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Bolivar’s British Legion

At a low point in his fortunes, the Liberator sent an emissary to recruit troops in London. Philip Ziegler describes how their achievements were of various importance, but the flame of Simón Bolivar’s British Legion lives on.

By 1817 the wars of liberation in Gran Colombia seemed almost to have petered out. According to all the rules, the rickety edifice of the Spanish Empire, undermined by the eclipse of Spain in Europe, should have been about to fall.

And yet it obstinately refused to do so. Indeed, in the face of the skilful and savage counter-attacks of Pablo Morillo, Simón Bolivar, the Liberator, had been forced to flee to Jamaica and thence to Haiti.

By 1817 he was again established on the mainland at Angostura, a river village in the swamps of Maracaibo about two hundred miles from Caracas. But his position was both precarious and uncomfortable and, though nothing could affect his own confidence in victory, the morale of his supporters was dangerously low.

In these circumstances it was natural that he should look to the outside world for help. His best hope lay in Britain. For more than two centuries the British had resented the Spanish hegemony in South America and had done their best to break it. To the Spaniards, Henry Morgan was a brigand and a murderer; to the Creoles he was, at the worst, a Robin Hood, at the best a symbol of Britain’s involvement in the affairs of the continent.

It was true that Spain had recently been an ally, but this only intensified the bitterness of the British trader who found the doors of Spanish America still barred to his products. To Bolivar and his followers Britain was the repository of liberty and democracy and the champion of all who fought for such ideals. They may have been unduly sanguine, but, with George Canning back in the Government, it seemed certain, at least, that the cause of the Liberator would not go by default.

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