Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

Bolivar in Exile and Morillo in Power

The "Jamaica Letter"


At that time Napoleon's luck was beginning to turn in Europe. He had been forced to free Fernando VII, who had been imprisoned since 1808. Fernando VII started to govern his country as a despot, disregarding the national constitution and the public clamor for greater freedom, and soon decided to assert his power in the New World. For that purpose he organized a powerful army, the total strength of which, exclusive of sailors, was nearly 11,000 men, supplied with implements for attacks on fortified places, and with everything necessary for warfare on a large scale. This army was placed under the command of Morillo, who also brought with him a number of warships and transports. The soldiers had had experience in the European war and they had proved equal or superior to the armies of Napoleon. The plan was to seize Venezuela and Nueva Granada, then go southward to Peru, and then to Buenos Aires.

Morillo decided to land in the island of Margarita, whose inhabitants had distinguished themselves by their heroism in the long war for independence to such an extent that, upon becoming a province, the island changed its name to New Sparta. Two men of equal bravery, Arismendi and Bermudez, were in command of a few more than 400 men. Morales was about to lead 5,000 to 6,000 men against the island, with 32 boats, of which 12 were armed with artillery, when Morillo appeared with his huge army. Arismendi decided to surrender. However, Bermudez would not surrender, and, with reckless daring, he got into a small boat, passed between Morillo's large vessels, insulting the occupants, and then made his escape, going to join the patriots in Cartagena.

Morillo was a very clever soldier; it is said that Wellington himself recommended that he should be chosen, as the Spaniard ablest to subject Venezuela and New Granada. He was as harsh as he was clever, and was ready to wage a war of extermination. By the time Morillo reached the continent, Venezuela was in the hands of Spain. That was at the end of 1814, a fatal year for the cause of independence. From New Spain to the south, the Spanish armies seemed to encounter no resistance. Morillo likened the silence and peace he found everywhere to the silence and peace of the cemeteries. There was no government anywhere, not even military authority. Crime prevailed; cupidity and vengeance were the guiding principles of the chieftains.

After leaving a garrison at Margarita and Cumana, Morillo went to Caracas, where he arrived on the 11th of May, immediately taking Cagigal's place as captain general. There he published a proclamation announcing that he was ready to go to Nueva Granada with his army, and, after levying exorbitant tributes in money from the citizens and securing in the most outrageous manner all the provisions he could possibly obtain, he sailed from Puerto Cabello for Cartagena with 8,500 men, while Morales with 3,500 advanced by land against the city.

Cartagena resisted the siege in such an admirable manner as to have her name placed side by side with the most heroic cities of history. The besiegers had all kinds of war material; the city lacked all. Still, Cartagena fought constantly during one hundred and six days. The city was then almost in ruins; its inhabitants were starving in the gutters; soldiers and civilians were dying. When Morillo entered its streets he found them almost deserted, and he made the few remaining persons suffer the worst tortures he could devise. The able-bodied men succeeded in escaping by sea.

Several more victories placed all of Nueva Granada in the power of Morillo. The Congress had to dissolve and the Spaniards entered Santa Fé, marking their entrance with the execution of more than 600 Americans, among them men of the greatest prominence and highest social standing. All hope for the liberty of South America seemed to be lost.

Bolivar arrived in Kingston in May, 1815, where he was very well received personally by the governor. But he failed to obtain any substantial help for an expedition to the mainland. Learning of the propaganda being made everywhere against the cause of independence, he once more used his pen to counteract this influence. His most important writing during his stay in Jamaica was a letter addressed on September 6, 1815, to a gentleman of the island, in which he analyzed the causes of the American failure and the reasons he had to hope for the final success of the cause. "The "Letter of Jamaica" is counted as one of the greatest documents from the pen of Bolivar.

First, he examines all the errors and crimes committed by the Spaniards in America, describes the partial success of the American armies and the development of the war, as well as the enormous sacrifices made for the cause of independence everywhere, from New Spain to the provinces of the River Plata and Chile. He deprecates the attitude of Europe, which does not intervene to save America from the clutches of an oppressive government, and proves that even for the good of Europe, the independence of America should be secured.

"Europe itself," he said, "by reasons of wholesome policies, should have prepared and carried out the plan of American independence, not only because it is so required for the balance of the world, but because this is a legitimate and safe means of obtaining commercial posts on the other side of the ocean."

He very exactly described the true condition of the American people in the following lucid way:

"I consider the actual state of America as when, after the collapse of the Roman Empire, each member constituted a political system in conformity with its interests and position, but with this great difference: that these scattered members reestablished the old nationalities with the alterations required by circumstances or events. But we, who scarcely keep a vestige of things of the past, and who, on the other hand, are not Indians nor Europeans, but a mixture of the legitimate owners of the country and the usurping Spaniards; in short, we, being Americans by birth and with rights equal to those of Europe, have to dispute these rights with the men of the country, and to maintain ourselves against the possession of the invaders. Thus, we find ourselves in the most extraordinary and complicated predicament."

After analyzing slavery in the abstract, he said:

"Americans, under the Spanish system now in vigor, have in society no other place than that of serfs fit for work, and, at the most, that of simple consumers; and even this is limited by absurd restrictions, such as prohibition of the cultivation of European products; the monopoly of certain goods in the hands of the king; the prevention of the establishment in America of factories not possessed by Spain; the exclusive privileges of trade, even regarding the necessities of life; the obstacles placed in the way of the American provinces so that they may not deal with each other, nor have understandings, nor trade. In short, do you want to know what was our lot? The fields, in which to cultivate indigo, cochineal, coffee, sugar cane, cocoa, cotton; the solitary plains, to breed cattle; the deserts, to hunt the wild beasts; the bosom of the earth, to extract gold, with which that avaricious country was never satisfied.

"We were never viceroys or governors except by very extraordinary reasons; archbishops and bishops, seldom; ambassadors, never; military men, only as subordinates; nobles, without privileges; lastly, we were neither magistrates nor financiers, and hardly merchants. All this we had to accept in direct opposition to our institutions.

"The Americans have risen suddenly and without previous preparation and without previous knowledge and, what is more deplorable, without experience in public affairs, to assume in the world the eminent dignity of legislators, magistrates, administrators of the public treasury, diplomats, generals and all the supreme and subordinate authorities which form the hierarchy of an organized state.

"The events of the mainland have proved that perfectly representative institutions do not agree with our character, habits, and present state of enlightenment. . . . So long as our fellow citizens do not acquire the talents and the political virtues which distinguish our brothers of the North, who have a system of government altogether popular in character, I am very much afraid these institutions might lead to our ruin instead of aiding us. . . .

"I desire more than anybody else to see the formation in America of the greatest nation in the world, not so much as to its extension and wealth as to its glory and freedom.

"Monsignor de Pradt has wisely divided America into fifteen or seventeen independent states, ruled by as many monarchs. I agree on the first point, for America could be divided into seventeen countries. As for the second point, although it is easier to realize, it is less useful, and, consequently, I am not in favor of American monarchies. Here are my reasons: The real interests of a republic are circumscribed in the sphere of its conservation, prosperity and glory. Since freedom is not imperialistic, because it is opposed to empires, no impulse induces republicans to extend the limits of their country; injuring its own center, with only the object of giving their neighbors a liberal constitution. They do not acquire any right nor any advantage by conquering them, unless they reduce them to colonies, conquered territories or allies, following the example of Rome. . . . A state too large in itself, or together with its dependent territories, finally decays and its free form reverts to a tyrannical one, the principles which should conserve it relax, and at last it evolves into despotism. The characteristic of the small republics is permanency; that of the large ones is varied, but always tends to an empire. Almost all of the former have been of long duration; among the latter Rome alone lived for some centuries, but this was because the capital was a republic, and the rest of her dominions were not, for they governed themselves by different laws and constitutions."

Then Bolivar ventures to prophesy the destiny of all nations of the continent, from Mexico to the River Plata, and he does so with such accuracy of vision that almost to the word the history of the first half century of independence in Latin America was shaped according to his prediction. The tranquility of Chile, the tyranny of Rosas in Argentina, the Mexican empire, all were clearly seen in the future by his genius. Near the close of his letter, he adds these inspired words:

"How beautiful it would be if the Isthmus of Panama should come to be to us what the Isthmus of Corinth was to the Greeks! May God grant that some day we may have the happiness of installing there an august congress of the representatives of the republics, kingdoms and empires, to discuss and study the high inter ests of peace and war with the nations of the other three parts of the world! This kind of cooperation may be established in some happy period of our regeneration . . ."

He ends this capital document of his career as a political writer, by pleading again for union as the only means of putting an end to Spanish domination in America.

Nothing better can be said than the following words of a biographer of Bolivar:

"Alone, poor, in a foreign land, when his friends had denied him and had persecuted him, and his enemies had torn him to shreds in blind rage, when everybody saw America carrying once again the yoke imposed upon her, Bolivar saw her redeemed, and from the depth of his soul he felt himself bound to this wonderful task of redemption. His spirit, animated by an unknown breath, and which had lived a superior life, saw Colombia free, Chile established, Argentina expanding, Mexico and Peru liberated, the Isthmus of Panama converted into the center of communications and activities of human industry; it saw South America divided into powerful nationalities, having passed from slavery to struggle and to the conquest of her own dignity, and from the times of the sword to those of political civilization and organization of power; national units weighty in the statistics of the world by reason of their products, by their commerce, by their culture, by their wars, their alliances, their laws, their free governments; with names of their own, with famous histories, with supreme virtues. All that Bolivar saw, and of all that Bolivar wrote. Can human intelligence go any farther?"