North Americans often refer to Simon Bolivar as the “George Washington of South America,” for his undying determination to win the freedom of his people from European rule.
Bolivar was born in Caracas, Venezuela, then part of the Spanish empire of South America. A rich Creole by birth, he traveled in Europe. There, he observed the end of the French Revolution and the rise to power of Napoleon (see no. 67). Deeply moved by this, on August 15, 1805, Bolivar made a solemn vow in Rome never to rest until he had freed his people from Spanish rule.
Returning home by way of the United States in 1807, Bolivar became the leader of a rev¬ olutionary movement that deposed the viceroy of Caracas in 1810 in the fight for Venezuelan inde¬ pendence. Ejected from Caracas, he fled to Cartagena in present-day Colombia.
Bolivar led a reconquering of Caracas in 1813, but was forced out by Venezuelan horsemen who supported the royal cause in 1814. Bolivar again went to Cartagena, then to British-held Jamaica, and finally to independent Haiti. In 1816, he launched a seaborne attack on Venezuela that failed.
Truly at the nadir of his fortunes, Bolivar established a base at Angostura on the Orinoco River. He led his men in an epic crossing of the Andes in July 1819 and won the decisive Battle of Boyaca on August 7.
Soon afterward, he had the satisfaction of see¬ ing Venezuela, New Granada (present-day Colombia), and Quito (present-day Ecuador) combine into the new Republic of Gran Colombia. Bolivar served as the first presi¬ dent.
Continuing the fight against Spanish impe¬ rialism, Bolivar won the Battle of Carabobo on June 24, 1821. He then traveled to Guayaquil, Ecuador in 1822 to meet with Jose de San Martin, who had won the war of Chilean independence.
The two leaders had a misunderstanding that has never been fully explained. San Martin retired from the scene, and Bolivar and his right-hand lieutenant,Jose de Sucre, decided to complete the war for Peruvian independence.
Bolivar had to remain in Gran Colombia during most of the campaign that followed. De Sucre won the crucial battles of Junin and Ayacucho in 1824 that ended the war.
Bolivar’s military actions expelled the Spanish pres¬ ence from the continent for good. In addition to his military achievements, he wrote the Cartagena Memorial (1812) and the Jamaica Letter (1815), both of which called for inde¬ pendence from colonialism. Having attained nearly all of his goals, Bolivar found it impossible to hold together the structure he had created.
His “Great Convention” of South American states in 1826 was a failure, and in 1830, first Venezuela, and then Quito, seceded from the Republic of Gran Colombia. Bolivar resigned as president of the now-defunct nation and retired in great sadness. Later that same year, he died from tuberculosis.