Simón Bolívar is the most famous political and military hero in Latin American history. He led revolutions against the Spanish Empire in no less than 6 South American countries. His short life and personal story is without doubt the stuff of legend. Yet today, outside of Latin America, where he’s still revered as El Libertador, his name is nearly forgotten. He was the George Washington (and more) of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru, AND Bolivia.
In each country, he was able to gain the people’s support for revolution and liberation from Spain. He succeeded in leading small armies of mixed units in defeating the larger, highly-trained Spanish forces. He wrote a constitution which developed the ideals of democracy and national identity amongst the Spanish colonies.
His amazing life is impossible to compress into a 10 minute read, so here are the key highlights of this heroic man.
Simón Bolívar was born Simón José Antonio de la Santísma Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios in Caracas in1783. He belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic family, owning gold and copper mines in Venezuela. His father died when he was only 3 and his mother when he was just 9. Young Simón was raised by an uncle, nurse and tutor. They sent him to a colonial academy, where he began to develop his keen affinity for military strategy.
At 16, his uncle sent Simón to Spain to complete his education. While in Madrid, he fell in love with the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, María Teresa Rodríguez. They fell in love, courted for 2 years and married in 1802. He eagerly took his beautiful new bride back to his home in Venezuela to begin a life together. Sadly, María quickly contracted yellow fever in Caracas, sickened, and died.
The 20-year-old Bolívar was emotionally crushed and vowed never to marry again. He returned to Europe and immersed himself in his studies. He visited Paris and became enamored with the bold French and American Revolutions. They planted in his mind the need for similar independence for Spanish Latin American. Simón met his old tutor in Madrid. He grasped his teacher’s hands, dropped to his knees, and vowed to not rest until he had freed his country as well.
At that time, the Viceroyalty of New Granada included Columbia, Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador. Bolívar returned to Venezuela in 1807 and found that the colonists were indeed ready for independence. Bolívar became heavily involved in the rebellion. He boldly spoke out passionately in public.
“Let us lay the cornerstone of American freedom without fear. To hesitate is to perish!“Simon BolIvar
The Venezuela National Assembly declared independence from Spain in 1811. The new Republica de Venezuela became the 1st colony of the Spanish empire to begin a war for independence. Simón was thrilled and quickly joined the Venezuelan army. Though he had little formal military training, he was made a Lieutenant Colonel. He soon began to distinguish himself in early battles against the Spanish forces. It would be a long road to independence however.
By 1812, Spanish forces regained control of Venezuela. Bolívar and the revolutionary army fled to rebel-friendly New Granada (Columbia). There he wrote his famous, “El Manifesto de Cartagena” in which he urged Venezuelans not to give up and instead retake their independence.
“Not the Spanish, but our own disunity led us back into slavery. A strong government could have changed everything.”Simon Bolivar
In 1813, he was given his first military command. He lead the revolutionary army back into Venezuela to begin the “Campaña Admirable” and liberate the country again. After numerous hard-fought battles against the Spaniards, he was able to reenter Caracas an establish the Second Venezuelan Republic. Bolívar at only 30 was hailed as El Libertador and awarded presidential powers.
However, this second republic was also to be short-lived.
The people were war-weary and turned against independence. Many still preferred Spanish colonial rule. A Civil War soon erupted, with Spain backing the loyalists. By 1815, half of Venezuela still belonged to Spain. Spanish led forces succeeded in driving Bolívar and his rebel army out of Venezuela a second time! He fled once again to Cartagena in New Granada.
A large Spanish army followed him, and Bolívar was forced to sail for Jamaica with only his officers. Never one to be discouraged, he simply planned for his return. The indefatigable Bolívar wrote his most famous essay, la Carta de Jamaica, directly to the Venezuelan people. He detailed his vision of a great federation of South American republics.
“I have been chosen by fate to break your chains. Misfortune is the ‘school of heroes.’ A people that love freedom will in the end be free!“Simon Bolivar
A man of great energy and charisma, Bolívar set out to persuade the entire world to back his vision for an independent South America. He sought international support, but sadly both Great Britain and the U.S. declined. They were unwilling to anger the Spanish Empire and send aid of any kind.
Nevertheless, in 1816, his first expedition sailed with only 250 men and 7 ships, a force far too tiny to engage the 10,000-strong royal army. The Spanish were sure the foolish young rebel was finished this time. Bolívar began circulating proclamations, making up stories about supposed victories not yet achieved across the colony, building an image the invincible liberators in the people’s eyes.
“You are human beings, they are beasts. Fight, and you shall win! For God grants victory to perseverance.”Simon Bolivar
Bolívar then conceived one of the most daring military campaigns in history.
It involved attacking not Caracas, but rather the capital of all New Grenada, Bogota. He’d been attacking on the eastern plains. On the western plains, Generals Francisco de Santander and Jose Paez were conducting similar guerrilla campaigns. During the rainy season, the plains turned to swamp and the Spanish troops withdrew.
Bolívar also knew the Spanish considered the Andes Mountains impassable during winter and lightly guarded that frontier. He called a War Council of his generals, all of them under 40, in a small hut without furniture, to discuss his daring plan to take Bogota.
In 1818, Bolívar’s 2,500 ragtag soldiers marched 350 miles through torrential rains, flooded plains, and swollen rivers. Half their cattle drowned. Nevertheless, Bolívar continually encouraged his tired men to push forward. In June, they began their ascent of the Andes. The army was woefully unprepared. By the time they were at 18,000 feet, their horses and cattle had died. The thinly uniformed men had little wood for fire. Nearly 1,000 men died of exposure on the perilous trek.
Those who made it were half-starved, but found a Columbian population eager to help. After Bolívar’s men had a few skirmishes with Spanish outposts, word reach the New Granada commander Pablo Morillo. He prepared to meet the rebels in battle. At Boyaca near Bogata in August 1819, in a two-hour clash, Bolívar’s republic forces captured half of the 3,000 Spanish troops, the rest were either killed or fled.
It was the turning point for independence in South America.
The Spanish began to evacuate New Granada and the colonial empire started to collapse. Desertions from the royal army increased and citizens began supporting Bolívar. The legislature declared a new country of united provinces, the Republic of Gran Colombia consisting of New Granada (Colombia), Venezuela and Ecuador. Bolívar was made president and military dictator.
Now Bolívar also showed excellent political skills in negotiating the challenges of setting up a new republic, including writing a constitution. Bolívar and Morillo, the Spanish commander met in 1820 and signed a treaty. Bolívar did not rest on his laurels however. In 1821, he cleared the remaining Spanish forces from his beloved Venezuela.
Still, other Spanish forces remained entrenched far to the south.
With the help of his best commander, Antonio Jose de Sucre, he split the army, pushed south and attacked Quito from two sides, liberating Ecuador in 1822. It was in Quito that the Liberator met the second great love of his life, Manuela Sáenz. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Spanish nobleman and a zealous revolutionary. They never married, but she was his constant companion for the rest of his life.
This now left the remaining Spanish Viceroy of Peru to the south. The Argentine revolutionary General Jose de San Martin had successfully liberated parts of lower South America (first Argentina, then Chile). Between his army and Bolívar’s troops lay Peru, with 20,000 Spanish troops, the last in South America. San Martin’s troops marched over the Andes and took Lima on the coast in 1821. However, they’d not been able to push further inland and struggled to maintain independence. He sought out the help of Simón Bolívar.
In July 1822, San Martin and Bolívar met in Guayaquil Ecuador.
They met alone and there are sadly no records of their conference. They had two vastly different visions for governing the continent. It’s believed San Martin was disheartened by Bolívar’s insistence that only his view would prevail. He must have felt that only Bolívar’s military and political strength would free Peru. Gran Colombia was proof of that. San Martin decided to resign on the spot, turned over his army and returned to Argentina. The fate of Peru was now in Bolívar’s hands!
In 1824, Bolívar led his combined armies up into the Andean plateaus. At the top, Bolívar reviewed his troops and told them:
“Soldiers, you are about to finish the greatest undertaking Heaven has confided to men–that of saving an entire world from slavery!”Simon Bolivar
A cat and mouse game ensued through the mountains crossed by steep ravines and deep rivers. The Spanish army, which had numbered 18,000, was eventually out maneuvered and surrendered to General Sucre.
Sucre’s report to Bolívar proudly announced, “The war is ended. The liberation of Peru complete.”
The people of upper Peru deciding to form a separate nation in 1825. They named it Bolivia in Bolívar’s honor. He eventually wrote its constitution and accepted the position of lifetime president.
Bolívar received a letter from the then-aged Marquis de Lafayette on behalf of the family of President George Washington. Along with a gold medallion coined after the British surrender at Yorktown, Virginia. It read: “To the second Washington of the New World.” Bolívar was deeply touched and cherished it the rest of his life.
He began vigorously rebuilding and administering the war-devastated new republic. He convened a congress of the republics in Panama in 1826. Bolívar felt that a union of states would be mutually beneficial. He envisioned a combined league of the young nations.
“Its principles should be the sovereignty of the people, division of powers, civil liberty, prohibition of slavery and the abolition of monarchy.”Simon Bolivar
But alas, it was not to be. Bolívar had succeeded in freeing colonies into federations, but their governments were inexperienced and fragile. Despite his desire to create a union of republics, similar to the United States, he faced opposition from factions that pushed for independent nations.
Bolívar was now torn between his republican values and the need to maintain order. He loved democracy, but feared that only a strong leader could hold it togethers. Bickering between factions, political conflicts, and resentment of his rule caused his influence to wane. Bolívar was forced to take dictatorial powers in 1828 just to hold Gran Colombia together.
Then in September 1828, he narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.
Twenty six conspirators attacked the San Carlos Palace in Bogota at midnight. Bolívar’s life was saved by his mistress, Manuela Sáenz, who awakened him. He escaped by jumping out a window. The conspirators were captured and executed. It must have been a disheartening moment for Bolívar. He realized that he had become a dangerously polarizing figure in the same countries he freed.
In 1830, Bolívar resigned his presidency – turning down offers to become president for life. He preferred now to simply return to being an ordinary citizen. He planned to sail to Europe again and self-exile. But before he could set sail, he became gravely ill from tuberculosis. The treatment of the period was arsenic.
In December 1830, Simón Bolívar died at only 47 in Santa Marta, Colombia, losing his battle with tuberculosis. He is buried in his beloved Caracas, Venezuela. Bolívar was a visionary and charismatic leader. When the cause seemed lost, he always showed determination and courage. He had no desire for personal wealth. He began life wealthy, but ended it modestly. His legacy remains behind in the six countries he freed from Spanish colonial rule. To Latin Americans, Bolívar remains El Libertador, one of the greatest independence leaders in the history of the world.
“Colombians! My last wish is for the happiness of the patria. If my death contributes to the consolidation of the union, I shall be lowered in peace into my grave.”Simon Bolivar