Simón Bolívar represents many things across Latin America. As a figure vital to the history of the continent, he is held in reverence by some and hated by others. A military leader, he ignited the flames of rebellion across the region, being a catalyst to extreme violence and death. Both hated and loved for his contribution to Latin American history in his time, Bolivar’s life has been interpreted in different ways. He is held as a bourgeois revolutionary, a dictator, a reformist, a freedom fighter, and a host of other things. Whatever the consensus is on what he represents, he still exists as El Libertador, the man who fought for independence against Spain.
Early Life of Simón Bolívar
Born on July 24, 1783 in Caracas, the capital of the Captaincy General of Venezuela, Simón Bolívar was the youngest son of one of the wealthiest families in South America. His father died when Simón was only two, and custody was passed on to his mother and her father. He was raised separately from his siblings, and as was custom a the time, was cared for by Hipólita, an African house slave. Hipólita was the closest thing to a parent that Simón Bolívar had as a child. In 1792, his mother died of tuberculosis, and the following year, his grandfather died. Custody of Simón was passed on to his uncle, Carlos, who Simón loathed, as he believed his uncle was only interested in the family inheritance.
Simón Bolívar had a difficult upbringing, and was noted as being an unruly child. He ran away from home to his sister and her husband, who took him in and tried in vain to have his new residency officially recognized. Simón was instead sent to live with Simón Rodríguez who ran the school where Bolívar was educated. Rodríguez became a mentor to the young boy, and was probably a catalyst for Bolívar’s political views. In 1797, Rodríguez was linked to a pro-independence conspiracy and forced into exile.
Bolívar enrolled in an honorary militia force, and left the Americas in 1799. He arrived in Spain and received a more thorough education. During his time in Spain, he was banished from the imperial court for wearing diamonds without permission. He also got engaged to María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alayza, but the two would have to wait several years as individual duties kept them from one another. It wasn’t until May 1802 when they were finally able to get married.
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The newlyweds moved to Caracas, Venezuela shortly after their marriage. It was there that tragedy struck. In January, 1803, María contracted yellow fever and passed away. Simón was distraught, and vowed never to remarry. Later that year, he returned to Europe. He witnessed the coronation of Napoleon in 1804, but he was not sympathetic to French imperialism. After traveling with Simón Rodríguez through Italy, Bolívar had seen enough to declare his intent to see the Americas free from Spanish rule.
Return to the Americas
In 1807, Simón Bolívar sailed west. He spent six months in the United States before landing in Venezuela. He met with many like-minded people to discuss possible ways to gain independence from Spain, and it was through these relationships that Bolívar found himself to be far more radical than his peers.
In 1807, Napoleon invaded Spain, and Venezuela rejected French rule through the new Spanish government. After much political maneuvering and the dissolution of several governments, Venezuela eventually came to be ruled by the Supreme Junta of Caracas, which rejected French rule as well as the Spanish regency (under the control of Napoleon’s brother, Joseph Bonaparte). The junta acquired Simón Bolívar’s services as a diplomat, and Bolívar traveled to Britain to ask for British support in gaining Venezuelan independence. However, this bid failed, and Britain could offer no concrete support, citing their Anglo-Spanish relations as being a more important matter.
Wars in Venezuela & New Granada
In 1811, Simón Bolívar helped to create the Patriotic Society, an organization dedicated to gaining Venezuelan independence. After extensive campaigning, the movement was successful, and Venezuela declared independence on July 5. The declaration brought about a state of war between the Republicans and the Royalists in the new country. Bolívar played a prominent role in the military at this time, but despite early Republican victories, the Royalists achieved victory. This was partly because of a massive earthquake that shook the country, specifically in Republic-controlled areas. The populace, both Republican and Royalist, believed the natural disaster to be God’s retribution for Venezuela declaring independence. Republican forces finally surrendered, and Bolívar fled to Caracas and went into hiding to avoid arrest.
Simón Bolívar, with the help of friends, managed to escape Venezuela into the United Provinces of New Granada, which was the forerunner to the country of Colombia. With high-ranking contacts, Bolívar managed to secure a position as the commander of a 70-man garrison in a small town. New Granada was an ally in the fight against Spain, and Bolívar managed to secure permission to launch an invasion of Venezuela, which he did in 1813. His army quickly swept through the country, and his forces captured Caracas within six months. Bolívar was named Dictator of the Second Republic of Venezuela. The successes did not last, however. Venezuela was not completely unified and was financially devastated. Many people of color remained disenfranchised and refused to support the new government. Bolívar faced insurrections and war from multiple directions.
A Royalist counter-offensive forced Simón Bolívar out of Caracas, and he again had to flee the country. He returned to New Granada, where he was tasked with subduing the rebel territory naming itself The Free and Independent State of Cundinamarca. The conflicts at this time were characterized not only by Republicans fighting against Royalists but between ideas of centralized and federalized governments. Cundinamarca supported centralism, while New Granada had a federal structure. This posed an ideological problem for Bolívar as he was a centralist. He captured the Cundinamarcan capital of Bogotá but made a truce with the Cundinamarcans, following which he resigned from his post in the New Granadan military and fled in exile to Jamaica.
Simón Bolívar Gains Help from Haiti
After surviving an assassination attempt in Jamaica, Simón Bolívar traveled to Haiti, where he met the country’s president, Alexandre Pétion. The two found friendship, and Pétion agreed to help Bolívar with financial aid and supplies if Bolívar agreed to emancipate all enslaved people in Venezuela. Bolívar agreed and sailed back to Jamaica, where he met with Republican leaders to formulate a plan. In 1816, Bolívar returned to Venezuela with an army and won limited victories, but his army was defeated and scattered in July, and he was forced to return to Haiti. Other Republican troops in Venezuela became scattered too and sought Bolívar’s return.
Pétion again agreed to help Bolívar, and Bolívar returned once again to Venezuela. Upon arrival, he issued a call for the new Third Republic to be created. The Republican military forces united under him, but there was much jostling for power. After forcing a Royalist withdrawal, struggles in the upper echelons of the Republican power base saw Bolívar forced to suppress a rebellion within his own movement. He did, however, reconcile with former Republican enemies and met with a string of military successes against Royalist forces. Although Venezuela was not fully under Republican control, Bolívar was declared supreme leader of the Third Republic.
The Liberation of New Granada
On the back of his more permanent successes in Venezuela, Simón Bolívar decided to split his military campaign. Leaving his generals to finish off the Royalists in Venezuela, Bolívar marched with 2,000 soldiers into New Granada and met up with Republican allies across the border. Achieving a decisive victory at the Battle of Boyacá, Bolívar and his forces achieved a quick victory. Royalist forces abandoned the capital of Bogotá, allowing the Republicans to capture the city treasury.
Bolívar then returned to Venezuela and suggested that Venezuela be merged with New Granada. The motion was approved, and the two republics became one, with Bolívar as the president. The country of Gran Colombia was born on December 17, 1819. Sporadic fighting still continued until August 1823, when all Royalist forces were eliminated. A significant event during this time was the Battle of Carabobo on June 18, 1821. The battle was a decisive victory for Bolívar and Gran Colombia, and with the aid of British foreign volunteers (many of who had fought at Waterloo), inflicted massive casualties on the Royalist forces.
The Revolution Expands
Simón Bolívar’s struggles almost led to a confrontation with a similar figure, José de San Martín, who had liberated Chile and Peru from Spanish control. Fearing that De San Martín would secure Ecuador for Peru, Gran Colombia tasked Bolívar with securing it for Gran Colombia.
Although Bolívar met with little initial success, his close friend, General Antonio José de Sucre, commanding a separate army, managed to achieve victory. He decisively defeated a Royalist army, which opened the way for Bolívar to sway the population of The Free Province of Guayaquil, an independent state, to join Gran Colombia. Along with the recent merging of Panama into Gran Colombia, joining Gran Colombia seemed the better choice for the people of Guayaquil. Ill and disheartened, De San Martín returned home and quit his post, leaving Ecuador to be annexed by Gran Colombia in 1822.
In 1823, the Peruvian congress, beleaguered and overwhelmed by internal strife, asked Bolívar to help resolve the crisis. Peru was being torn apart by fighting from four different Republican factions as well as the Royalists. In 1824, the Royalists took Lima, and the Peruvian congress named Bolívar dictator of Peru and gave him the legal means to do whatever he needed to achieve victory. Bolívar gathered an army and defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Junín (August 6, 1824), after which he transferred command to Sucre, who defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Ayacucho (December 9). Bolívar and Sucre then laid siege to the last remaining Royalist outposts. The Fortress of Callao resisted until January 1826.
The Last Years & Legacy of Simón Bolívar
In 1825, Bolívar drastically scaled down his activities and spent his time governing Peru. In 1826, Bolivia declared its independence, naming itself after Bolívar. The country asked Bolívar to become the new president and write a constitution. He accepted both of these appointments. In 1830, Bolívar resigned from his post as Bolivia’s president. He died a few months later of tuberculosis at the age of 47.
Simón Bolívar had liberal beliefs, and he was greatly inspired by the American and French Revolutions. He was also a pragmatist and a realist. He understood the political nature of South America and accepted that certain liberties had to be sacrificed for successful governance. Throughout his career, he stuck to his beliefs and outlawed slavery wherever he governed. This was radical and progressive at the time and drew major attention from European powers.
Although his life was one of near-constant war that brought untold horrors to the populations of Venezuela, Colombia, and surrounding regions, Bolívar fought for liberty and freedom from foreign imperial control. He was an unrelenting warrior, a thoughtful philosopher, and the heroic Libertador.