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Simón Bolívar

[sE mawn' baw lE' vahr] Venezuelan statesman who led the revolt of South American colonies against Spanish rule

Simon Bolivar

Simón José Antonio de la Santísma Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios was born to wealthy Creoles in what is now Caracas, Venezuela, on July 24, 1783. His parents were Colonel Juan Vicente Bolívar y Ponte and Concepción Palacios Blanco; he had two older sisters and a brother. His father died when he was three, and his mother died six years later.

Raised primarily by a family slave in his earliest years, Simón was reared first by his maternal grandfather and then an uncle after the deaths of his parents. He received his basic education at private schools and from tutors. One of his tutors was Simon Rodriguez, who exposed him to Voltaire, Rousseau, and other writers of the Enlightenment. Rodriguez had to flee the country when he was suspected of conspiring to overthrow Spanish rule in 1796.

When he turned 14, Bolivar entered the Battalion in the White Militia in the Aragua Valley, which had been headed by his father. He took to the military easily, and within a year had been promoted to Second Lieutenant. At the age of 16 Bolivar was sent to Spain to complete his education. During the voyage, the ship called at Vera Cruz, Mexico, and during a visit with the Viceroy there Bolivar surprised everyone by praising the independence movements in the United States and France.

While in Spain, Bolivar met and fell in love with María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alaysa, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman. The two were married on May 26, 1802, and returned to Caracas soon after. Maria died of yellow fever about a year after the couple arrived in Venezuela, and a grieving Bolivar decided to return to Europe and immerse himself in its intellectual and political worlds.

While living in Paris, Bolivar met naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who had just returned from five years in South America. As von Humboldt spoke of the enormous natural resources and wonders of the continent, Bolivar remarked, "In truth, what a brilliant fate--that of the New World, if only its people were freed of their yoke." Von Humboldt responded, "I believe that your country is ready for its independence. But I can not see the man who is to achieve it." It was a fateful comment Bolivar was to vividly recall the rest of his life. He witnessed the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte on December 2, 1804, and the sight of the man he had admired as a liberator installing himself as an absolute ruler further fueled Bolivar's revolutionary spirit. About this same time, Bolivar also met up with his former tutor, and the two traveled to Rome, where he once again met von Humboldt. On August 15, 1805, while visiting Monte Sacro, a place associated in Roman history with freedom from oppression, Bolivar vowed to free his country from Spanish rule.

Returning to Venezuela in 1807, Bolivar spent the next couple of years managing his land holdings and meeting with intellectuals, while also stirring cries for independence from Spain. On April 19, 1810, revolutionaries in Caracas overthrew the Spanish Viceroy. The revolutionaries then named Bolivar to head a small delegation to London to seek protection from the British government against any attempt by France to take Venezuela from Spain. The British government refused to help the revolutionaries, but Bolivar did manage to convince Francisco de Miranda, who had spearheaded an aborted revolt in 1806, to return with him to Venezuela and head a new independence movement. The Republic of Venezuela was declared on July 5, 1811, making Venezuela the first Spanish colony anywhere in the world to declare its independence.

As a Lieutenant Colonel under the command of Miranda, Bolivar first distinguished himself during the first major battle of the Venezuelan War for Independence, an assault on the Spanish stronghold of Valencia, on July 19, 1811. The rebels were initially repulsed by the Spanish garrison, but a month-long siege finally forced the stronghold to surrender, on August 19. The revolution soon stalled, however, as the rebels subsequently experienced a series of defeats and internal disagreements.

On March 26, 1812, Venezuela was rocked by a powerful earthquake that hit mostly rebellious cities. Spanish priests were able to convince large segments of the population that the earthquake was divine retribution for the rebellion, and many people who had previously been either indifferent or for the revolution began to turn against the rebels. Royalist Captain Domingo Monteverde subsequently rallied the Spanish and royalist forces and captured important ports, and recaptured Valencia. Miranda sued for peace. A dusgusted Bolívar arrested Miranda and turned him over to the Spanish, but by then the Republic had fallen and the Spanish had regained control of Venezuela. Unwilling to give up on Venezuelan independence, Bolivar went into self-imposed exile in New Granada (now Colombia), where he participated in Colombian campaigns against the Spanish while recruiting a new army for Venezuela.

By 1813 Bolivar had amassed a large enough force to again face the Spanish. He and his new army crossed into Venezuela on May 14, 1813, and recaptured Caracas on August 7. Although Venezuelans were proclaiming him as "The Liberator" by October, Bolivar's army began suffering defeats and, by the end of the year, he had once again been forced to retreat to New Granada. Taking command of a Colombian force, Bolivar succeeded in capturing Bogóta in 1814, but by 1815 a lack of men and supplies forced him to retreat again, this time to Jamaica.

Although he had now been defeated and sent into exile three times, Bolivar still refused to give up until he had either won independence for Venezuela or had been killed in the fight. From Jamaica he went to Haiti, where he once again began recruting an army. Returning to Venezuela in 1816, Bolivar's new army fought its way to Angostura (now Ciudad Bolivar), which it captured in July of 1817. After establishing control over the area, Bolivar spent the next year consolidating his power and dealing with those who still proclaimed loyalty to Spain. He took control of Bogotá in August of 1819, and completed the liberation of Colombia by defeating the Spanish at Boyacá later that same year. He then returned to Angostura, where he led the congress that organized the Republic of Colombia; he became the Republic's first President on December 17, 1819.

Having successfully led Colombia's fight for independence, Bolivar began preparing for the liberation of his native Venezuela. He accomplished this task by defeating the Spanish Army at Carababo on June 24, 1821, and marched triumphantly into Caracas on June 29, 1821. Both Ecuador and Peru were liberated in 1822, and Spanish rule in South America came to a formal end with the defeat of the last Spanish forces at Ayacucho in 1824. All of the territories that Bolivar had helped liberate became jointly known as Gran Colombia, and Bolivar was formally inaugurated as its President on September 10, 1827.

Bolivar's ultimate dream was that all of South America would unite under a single government much like the various states of the United States had done, but this dream was never realized. The province of Upper Peru was the first to break away from Gran Colombia, reorganizing itself as the Republic of Bolivia in 1825. One by one the other states withdrew, and by 1828 the only territory Bolivar still governed was Colombia. Although he was revered as "the liberator of South America," Bolivar was not a beloved President, and he had to constantly fight internal rebellions. Fearing that Colombia might fall into full-scale civil war, Bolivar decided to step down as President in 1830. He planned to leave the country while a new government could be formed, but unexpectedly died of tuberculosis on December 17, 1830.

See Also

Alexander von Humboldt
Napoleon Bonaparte

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This page was last updated on October 01, 2018.