Simon Bolivar: History, Accomplishments and Major Facts
Simón Bolívar is often credited as the father of independence struggles in South America. Known as the Liberator (Spanish – El Libertador), he fought tirelessly (against the Spanish Empire) in many independence wars in Latin America. The Caracas-born general helped secure the independence of countries such as Bolivia, Panama, Peru, Columbia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.
Bolívar would then go on to serve as the leader of the newly formed state of Gran Colombia, which included modern day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama, and some parts of Brazil and Peru. He stayed in that position from 1819 to 1830, helping advance unity among Latin Americans. It is for this reason why this visionary military leader has sometimes been called the George Washington of Latin America.
Let’s learn more about the life and accomplishments of a man whose name was given to the South American country of Bolivia.
Simón Bolívar: Fast Facts
Born: Simón José Antonio de la Santísma Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios
Date of birth: July 24, 1783
Place of birth: Caracas, Venezuela
Died: December 17, 1830
Cause of death: Tuberculosis
Place of death: near Santa Marta, Colombia
Final resting place: National Pantheon of Venezuela
Wife: María Teresa Rodríguez del Toro y Alaysa
Influenced by: John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire
Position: President of Gran Colombia (1819-1830), President/Dictator of Peru (1823-1826), President of Bolivia (1825)
Nickname: the Liberator (Spanish – El Libertador)
Famous works: El manifiesto de Cartagena (“Cartagena Manifesto”) and the Carta de Jamaica (“Letter from Jamaica”)
Associates: Antonio Sucre, Jose de San Martin
Major Accomplishments of Simon Bolívar
Having been inspired by the things and people he saw during his Europe trip, he returned to Venezuela in 1807. He immediately entered into politics. At the time, Spanish colonies in South America were beginning to look at things differently after Napoleon Bonaparte removed the Spanish Royal family from political power and replaced them with his brother Joseph Bonaparte. The Spanish American revolutionaries sensed an opportunity to push the independence movement to new heights.
Simon Bolivar, a staunch admirer of the liberalism, quickly got himself involved in the movement. Unfortunately, the authorities clamped down on the movement, and many of the movement’s leaders were arrested. Bolivar was fortunate to not get arrested.
Just three years after returning to South America, he was dispatched by the leaders of the South American independence movement to Britain, where he tried to solicit for financial and political support. As Britain had its own troubles at the time, he could not secure the kind of support that he had wanted for the Venezuelan revolutionaries. Regardless, he still had the opportunity to study a great deal of things during his time in Britain.
Bolivar was able to convince many influential exiled Venezuelan revolutionaries, most famously Francisco de Miranda, to return to Caracas and help in the fight for independence. His efforts paid dividends as the Venezuela national assembly declared independence from Spain on July 5, 1811. Thus the first Republic of Venezuela was born. However, it only lasted for a few years as it was toppled by Royalist forces in July 1812. His ally Miranda was arrested and imprisoned by the Spanish Royal Army. Bolivar managed to flee Venezuela to Curaçao.
Liberation of Caracas during the Admirable Campaign in 1813
Known in Spanish as Campaña Admirable, the Admirable Campaign witnessed revolutionary fighters under the leadership of Simon Bolivar liberate the provinces of Mérida, Barinas, Trujillo and Caracas. Having fled Venezuela following the demise of the First Republic of Venezuela, Bolivar took up military command in the army of the United Provinces in New Granada.
His push into Venezuela began in January 1813 when he captured a number of cities, including Ocaña. The following month, he led revolutionaries to capture Cúcuta at the Battle of Cúcuta in what is now Colombia. His pro-independence forces then marched into Venezuela, taking cities like San Cristóbal, La Grita, Mérida and Trujillo. By early August 1813, Royalist forces had capitulated and surrendered to Bolivar’s forces, who made a triumphant entry into Caracas on August 6. Thus the Second Venezuelan Republic was born.
Support from Haiti
The Second Republic of Venezuela came to an end in 1814 when royalist José Tomás Boves mounted a fierce rebellion. Bolivar then fled Venezuela to Jamaica. However, his stay in Jamaica was cut short after his life came under threat. He then fled to Haiti, where he received aid from Alexandre Pétion, then-President of Haiti. With the support he received from Haiti, he led his troops to defeat Royalist forces and seize Angostura in August 1817. Shortly after, the Third Republic of Venezuela was proclaimed. With this, Bolivar became Supreme Commander of the Republic.
The Third Republic of Venezuela, which lasted from 1817 to 1819, ended after the congress voted to make Venezuela a member of New Granada (also known as Gran Colombia).
Did you know: In 1813, Simon Bolivar issued the “Decree of War to the Death” which authorized his forces to kill any Spaniard that did not actively support his pro-independence effort?
Bolivar’s crossing of the Andes mountain range went down as one of the greatest military feats of the era
Bolivar was of the firm belief that Venezuela’s independence could be consolidated by freeing New Granada from Spain’s control. Therefore he set out on a military campaign to secure the independence of New Granada.
As it was the rainy season, no one expected Simon Bolivar to cross the Andes mountain range. However, Bolivar defied those expectations and led his forces of almost 5,000 men through a flooded Llanos. He and his men fought against the elements for about seven days as they tried to cross through rivers and lakes, whose waters reached up to chest-level. From there, they ascended the very difficult mountain pass that had altitudes hovering around 3,500 meters. Fatigue, cold and tough terrain claimed the lives of many of his men. Bolivar shocked the Spanish troops, who considered the cold mountain route impassable. Bolivar then went on to secure a crucial victory against the Spaniards at the Battle of Boyacá on August 7, 1819.
Following the victory, he became president and military dictator Gran Colombia, also known as the Republic of Colombia. Bolivar had become the leader the new Republic, which comprised New Granada (i.e. Colombia and Panama), Quito (Ecuador), and Venezuela.
Bolivar fought for the independence of many South American countries
Having created Gran Colombia in 1821, Bolivar set out to liberate other parts of South America from Spanish rule. He led forces that liberated Quito (Ecuador) at the Battle of Pichincha on May 24, 1822. The following month, he made a triumphant entry into Quito. He then set his sights on Peru, where José de San Martín, a pro-independence fighter of the southern part of the continent, was making very good progress. Martin solicited the help of Bolivar to completely expel Spanish forces that had fallen back to the highlands of Peru. The two revolutionaries then strategized to not only liberate Peru completely, but to create a strong alliance of Latin American countries. For reasons unbeknownst to us to this day, Martin resigned his position, leaving the task of Peru’s complete liberation to Bolivar. In typical fashion, Bolivar did not disappoint; the military general completed the liberation of Peru. In February 1824, he was appointed dictator of Peru by the Peruvian congress.
In 1825, Upper Peru (modern-day Bolivia) – the last stronghold of the Spanish Empire on the continent – was liberated by one of Bolivar’s most trusted lieutenants, Antonio José de Sucre.
In honor of Bolivar’s efforts in securing independence for many South American countries, Upper Peru was named Bolivia.
Leader of Gran Colombia from 1819 to 1830
At the height of his power, Simon Bolivar was in charge of vast territories in South America. Gran Colombia’s territories extended from the Caribbean all the way to the Argentine-Bolivian border. It included the following modern-day countries: Peru, Colombia, Panama, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. Throughout his presidency, he advocated for greater unity among those South American republics. He envisioned creating a union similar to that of the United States of America. Unlike the United States however, Bolivar created a lifetime hereditary presidency in the constitution that he drafted.
Simón Bolívar’s struggle to keep South America united
There were some countries that bought into his idea; however, there were some who opposed his push for alliance on the continent. In spite of his best efforts, he could not stop a civil war from erupting in Gran Colombia. Tensions mounted in not just New Granada but also Ecuador and Venezuela. Factions grew and many separatists began pushing against Simon Bolivar’s rule.
How did Simon Bolívar die?
Bolivar’s opponents accused him of being a dictator and betraying the republican principles. Many of his allies also abandoned him. On June 4, 1830, Antonio de Sucre was assassinated, leaving Bolivar very distraught. A year prior, Venezuela had seceded from Gran Colombia. The union that he had worked so hard for seemed to be breaking apart. Therefore, he took a bold decision. He decided to step down from the presidency as he believed that his continued stay in power was the reason why there was so much tension and factions in Gran Colombia.
The Liberator of South America intended to commit himself in exile in Europe. However, before he could make his way to Europe, he would succumb to tuberculosis and pass away on December 17, 1830. He died in Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in Santa Marta which is in present-day Colombia. His remains were placed in the cathedral of Santa Marta in northern Colombia. However, twelve years later, they were moved to Caracas and buried in the Cathedral of Caracas.
In 2010, then populist Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez ordered the exhumation of Simon Bolivar’s body. It was long suspected that the South American freedom fighter was assassinated. Following a thorough investigation, researchers came out with inconclusive results.
Did you know?
Simon Bolívar was an avid reader of Scottish philosopher and economist Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. He also carried on him Letters by French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Other philosophers that had tremendous influence on the South American independence activist include Montesquieu and John Locke.
Bolivar was also influenced by his friend German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. It is said that Humboldt was the one who challenged Bolívar to pick up the sword and fight for independence for South America.
In addition to Bolivia and Venezuela (i.e. the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) being named in honor of Simon Bolivar, the currencies of those two countries are named after the South American freedom fighter. The currencies are the Bolivian boliviano and the Venezuelan bolívar respectively.
Other notable achievements
Here are some other notable achievements of Simon Bolivar:
- Bolivar was without a shred a doubt one of the most important figures of the 19th century. His bravery and military skills has been compared to Napoleon, while his leadership has been compared to the George Washington. Bolivar almost single handedly liberated South America from the Spanish Empire.
- A strong and brave leader, Bolivar fought for the end of slavery in the countries he liberated.
- Although he ended becoming a dictator in order to keep things from falling apart, he had the vision of developing a constitution that would be underpinned by the ideas of democracy and republicanism.
- A charismatic leader, he tried as much as possible to create a sense of national identity among the various Latin American countries.
- Simon Bolivar called for the abolition of slavery in the western hemisphere. He walked the talk by freeing all his family’s slaves.
- He fled to Jamaica in 1815. It was during this period in Jamaica that he penned down what was arguably his most famous work – Carta de Jamaica (Letter from Jamaica) in which he made very strong argument supporting the independence struggle of Latin America. The work also called for international support from Europe and North America in order to put an end to Spain’s rule in South America. His vision was to have a system of government modeled after the one in the United Kingdom and a life-long president.
- Simon Bolivar was described by Marquis de Lafayette as “The second Washington of the New World”. A big admirer of the South American independence hero, Lafayette, famously presented Bolivar with a set of pistols in 1825. Those pistols were auctioned for almost $2 million in 2016.
- His name is honored in many countries not just in South America, but across the world. There are statues of him in the United States, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and Australia.
Why was Simón Bolívar an autocratic republican?
It comes as no coincidence that Bolívar was sometimes compared to George Washington. Unlike Washington, however, Bolivar was an autocratic republican. The South American independence fighter defended his firm handed rule because he believed that the South American terrain was completely different from the society of North American. He had great admiration for the ideals of republicanism, hence him being a strong admirer of both the American and the French Revolutions. However, he maintained that those systems of governance could not be implemented in a heterogeneous society like Latin America, which he described as an environment rife with “ignorance, tyranny, and vice”, and as such was not ready for the kind of democracy enjoyed in the U.S.
Origin of his nickname “El Libertador”
Upon making his entry into Caracas in 1813, Bolivar was hailed as El Libertador, which means the Liberator. Bolivar Believed the title was higher than any other title. This is why he refused taking titles such as king or emperor.
More Simón Bolívar facts
He was born into the Bolivar family, a very affluent aristocratic family in Caracas, Venezuela. The Bolivars owned many properties all across the country, including copper and gold mines.
He lost both of his parents before his tenth birthday. He was thereafter raised by his uncle, who employed the services of a nanny named Hipólita and a tutor called Simón Rodríguez (1769-1854) to help with his upbringing.
Simón Bolívar was the fourth and youngest child of his parents – Juan Vicente Bolívar y Ponte and María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco. His three siblings were Maria Antonia, Juana, and Juan Vicente.
Like his parents, Simon Bolívar also died of tuberculosis.
Due to his family’s enormous wealth, he was given the best education money could afford. He was tutored by renowned tutors, many of who were free thinkers and subscribed to the ideals of liberty, toleration, justice and a host of other ideas of the Enlightenment.
He entered Milicias de Veraguas, a military academy in Venezuela. There, he came to be a big admirer of military strategy.
When he was around the age of 16, he took a trip to Europe, where he also completed his education. With funding from his uncles in Madrid, he received training from Gerónimo Enrique de Uztáriz y Tovar, a Caracas native and government official.
In 1802, Simon Bolivar tied the knot with a Spanish noblewoman called Maria Rodriguez in Madrid, Spain. Less than a year into the marriage, Maria succumbed to a bad case of yellow fever and passed away. His wife’s death left him in a very bad place emotionally and mentally. He promised to never marry again. From then onward, he committed all his efforts to his political career.
He also visited Paris, where he witnessed the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. He aspired to be like the French emperor, whom he saw as a brave and strong leader. Although, he was not so much pleased with the French ruler for betraying some of the core tenets of the French Revolution.
Bolivar did not remarry after his wife’s death; however, he was romantically involved with a number of women, most famously Manuela Sáenz, the woman who once saved his life from an assassination plot. Bolivar would go on to describe Sáenz as “Liberatrix of the Liberator”.
It’s been said that Simon Bolivar was strongly influenced by the works of Enlightenment philosophers like Montesquieu, John Locke, Voltaire and Rousseau. And much of his ideas of liberty, freedom and justice were inspired by the colossal events of the late 18th century – i.e. the American and French Revolutions.
Famous Quotes by Simón Bolívar
There is no doubt that this Venezuelan military leader was one of the most influential politicians in Latin America’s history. His efforts were crucial in the revolutions against the Spanish empire in the early 19th century. He fought hard to create a union in South America that was free from the control of Spain. However, this lose federation of his began to crumble towards the later period of his life.