Known as the “Liberator” in Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, Simon Bolivar is often considered the “George Washington of South America”. He liberated all those countries from the Spanish Empire, and formulated a project of national integration amongst the former Spanish colonies in the Americas. Both as a statesman and a politician, Bolivar was a larger-than-life character. Although he has been admired in the United States (to the point that some illustrious soldiers were named after him, such as Simon Bolivar Buckner), the details of his life are little known. Following is a list of some surprising facts about his life.
1 He was breastfed by a black slave
Simon Bolivar was born in Caracas on July 24, 1783, to a noble criollo family (whites born in the American continent). The Bolivars had come to Venezuela from the Basque region in Spain, in the 16th Century (LINK 1). They were land tenants of large property states, and immensely rich. However, one of Bolivar’s ancestors was denied an aristocratic distinction by the Spanish crown because he could not prove the “purity” of his blood. Thus, there has always been the suspicion that Bolivar may have had either an African or Native American ancestor.
The Bolivars had numerous black slaves, as was typical of criollo families in Caracas. Young Simon was breastfed by a black slave, Hipolita (LINK 2). He grew to be fond of her. An orphan by age nine, Bolivar considered her a close relative. Many years later, in 1813, at a triumphal military procession in Caracas, he spotted her in the crowd; Bolivar came down from his horse, and immediately went to hug her. Although he always feared a Haiti-like massacre of whites in Spanish America, Bolivar was never a racist, and he did his best to emancipate the slaves.
2 He was a widower at age 19
As was usual for young noble criollos in the Spanish colonies, Bolivar traveled to Spain at age 16 as part of an educational voyage. While there, he met Maria Teresa del Toro, a young Spaniard of Venezuelan origins. He fell in love and proposed to her. They got married in Madrid in, 1801, and headed back to Venezuela. The couple was very happy in Caracas, but then, after only nine months, tragedy struck: Maria Teresa died of yellow fever (LINK 3). Bolivar loved Maria Teresa intensely, and was deeply affected. He swore never to marry again, and he kept his promise.
Years later, he reflected that, had he not been a widower, his life would have been very different, and he would have never become the Liberator. Bolivar went on to have many lovers throughout his life. The one who seemed to have captured his heart above all others, was Manuela Sáenz, a native from Quito, and married to an English businessman (LINK 4). Manuela abandoned her husband and joined Bolivar in his military and political life. She was crucial in saving his life from an assassination attempt in Bogota, in 1828. For this heroic deed, Bolivar called her the “liberator of the Liberator”.
3 His first military assignment ended in defeat
On a second trip to Europe in 1804, Bolivar was witness to Napoleon’s coronation ceremony in Paris. While in Rome, in the company of some friends, he scaled Monte Sacro and pledged to liberate Spanish colonies from the Spanish empire. For some years, he kept quiet about this pledge. But, given Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1807, the Caracas city council declared independence from Spain in 1811, and Venezuela’s First Republic was established (LINK 5).
Bolivar volunteered to go on a diplomatic mission to London, in order to seek international recognition for the Venezuelan republic. He was only partially successful. Upon his return to Venezuela, he realized that not everyone was happy with the political state of affairs, and soon, a civil war ensued. Royalists loyal to the King of Spain took arms, and initiated a campaign to depose the Republican government.
In 1812 (LINK 6), Bolivar was assigned military command of the Puerto Cabello garrison, where royalist prisoners were held. However, he could not contain a mutiny, and prisoners took control of the garrison. Bolivar asked for reinforcements, but never received them. He fled Puerto Cabello in defeat.
4 He betrayed his precursor, Francisco de Miranda
The loss of Puerto Cabello was a pivotal moment for royalist forces, and it ultimately led to the fall of the First Republic in Venezuela. Bolivar was deeply anxious about his role in this catastrophic event, but he seems to have blamed General Francisco de Miranda. Miranda had been a revolutionary who, in 1806, attempted to launch a liberation movement in Venezuela (LINK 7). It ended in failure, and Miranda exiled in London. When Bolivar visited London, he proposed Miranda to return to Venezuela and take command of the armed forces. However, very soon, relations between both soldiers deteriorated, and the fall of Puerto Cabello further drove them apart.
In 1812, as royalist forces approached Caracas, Miranda judged that there was no point in prolonging the war. He thus made arrangements to surrender, board a ship, and abandon Venezuela, in order to prepare a new revolutionary movement. However, Bolivar quickly moved and, with the help of other conspirators, arrested Miranda and handed him to royalist commander Domingo Monteverde, as he entered Caracas. Monteverde sent Miranda to a prison in Cadiz, where he died in 1816. This particular event cast a long shadow over Bolivar’s reputation. He always tried to excuse himself by arguing that Miranda was a traitor to the Venezuelan Republican cause. Yet, to this day, many historians wonder whether the real traitor was Bolivar.
5 He decreed war to the death to Spaniards
Bolivar marched to exile in 1812. Yet, by 1813, he was in New Granada (modern-day Colombia), once again as a military commander, engaging in combat against Spanish forces. He was nominally under command of the Cartagena government. But, without his superiors’ consent, he crossed the Venezuelan border and began a march to Caracas.
This campaign, known as “La campaña admirable” (the admirable campaign) gave Bolivar many military triumphs. When his forces entered Caracas in 1813, he was enthusiastically greeted by the locals, and given the title of “Liberator” (LINK 8).
By now, the war had become particularly vicious. There were reports of atrocities on the Spanish side, and Bolivar decided to retaliate. On June 5th, 1813, in the town of Trujillo (at the start of his campaign on his way to Caracas), Bolívar signed the decree of war to the death. He warned that any Spaniard, who refused to serve under his command for the liberation of Venezuela, would be summarily executed (LINK 9). The decree had more of a psychological impact, as few executions took place. However, out of frustration for a failed prisoner exchange with the Spanish, and fearing a prisoner uprising, Bolivar ordered the execution of 900 prisoners of war held in La Guaira (LINK 10).
The viciousness of the war eventually allowed for the rise of an even more ruthless warlord on the royalist side, Jose Tomas Boves. His private army, known as the “legions of hell”, devastated the Venezuelan countryside, and entered Caracas in 1814, once again sending Bolivar into exile.
6 He proclaimed freedom for slaves, to no effect
After his second exile, Bolivar settled first in Jamaica, and then in Haiti, where he was welcomed by president Alexandre Petion. Haiti was then a republic governed by former black slaves who had rebelled and killed their white masters. President Pieton offered Bolivar economic and logistical help in his attempt to, once again, invade Venezuela. But, he specifically asked Bolivar to decree the emancipation of the slaves in all those territories he would liberate from the Spanish empire (LINK 11).
At first, Bolivar did not seem to be fond of the idea, but perhaps out of pragmatism, he acceded to Pieton’s petition. However, Bolivar soon came to understand that he needed the support of blacks and pardos (mixed race people). Boves had been able to overthrow Bolivar’s government because he enlisted blacks and pardos by offering booty and promises of freedom to whomever joined his ranks.
As Bolivar again invaded Venezuela in 1816, he proclaimed the abolition of slavery, and he personally freed his own slaves. However, his proclamations were to no effect. Bolivar was not in a real position of power to ensure abolition. And, when he did finally accede to power once Spanish forces were finally expelled from South America, he had to do political maneuvers to stay in power, and this prevented him from abolishing slavery altogether.
7 He crossed the Andes with his army
Having invaded Venezuela in 1816, Bolivar could not make great advances. Caracas was still in the power of royalist forces, and he was in no position to attack. He thus established his headquarters in Angostura, on the banks of the Orinoco River. He began to receive British mercenaries (LINK 12), and he managed to bring under his command the llanero (Venezuelan cowboys) forces under the leadership of José Antonio Páez. Bolivar’s combined forces achieved some military victories over the Spaniards in the Venezuelan plains, but he still lacked the military capacity to strike the well-garrisoned Caracas.
He then came up with a hugely ambitious plan. Instead of attacking Caracas, he would take his army through the Venezuelan plains, up the Andes Mountains, and descend into Bogota, coming from an unprotected side, as Spanish commanders would never think the enemy could take such a seemingly impossible route.
Without telling his forces what route they were taking, Bolivar and his army of 2000 crossed the plains and then the Andes, in a move comparable to Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Crossing the plains, water was up to their waist, and in the mountains, they were only able to eat raw meat, as there was no wood. Nearly half his army perished along the way, before even the first military engagement. But, finally, his troops defeated the Spaniards at Boyaca in 1819, and then took control of Bogota (LINK 13).
8 He proposed a Constitution with a president for life
After his audacious crossing of the Andes, Bolivar found one military success after another. By 1821, the whole of Venezuela and New Granada were already freed from Spanish control. This time, however, Bolivar had learned the lessons from the past. And, he wanted to ensure that his victory would be long lasting. Therefore, once the Spanish authorities were expelled, Bolivar set out to organize a strong government that would protect independence. He proposed to unite Venezuela, New Granada and the province of Quito into one single nation, which he called “Colombia” (ironically, the name was originally proposed by his nemesis, Miranda).
He then traveled to Peru, to take control of military forces there, to push for the final victory against the Spanish Empire in South America. He sent a loyal general, Antonio Jose de Sucre, to lead the campaign in Upper Peru (modern day Bolivia). Once liberated from Spanish control, Bolivar wrote a Constitution for the new nation of Bolivia. Given the weakened state of the emerging nations (and the threat of reconquest by Europe’s Holy Alliance), the Constitution had a strong centralist bent. But, perhaps the most controversial aspect was its provision for a president for life, as many people feared that Bolivar was en route to becoming a dictator (LINK 14).
Upon his return to Bogota, Bolivar tried to convene Congress to accept this Constitution (or at least, one similar to it). But, given that the Congress did not accept it, Bolivar abolished Congress and declared himself dictator of Colombia.
9 He died very poor
By 1828, Bolivar was deeply hated by adversaries who resented his dictatorial powers. A conspiracy to assassinate him was organized, but it ended in failure (LINK 15). Although formally a dictators, his retribution was not draconian, and he pardoned his main rival and suspected conspirator, Francisco de Paula Santander (nevertheless, some other participants in the conspiracy were executed). However, Bolivar tightened his grip on adversaries, hoping to find a consensus solution to the political crisis.
By 1830, Bolivar realized that he would not be able to find consensus. He thus decided to step down, and take exile in Europe. He had become increasingly sick with tuberculosis. On his way to Europe, he died in Santa Marta, on Dec 17th, 1830. He had been abandoned by most friends, and his fortune was already gone. On his deathbed, he had to borrow a shirt from a Spanish sympathizer, because he could not even afford one.
10 He was a Freemason
Although the extent of Masonic influence has been exaggerated by conspiracy theories, it is true that many leaders from the South American revolutionary wars of independence were Freemasons. Miranda, Jose de San Martin, Bernardo O’Higgins, and Simon Bolivar, were all members of Lautaro, a South American Masonic lodge (LINK 16). In 1820, Bolivar had signed an armistice with royalist general Pablo Morillo, and it has been speculated that he, too, was a Freemason, and for that reason, the armistice talks went smoothly.