One of the most renowned leaders in the campaign for South American independence is the figure of Simón Bolívar. Streets, parks and even the country of Bolivia have been named after him due to his efforts liberating much of the north of South America. 

Bolívar was born in Caracas, the capital of modern-day Venezuela. At the time it was a city in the Captaincy General of Venezuela, which was a colonial administrative district in what had been the Viceroyalty of New Granada until 1777. Bolívar was born into a good family and had three older siblings. His parents were both from the ruling elite. His father held the title of Marquis de San Luis and his mother was also an aristocrat.  His mother was also from an aristocratic family.  Bolívar was brought up by a woman called Doña Ines Manceba de Miyares and a family slave called Hipólita, as well as his parents, who both died when he was a child. He would later be educated by some of the most famous educators in South American history. His tutors included Andrés Bello and Simon Rodriguez, for example. Both Rodriguez and Bello would have prominent roles shaping education in South America as it became secularised following independence. Bello expounded the ideas of liberty, enlightenment and freedom, concepts that were key to the ideological battles inherent in the independence project. Bello became the first rector of the University of Chile and wrote the Civil Code of the Republic of Chile. He was an important part of Bolívar’s education, and was behind many of the beliefs that led to the independence revolution (ideas of liberty, enlightenment, and freedom). Bolívar also attended military school as a teenager both in the Captaincy General of Venezuela and later in Spain.

This broad and cosmopolitan education made him a key intellectual of the time and he was abreast of the ideas of the enlightenment that had taken hold in Europe in the eighteenth century and the wars of independence in other countries. In fact Bolívar was in France in 1804 and witnessed the coronation of Napoleon on the 2nd December 1804. This was a key event in global history since Napoleon was not a hereditary monarch.

After Napoleon invaded Spain leading to a power vacuum in the Americas, Bolívar became involved with the struggle for independence in the Captaincy General of Venezuela. In 1810 he was a key part of the intellectual elite which overthrew the Captain General of Venezuela, in order to install the Supreme Caracas Junta, one of the first mechanisms of independence. Bolívar was charged with a diplomatic mission at this point. He was sent to Britain to try to garner international support for the new state. This was a key event and Bolívar and his delegation were the first Latin American delegation to be recognised in London. Bolívar also gained the support of a figure known as Francisco de Miranda during his time in London and Miranda would also become a key leader in the independence struggle.  

During the wars of independence, Bolívar was a military leader and he is hailed as having secured independence in much of South America. Although the first declaration of independence came in Venezuela in 1811, it faced strong opposition from Spain and was to be a short-lived victory.  The republic was led by Francisco de Miranda. Bolívar supported him but became angered when Miranda took the decision to surrender to the Spaniards. Miranda had bargained with the Spaniards and gained an amnesty for those on the independence side, however many of the patriots, Bolívar included, did not think that Miranda should have surrendered and took him to be a traitor. The armistice Miranda had achieved allowed the patriots to gain passports and Bolívar took his passport to go from Venezuela to Curaçao. Before leaving however, Bolívar and some of the other patriots claimed that Miranda had defected and turned him over to the Spaniards.

As was the case throughout the campaign for independence, Bolívar used his time abroad to consider ways of furthering the independence cause. He would returned to Venezuela in 1813 to make a further attempt. This is when he went on to lead a military campaign that has been termed his “Admirable Campaign”.

1813 – Bolívar’s Campaña Admirable – The Admirable Campaign 

The “Admirable Campaign” was initially intended to be a defensive effort to maintain revolutionary strongholds. Bolívar had been charged with defending New Granada rather than attacking and taking new territory and he was meant to go only as far as La Grita, however when he easily defeated troops on the New Granadan border, he was authorised to push forward into Venezuela. Bolívar and his troops proved to have surprising success in their attack on Venezuela. They conquered the provicences of Mérida, Barinas, Trujillo and Caracas and his troops swiftly took Caracas.

In his book, War and Independence in Spanish America, Anthony McFarlane argues that Bolívar was able to take Caracas by circumventing royal troops rather than crushing them. His advance was quick and used the element of surprise. According to McFarlane, reports from the time say that casualties were generally low:

Many of the enemy preferred to change sides when caught unawares, sometimes even before fighting broke out.

Taking Caracas was one of Bolívar’s triumphs but it was not enough. The city became unstable and increasingly violent with atrocities committed by both the patriots and the royalists. This wave of violence was to characterise Bolívar’s military campaign. One of the independence fighters was called Antonio Nicolás Briceno. He had a particularly gruesome strategy and it was one that was to influence Bolívar. Briceño had his men kill all European Spaniards and remove their heads to create a campaign of terror. The idea was to pit all those born in the Americas with all those born in Spain and thus create clear divides in the independence struggle. Bolívar saw the benefit of such a struggle in the ideological war for independence.

One of the issues in the independence struggle was that many people born in the Americas actually supported the Spaniards. Bolívar sought to change this and in 1813 he started a declaration of war to the death, which meant that all European Spaniards, and particularly those who were armed, should be killed. Although Bolívar didn’t want the same gruesome removal of heads, in principal this was a strategy of terror intended to get Spaniards to surrender. It was also intended to get the people of South America to unite against the Spaniards in the struggle for independence.

Bolívar’s war to the death strategy failed and in 1814, as the independence battle continued in Venezuela, many of the soldiers fighting for the royalist cause were born in the Americas. There were a lot of racial and regional tensions. Slaves, for example, fought for the royalists and the patriots and often tended to focus on killing the whites on the opposite side.

Bolívar was presiding over the “Second Republic”, but he was doing so without internal or external support. One of the problems he faced was a shortage of arms and other resources. The Second Republic was eventually defeated by the Spaniards and Bolívar went to New Granada to help with the independence battle there. Bolívar helped the patriots take Cundinamarca (current day Bogotá) and then he went to the West Indies to work on his next strategy and from where he would write his famous Jamaica Letter on 6th September 1815.

Bolívar also took refuge in Haiti and garnered support for the independence project from the Haitians. He returned to Venezuela with Haitian soldiers in 1816 to fight once again for independence in Venezuela. As part of this Bolívar had agreed to free Spanish America’s slaves. He did so with a decree issued against slavery in Venezuela on 2nd June 1816.

In 1817, he captured the city of Angostura and established a provisional government in the city. It is a city that now takes his name (Cuidad Bolívar).The independence battle in Venezuela was fraught and Bolívar decided to support the fight for independence in New Granada. His rationale was that the fight could be won in New Granada and then the resources that were taken from the royalists could be used to assist the independence project in Venezuela where arms and resources were scarce. Bolívar’s campaigns were garnering some success and in 1818, along with the forces commanded by José Antonio Páez, the chief of the Venezuelan llaneros (plainsmen), they managed to gain control of a great deal of the interior Orinoco Basin.

In 1819 the Battle of Boyacá consolidated the victory of the independence project in New Granada. The Republic of Gran Colombia was formed later that year. Bolívar was appointed the president of the region and he appointed two vice-presidents, one in the New Granada region and one in the Venezuela region of Gran Colombia. Tensions between the regions would continue in the last few years of independence and well into the early national period. It was at this 1819 congress that Bolívar gave one of his important political speeches, the Angostura Address. The Congress of Angostura would subsequently vote to create the Republic of Colombia, which, at the time, comprised Venezuela, New Granada (Colombia) and Quito (Ecuador).

Although Venezuela was independent, Spain still controlled substantial portions of the region. It controlled Caracas, for example, and the coastal highlands.  Bolívar would agree two treaties with the Spanish leader Morillo in 1820 which outlined a six-month armistice and acknowledged that Bolívar was the president of the region.

Bolívar then went on to consolidate independence in the Northern region of South America. The battle of Carabobo consolidated victory in Venezuela and the patriots, led by Bolívar, finally took control of Caracas in 1821.

Bolívar was the president of Gran Colombia from 1819 to 1830. It was a single state and a step towards Bolívar‘s vision of unification in America. However it covered regions with vastly different terrains and conflicting interests. Gran Colombia was comprised of modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. Bolívar was president and initially he sought to rule by constitutionalism. The Gran Colombian congress adopted a constitution in 1821. It has been argued that despite his liberal beliefs and use of constitutionalism Bolívar began to believe that a heavy, more dictatorial hand was necessary.  

While he was the president of Gran Colombia, Bolivar went on to help secure independence in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. One of the key battles was The Battle of Pichincha, which was won in 1822 by Antonio José de Sucre, who was Bolívar’s lieutenant. The Battle of Pichincha gained independence for the region of Quito in Ecuador but it only lasted for a few weeks.

Bolívar then moved on to Guayaquil on the coast of current-day Ecuador, where he met the Argentine independence fighter José de San Martín. Little is known about this meeting of the two great liberators. However it led to Bolívar continuing the fight for independence in the region that had been best defended by the Spaniards: Peru. 

In 1823 Bolívar took over the independence struggle in Peru and began with a victory in the Peruvian Highlands. The following year, another key battle, the Battle of Ayacucho provided a final victory and the Peruvian viceroy was defeated.

After consolidating victory in Peru, Bolívar moved to Upper Peru (current-day Bolívia), a region that was already held by the independence patriots. He was asked to draft a constitution for the new state  (current day Bolivia) and he duly did this in 1826. In his constitution, his increasingly dictatorial views were apparent, as the constitution included a president who would serve for his lifetime.

Later in 1826, Bolívar  returned to Colombia but he faced wrath from the liberals there who were opposed to the dictatorial vision he had outlined in his constitution for Bolivia. 

Bolívar really wanted to create an american alliance of nations. From his position in Peru a few years earlier, he had sent an invitation to the Spanish American nations calling them to attend a conference in Panama City and attempt to create an American alliance of nations. The congress took place in 1826 but was unable to form the strong alliance of nations that Bolívar had envisaged.

The new states were incredibly unstable and in 1828 facing great instability in the region and considerable opposition from the New Granadian liberals, Bolívar attempted to impose a military dictatorship. Someone tried to assassinate Bolívar and Bolívar believed that Santander was behind it and so he sent him into exile.

In 1829, Bolívar went to Ecuador to try to help address other regional tensions, this time between Colombia and Peru. This time his vision of how the independent states should be run included a monarchist scheme.

Having gone from being educated by some of Latin America’s great liberal thinkers and educators, to attempting to rule by military dictatorship and then proposing monarchic rule, Bolívar had fallen from favour by the liberals in Venezuela and New Granada.

He resigned from his presidency in 1830 intending to travel overseas and live in exile but he died in the coastal town of Santa Maria before he was able to leave the country.

Further Reading 

John Lynch, Simon Bolívar: A Life Bury St Edmunds: Yale University, 2006.