Simon Bolivar: His Life and His Work - Guillermo Sherwell

Bolivar's First Victories


The Congress of Nueva Granada had ordered Bolivar to take Trujillo and there to await new instructions. It was reluctant to permit him to advance, because the patriots in Nueva Granada found themselves in a difficult position. Bolivar wrote them, showing the necessity of his advancing immediately, in order to prevent the enemy from discovering the reduced size of his army and destroying it. His plan ,was to advance steadily against the royalists, to destroy them, and thus secure the freedom of Nueva Granada. Finally, the Congress yielded.

Bolivar's situation was an exceedingly dangerous one. There was a good-sized royalist army to his right, while to his left were the old hostile cities of Maracaibo and Coro. Before him was Monteverde with the men who had helped him to conquer Venezuela and with an abundant supply of war material. He became so impatient that he advanced without having received an answer to his last communication to Congress, crossed the Andes and, on the first of July, took the city of Guanare. Meanwhile, General Ribas, following Bolivar's orders, also advanced, meeting a detachment of royalists sent to cut off Bolivar's retreat. Ribas had less than half as many men as his opponent, but he was a man of the stamp of his leader, and on the same day that Bolivar entered Guanare he attacked the enemy. When his limited supply of ammunition was exhausted, he fought with the bayonet, and succeeded in completely destroying his foes. This battle occurred in a town called Niquitao, and is considered one of the most brilliant battles of the War of Independence.

Bolivar continued his rapid advance to the city of Barinas, and found it abandoned by the royalists, who had left behind artillery and ammunition. He ordered his trusted Girardot to continue the prosecution of the enemy, but they made their escape towards Venezuelan Guiana (Guayana) by means of one of the tributaries of the Orinoco, leaving behind them a path marked with crimes and depredations.

Once in possession of Barinas, Bolivar reorganized the province, created his first troops of cavalry, instilled enthusiasm in the population and prepared himself for new steps in his brilliant career. To Ribas, he entrusted the defeat of some 1,500 royalists whose position might hinder his progress. With only one-third this number of men, Ribas encountered and destroyed the enemy on the plains of Los Horcones, which victory, together with that at Niquitao, did much for the success of the whole campaign.

Leaving a detachment in Barinas, Bolivar advanced to San Carlos, which he entered on the 28th of July, and then continued onward towards Valencia.

While Bolivar was advancing from the western border towards the heart of his country, very important events were taking place in the eastern extremity. A young man named don Diego Marino, after having made preparations in the Island of Trinidad to fight against the Spanish domination in his country, entered Venezuela and advanced to the city of Cumana. There is a striking similarity in the lives and labors of Bolivar and Marino. Both were young, both were animated by the same hatred of tyranny and the same love for independence; both knew how to arouse enthusiasm in their followers and both displayed the greatest devotion to their friends; both were inspired by the same ambition for glory and honor, and both realized a very important part of the first liberation of Venezuela.

Monteverde attacked Marino and met with disaster, being compelled to withdraw to Caracas, where he learned of the victories of Bolivar in the West. He immediately prepared to go personally to Valencia to stop the advance of the independents. There he was informed of the latest triumph of Ribas.

Bolivar advanced, destroyed in Taguanes a strong army sent to check him, and continued his march toward Valencia, prepared to meet a strong resistance on the part of Monteverde. Great indeed was his surprise when he found that Monteverde had escaped toward Puerto Cabello during the night, leaving everything to the mercy of the conqueror.

From Valencia, the victor went to Caracas, where he granted an honorable capitulation to the city, offering passports to the Spanish soldiers and officers and permitting them to evacuate the town in the most dignified way. Upon his arrival in Caracas, Bolivar found that soldiers and officers, as well as about six thousand persons who considered themselves guilty, had already escaped to La Guaira, confident that Bolivar would act as Monteverde had done in the past.

August 6th, 1813, marks the entrance of Bolivar in Caracas, the end of the campaign which he had begun with 500 men,—his first campaign as a general, one in which he fought six pitched battles, covered a distance of 1,200 kilometers, destroyed five hostile armies, captured 50 pieces of artillery and three ammunition depots, and reconquered all the western part of Venezuela, while Eastern Venezuela had been recovered by Marino. All this was done within ninety days, and established forever the reputation of Bolivar as one of the most distinguished generals in history.

Caracas received him with the highest honors. The most beautiful young ladies of the city, dressed in white, brought flowers and branches of laurel to the conqueror; church bells were rung; flowers were strewn in his path. Bolivar, with his usual energy, set to work at once to reestablish order and to arrange to continue operations against La Guaira. He issued a proclamation announcing the rebirth of the Republic, and expressing his gratitude to Nueva Granada, to whom Venezuela owed the beginning of this undertaking. In order to avoid the necessity of fulfilling his decree of War to Death, he sent messengers to Puerto Cabello to ask Monteverde to ratify the convention by which he granted life to all Spaniards caught in Caracas or on their way to La Guaira, but Monteverde refused, explaining that he did not want to have any dealings with the insurgents.

As soon as the most urgent work of organization was finished, Bolivar, who had sent cordial congratulations to Marino, went himself to conduct the siege of Puerto Cabello.

At that period, when his glory was at its greatest splendor, he made the first public declaration by which the world could know that he had no personal ambition. He, who in his youth had enjoyed all the comforts and pleasures of life; who had had, in various parts of Venezuela, vast estates, slaves which he had set free, and all kinds of personal possessions; and who had abandoned everything to devote his life to his efforts in the service of his country, said these words:

"The Liberator of Venezuela renounces forever and declines irrevocably to accept any office except the post of danger at the head of our soldiers in defense of the salvation of our country."

And Bolivar lived up to his words.

Monteverde held many patriots in Puerto Cabello. Bolivar proposed an exchange of prisoners, but the Spaniard steadily refused all reasonable demands. The siege of Puerto Cabello was not altogether successful because the city was open to the sea and the royalist army was able to receive provisions. A strong expedition commanded by don Josť Miguel Salomon arrived from Spain to help Monteverde, and Bolivar realized that he could not hope to succeed unless the enemy could be drawn out of the city to fight in the open. Consequently, he ordered his troops to withdraw. Monteverde came out of the city on the 30th of September, and was attacked by three independent columns which defeated him completely. They themselves suffered a distressing loss in the death of Colonel Girardot, who was killed by a bullet in the forehead while hoisting in a captured position the flag of independence. Bolivar paid the greatest honor to Girardot, and took the heart of his young lieutenant to Caracas to receive the homage of the people. The soldiers and followers of Girardot asked Bolivar the privilege of being sent to avenge the young colonel. Monteverde had established himself in a place which he considered impregnable. The insurgents attacked with all their might, and the enemy was routed. Monteverde had to withdraw to Puerto Cabello, where he was deposed by his subordinates and Salomon was elected to take his place. His successor accepted the exchange of prisoners, and Bolivar, leaving some troops to continue the siege of the port, went to Caracas, where he had to face new difficulties.

The communication with Nueva Granada had been cut by the Spanish troops sent from Maracaibo. In Cucuta the royalists were committing all kinds of brutal deeds. It is said that assassinations were committed as the result of bets. Children under ten years of age had their hands cut off. In the Orinoco plains, the llanos, Boves with his lieutenant, Morales, exceeded whatever imagination can fancy in the way of bloodthirsty cruelty. Some independent detachments had been destroyed in the South, and several fanatical priests were discouraging sympathizers of freedom, declaring that "The King is the representative of God."

Bolivar sent Brigadier General Urdaneta, who had distinguished himself in the previous campaigns, to take charge of the army of the West. Campo-Elias another trusted officer, was sent to the plains, while Bolivar himself went to Caracas to pay his last homage to the heart of Girardot, an action by which he not only honored his dead officer, but also showed his appreciation of the help received from Nueva Granada in the work of securing the independence of his country. In Caracas, Bolivar for the first time received officially the name of "Savior of the Country, Liberator of Venezuela." On receiving the decree conferring these titles upon him, he said that the title of Liberator of Venezuela was more glorious and satisfying to him than the crowns of all the empires of the world, but that the real liberators had been the Congress of Nueva Granada, Ribas, Girardot and the other men who had been with him throughout the campaign.

Bolivar was very much concerned with the increasing wave of discontent which threatened to destroy his work. As we said at the beginning, there was no public opinion to support him. The masses were moved by their feelings, by early acquired habits, by superstitions or by low interests, and the llaneros  (inhabitants of the plains) would follow any chieftain who could guarantee them sufficient loot. At only thirty years of age Bolivar had proved himself as great a statesman as he was a soldier. He arranged for the organization of all public services, and when this was attended to, he took care to satisfy the natural pride of the patriots, by creating an order called "The Military Order of the Liberators of Venezuela."

Note: It is necessary, at this point, to make very plain the attitude of the Catholic clergy in the wars of American independence. Of course, no man of good sense and culture will today pay any attention to the accusations against Spain, the clergy and the Inquisition, all inspired by religious hatred, which is one of the worst forms of fanaticism. Nevertheless, there are still fanatics who refuse to open their eyes to the truth, either because they find their ignorance a very comfortable frame of mind or because they maliciously devote themselves to the abominable work of slandering a country and institutions which have played and are playing a very important historical role.

There appears to be only one serious monograph on Simon Bolivar written in English, and this is an article which appeared in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, No. 238, V. 40, published in March, 1870. This article was written by Eugene Lawrence, and pretends to be a eulogy of the Man of the South. In substance it is nothing more than a superficial synopsis of the main facts of the public life of Bolivar, and a constant and virulent attack against Spain and the Catholic Church. It would seem that to the author Spain is nothing, and has never been anything, but kings and priests, and that kings and priests are a curse on the population. The cruelties of the Spanish kings and priests constitute his main subject. As a matter of fact, in the political revolutions of America, the priests have been divided and have acted like other men, availing themselves of their right to their own opinions. The greatest proof that the Church is not to take any blame or praise for whatever happened in the War of Independence is that it did not force its dignitaries to take any particular stand. They did as they pleased. There were priests on the side of Monteverde and there were priests on the side of Bolivar. Undoubtedly, the former thought and preached that the will of God was to keep the American countries in subjection, while the latter might have believed that the independence of the American countries would satisfy the desires of God. If the Church was on the side of Spain, the Spaniards certainly failed to reward her. In a letter to the Governor of Curacao, Bolivar wrote: "Many respectable old men, many venerable priests, have seen themselves in chains and in other infamous ways prisoners, herded with common criminals and men of the lowest stamp, exposed to the insults of brutal soldiers and of the vilest men of the lowest station." On the other hand, several priests accompanied Bolivar, and he always showed the greatest veneration for the Church and for its members. Speaking, then, of priests exploiting the fanaticism of the crowd, no sober-minded historian would ever intend an attack against the Church in general. Furthermore, we must not forget that most of the enemies of independence were Americans, and that some publicists refuse to speak of it as a war of independence but term the revolution a civil war.