Simón Bolívar

The Liberator of South America


Simón Bolívar, often referred to as “El Libertador,” profoundly influenced the course of Latin American history. Born in Venezuela in 1783, he was inspired by European Enlightenment to dream of a free South America. His 1813 “Admirable Campaign” set Venezuela free from Spanish rule. His vision led to the 1819 formation of Gran Colombia, a union of what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela. The country of Bolivia is named in his honor, reflecting his pivotal role in its liberation. Under Bolívar’s guidance and foresight, six nations achieved independence, cementing his legacy as an iconic figure of freedom.

Did you know that Bolivia was named after Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan revolutionary who played a crucial role in the struggle for independence of six sovereign states located in South and Central America?

Born in 1783 into a wealthy Venezuelan family of Spanish descent, Bolívar faced personal tragedies early on, losing both parents by age nine. Raised thereafter by his uncle Carlos, whom he believed was more interested in the family wealth than his well-being, Bolívar found solace and direction under the mentorship of his tutor, Simón Rodríguez. Rodríguez profoundly influenced him by introducing him to the liberal ideas of the 18th century.

Portrait of Simón Bolívar by Arturo Michelena, 1895

Portrait of Simón Bolívar by Arturo Michelena, 1895

At 16, Bolívar traveled to Europe to further his education. During his three-year stay in Spain, he married the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, only to lose her to yellow fever within a year. Heartbroken, he vowed never to remarry, and immersed himself in the works of renowned European thinkers. He delved into the writings of figures like John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Georges-Louis Leclerc. However, it was the philosophies of Voltaire, Montesquieu, and Rousseau that left a lasting impact.

While in Paris, Bolívar crossed paths with German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who had recently completed his explorations in Hispanic America. Humboldt shared his belief that the Spanish colonies were ripe for independence, a notion that resonated deeply with Bolívar. Later, during a visit to Rome with his mentor Rodríguez, the two stood atop Monte Sacro, where Bolívar passionately vowed to free his homeland.

Upon his return to Venezuela in 1807, the country was torn between Spanish loyalty and a thirst for freedom. The invasion of Spain by Napoleon in 1808, along with the imprisonment of King Ferdinand VII, pushed many Venezuelans to question their allegiance, further fueling the push for independence. However, despite initial success and proclaiming the First Venezuelan Republic, internal conflicts between republicans and royalists resulted in civil war. This unrest ultimately saw Venezuela falling back under Spanish rule.

The art of victory is learned in defeat.

Simón Bolivar

Resolved to persist in his fight, Bolívar traveled to Cartagena in New Granada (modern Colombia). It was here that he penned his influential political declaration, “El manifiesto de Cartagena” (The Cartagena Manifesto). In it, he argued that the downfall of Venezuela’s First Republic was due to its weak governance and urged for a collective revolutionary push to end Spanish dominance in the Americas.

In 1813, Bolívar led a sizable army back to Venezuela, intent on overthrowing the royalist regime and reinstating the Venezuelan republic. This pivotal military endeavor, dubbed the “Admirable Campaign,” saw Bolívar leading Venezuela to become one of the earliest American colonies to break free from Spanish rule. Following the victory, he earned the title “El Libertador” or “The Liberator” and was appointed Dictator of the Second Republic of Venezuela.

Despite initial triumphs, the victories were short-lived. The majority of Venezuelans grew weary of the demands of the independence movement and were increasingly hostile towards it. This discontent sparked a devastating civil war, forcing Bolívar to escape to Jamaica. During his exile, he penned his renowned “Letter from Jamaica,” outlining his dream of a unified South American republic governed by a parliamentary system similar to England’s, led by a president serving for life.

Map of Gran Colombia in 1820

Map of Gran Colombia in 1820

After surviving an assassination attempt in Jamaica, Simón Bolívar went to Haiti and gained support from President Alexandre Pétion. In exchange for aid, Bolívar pledged to free all slaves in Venezuela. Returning to his homeland, he mended fences with former Republican adversaries and achieved a series of military victories against Royalist troops. Even though Venezuela wasn’t completely under Republican governance, Bolívar was named the supreme leader of the Third Republic.

Building on his victories in Venezuela, Simón Bolívar divided his forces. While his generals confronted the remaining Royalists in Venezuela, Bolívar led 2,000 troops into New Granada, joining Republican allies there. His forces gained a crucial win at the Battle of Boyacá, capturing Bogotá, the capital. Bolívar proposed merging Venezuela with New Granada. The proposal was accepted, birthing the nation of Gran Colombia, a union of what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela, with Bolívar as its president.

Flee the country where a lone man holds all power: It is a nation of slaves.

Simón Bolivar

In 1824, after helping Peru gain freedom, Bolívar became its leader. Soon after, in 1825, he played a key role in Bolivia’s fight for independence, which was then named in his honor. Simón Bolívar played a big part in freeing many areas in South and Central America from Spanish control. But, he faced challenges in keeping these regions united due to different views on how the new country should be governed.

In 1828, Bolívar became a dictator to try to keep the republic united against growing disagreements. But by 1830, with unity looking unlikely, he stepped down from his role. He passed away on December 17, 1830, likely from tuberculosis.

Editors’ finds

Words of wisdom

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.” —Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” —Mahatma Gandhi

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.” —Arthur Schopenhauer


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