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Biography of Simon Bolivar

Liberator of South America

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Biography of Simon Bolivar

The Battle of Boyaca

Painting by J.N. Cañarete / National Museum of Colombia

The Second Venezuelan Republic

Bolívar quickly established the Second Venezuelan Republic. The grateful people named him Liberator and made him dictator of the new nation. Although Bolivar had outfoxed the Spanish, he had not beaten their armies. He did not have time to govern, as he was constantly battling royalist forces. At the beginning of 1814, the "infernal Legion," an army of savage plainsmen led by a cruel but charismatic Spaniard named Tomas Boves, began assaulting the young republic. Defeated by Boves at the second battle of La Puerta in June of 1814, Bolívar was forced to abandon first Valencia and then Caracas, thus ending the Second Republic. Bolívar went into exile once again.

1814-1819

The years of 1814 to 1819 were tough ones for Bolívar and South America. In 1815, he penned his famous Letter from Jamaica, which outlined the struggles of Independence to date. Widely disseminated, the letter reinforced his position as the most important leader of the Independence movement. When he returned to the mainland, he found Venezuela in the grip of chaos. Pro-independence leaders and royalist forces fought up and down the land, devastating the countryside. This time period was marked by much strife among the different generals fighting for Independence. It wasn't until Bolivar made an example of General Manuel Piar by executing him in October of 1817 that he was able to bring other patriot warlords such as Santiago Mariño and José Antonio Páez into line.

1819: Bolivar crosses the Andes

In early 1819, Venezuela was devastated, its cities in ruins, as royalists and patriots fought vicious battles wherever they met. Bolívar found himself pinned against the Andes in western Venezuela. He then realized that he was less than 300 miles away from the Viceregal capital of Bogota, which was practically undefended. If he could capture it, he could destroy the Spanish base of power in northern South America. The only problem: between him and Bogota were not only flooded plains, fetid swamps and raging rivers but the mighty, snow-capped peaks of the Andes Mountains. In May of 1819, he began the crossing with some 2,400 men. They crossed the Andes at the frigid Páramo de Pisba pass and on July 6, 1819, they finally reached the New Granadan village of Socha. His army was in tatters: some estimate that 2,000 may have perished en route.

The Battle of Boyaca

Nevertheless, Bolivar had his army where he needed it. He also had the element of surprise: his enemies assumed he would never be so insane as to cross the Andes where he did. He quickly recruited new soldiers from a population eager for liberty and set out for Bogota. There was only one army between him and his objective, and on August 7, 1819, Bolivar surprised Spanish General José María Barreiro on the banks of the Boyaca River. The battle was a triumph for Bolivar, shocking in its results: Bolívar lost 13 killed and some 50 wounded, whereas 200 royalists were killed and some 1,600 captured. On August 10, Bolivar marched into Bogota unopposed.

Mopping up in Venezuela and New Granada

With the defeat of Barreiro's army, Bolívar held New Granada. With captured funds and weapons and recruits flocking to his banner, it was only a matter of time before the remaining Spanish forces in New Granada and Venezuela were run down and defeated. On June 24, 1821, Bolívar crushed the last major royalist force in Venezuela at the decisive Battle of Carabobo. Bolívar brashly declared the birth of a New Republic: Gran Colombia, which would include the lands of Venezuela, New Granada and Ecuador. He was named president and Francisco de Paula Santander was named Vice-President. Northern South America was liberated, so Bolivar turned his gaze to the south.

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