Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

Bolivar's Early Life

Venezuela's First Attempt to Obtain Self-Government


Simon Bolivar was born in the city of Caracas on the twenty-fourth day of July, 1783; his father was don Juan Vicente Bolivar, and his mother, dona Maria de la Concepcion Palacios y Blanco. His father died when Simon was still very young, and his mother took excellent care of his education. His teacher, afterwards his intimate friend, was don Simon Rodriguez, a man of strange ideas and habits, but constant in his affection and devotion to his illustrious pupil.

Bolivar's family belonged to the Spanish nobility, and in Venezuela was counted in the group called Mantuano, or noble. They owned great tracts of land and lived in comfort, associating with the best people, among whom they were considered leaders.

The early youth of Bolivar was more or less like that of the other boys of his city and station, except that he gave evidence of a certain precocity and nervousness of action and speech which distinguished him as an enthusiastic and somewhat idealistic boy.

Misfortune taught Bolivar its bitter lessons when he was still young. At fifteen years of age he lost his mother. Then his uncle and guardian, don Carlos Palacios, sent him to Madrid to complete his education. The boat on which he made the trip left La Guaira on January 17, 1799, and stopped at Vera Cruz. This enabled young Simon Bolivar to go to Mexico City and other towns of New Spain. In the capital of the colony he was treated in a manner becoming his social standing, and met the highest officials of the government. The viceroy had several conversations with him, and admired his wit; but it finally alarmed him when the boy came to talk on political questions and, with an assurance superior to his age, defended the freedom of the American colonies.

Bolivar lived in Madrid with his relatives, and had occasion to be in touch with the highest members of the court, and even with the King, Charles IV, and the Queen. There he met a young lady named Maria Teresa Toro, whose uncle, the Marquis of Toro, lived in Caracas and was a friend of the young man. He fell in love with her, but as he was only seventeen years old, the Marquis of Ustariz, who was in charge of Bolivar in Madrid, advised him to delay his plans for an early marriage.

In 1801 Bolivar went to Paris, where he found Napoleon Bonaparte, as First Consul, undertaking his greatest labors of social reorganization after the long period of anarchy through which France had passed following the Revolution. Bonaparte was one of the most admired men at that time. He had come back from Egypt and Syria, had been victorious at Marengo and Hohenlinden, and had just signed the Peace of Luneville. One does not wonder that Bolivar should admire him and that his letters should contain many expressions of enthusiasm about the great man of Europe.

In the same year he returned to Madrid and married Maria Teresa Toro, deciding to go back at once to Venezuela with his wife, to live peacefully, attending to his own personal business and property. But again fate dealt him a hard blow and shattered all the dreams and plans of the young man. His virtuous wife died in January, 1803, ten months after their arrival in Caracas. He had not yet reached his twenty-first year, and had already lost father, mother and wife. His nerves became steeled and his heart prepared for great works, for works requiring the concentration of mind which can be given only by men who have no intimate human connections or obligations. As a South American orator lately declared: "Neither Washington nor Bolivar was destined to have children of his own, so that we Americans might call ourselves their children."

Bolivar decided immediately to leave for Europe. Nothing could keep him in his own country. He had loved his wife and his wife only could have led him to accept a life of ease and comfort. He decided never to marry again and, perhaps to assuage the pain in his heart, he decided to devote his time to the study of the great problems of his country, and to bend all his energies and strength to their solution. At the end of 1803, he was again in Madrid, giving his wife's father the sad news of their great loss.

From Madrid, Bolivar went to Paris, and was in the city when the Empire was established. All the admiration the man of the Republic had won from Bolivar immediately crumbled to dust before the young American. "Since Napoleon has become a king," said Bolivar, "his glory to me seems like the brilliancy of hell." He did not attend the ceremony of Napoleon's coronation, and made him the object of bitter attacks when among his own friends. He never hesitated to speak of the liberty of America with all his acquaintances, who enjoyed his conversation in spite of the ideas that he supported.

In the spring of 1805 he went on a walking tour to Italy, with his teacher and friend, don Simon Rodriguez. In Milan he saw Napoleon crowned as King of Italy, and then witnessed a great parade passing before the French Emperor. All these royal ceremonies increased his hatred of monarchy.

From Milan he went to Florence, Venice, Rome and Naples, studying everything, informing himself of all the currents of public opinion, and dreaming of what he intended to accomplish for his own people.

While in Rome, he and his teacher went to Mount Aventin. There they denounced in an intimate talk the oppression of peoples and discussed the liberty of their native Venezuela. When their enthusiasm had reached its highest pitch, the young dreamer took the hand of his master, and at that historic spot, he made a solemn vow to free his country.

From Italy, he came to the United States, where he visited Boston, New York, Philadelphia and other towns, sailing from Charleston for Venezuela. He arrived in Caracas at the end of 1806.

Upon his return home, Bolivar devoted himself to the care and improvement of his estate. Yet his ideas continued to seethe, especially when the constant spectacle of the state of affairs in Venezuela stimulated this ferment of his mind.

Among the American colonies, Venezuela was not considered by Spain as one of the most important. Mexico and Peru, celebrated by their production of mineral wealth, were those which attracted most of the attention of the Spaniards. Venezuela was apparently poor, and certainly did not contribute many remittances of gold and silver to the mother country. It had been organized as a captaincy general in 1731, after having been governed in different ways and having had very little communication with Spain. It is said that from 1706 to 1722, not a single boat sailed from any Venezuelan port for Spain. Commercial intercourse between the provinces was forbidden, and local industries could not prosper because the purchase of the products of Spanish industries was compulsory for the natives, at prices set after all transportation expenses and high taxes were taken into account. The colonists were oppressed by taxes and kept in ignorance.

This state of affairs had produced a latent feeling of irritation and a desire for a change. The native white population read the books of the French philosophers, especially those of Rousseau and Montesquieu. The ideas proclaimed by the United States of America and those preached by the most radical men of the French Revolution were smuggled in and known in spite of prohibition.

At the middle of the eighteenth century, there had been a movement against the Compania Guipuzcoana, established about 1730, and which greatly oppressed the people. This movement failed and its leaders were severely punished.

At the end of the eighteenth century, Spain allied herself with England to fight against France. This war ended in 1795 with the Treaty of Basel, by which Spain lost Santo Domingo to France. A year later, Spain allied herself with France against England, and the disastrous war which followed resulted in the loss of the island of Trinidad to England, by the Treaty of Amiens, in 18o2. France and England used these possessions to foster revolutions in the Spanish colonies.

In 1797 a conspiracy was started in Caracas, but it too failed. Some of its leaders received death sentences, others were expelled from the country and others were imprisoned. In Mexico, in Peru and in the southernmost part of the continent, men were working in favor of the idea of freedom.

In Europe, at this time, there was a very prominent Venezuelan, don Francisco Miranda, who had played an important role in the world events of that period. Miranda was born in Caracas, came to the North American colonies, and fought under Washington against the English power. Afterwards he went to Europe and fought in the armies of revolutionary France, attaining the rank of general. His friends were among the most distinguished men in Europe in political position or international achievement. He talked to them tirelessly, trying to convert them to the idea of the necessity for emancipating the countries of America. He failed to receive the attention he desired in England, and came to America. In New York he prepared an expedition and went to Venezuela, arriving there in March of 1806, with three boats, some arms, ammunition and men. He found the Spaniards prepared, and was defeated, losing two of his ships and many men as prisoners. He escaped with the other boat to Trinidad. In the West Indies he obtained the help of an English admiral, Sir A. Cochrane, and with larger forces returned to Venezuela, landing at Coro, which he took in August, 1806. But there he found the greatest enemy with which he and Bolivar had to contend, and that was the lack of the sanction of public opinion. Men whom Miranda had expected to increase his army failed to appear, and perhaps this indifference was aggravated by the antipathy with which the natives saw the foreign element which predominated in Miranda's army. Lacking the support of the people and the reserves which Miranda had expected to get from the English colony of Jamaica, he withdrew and went to London, altogether discouraged.

At that time great changes had occurred in Spain. Charles IV, its weak monarch, saw the French army invading his country under the pretense of going to Portugal, and feared that Napoleon would end by wresting the Spanish throne from him. If he allied himself with Napoleon, England could easily seize America, and should he ally himself with England, he would make an enemy of Napoleon, who already was in possession of Spain itself. The Crown Prince of Spain, Fernando, was intriguing against his father, and Charles IV had him imprisoned. Then it was discovered that the Prince was in treacherous relations with the ministers of Napoleon. The King complained to the French Emperor, who persuaded him to forgive and release his son. Meanwhile, the French army was advancing into Spain while the English were fomenting among the Spanish people the hatred for the French. The latter availed themselves of their advantageous position and, feeling sure of their strength in Spanish lands, demanded from the Court the cession of the northern section of Spain contiguous to Portugal. Rumors ran wild in the Court, and it was even said that the monarch and his family would leave Spain for Mexico. A favorite of the King, named Manuel Godoy, received the greatest blame for this situation, and Fernando, the Crown Prince, being the main antagonist of Godoy, was regarded as the champion of Spanish right and was loved by the Spanish people. The people rose and demanded that Godoy should be delivered to them. In March, 1808, the King abdicated and Fernando was proclaimed King. But the abdication was insincere, and Charles IV wrote to Napoleon that he had been compelled to take that action, certain that if he did not do so, he and the Queen would perish. Not content with this communication, Charles IV went to Bayonne to meet Napoleon, where his son Fernando had been invited by Napoleon to meet him. There one of the most disgraceful episodes in Spanish history occurred. Fernando renounced his rights to his father, and then his father renounced his rights and those of his family to Napoleon and to whomever he might select to rule. Napoleon immediately made his brother Joseph King of Spain. This occurred in May, 1808. The Spanish people had never been taken into consideration in all these dealings. But they wanted to be considered and they decided that they would be. Murat was governor in Madrid, and on May 2 the people rebelled against him. Great carnage ensued. Though the rebellion was suppressed, the fire burning in the Spanish soul was not extinguished. Everywhere juntas provincials  (provincial assemblies) were organized against the intruder; they allied themselves with England and declared that Fernando VII was the legitimate King of Spain and that the nation was at war with France. In order to unify the actions of the different juntas, a central junta was established in Aranjuez on September 25, 1808.

All these events had a tremendous effect in the American colonies. News was received in Venezuela of the abdication of Charles and Fernando, with orders to the colonies to recognize the new government. But at the same time an English boat sent by Admiral Cochrane arrived, and announced to the Venezuelan authorities the establishment of the juntas and the organization of resistance to the French. The authorities concluded to obey the orders brought by the French messengers, but the people rose in Caracas as in Spain, went to the city council and forced it to proclaim Fernando VII the legitimate monarch of Spain, thus starting a revolution, which in its inception had all the appearance of loyalty to the reigning house of Spain, but which very soon was transformed into a real movement of emancipation.

Some days later the city council asked the governor to establish a junta in Caracas, similar to those already established in Spain. The Spanish authorities wanted to have recognized the supremacy of the junta assembled in Seville, Spain, which had assumed the name of Supreme Junta of Spain and her Colonies. The Venezuelans insisted that they should have a junta in Caracas, and in order to foster this idea the most prominent leaders of public thought met secretly at the house of Simon Bolivar. Most of the conspirators were young men, united by strong ties of friendship or family. Among them were the Marquis of Toro and don José Félix Ribas, a relative of Bolivar, two very distinguished men. The meetings were sometimes held at the house of Ribas. It was not long before they were discovered. They determined to petition for the establishment of a junta in Caracas. The authorities ordered them to be put into prison; and in spite of their efforts, the Supreme Junta of Spain and her Colonies was recognized in January, 1809. The Junta Central declared in that same month that all the Spanish colonies formed part of the Spanish monarchy itself, which statement apparently was a declaration of equality. However, in fact, it was not so, since the elections of deputies to the junta were not to be made by the people but by the captain general, advised by the city council. The representation was also very disproportionate. The deputies for Spain were to number 36 while those for America only 12.

In May of that year, a new captain general, don Vicente Emparan, arrived in Venezuela. This man was more imperious than his predecessors had been, and immediately alienated the good will of the city council and the audiencia. He set up still greater obstacles to commerce, sent many prominent men into exile, declared criminals those who received printed matter from abroad, and established an organized system of espionage.

In 1810, when Emparan was exercising his power with the strongest hand, the patriots were meeting in the country wherever they could under different pretexts, in order to organize themselves and to work for their ideals. Bolivar was on the point of being exiled; many prominent men were either imprisoned or sent out of Caracas. The French armies seemed to conquer all opposition in Spain, and the Junta Central had been forced to take refuge in Cadiz. Rumors were circulated that Cadiz had fallen into the hands of the French. Then the patriots decided to wait no longer, and Bolivar, Ribas and other friends planned to take immediate steps.

On the morning of April 19, 1810, Holy Thursday, the city council assembled to attend the religious services in the cathedral, and Emparan was invited to be present. Before leaving for the service, the council told the governor that it was necessary to establish in Venezuela a government of its own in order to defend the country and the rights of the legitimate monarch. The governor answered that he would consider the matter after the service, and left the council. On arriving at the church he was stopped by a patriot called Francisco Salias who asked him to return to the council, declaring that the public welfare so required. Emparan saw that the troops were not ready to support him and, willingly or not, went back to the hall, where he yielded to everything that was proposed to him. Emparan was deposed and the first. locally chosen government of Spanish America was established. The principle that the provinces of America possessed the right of self-government, since no general government existed, was proclaimed.