Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

Bolivar's First Expedition

The Cruelty of War


After the entrance of Monteverde in Caracas and the ensuing persecutions, all Venezuela could be considered as reconquered for Spain, and it seemed that all was lost for the cause of independence. The disobedience of Monteverde, who, as we have remarked before, had no instructions to continue the campaign, had been forgiven and rewarded, for it had been sanctioned by success. Until the end of 1812, Caracas was treated high-handedly and was very cruelly punished for all interest it had manifested in, and all support it had given to, the cause of independence.

Bolivar joined some patriots in Curacao, where he remained until October in the company of his relative and loyal friend, José Félix Ribas. He then sailed for Cartagena, a city of New Granada which at that time was free from Spain, and offered his service to the republican government of that city. Bolivar was made colonel under a Frenchman called Pedro Labatut.

In Cartagena, Bolivar continued to write, supporting his idea that the only salvation for the colonies lay in war with Spain. At the end of that year he published a memorandum of so great importance that it can be considered as the first real revelation of his true genius. He explained the reasons for the defeat of Venezuela, and set them forth as a lesson of the urgent need of unity and firmness on the part of the American colonies. He denounced the weakness of the first government, evidenced in the treatment accorded Coro, which was not conquered immediately, but was permitted to be fortified so as to defy the whole federation and finally to destroy it. Recognizing the lack of friendly public opinion, he denounced the Junta for not being ready to free the "stupid peoples who do not know the value of their rights."

"The codes consulted by our magistrates," he wrote, "were not those which could teach them the practical science of government, but those formed by certain idealists who build republics in the air and try to obtain political perfection, presupposing the perfection of the human race, in such a way that we have philosophers as leaders, philanthropy instead of law, dialectic instead of tactics, and sophists instead of soldiers. With this subversion of things, social order was shaken up, and from its very beginning advanced with rapid strides towards universal dissolution, which very soon was effected."

He emphasized the necessity for regular soldiers, trained to fight and experienced enough to know that a single defeat does not mean the loss of all hope, and that "ability and constancy correct misfortune." He denounced the misuse of public funds and declared himself against state paper money not guaranteed, pointing out that such a currency was a clear violation of the right of property, since men who had objects of real value had to exchange them for paper, the price of which was uncertain and even imaginary. Acknowledging that the federal system was the best, he declared that it was the most inadequate for the good of the new states. He added that

"as yet our fellow citizens are not in a condition fully to exercise their rights, for they lack the political virtues which characterize a true republic, and which cannot be acquired under an absolute government where the rights and obligations of citizens are ignored."

In another part he said,

"It is necessary that the government identify itself, so to speak, with the circumstances, times and men surrounding it. If they are prosperous and calm, the government must be mild and protective, but if they are calamitous and turbulent, the government must show itself terrible and must arm itself with a firmness equal to the dangers, without paying heed to laws or constitution, until peace is reestablished."

Bolivar well understood the character of his people when he declared

"Public elections performed by the ignorant peasants and by the intriguing inhabitants of the city are an obstacle to the practice of federation among us, because the former are so ignorant that they vote like machines, and the latter are so ambitious that they make everything into factions. For these reasons Venezuela has never known a free and reasonable election and the government has fallen into the hands of men, either opposed to the cause, weak or immoral. Partisan spirit decided everything and, consequently, it disorganized us more than circumstances did. Our divisions, and not the Spanish Army, brought us back to slavery."

Summarizing the causes of the fall of Venezuela, he attributed it in the first place to the nature of its constitution; secondly, to the discouragement of the government and people; thirdly, to the opposition to the establishment of a regular military organization; fourthly, to earthquakes and superstitions strengthened by those calamities, and fifthly and lastly to

"the internal dissensions, which, in fact, were the deadly poison which carried the country to its doom."

Then he appealed with persuasive eloquence to Nueva Granada for help, arguing that it was indispensable for Nueva Granada to re-obtain the freedom of Caracas, pointing out that as Coro, as an enemy, had been enough to destroy the whole of Venezuela, so Venezuela as a center of Spanish power would suffice to recover Nueva Granada for the Spanish crown. The possession of Caracas by Spain was a danger for all Spanish America. Then he showed the possibility of a military undertaking, starting from Nueva Granada, and expressed his faith that thousands of valiant patriots would join the ranks of the army of liberty as soon as it set foot in Venezuela. He gave the details of the proposed campaign, and finished with a most eloquent and forceful appeal in the following words:

"The honor of Nueva Granada imperatively requires the punishment of the daring invaders, their persecution to the last trenches. Her glory will be the undertaking of going to Venezuela, and freeing the birthplace of Colombian independence and its martyrs, and that worthy people of Caracas, whose clamors are addressed to their beloved fellow patriots of Nueva Granada, for whom they are waiting with deadly impatience as for their redeemers. Let us hasten to break the chains of those victims who moan in the dungeons, ever expecting their salvation from you. Do not betray their confidence, do not be heedless of the lamentations of your brothers. Be eager to avenge the dead, to bring back to life the dying, to relieve the oppressed and to give liberty to all."

This noteworthy document was published in Cartagena, on December 15, 1812, and presents Bolivar as he was in the maturity of his life, as a thinker, apostle, general, and practical statesman; it shows him as the man destined to give liberty to five countries. This proclamation is the first full display of Bolivar's genius.

Bolivar was sent to command a small place where he had to be inactive. He prepared an expedition against the city of Tenerife, considered one of the strongest in Nueva Granada and which prevented the free navigation of the Magdalena River. He left with only 400 men and seized the castle abandoned by the garrison, thus obtaining some artillery, boats and war material. Following his success, the government of Cartagena placed him in full command of his own army and gave him orders to conquer the upper Magdalena. Bolivar accomplished this with only 500 men, freeing the east bank of the river. When he arrived at Ocaua, he was received amidst the greatest enthusiasm. He had won five victories in five days.

The Congress of Nueva Granada was holding its meetings in the city of Tunja. Bolivar got in touch with it and received instructions to lead an expedition against Cucuta and Pamplona. He started out with 400 men and a few spare rifles to arm patriots who might join the ranks. With the greatest alacrity he advanced, defeating several detachments on the way. He finally attacked the city of Cucuta, where Boo royalists were awaiting the attack of his men. On the 28th of February, after a bloody fight, Bolivar took the city and considerably increased his supply of war implements. The royalists occupying Pamplona and neighboring towns evacuated their possessions upon learning of the defeat of the royalists of Cucuta. On sending communications to the governor of Cartagena, Bolivar dated them in the city of "Cucuta delivered" (libertada) . His habit of adding the word "libertada" to the cities captured from the royalists contributed greatly to his later receiving the name of "Libertador," by which he is most generally known in history.

As soon as he entered Venezuelan territory, he declared that on that very day Venezuela had returned to life. Addressing the soldiers, he said:

"In less than two months you have carried out two campaigns and have begun a third one, which commences here and which must end in the country which gave me life."

He regarded his two previous campaigns merely as an introduction to the third, and most important for him, whose supreme ambition was to obtain once again the freedom of Venezuela. At the close of the address to the soldiers, we find these words:

"All America expects its liberty and salvation from you, brave soldiers of Cartagena and of the Union." (The Union of Nueva Granada.)

These words indicate that he was thinking not in local terms, but in terms of Greater America.

The government of the Union promoted him to the rank of brigadier general and conferred upon him the honorary title of citizen of Nueva Granada. He asked immediate authority to use the troops of the Union to continue his march, until he could recover the ruins of Caracas. To convince the government he repeated the arguments put forth in the proclamation of Cartagena, tending to prove that the freedom of Venezuela was essential to the continued liberty of Nueva Granada. He insisted so eloquently on receiving permission to advance, that at last he obtained it, with authorization to occupy the southwestern provinces of Venezuela: Merida and Trujillo. In thanking the executive power for this privilege, he evidenced his confidence in his future triumph by the following words, addressed to the president:

"I ask Your Excellency to send the answer to this communication to Trujillo: I shall receive it there."

Bolivar started his campaign from San Cristobal on the 15th of May, 1813, with 800 men. The royalists had 15,000 and sufficient resources to equip 6,000 additional men. The work of the young warrior seemed a dream; perhaps no wise general would have undertaken that campaign, but Bolivar was above common wisdom; he had the power of making the most beautiful dreams come true. Among the men who accompanied him were many who have received the greatest honors history can confer. Two of them may be noted here, for we shall have occasion to mention them again very soon; they are Atanasio Girardot and Antonio Ricaurte.

Upon his approach to Merida, the royalists, numbering 1,000, left the city, and Bolivar took it on the 30th of May without any opposition. He was received with enthusiasm as the liberator of Venezuela. The general began at once to attend to the organization of the emancipated territory, and to increase the strength of his army. He sent some men to attack the retreating Spaniards, and Girardot to occupy the province of Trujillo. The royalists escaped to Maracaibo and, on the 14th of June, Bolivar was in Trujillo, reorganizing the province. From there he sent Girardot to pursue the royalists.

On the next day Bolivar took an action which has been the subject of many debates, and which some writers consider is the one stain in the career of the great man of the South. We must devote a few lines to frank discussion of this subject, not neglecting to declare immediately that in our minds there has never been the slightest doubt that Bolivar was right in his conduct, and that a different action would have been the height of folly. Bolivar proclaimed "War to Death to the Spaniards," considering the conduct of Monteverde, the savage crimes committed in the interior cities of Venezuela, the many instances in which the Spanish authorities had shown an utter disrespect for the sanctity of treaties and the lives and properties of enemies who had surrendered, and even of peaceful natives, these acts coupled with documents like the proclamation published by a Spanish governor of a province in which he stated that his troops would not give quarter to those who surrendered. The documents proving that this proclamation had been issued were received by Bolivar in Trujillo. In Bolivar's mind this idea was a permanent obsession: "Americans are dying because they are Americans, whether or not they fight for American freedom." He took into account the long list of crimes committed, the harmless citizens, women and children who had died, the barbarous asphyxiation of the prisoners in Puerto Cabello, the horrors committed on the peaceful inhabitants of Caracas, and even the atrocities perpetrated by the royalist armies in Mexico and other parts of the continent. He recalled the leniency and mercy of the first independent government of Venezuela and the cruelty of the Spanish authorities, and thought, not only of the reprisals necessary to punish and, if possible, to stop these cruel deeds, but also of the salutary effect of a rigorous attitude on hesitating men, and the necessity that those who had not taken part on one side or another should declare themselves immediately, whether they sympathized with and were ready to help the cause of liberty, or favored a foreign regime. He was still in Merida when in a proclamation he spoke of avenging the victims, and threatened with war to death. But Bolivar was not only a man of genius but one of equanimity, poise, deep thought and attention. He did not want to carry out his threats immediately, but decided to think at length over the transcendent step he was considering. The night of the 14th of June was a night of torture for the Liberator. On the morning of the 15th he himself wrote the decree of War to Death, and then called for an assembly of his officers to hear their opinions of this decree. Not one of them dissented. At the close of the meeting Bolivar signed the proclamation, in which these terrible words appeared:

"Spaniards and Natives of the Canary Islands: Be sure of death even if you are indifferent. Americans: Be sure of life even if you are guilty."

The law of war is a terrible law, and Bolivar could not but take this step, unless he preferred to wage a losing fight.

As a measure of legitimate reprisal and as a measure of wisdom in warfare, the War to Death decree is fully justifiable.

Regarding it as a reprisal, let us mention only two or three facts. When Monteverde learned of the asphyxiation of the prisoners in Puerto Cabello, he wrote to the commander of the port:

"I strongly recommend that your activity on this point be not slackened (the expulsion of foreigners from Puerto Cabello), nor on that of the safe-keeping of the prisoners in the dungeons. If any one is to die, that is his fate."

On the plains some towns were entirely destroyed by bands of assassins. Women and children were the victims of the royalists in a number of cities. There were occasions where men and women of all ages had their ears cut off, were skinned alive, or in other ways cruelly tortured. A Spaniard called Boves distinguished himself among the worst criminals. He systematically organized the work of destroying Americans. His theory was that no American should live, and he simply destroyed them mechanically, for he thought that that was the only thing to do with them. Bolivar, himself, in a letter sent to the governor of Curacao on October 2, 1813, makes the most eloquent exposition of facts, and shows clearly the reasons he had for the decree of War to Death.

Still, Bolivar did not carry out the decree of War to Death immediately, nor did he do so constantly. Whenever he found any opportunity to exercise mercy, he did so; and when he was forced to let the severity of this law fall upon his enemy, there was generally an immediate reason for his action. In San Carlos, a few days after the issuance of this decree, when addressing the Spaniards and the Natives of the Canary Islands, he said:

"For the last time, Spaniards and Natives of the Canary Islands, listen to the voice of justice and clemency. If you prefer our cause to that of tyrants, you will be forgiven and will enjoy your property, life and honor; but if you persist in being our enemies, withdraw from our country or prepare to die."

Several proofs are recorded of his clemency in spite of his threats; but at last, when he saw that there was no other way to bring the royalists to terms, he ordered that war be waged mercilessly.