Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

Miranda's Failure

The Declaration of Independence, July 5, 1811


The first acts of the Junta were acts of moderation and wisdom. Emparan and other Spanish authorities were expelled from the country. The Spaniards were assured that they would be treated as brothers, with the same consideration as all Americans. The Junta sent notice of this movement to the other countries of the continent in the following lofty words:

"Venezuela has placed herself in the number of free nations, and hastens to give advice of this event to her neighbors so that, if the aspirations of the new world are in accord with hers, they might give her help in the great and very difficult career she has undertaken. 'Virtue and moderation' have been our motto. 'Fraternity, union and generosity' should be yours, so that these great principles combined may accomplish the great work of raising America to the political dignity which so rightly belongs to her."

The tributes formerly paid by the Indians were abolished. The alcabala, an excessive tax on sales, was also suppressed. The introduction of slaves was forbidden. Different branches of the government were organized.

One of the first works of the Junta was to send emissaries to the several provinces of the old captincy general to invite them to unite with Caracas in the movement. It was the first government of Spanish America to initiate diplomatic missions abroad. Among her envoys we find Simon Bolivar representing Venezuela at London.

Most of the provinces followed the example given by Caracas, but some of them did not take that action, and among these were Coro and Maracaibo, which exercised powerful influence against the movement for liberty. The emissaries who went to Maracaibo were even sent to Porto Rico to be tried there as rebels and were sentenced to prison in that colony.

Among the diplomatic representatives, some were well received and some were ignored. Bolivar was very highly praised by the London authorities, although he could obtain no substantial assistance because of a treaty of alliance then existing between England and Spain. Bolivar worked not only as a diplomat, but he also wrote and published articles of propaganda to acquire friends for the cause he represented, and from the first his influence was felt all over the continent, especially when he was able to give substantial help to the representatives from Buenos Aires, who went to London to secure the alliance and friendship of England.

The attitude of Venezuela was not only generous and conciliatory, but it was even inspired by a great regard for Spain. The Junta declared itself ready to send help to Spain in her fight against the intruder, and also offered the Venezuelan soil as a refuge for those who might despair of the salvation and freedom of the mother country. The Council of Regency which had been established in Spain, instead of thanking Venezuela for her offer, declared the Venezuelans insurgents, rebels and traitors, and submitted the province of Caracas to a strict blockade. This decision on the part of the Council served to arouse the Venezuelans and to change the ends of the movement. The sea became infested with privateers and pirates and, within the country, royalist agencies promoted war and insurrection. Towns which had declared themselves in favor of the Junta were destroyed by the royalists, and everywhere the situation was very difficult for all who had expressed any sympathy with the new regime. Nevertheless, the new authorities persevered in their purpose to show loyalty to Fernando VII, and tried by all means to avoid bloodshed. Even with regard to the governors of Coro and Maracaibo, Caracas tried persuasion rather than force. The uncompromising attitude of the Regency, however, indicated clearly that the Venezuelans could not expect to effect any agreement with Spain. Bolivar, thinking that he could be more useful in his own country than in London, decided to return to Venezuela, but he did not go back alone. We have mentioned before that General Miranda was then living in London. Bolivar invited him to return to Venezuela to help the cause of freedom, for he deemed him the ablest man to lead the movement. He gave him the hospitality of his own home and praised him generously, increasing his popularity.

Miranda was very well received, and the Junta at once appointed him Lieutenant General. At that time the Venezuelans were electing representatives to Congress, and Miranda was elected deputy from one of the cities of the East. Congress entered into session March 2nd with forty-four members, representing seven provinces, and its very first decision was to appoint three men to exercise the executive power and a council to sit for purposes of consultation. Thus the first autonomous government in Latin America was established.

There were several factors active in the creation of public opinion: the press was free, and popular orators held meetings in which they spoke of the new ideas and tried to prepare the people for the new institutions. Special mention should be made of the Sociedad Patriotica  (Patriotic Society) whose promoters and leaders were Miranda and Bolivar. This association worked constantly for absolute freedom, putting forward as an example the independence of the North American colonies. Some representatives distrusted the association, considering it as a rival of Congress, but Bolivar relieved their fears by an inspired address delivered on July 3, 1811, which might be considered as the beginning of his career as a great orator. He denounced the apathy of the deputies, denied that there were two congresses, and among other things said:

"What do we care if Spain submits to Napoleon Bonaparte, if we have decided to be free? Let us without fear lay the cornerstone of South American freedom. To hesitate is to die."

Obeying these feelings, the association sent a memorandum to Congress, which was read on July 4, 1811. The following day this assembly proclaimed the independence of Venezuela. The document contained an exposition of the wrongs suffered by the colony, a decision to live and to die free, and the pledge of seven provinces to sacrifice the lives and fortunes of their inhabitants in this great work. On that same day the national flag of Venezuela was adopted, one containing three horizontal stripes: yellow, blue and red.

Up to this time the revolution had been peaceful and bloodless, but now the royalists of Valencia, a very important city to the west of Caracas, rebelled against the new institutions and asked help from the governors of Coro and Maracaibo. Miranda besieged and took the city, Bolivar fighting on his side. Insurrections broke out in other places and were speedily repressed. In some cities the new state of affairs was welcomed with great joy. The obvious political needs became the object of study of the new Congress. From the beginning the federal system and the central system appeared in opposition. Bolivar was opposed to the federation, arguing that the people of Venezuela were still ignorant and unable to understand the obligations of a federation. At last the partisans of the federation movement were victorious, and Venezuela adopted a federal constitution, in which the most advanced principles with regard to individual rights were incorporated. The epoch of independence was to be called the Colombian epoch, and the first country to free itself from the bond of Spain was to be called Colombia. Colombia (from the name of Columbus) was an ideal of the South American patriots, and the greatest apostle of this ideal was Bolivar, as will be readily seen by this study. Valencia was selected as the capital, and in this city the government established itself on March 1, 1812.

The work of organizing the new government did not interrupt the royalist activity in Venezuela nor the preparations made by Spain to suppress the revolution. The East and the Orinoco valley were in constant agitation, and we have seen that in the West, Coro and Maracaibo were on the side of Spain, and their governors ready to send help to the enemies of independence. Domingo Monteverde, a Spanish naval officer, had arrived in Coro as a member of a Spanish contingent, and when the governor learned that a royalist conspiracy was being prepared in a town called Siquisique, he organized an expedition and gave command of the troops to Monteverde, with instructions to help the conspirators. At that place more men joined his troops. Transgressing the orders he had received, which were only to occupy the town, Monteverde constituted himself head of the army and advanced to fight the insurgents. Luck was undeservedly on his side. On March 23, 1812, he defeated a small body of patriots.

The news of this defeat added to the effect of a natural catastrophe, which came directly on the heels of it, and which was painted by the fanatic royalists as a punishment of Heaven for the uprising. In the afternoon of March 26, at a moment when the churches were filled with people, for it was Holy Thursday, there occurred a violent earthquake in Venezuela. Caracas, La Guaira and many other towns were reduced to ruins, and some small dwellings entirely disappeared. It was pointed out that the towns punished by the earthquake were those that had shown themselves as favoring independence. Whole bodies of troops were buried. In a church of Caracas, the coat-of-arms of Spain had been painted on one of the pillars, and the earthquake destroyed the whole building with the exception of that one pillar. Orators went out into the streets to proclaim that this was unmistakably the result of divine anger because of the rebellion of the people against Fernando VII, "the anointed of God."

In this cataclysm, Bolivar distinguished himself in Caracas, going hither and thither among the ruins, counteracting with his words the effect of the speeches of the royalists and assisting to dig out of the debris corpses and the wounded, giving the latter first aid.

The advance of Monteverde was substantially helped by this earthquake. Many soldiers of the patriots' army had died in their armories and others on their way to fight the enemy and on parade grounds. All the patriot government had was reduced to practically nothing in a moment. Monteverde continued to advance eastward, and took the important town of Barquisimeto, where he received a large contingent of men, who flocked to him fearful of the divine anger. His lieutenants were meeting with success in different fields and he himself soon entered the city of San Carlos.

On the 4th of April, there occurred a second earthquake which lasted eight hours, and which destroyed the little remaining courage of those who were not heart and soul with the movement of emancipation.

In the midst of these difficulties, the executive power appointed General Francisco Miranda supreme commander of all the forces of the Republic, on land and sea, and the government withdrew from Valencia to the town of La Victoria, situated between Valencia and Caracas. Miranda went to Caracas to obtain some resources, and while there associated Bolivar with him in the army. Later, Miranda sent him to Puerto Cabello, while Monteverde seized Valencia, the capital of the country.

Various events continued to favor Monteverde, and when Miranda came back to besiege Valencia, Monteverde was so successful that the independent military commander saw himself forced to take a defensive attitude instead of an offensive one. From that moment, Miranda committed error after error, all of which resulted in victories for the fortunate Spanish leader. The patriots grew distrustful of their chief, who withdrew to La Victoria. There he was attacked by Monteverde, but defeated him. This victory availed the patriots little, for Miranda did not want to abandon his defensive position. He had 12,000 men and could have destroyed his enemy, but he preferred to wait. Meanwhile, Bolivar was requesting help to defend Puerto Cabello, where there were deposited many provisions, and also to attack Monteverde by the rear. Miranda refused assistance. Monteverde, upon being defeated in a second attack on La Victoria, withdrew in the direction of Puerto Cabello. Already one of the forts had hoisted the Spanish flag. Monteverde was successful, and Bolivar sailed for La Guaira. The loss of Puerto Cabello, and other facts which need not be mentioned here, decided Miranda to capitulate, at a time when he was still stronger than his enemy. The capitulation was ratified in La Victoria by Miranda on the 25th of July, 1812. The following day Monteverde occupied the city and on the 30th he entered Caracas.

All the patriots denounced Miranda for the capitulation, which meant the dissolution of the army and the abandonment of all the elements which had so raised their hopes.

Bolivar, who, ignorant of the capitulation, had arrived in Caracas on his way to join Miranda, decided to return to La Guaira and to emigrate, resolved never to submit to the Spanish rule. Before departing, he issued a proclamation denouncing emphatically the action of Miranda, and the conduct of Monteverde who had transgressed the laws of war by encouraging the barbarous actions of the undisciplined crowds which, in the interior of the country, were committing all kinds of atrocities. Monteverde had also violated the articles of the capitulation stipulating that the lives and properties of the inhabitants should be respected and that there should follow a general oblivion of all past actions.

Bolivar was in La Guaira when Miranda arrived there with many other officers who were escaping persecution from Monteverde. The generalissimo intended to remain in La Guaira that night, sailing from there the following day. That evening the most prominent men of the city assembled and denounced the supreme commander for his conduct. Among the most bitter judges of Miranda was Bolivar, the man who had asked the London exile to return to Venezuela to work for liberty in his country. The word treachery was uttered and all agreed to imprison Miranda, a culpable action performed on the morning of July 31. That same day the port of La Guaira was closed by order of Monteverde, and the most distinguished patriots who fell into his hands were sent to prison, and cruel persecutions were exercised everywhere. A committee of public safety was established and immediately the prisons of Caracas and Puerto Cabello were filled with men, many of whom died of suffocation. Into a dungeon in Puerto Cabello, a Spaniard threw five flasks of alkali, thus causing the death by asphyxiation of all the prisoners locked there.

The properties of the leading citizens were seized. It was enough to have means of comfortable livelihood to be denounced as an enemy of Spain. The most peaceful men were dragged from their homes, and the tears of wives and children never moved to pity Monteverde's agents.

Miranda, a prisoner in Puerto Cabello, appealed in vain to the audiencia against these crimes. From Puerto Cabello he was sent to Porto Rico and finally to Cadiz, where he was locked in a fortress called la Carraca. There he died on July 14, 1816, his remains being thrown with the corpses of common criminals. Such was the end of the noble man who had been the guest of Catherine II of Russia, a soldier of Washington and a general of the French Republic. He spent his last days in a dungeon, chained to the wall like a dog. Venezuela has erected in the Pantheon of Caracas a beautiful marble monument in the shape of a coffin, the cover of which is held open by the claws of a majestic eagle, waiting for the remains of the great Venezuelan, who committed errors, it is true, but whose devotion to his country has never been doubted and whose martyrdom, and the fortitude with which he bore it, place him among the noblest characters of history.

Bolivar remained in La Guaira for a short while, but inactivity was distasteful. Through the efforts of a Spanish friend, he obtained a passport from Monteverde and left the port for Curacao at the end of August.

This action marks the end of the first part of Bolivar's life, his restless youth, the preparation for struggles through sorrow and patient study, his military training under Miranda, and the clarification in his mind of the supreme purposes to which he was going to devote his life, no longer in a secondary position, but as a leader, a commanding figure on the American continent.