Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape and they will prefer death to flight. — Sun Tzu

Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell




Araure—Ribas Triumphs in La Victoria


A Wholesale Execution



(1813–1814)


The Governor of Coro had come out of the city with 1,300 men and had destroyed an independent army. He now threatened the possession of Valencia and the security of the troops engaged in the siege of Puerto Cabello. Yanez, at the head of 2,500 llaneros, had destroyed another patriot army and had seized the city of Barinas, leaving his path strewn with corpses and 'stained with the blood of his victims.

Urdaneta sent news of his danger to the Liberator, and the latter came at once to the rescue, and defeated in Barquisimeto the army of Coro, only to see this victory turned to defeat as the result of a mistaken bugle order which caused the retreat of one of his regiments. Urdaneta was entrusted with the organization of the remains of the patriotic army, and Bolivar vent to Valencia to obtain new reinforcements. The Governor of Coro, D. Josť Ceballos by name, succeeded in getting in touch with Yanez and the Governor of Puerto Cabello, and concerted a combined attack. Bolivar ordered Ribas, who was at that time in Caracas, to come to the rescue with all the men he could gather. The commander of Puerto Cabello, Salomon, advancing on the road which leads from Valencia to Caracas, was attacked by Ribas and by Bolivar and, after three days of constant fighting, was forced to withdraw to the port, having suffered very heavy losses. Then Bolivar, with all the men that he could summon, proceeded to San Carlos, where he found himself with 3,000 armed men ready to fight the royalists. With this army he advanced to meet Ceballos, and met him, commanding 3,500 men, near a place called Araure. The great battle of Araure was fought on the 5th of December, 1813. At first it was costly to the insurgent armies, which lost their best infantrymen. But the Liberator was present everywhere, encouraging his soldiers and directing their movements. At last, the independents obtained the victory, and the royalists had to withdraw, leaving 1,000 dead and many guns. After that battle, Ceballos and Yanez had to escape to the south, to the valley of the Orinoco. Bolivar's prestige was shown at its best.

The regiment which, through a mistake, had begun the retreat at the battle of Barquisimeto, Bolivar punished by depriving it of the right to have a flag and a name until it would conquer them in the field of battle. The "Nameless Battalion" was placed in the center of the independent forces in Araure, and ten minutes after the battle had started, it had conquered a flag from the enemy and had broken through the royalist army. From that date the "Nameless Battalion" was called "The Conqueror of Araure."

The victory at Araure destroyed in one day the armies oppressing Venezuela, and was the last military triumph of 1813, a year of success for the independent army.

On thanking his staff for the congratulations which they addressed to him, Bolivar uttered the following significant words:

"It is true that our armies have avenged Venezuela. The largest army which has tried to subjugate us lies destroyed on the field. But we cannot rest. Other obligations await us. And when our native land is entirely free, we shall go to fight the Spaniards in any part of America where they are in control, and we shall throw them into the sea. Freedom shall live protected by our swords."

But Bolivar's concern was increasing. He well knew that he was not supported by public opinion, and he was also aware that the cruel crowds of the plains were his greatest menace.

He sent a communication to the Congress of Nueva Granada, notifying it of the conquest of the West and of his preparation for war against the men of the plains, explaining again his attitude with regard to personal power.

"The possession of supreme authority," he wrote, "so flattering for the despots of the other continent, has been for me, the lover of liberty, heavy and displeasing."

In another he added:

"I shall not retain any part of the authority, even if the people themselves would entrust it to me."

His report of the 31st of December is one of the most conspicuous documents of the life of Bolivar. It ranks as high as his proclamation of Cartagena at the beginning of the campaign. In this report, through his Secretary of Foreign Relations, he expressed his idea about union between Nueva Granada and Venezuela. The document appears as addressed to him, and of it the following words deserve special consideration:

"The lessons of experience should not be lost for us. The spectacle presented to us by Europe, steeped in blood in an endeavor to establish a balance which is forever changing, should correct our policy in order to save it from those bloody dangers. . . . Besides that continental balance of power which Europe is seeking where it seems less likely to be found, that is, through war and disturbances, there is another balance, a balance which concerns us, the balance of the universe. The ambition of the European countries is to reduce to slavery the other parts of the world, and all these other parts of the world should endeavor to establish a balance between themselves and Europe in order to destroy the preponderance of the latter. I call this the balance of the world, and it must enter into the calculations of American policies.

"It is necessary that our country be sufficiently strong to resist successfully the aggressions which European ambitions may plan; and this colossal power, which must oppose another great power, cannot be formed but through the union of all South America under a national body, so that a single government may use its great resources for a single purpose, that of resisting with all of them exterior aggressions, while in the interior an increasing mutual cooperation of all will lift us to the summit of power and prosperity."

The present ideas of inter-American cooperation do not differ very much from those existing in the mind of Bolivar.

Following the deposition of Monteverde, the army of Puerto Cabello had left for Coro and practically disappeared on its way. But some royalists had gone to the south, and entered the city of Calabozo, after having destroyed an insurgent force. Its commander was one of the worst men who had ever breathed the air of America, Josť Tomas Rodriguez, a native of Spain, who, after having been a pirate, was sentenced to the prison of Puerto Cabello. Several Spaniards applied for a mitigation of the sentence, and he was set free within, the city of Calabozo, where he was employed when the revolution began. By that time he had changed his name to that of Boves. He first joined the patriots' army, but for some reason or other he was imprisoned. He was released in 1810 by the royalists, and swore revenge against the revolutionists. He organized a cavalry corps and committed infamous deeds of cruelty wherever he happened to be, at the same time achieving military success for, though morally a beast, he was clever in the field of battle and possessed dauntless bravery. He held the banks of the Orinoco with the aid of his lieutenant, Francisco Tomas Morales, a native of the Canary Islands, whose moral worth can be judged by a single word applied to him by Boves himself. Boves called him "atrocious." While Boves killed Americans systematically, considering that it was the best, and perhaps the only way to end the insurrection, Morales killed Americans for pleasure, whether or not their death would foster the ends of the royalists. He had formerly been a servant. He was brave and obdurate, and a very able second. In the army of Boves, composed of 4,000 llaneros, he helped to take the city, of Calabozo. Bolivar immediately asked Marino, who was commanding in the East, to help him, but for several reasons, and perhaps mainly because Marino wanted to have supreme power, he did not go to the rescue. This was the sad state of affairs at the beginning of 1814.

This year began with an assembly in Caracas of representatives of the people, to whom Bolivar submitted a report on the use he had made of his authority. On that occasion Bolivar spoke his mind as plainly as before. Although his words depicted legitimate pride, he was very anxious to make it understood that he was unwilling to retain any power over the nation. Among other things he said:

"I accepted and retained the supreme authority in order to save you from anarchy and to destroy the enemy who tried to support the party of oppression. I have given you laws, I organized for you the administration of justice and revenue, and, finally, I have given you a government. "Fellow citizens: I am not the sovereign. Your representatives should draw up your laws. The national treasury does not belong to the government. All those who have kept your wealth should show you the use they have made of it. . . . I am anxious to transfer this power to the representatives you must appoint, and I hope you will relieve me of a burden, which one of you can worthily bear, giving me the only honor to which I aspire, that is, to continue to fight your enemies, for I shall never sheathe my sword until the freedom of my country is altogether secure."

The political governor of Caracas answered the address of the Liberator, praising him for his brilliant campaign and for the successes due to his genius. After a brief summary of his heroic deeds in Nueva Granada, he said that the greatest merit of a man lay in the handing over of the power entrusted to him. To take the power from Bolivar, he reasoned, would very likely work to the ruin of the country, and he expressed his belief that the thing necessary to do was to offer Bolivar supreme power for the time being.

In his answer to the governor, Bolivar paid a deserving tribute to his brothers-in-arms, and then added the following words:

"I have not come to oppress you with my victorious arms. I have come to bring you the empire of law. I have come with the purpose of preserving your sacred rights. It is not military despotism which can make a people free, and the power I have never can be good for the Republic except for a short period. A successful soldier does not acquire any right to command his country. He is not the arbiter of laws and government; he is the defender of freedom, and his glories must be identical to those of the Republic and his ambition satisfied if he gives happiness to his country. . . . Elect your representatives, your magistrates, a just government, and be sure that the armies which have saved the Republic will always protect the freedom and the national glory of Venezuela."

Nevertheless, in spite of his protestations, the power was forced upon him. He did not stay long in the work of the government, but soon devoted his time to the conduct of war. Puerto Cabello, with fewer soldiers than before, was the main object of his attention. He intended to put an end to the siege, attacking the town at one time by land and by sea. Misunderstandings with Marino, who had sent some reinforcements previously, prevented the successful carrying out of his plan.

Barinas had fallen into the hands of the royalist Yanez, whose bloodthirsty followers beheaded eighty soldiers who had been left behind, killed men, women and children, and destroyed the whole city by fire. A few days later this man was killed in a skirmish, and thus ended the life of a fiend whose name may be placed at the side of those of Boves and Morales, because of his delight in committing crimes. In the rest of the country the royalists were conducting guerrilla warfare, preventing the reunion of patriotic bodies and rendering the situation very critical for Bolivar. The largest troops of royalists were generally commanded by men distinguished for their ferocity. To the names appearing elsewhere we must add those of Calzada, Yanez' successor, and of Rosete, who competed with each other for the distinction of shedding the most blood.

Boves, in command of the horsemen of the plains, won a great victory in a place called La Puerta, over Campo-Elias, and as a result he reached the valley of Valencia and approached the city of Caracas. The city of Ocumare was taken by Rosete, who proceeded to kill even the persons who were in church praying to God.

In an effort to take advantage of his favorable position by swift movements, Boves advanced to a city called La Victoria, on the road from Valencia to Caracas, where Ribas was ready to do his utmost to prevent the triumph of the bloodthirsty llaneros. On the morning of February 12, 1814, Boves attacked and succeeded in entering the town, but he found that the garrison was made up of extraordinary men, one of whom was worth four of his own, thanks to the inspiration and bravery of Ribas. The number of casualties was enormous. Ribas saw his best officers falling about him, and he himself had three horses killed under him. In the middle of the afternoon the result of the battle was still undecided. Then troops gathered by Campo-Elias after his defeat of La Puerta joined the defenders. Ribas pushed out of the city and destroyed whatever appeared in his path. Boves retreated and installed himself on the outskirts. The following day he was attacked again and as forced to withdraw, this time in utter disorder. The battle of La Victoria was the greatest victory of Ribas, and is counted among the most brilliant feats of arms during the Venezuelan War of Independence, filled as it was with heroic deeds.

Bolivar did not fail properly to praise the conqueror. He announced the triumph to Caracas and to the world, and in paying tribute to the living hero, he did not forget to pay homage to those who had fallen on the field of battle. On that occasion, he uttered one of those brilliant expressions so common in his writings: "Ribas, against whom adversity is powerless." . . . He never felt that his own glory had to suffer from the unstinted praise he bestowed on his followers.

After this victory at La Victoria, Ribas went to Ocumare, where he saw the work of Rosete, who had left the streets strewn with dying men, women and children, and with the corpses of many victims of his insatiable ferocity. More than 300 had fallen at the hands of the monsters. Bodies and mutilated members appeared everywhere, the best proof of how just had been Bolivar's decree of War to Death. Among other things Ribas found a branding iron in the shape of a P, with which Rosete had intended to mark the foreheads of the patriots and those of their children.

Bolivar, who in spite of the frequent atrocities of the enemy, had had his decree carried out very seldom and very reluctantly, now, with the royalists in command of Boves, Rosete and Morales, found it necessary to begin severe reprisals in earnest.

The prisoners taken by the independents were Constantly plotting. When Boves was threatening Caracas, the commander of La Guaira asked Bolivar what he was to do with the Spaniards in the prisons of the city, considering that they were numerous and the garrison very small. The Liberator answered as follows:

"I command you to execute immediately all the Spaniards in the fortress and in the hospital, without exception."

He gave a similar order to the authorities in Caracas. As a result of these orders, 886 Spaniards and natives of the Canary Islands were executed.

This is the act for which Bolivar has been most severely criticised and his conduct most generally condemned. But, if what we have already said is not sufficient to prove the need of these reprisals, we can take into consideration also the slow torture to which the sick independents in the hospital had been subjected, the killing of a woman because she had been accused of having embroidered a uniform for Bolivar, the destruction of the innocent dwellers in the towns taken by the royalists. This decision must be considered also as a measure of safety, for Bolivar could not see an enemy approaching, realizing the necessity perhaps of a hasty retreat, and leave behind him reinforcements for his foes. On this occasion, Bolivar was not merciful; but mercy had been repeatedly exercised by him even against the dictates of wisdom. His measure of reprisal in this case can be considered as ferocious only by contrast with his previous clemency. As a historian (Baralt) remarks:

"It must be agreed that the patience of saints could not tolerate the crimes of the royalist leaders, and at that very moment new attacks increased indignation and anger to an inexpressible degree."(1814)