversight of the shortcomings of such men as Paez and Santander, and their institutionalisation as warlords.

What made him such a great military leader was also his greatest liability in politics. But the Liberator was after all, a being of flesh and blood. One with a burning heart and a strong desire to see the countries of America free and united at last under the values of democracy, equality, and strength. A vision greater even than the man himself, and whose partial failure soured him in his latter years. Perhaps, such is the inevitable fate of men and women who live way ahead of their times.  

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