Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) was the greatest leader of Latin America's independence movement from Spain. A superb general and a charismatic politician, he not only drove the Spanish from northern South America but also was instrumental in the early formative years of the republics that sprang up once the Spanish had gone. His later years are marked by the collapse of his grand dream of a united South America. He is remembered as "The Liberator," the man who liberated his home from Spanish rule.
Simon Bolivar's Childhood
Bolivar was born in Caracas (present-day Venezuela) in 1783 to an extremely wealthy family. At that time, a handful of families owned most of the land in Venezuela, and the Bolivar family was among the wealthiest in the colony. Both of his parents died while Simon was still young: he had no memory of his father, Juan Vicente, and his mother Concepcion Palacios died when he was nine years old.
Orphaned, Simon went to live with his grandfather and was raised by his uncles and his nurse Hipólita, for whom he had great affection. Young Simon was an arrogant, hyperactive lad who often had disagreements with his tutors. He was schooled at the finest schools that Caracas had to offer. From 1804 to 1807 he went to Europe, where he toured around in the manner of a wealthy New World creole.
Venezuela: Ripe for Independence
When Bolívar returned to Venezuela in 1807, he found a population divided between loyalty to Spain and a desire for independence. Venezuelan Francisco de Miranda had attempted to kick-start independence in 1806 with an aborted invasion of Venezuela's northern coast. When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 and imprisoned King Ferdinand VII, many Venezuelans felt that they no longer owed allegiance to Spain, giving the independence movement undeniable momentum.
The First Venezuelan Republic
On April 19, 1810, the people of Caracas declared a provisional independence from Spain: they were still nominally loyal to King Ferdinand, but would rule Venezuela by themselves until such a time as Spain was back on its feet and Ferdinand restored. Young Simón Bolívar was an important voice during this time, advocating for full independence. Along with a small delegation, Bolívar was dispatched to England to seek the support of the British government: there he met Miranda and invited him back to Venezuela to participate in the government of the young republic.
When Bolivar returned, he found civil strife between patriots and royalists. On July 5, 1811, the First Venezuelan Republic voted for full independence, dropping the farce that they were still loyal to Ferdinand VII. On March 26, 1812, a tremendous earthquake rocked Venezuela. It hit mostly rebellious cities, and Spanish priests were able to convince a superstitious population that the earthquake was divine retribution. Royalist Captain Domingo Monteverde rallied the Spanish and royalist forces and captured important ports and the city of Valencia. Miranda sued for peace. Bolívar, disgusted, arrested Miranda and turned him over to the Spanish, but the First Republic had fallen and the Spanish regained control of Venezuela.
The Admirable Campaign
Bolivar, defeated, went into exile. In late 1812 he went to New Granada (now Colombia) to look for a commission as an officer in the growing Independence movement there. He was given 200 men and control of a remote outpost. He aggressively attacked all Spanish forces in the area, and his prestige and army grew. By the beginning of 1813 he was ready to lead a sizeable army into Venezuela. The royalists in Venezuela could not beat him head-on, but rather tried to surround him with a number of smaller armies. Bolívar did what everyone least expected and made a mad dash for Caracas. The gamble paid off, and on August 7, 1813, Bolivar rode victoriously into Caracas at the head of his army. This dazzling march became known as the Admirable Campaign.