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Simon Bolivar and the Spanish Revolutions

By John Lynch | Published in Volume: 33 Issue: 7 1983 
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What role did Simon Bolivar play in the history of Venezuela's declaration of independence from Spain? Here John Lynch argues that the history of Spanish American independence is incomprehensible without him.

Simon BolivarSimon Bolivar lived a short but comprehensive life. History records his extraordinary versatility. He was a revolutionary who freed six countries, an intellectual who argued the problems of national liberation, a general who fought a war of unremitting violence. He inspired extremes of devotion and detestation. Many Spanish Americans wanted him to be their dictator, their king; but some denounced him as a traitor, and others tried to assassinate him. Subsequent generations completed the apotheosis, and continued the controversy. He has a country, a city, and a currency named after him; he is honoured throughout the Americas in hundreds of statues and streets; his life is the subject of endless writings. To liberal historians he was a fighter against tyranny. Marxists interpret him as the leader of a bourgeois revolution. Modern revolutionaries see him as a reformist who secured political change but left the colonial heritage of his continent virtually intact. There are others who question the very importance of his career and reject the cult of the hero. For them the meaning of liberation is to be found in the study of economic structures, social groups, and the international conjuncture, not in heroic deeds or the lives of liberators. Yet the history of Spanish American independence is incomprehensible without Bolivar. So universal was his career that he intervened at every level of the revolution, in most of its phases, and in many parts of the continent. He was moreover an exceptionally complex man, this liberator who scorned liberalism, soldier who disparaged militarism, republican who admired monarchy. To study Bolivar is to study a rare and original character, whose mind and will were no less factors in historical change than were the economic and social structures of the time.

Bolivar was born, on July 24th, 1783, to wealth and privilege, the son of an old creole (Spanish American) family of Venezuela, owners of plantations, mines, houses in Caracas, and numerous slaves. It was the colonial élite for whom he spoke when he denounced the tyranny of Spain, the servitude of Spanish Americans, their role as primary producers and consumers of Spanish goods. 'Do you know what our future was?' he asked in the Jamaica Letter . 'We were mere consumers, confined to the cultivation of indigo, grain, coffee, sugar, cacao and cotton raising cattle on the empty plains; hunting wild game in the wilderness; mining in the earth to produce gold for the insatiable greed of Spain'. But there was wealth for some, and it could be measured by the sequestrations suffered by the creole insurgents after 1810. Bolivar's losses amounted to 80,000 pesos, the largest single confiscation made by the royalists. His total wealth probably amounted to at least 200,000 pesos, though at the end of his life he had little more than the unrealised assets of the Aroa copper mines.

Bolivar stood apart from his class in ideas, values and vision. Who else would be found in the midst of a campaign swinging in a hammock, reading the French philosophers? His liberal education, wide reading, and travels in Europe had broadened his horizons and opened his mind to the political thinkers of France and Britain. He read deeply in the works of Hobbes and Spinoza, Holbach and Hume; and the thought of Montesquieu and Rousseau left its imprint firmly on him and gave him a life-long devotion to reason, freedom and progress. But he was not a slave of the Enlightenment. British political virtues also attracted him. In his Angostura Address (1819) he recommended the British constitution as 'the most worthy to serve as a model for those who desire to enjoy the rights of man and all political happiness compatible with our fragile nature'. But he also affirmed his conviction that American constitutions must conform to American traditions, beliefs and conditions.

His basic aim was liberty, which he described as "the only object worth the sacrifice of man's life'. For Bolivar liberty did not simply mean freedom from the absolutist state of the eighteenth century, as it did for the Enlightenment, but freedom from a colonial power, to be followed by true independence under a liberal constitution. And with liberty he wanted equality – that is, legal equality – for all men, whatever their class, creed or colour. In principle he was a democrat and he believed that governments should be responsible to the people. 'Only the majority is sovereign', he wrote; 'he who takes the place of the people is a tyrant and his power is usurpation'. But Bolivar was not so idealistic as to imagine that South America was ready for pure democracy, or that the law could annul the inequalities imposed by nature and society. He spent his whole political life developing and modifying his principles, seeking the elusive mean between democracy and authority. In Bolivar the realist and idealist dwelt in uneasy rivalry.

Bolivar was a talented soldier, though his talents differed from those of his more professional contemporaries, Napoleon and Wellington. This was one of the cruellest of colonial wars, and Bolivar the most ruthless of all the liberators. In his view the enemy was fighting an undeclared war of extermination, killing prisoners whose only crime was that they fought for freedom. He believed that the patriots were at a disadvantage and could no longer wage a civilised war against the Spaniards. After the collapse of the First Republic he resolved upon a new policy – war to the death. On June 15th, 1813, at Trujillo, he issued his celebrated decree: 'Spaniards and Canarians, depend upon it, you will die even if you are simply neutral, unless you actively espouse the liberation of America. Americans, you will be spared, even when you are guilty'. The exception was significant. This was a civil war, in which Americans predominated on both sides. And Bolivar could not bring himself to wage war to the death against his own people, even though they might be royalists. The Trujillo decree ruthlessly distinguished between Spaniards and Americans; it sought to cut through categories like royalism and republicanism and to make this a war between nations, between Spain and America.

As a soldier Bolivar displayed not only great implacability but also immense powers of endurance; he was there at the beginning of the war of independence, and fifteen years later, in 1824, when the last Spanish viceroy surrendered, he was still in command. His aide and chronicler, General Daniel F. O'Leary, was struck by the contrast between his slight physique and his great stamina: 'After a day's march, enough to exhaust the most robust man, I have seen him work five or six hours, or dance as long'. But Bolivar was distinguished above all by the magic of his leadership. This was never more true than in 1817, a dark year for the revolution. The First Republic had capitulated in 1812; the Second had been destroyed by royalist caudillos; a Spanish expedition under General Pablo Morillo, a veteran of the Peninsular War, completed the triumph of the counter-revolution. After two years exile it was with the greatest difficulty that Bolivar managed to regain a foothold on the mainland. He led his men south into Guayana in a new and visionary strategy, to base the revolution deep in the hinterland, among the great plains of the Orinoco, a barrier against defeat, a springboard for attack, and a source of wealth in their reserves of livestock.

But now Bolivar had to fight against the enemy within as well as the royalists without. The wars of independence in northern South America were fought with two armies, regular forces and local guerrillas, movements which were part allies, part rivals. A soldier had to be a politician, and Bolivar was no exception: he sought power as well as freedom, he wanted to rule as well as to liberate. He had to fight to impose unity on the revolution and to broaden its social base, two aims which from our vantage point we can see were to become permanent challenges to Latin American leaders. The caudillos, or regional chieftains, of the revolution, Santiago Marino, Francisco Bermudez and Manuel Piar, were reluctant to recognise the command of Bolivar, whose grandiose plans had collapsed while they kept resistance alive in the east. General Piar posed the greatest threat, partly because of his military ability, and partly because, a pardo (mulatto) himself, he sought to mobilise the coloured population and to make it his power base. He was hunted down, brought to trial and shot, 'for proclaiming the odious principles of race war, for inciting civil war, and for encouraging anarchy'. Bolivar calculated carefully in executing Piar. As O'Leary observed, 'General Marino certainly deserved the same treatment as Piar, but he was less dangerous, and one example was sufficient'. The danger lay in black power.

The republic could no longer ignore race problems or suppress popular forces. Bolivar himself, the most daring and idealistic of the creoles, had long seen the need to fuse the creole, pardo and slave rebellions into one great movement. He considered himself free of race prejudice and fought for liberty and equality. The revolution would correct the imbalance imposed by nature and colonialism: previously 'the whites, by virtue of talent, merit and fortune, monopolised everything. The pardos, degraded to the most humiliating condition, had nothing. But the revolution has granted them every privilege, every right, every advantage'. So Bolivar denounced Piar for inciting race war at a time when equality was already being granted to the coloured people. From 1815-16 growing numbers of pardos were incorporated into the army of liberation: they were needed to fill the gaps in the patriot ranks left by creole casualties and desertions, and they themselves were imbued with greater expectations from wartime social mobility. After this the traditional structure of the republican army was transformed, and while the creoles retained military and political control, the pardos (who in Venezuela were the mass of the population) had greater opportunities for advance to higher ranks and offices. To this extent Bolivar was right: the people had more to gain from the republican cause. But what had the slaves to gain?

Bolivar was an abolitionist. He regarded it as 'madness that a revolution for liberty should try to maintain slavery', and in one of his frankest speeches he called upon the Congress of Angostura in 1819 to remove from Venezuela 'the dark mantle of barbarous and profane slavery'. But Bolivar was also a military leader who needed recruits, and during the war he tied emancipation to conscription, offering slaves manumission in return for military service. The response was negative. The Venezuelan aristocracy did not embrace the republican cause in order to divest themselves of property, while the slaves were not interested in fighting the creole's war. Nevertheless the policy of Bolivar helped to neutralise the slaves; they no longer actively fought the republic, as they had done in 1812-14, and they gradually disappeared from the war as an autonomous movement. Meanwhile, Bolivar wanted the support not only of the pardos and slaves but also of a third group, the llaneros , the plainsmen of south-west Venezuela.

There, in the Apure valley, José Antonio Paez, the most powerful of all the caudillos, had his own base and his own army. Paez was the complete antithesis of Bolivar; uneducated, illiterate, yet possessed of natural gifts of leadership, he had risen through the ranks to become absolute lord of the plains and a future contender for power. His llanero followers were ferocious horsemen, primitive and predatory, who responded to no ideology, only to plunder and the promise of land. Paez fashioned them into a savage yet disciplined lancer force, and accepting that only Bolivar could integrate the disparate regional forces into one movement, he recognised the sovereignty of Bolivar and in February 1818 contributed a thousand cavalry to a joint force of over four thousand. By now, therefore, Bolivar had achieved unity of command amidst diversity of forces. There was one further requirement, foreign aid.

In 1817 the Venezuelan representative in London, Luis Lopez Mendez, was asked by Bolivar to recruit a British expeditionary force to join the patriot army. Over 6,000 volunteers left British ports for South America during the next two years, together with ships, sailors and great quantities of arms and munitions. These men formed the nucleus of the British Legion and were regarded by Bolivar as vital reinforcements, while the rifles, artillery and other military equipment, provided on credit by British merchants, were no less urgent. Bolivar was later to describe these volunteers as 'the saviours' of his country, and with equal generosity to say that the true Liberator had been Lopez Mendez, 7 because without the arms and men sent from England the campaign of 1819 could not have been won. The truth is that without the strategic sense of Bolivar the campaign would not have been conceived.

He decided to take the revolution westwards and to liberate New Granada. In Venezuela the republic had reached an impasse and found it impossible to crush the royalists. To switch the theatre of war from one country to another would have a dazzling effect and constitute in itself a rare moral victory. Bolivar could lure Morillo from Venezuela and, if the operation were successful, return to his homeland from a position of strength and with greater striking power. So he invaded New Granada. In an agonising march, when a quarter of his army and many of the British volunteers perished, he led his forces during the rainy season through, the vast waterlogged plains of Casanare, across the Andes at great altitude, and into the heart of enemy territory, where he defeated the astonished Spaniards at the battle of Boyaca.

Other victories followed, first in Venezuela itself, where at the battle of Carabobo (1821) he brought all the caudillo forces together into one grand army and where the British Legion won his special praise. He then moved south to take the revolution to Ecuador and Peru, and to link up with the movement emanating from the southern cone. By now he had assembled a truly American army drawn from many parts of the continent, its incomparable cavalry led by the llaneros of Venezuela, its infantry recruited in Colombia and Peru and reinforced still by the depleted British units. The leadership of Bolivar and the planning of his favourite commander, General Sucre, met in happy collaboration for their last decisive campaign high in the Peruvian sierra. 'They destroyed the remnants of Spanish power first at Ayacucho (1824), and finally in Upper Peru. Together Bolivar and Sucre entered Potosi, where they climbed the legendary silver mountain and drank to the American revolution.

Bolivar gave his name to the new state of Bolivia and he drafted its constitution. In the later years of his life he was haunted by the spectre of anarchy in America. The failure of the First Republic he attributed to federalism and weak government. The collapse of the Second Republic he blamed on disunity and inexperience. He then worked with the caudillos and their lawless followers to revive the revolution. After 1819 he denounced lawyers, legislators and liberals. In 1826 he identified 'two monstrous enemies' in the speech presenting his draft constitution to the Bolivian Congress. 'Tyranny and anarchy constitute an immense sea of oppression encircling a tiny island of freedom.' Spanish Americans, he lamented, were "seduced by freedom', each person wanting absolute power for himself and refusing any subordination. This led to civilian factions, military risings, and provincial rebellions. It was in this frame of mind that he drafted the Bolivian constitution.

His lifelong search for a political mean now veered towards strong government. The president, in this constitution, was appointed by the legislature for life and had the right to appoint his successor; this Bolivar regarded as 'the most sublime inspiration of republican ideas', the president being 'the sun which, fixed in its orbit, imparts life to the universe'. Thus 'elections would be avoided, which are the greatest scourge of republics and produce only anarchy'. The rest of the constitution was not devoid of liberal details. It provided for civil rights – liberty, equality, security and property – and for a strong, independent judicial power. It abolished social privileges, and it declared the slaves free. Some observers were genuinely impressed. The British consul in Lima believed that it was 'founded apparently on the basis of the British constitution', allowing 'useful liberty' but 'obviating any rnischievous excess of popular power'. But this constitution was branded by its executive power, by the life president with right to choose his successor. It was this which outraged many Americans, conservatives as well as liberals. The political career of Bolivar himself, moreover, took a similar path in Colombia, as he moved from president to dictator. This was his tragedy. In spite of his preference for a political over a military solution, in spite of his long search for constitutional forms, he fell back in the end on personal authority, ruling through a dictatorship and co-opting the caudillos into a system which appealed to their own instincts on government. In 1828-30 Bolivar ruled alone in Colombia, the only stable thing in a world in turmoil. Yet he never deserted his original .ideals of liberty and equality. Rather he put strong government at the service of reform a synthesis incomprehensible to the liberals of his time but more understood in our own day, when powerful presidential government and one-party states are regarded as appropriate, or at least inevitable, constitutional forms for new and developing nations.

Bolivar entered world history as one of the first modern leaders of a national liberation movement. Yet he himself was not aggressively nationalist, either towards neighbouring American countries or towards outside powers. His ambition was to unite rather than divide the Spanish American peoples. He created the great state of Colombia, comprising Venezuela, New Granada and Ecuador. He then sought to unite this with Peru and Bolivia in a Federation of the Andes. And he dreamed of the 'great day of America' when its peoples would come together in a league of nations. These ideas, of course, operated at different levels of planning and possibility. His ideal of a greater Colombia, which existed for about a decade, was not a denial of national identity but an affirmation of it. He was trying to establish the appropriate size of a viable nation, seeking unity as a means to national strength and economic sufficiency. Unity would ensure peace and well-being as opposed to the anarchy of local caudillo rule, what he called 'minigovernments'. And unity would earn greater respect from other nations, from Britain and the United States. In Bolivar's view foreign indifference towards Latin American independence was a consequence of the proliferation of tiny sovereignties, squabbling among themselves.

It was a losing battle. Bolivar came to realise that the creation of a greater Colombia had been premature, and as the heroic age of Americanism passed, he became one of the many victims of national awareness and national rivalries, denounced as a traitor in Venezuela and a foreigner in New Granada. He could no longer ignore the forces of separatism; the immense distances, the scanty population, the poor record of the central government, the survival of powerful local caudillos, such as Paez in Venezuela, who could express their ambition on a regional scale if not at the centre, all these were factors of division and dissension. And these were his thoughts when he left Peru for Colombia in September 1826, to come to the rescue of his own creation: 'I have too many problems in my native land, which I have long neglected for other countries in America . I intend to do all the good I can for Venezuela without attempting anything further'. But it was too late and Venezuela was already seceding from the union.

While Bolivar abandoned his Pan Americanism and reverted to a more nationalist position, there was little sign in his thought of economic nationalism or of that resentment against foreign penetration which later generations felt. While he rejected the Spanish colonial monopoly, he welcomed foreigners who subscribed to open trade and who brought much needed manufactured goods and entrepreneurial skills. He was always friendly towards Britain. 'Politically', he wrote, 'alliance with Great Britain would be a greater victory than Ayacucho, and if we procure it you may be certain that our future happiness is assured. The advantages that will result for Colombia if we ally ourselves with that mistress of the universe are incalculable'. The policy was one of self-interest rather than dependence; it expressed the anxiety of a young and weak state to acquire a protector – and a liberal protector – against the power of Spain and the Holy Alliance. Britain provided one of Bolivar's basic requirements, namely diplomatic, and in the ultimate analysis naval, protection against counter-revolution from Europe. 'America will never forget', he said, 'that Mr. Canning caused her rights to be respected'.

The Liberator was also a reformer, and as he sought to establish the political framework of the revolution, so he struggled to broaden its social base. He stood for equality as well as liberty, and he insisted on ending racial discrimination, at least before the law. The slave trade was abolished in Venezuela in 1811, but slavery endured. Bolivar set an example. He liberated his own slaves, first on condition of military service in 1814, when about fifteen accepted, and then unconditionally in 1821 after the liberation of Venezuela, when over a hundred profited. And he repeatedly pressed congress to decree abolition. He argued that the creole rulers and property-owners must accept the implications of independence, that the example of freedom was 'insistent and compelling', and that the republicans 'must triumph by the road of revolution and no other'. The post-war Congress of Cucuta passed a complex law of manumission, but it lacked teeth and also the funds to pay compensation. All over Spanish America the chronology of abolition tended to be determined not by principles but by the role of slavery in any given economy. Where slavery was significant or constituted an important property right, so it survived (in Venezuela to 1854), and Bolivar fought a lone battle.

Land and labour remained under the control of the great proprietors. Bolivar was aware of the agrarian structure, and he wanted to distribute land confiscated from the royalists to the republican soldiers, whom he regarded as the people in arms. On October 10th, 1817, he issued the 'law on the distribution of national property among the soldiers', the first of a number of such decrees. The scheme was confined to those who fought in the hardest years, 1816-19, and the intention, as Bolivar put it, was 'to make of each soldier a property-owning citizen'. Strictly speaking it was not a bonus but a basic payment to men who had not received a regular wage; and it was graded according to rank. But Bolivar's plans were frustrated by the combined action of legislators and officers. Congress decreed that the soldiers be paid not in actual land but in bonos , vouchers entitling the holder to receive national land at a vague post-war date. Ignorant and impoverished soldiers were easy prey: the bonos were bought up by officers and civilian speculators at ridiculous prices, and in this way most of the soldiers, including thellaneros , were defrauded of their right to land. The injustice outraged the Liberator and he protested to congress, but in vain. Yet this was not his last word on agrarian problems.

Bolivar also sought to give land to the Peruvian Indians in individual ownership. 'The poor Indians', he declared, 'are truly in a state of lamentable depression. I intend to help them all I can, first as a matter of humanity, second because it is their right'. But good intentions were not enough. In breaking up the Indian communities and re-distributing their lands, liberal reforms of this kind exposed the Indians to pressure from estate owners, who took their land and demanded their labour. Bolivar decreed a further measure of land reform, in Bolivia in 1825; the aim was to distribute state land, preferably among 'the natives and those who have offered and suffered much in the cause of independence'. But the reform was sabotaged by the Bolivian ruling class, who regarded a free and landed peasantry as a threat to their dependent labour supply.

'To understand revolutions and their participants', wrote Bolivar, 'we must observe them at close range and judge them at great distance'. History may judge that the Liberator was to some degree a prisoner of his environment. He could not push the creole élite too far along the path of reform for fear of a backlash, in which independence itself might be jeopardised. Where he differed from his contemporaries was in his awareness of the true limitations of independence, and in his acute perception of the socio-racial tensions of the time 'A great volcano lies at our feet. Who shall restrain the oppressed classes!' Slavery will break its yoke, each racial group will seek mastery'. In 1828, in a mood of deep pessimism, he described the enduring polarisation of Spanish American society between the privileged few and the deprived many:

In Colombia there is an aristocracy of rank, office and wealth, equivalent by its influence, its pretensions and its pressure on the people, to the most despotic aristocracy of titles and birth in Europe. Included in the ranks of this aristocracy are the clergy, professional groups, lawyers, the military and the rich. In spite of all their liberalism, they prefer to regard the lower classes as their perpetual serfs.

Two years later, as anarchy and violence swept over the new states, he declared his bitter disappointment at the achievements of the revolution: 'Independence is the only benefit we have gained, at the cost of everything else'. Convinced that America was ungovernable, and mortally ill from tuberculosis, he left Bogota to make his way to the coast and exile. He died near Santa Marta on December 17th, 1830, in his forty-seventh year, ‘his last moments', recorded O'Leary, 'the last embers of an expiring volcano, the dust of the Andes still on his garments'.

John Lynch is Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies and Professor of Latin American History at the University of London.

Further reading: 
  • Vicente Lecuna and Harold A. Bierck (eds) Selected Writings of Bolivar (2 vols, New York, 1951)
  • Bolivar and the War of Independence. Memorias del General Daniel Florencio O'Leary  ed. Robert F. McNerney (Austin, 1970)
  • Gerhard Masur, Simon Bolivar (Alburquerque, 1948)
  • J.J. Salcedo-Bastardo, Bolivar. A Continent and its Destiny (Richmond, 1978)
  • John Lynch, The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 (London, 1973)
  • For recent appraisals, see the collection of articles in Hispanic American Historical Review 63:1 (Feb 1983)


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