A People's History of Simon Bolívar

By Ivan Gomez

(Hulton Archive)

Simon Bolívar was an unlikely rebel. A man raised by several renowned professors

and a slave, some would say he was more destined to become an intellectual than a guerrilla warrior responsible for toppling Spanish rule in South America. Having the ideas of liberty and freedom instilled in him at a young age, his revolutionary mindset became a vital part of his future military endeavours. Freeing Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia from royalist rule, his military and political achievements see him referred to as the ‘George Washington of South America’ and the ‘Liberator’. Bolívar allowed anyone into his ranks including African slaves, indigenous people, women, and just about anyone else willing to die for abolitionism and his republican cause. Bolívar's ideas of liberation sometimes contradicted his racist actions, however, consequently reinforcing European power structures that were already present during colonial occupation in Latin America. His merciless ways saw him feared on and off the battlefield and his call for the killing of Spanish loyalists saw him hated by many. Bolívar was more than just a soldier, and his philosophy incited nationalism and patriotism within the continent and planted the seeds of revolution in the minds of millions. This is the story of Latin America’s most eminent freedom fighter.

In order to understand Bolívar's military history, one must go back to his roots and explore his beginnings. Born in Caracas, Venezuela to a wealthy family, he lost his father at the age of three and his mother at the age of nine. As a result, Bolívar was raised partially by members of his estate and the family slave, who he viewed as a mother (Lynch, 2008). He was later put under the custody of various distinguished professors who taught him basic life skills such as cooking, swimming, and caring for animals while simultaneously introducing him to the ideals and philosophy of freedom and liberty through political education. Following accusations of holding anti-Spanish sentiments, Simón Rodríguez, one of his closest professors, fled Venezuela. Having played a strong influence on Bolívar’s views on sociology, human rights, and liberty, the loss of this professor greatly affected him.

Bolívar viewed Rodriguez as a friend and a father figure, and his absence motivated him to join

Milicias de Aragua, a military school in Venezuela (Arismendi Posada, 1983). This was the beginning of Bolívar’s military education and training. At 17, he left his home in Venezuela for Madrid to continue his military studies. It was during the many years of military academy during his youth that Bolívar gained a vital understanding into the world of conflict and

discipline. He was taught war strategy and tactics while receiving adequate weapons and

combat training. Here he gained discipline and an important insight into military history.

Having spent time in the territory of his enemy before they became his enemy also allowed

Bolívar to assimilate and learn the ways of the Spanish. Following his tenure in military

academies, Bolívar resided in France and toured Europe where the political climate and

figures of the time left a strong impression on him, specifically Napoleon Bonaparte. Before

his return to Venezuela in 1807, Bolívar witnessed his coronation and was inspired by his

revolutionary mindset and status as a hero (Arismendi Posada, 1983).

Following the coup of 1810 that oversaw Spanish colonial administrators removed

from power and the establishment of the Supreme Junta of Caracas, Venezuela achieved

unofficial independence. The Junta sent Bolívar and other Venezuelan diplomats to Great

Britain to request aid and support. During this time, Bolívar met and convinced military

captain Francisco de Miranda to return to his homeland and help fight for Venezuela’s

independence. Subsequently, Miranda led the insurgency and insurrection against the Spanish

fighting alongside Simon Bolívar. Following successes on the battlefield, Bolívar was

promoted to the rank of colonel and placed in command of Puerto Cabello. Here Bolívar and

his army used the San Felipe Castle as a stronghold and major weapons storage. During this time, Spanish frigates advanced from the west and eventually reached Puerto Cabello where they fought Bolívar's troops on the ground and overtook them, seizing the tower and forcing Bolívar and his men to flee. The loss of the strategic point and ammunition supplies dealt a major blow to the rebels and was one of the reasons Miranda decided to surrender to the Spanish. This was viewed as a treasonous act by Bolívar and his fellow officers, causing them to punish him by handing him over to Spanish authorities who imprisoned him as a prisoner of war (Lynch, 2008).

Less than a year later, Bolívar left for New Granada and was given a military command within the army of the United Provinces. Here Bolívar engaged in conflict with local governments and cities that refused to recognize the authority of the provinces and led to the capture of Ocaña, a strategic town that was one of the main routes into Venezuela. Following the seizure of Ocaña, Bolívar and his men led their campaign against Spanish strongholds in New Granada and soon after liberated Cúcuta from the royalists. Bolívar was then granted permission to lead his men into Venezuela where he began his vicious campaign against the Spanish. Following reports of atrocities and killings being committed against civilian supporters of the independence movement, Bolívar issued the notorious “Decree of War to the Death”. The decree threatened death to any Spanish person that did not support the independence movement. Five months later, Bolívar and his rebel army defeated the royalists in La Victoria and Valencia and soon after began their campaign into Caracas, which they retook swiftly. This series of military engagements are referred to as the Admirable Campaign (Arana, 2013).

In 1814, dissent within the republic oversaw its collapse, and Bolívar once again

returned to New Granada to lead the United Provinces. Bolívar’s campaign began with his

attack on Cundinamarca, a town held by dissenting independence fighters which he

successfully retook. The following year, Bolívar fled New Granada due to internal conflict

with the government and military. Bolívar ended up in Haiti after the government of Jamaica

refused to grant him support. Following talks with President Alexander Pétion who was

sympathetic to his cause for independence, he was granted support and aid. Pétion was the

president of the recently free republic of Haiti and provided him with troops, weapons,

supplies, and ships in exchange for Bolívar’s promise that he would eradicate and abolish slavery in any Spanish colonies he would liberate. Bolívar agreed as he was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, but provided nothing more than legal support. Socially, Bolívar had his doubts and became frustrated when his men asked for absolute equality and had held fears that indigenous and black citizens would exterminate the privileged white creole class. Bolívar was so fearful in fact that he executed several black, mixed, and indigenous members of his army including some in his inner circle after they demanded more equality within his ranks and attempted to launch a coup. An extensive critique of Bolívar's racist actions can be found in Mohammed Elnaiem's piece "Bolívar in Haiti".

By 1816, the first Haitian troops had landed in Venezuela, and on the 2nd of June Bolívar declared that all slaves were to be liberated. Bolívar first headed East where he defeated Spanish general Miguel de la Torre in Angostura (now named Ciudad Bolívar after him). De la Torre had launched a strong counterattack on Bolívar and his men, but it was swiftly countered and defeated. Bolívar then set up a government in Venezuela, commencing the Third Republic (Arana, 2013).

In 1819, Bolívar decided that the liberation of New Granada was of much greater

importance and decided to campaign for it before continuing his fight for Venezuelan

freedom. From Venezuela, Bolívar began his march into New Granada with a force of 2,500

men. Venezuelan, British, and New Grenadian men were led by Bolívar through the flooded

plains of Venezuela for 36 days and the treacherous Andes Mountain range for six days in one of the greatest military accomplishments of all time. Reaching altitudes of 13,000 feet, dozens fell victim to the cold or lost their lives due to sickness but miraculously, Bolívar and his men completed the journey and arrived at Paipa where they defeated the Spanish in a pyrrhic victory. Despite the heavy losses, Bolívar’s forces pushed on towards Bogota where they easily defeated the Spanish forces defending the city. The same day, Spanish and republican forces clashed in Casa de Teja. Bolívar ordered a flank attack on the Spanish, catching them by surprise. Many fled without clear direction while others tried to cross the river but were killed by the bayonets of Bolívar’s charging men. The republican army split into two and attacked the incoming Spanish forces on the Boyacá bridge, where the Spanish colonel was killed and the remaining forces attempted to retreat. 1,600 Spanish soldiers were captured and 38 were executed by Bolívar’s officers exercising his ‘Decree of War to the Death’. Following the decisive victory at Boyacá, New Granada was now free and Bolívar could focus on the liberation of Venezuela. (González, 2004)

The year after the liberation of New Granada, Bolívar began to build up his forces and

station his men at Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela where he had rounded up approximately

6,500-8,000 troops. In 1821, the Battle of Carabobo commenced with Bolívar's men attacking Spanish forces on a major road that led to Puerto Cabello. Bolívar’s men flanked the Spanish through the jungle while Bolívar himself led the attack through the middle. The men who

flanked the positions suffered heavy losses at the hand of several Spanish cannons that had

not been noticed before. Simultaneously, General Miguel de la Torre divided his men to deal

with the men attacking from the rear, successfully holding back the republicans. Members of the British legion fighting for Bolívar attacked while the rest of the men retreated and eventually succeeded in overtaking the Spanish and gaining the high ground. The rest of Bolívar’s forces then returned and joined the British fighters on the high ground and fought off an enemy advance. At the same moment, Bolívar’s cavalry pursued the retreating royalists at the rear of de la Torres formation and defeated them (Lynch, 2008). Royalist rule in Venezuela was significantly damaged following the loss of their largest force and the country subsequently fell to the republicans by virtue of Simon Bolívar. Bolívar’s liberation of New Granada and Venezuela allowed for the creation of Gran Colombia where he was named as president.

Bolívar’s battles did not end there, and he took on the task of liberating Peru from Royalist rule. In 1822, Bolívar entered Ecuador and defeated the Spanish in several skirmishes leading to him being named dictator of Peru by the Peruvian congress and members of the government (Fernandez, 2018). This gave him absolute power and complete oversight over the military and the country's political system. In June of 1824, Simon Bolívar and his independence army marched to the Junín region of Peru to fight Spanish forces in the area. Firstly, Bolívar ordered 8,000 men to chase Spanish forces retreating North into Cusco while the cavalry prepared for battle in the plains of Junín. In the midst of their preparations for battle, the Spanish cavalry launched a surprise attack. Bolívar witnessed this from his location on a hill and led the infantry to aid them but when they arrived the Spanish had already been defeated by other patriot generals. Despite the heavy losses suffered by the Spanish, their surrender came 6 months later at the Battle of Ayacucho, led by Bolívar’s lieutenant Jose de Sucre. Peru was now free, and the following year, the Peruvian congress created the country of Bolivia, named after Simon Bolívar. (Lynch, 2008)

After a lifetime of fighting, Bolívar left his role as president of Gran Colombia and chose to retire. Bolívar planned to leave for Europe but succumbed to tuberculosis before his departure on the 17th of December in 1830. Aged 47 years old at the time of his death, his legacy lives on in the hearts of Latin Americans globally. From Venezuela’s Bolivarian Forces of Liberation (FBL) to the FARC rebels of Colombia, numerous guerrilla movements have emerged under his name and historical legacy. Mostly left-wing, these groups liken their struggle and their revolutions to Simon Bolívar. Used as the face of dissent and freedom, anti-government opposition in authoritarian nations such as Chavez’s Venezuela have also compared themselves to the ‘Liberator’. Portrayed as a brave freedom fighter, his military legacy sees him portrayed as not only the liberator of South America, but also as one of the greatest military minds of all time. His flaws of internalized racism have also left an impact on Latin America's racialized structures, however.

Analysis from The Renegade:

Overthrowing oppressive occupation while also spreading the harm of internalized racism is an action that has been emulated by figures such as Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, both of whom also coming from white backgrounds of privilege and perpetuating racialized structures. No freedom fighter is only one thing, and all structures of selective liberation must be critiqued and restructured with every new modernity so that every voice can be heard and felt, not just for the privileged few. So, while Bolívar's accomplishments undoubtedly ended the most destructive and oppressive phase in Latin American history, the process of liberation continues.

Works Cited

Arana, M. (2013). Bolívar: American Liberator (First Edition). Simon & Schuster.

Arismendi Posada, I. (1983). Gobernantes Colombianos [Colombian Presidents] (second

ed.). Bogotá, Colombia: Interprint Editors Ltd.; Italgraf.

Fernandez, L. (2018). 50 events that shaped Latino history: An encyclopedia of the American

mosaic. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood.

González, E. E. (2004). Batallas de Venezuela, 1810–1824. Los Libros de El Nacional.

Lynch, J. (2008). Simón Bolívar (Simon Bolívar): A Life. New Haven, CT: Yale University