Biography of Tomas Boves:
José Tomás Rodríguez Boves was a Spanish smuggler and colonist who became a leader of a powerful army during Latin America's struggle for Independence from Spain. Boves' savage horsemen, drawn from the hardy folk who lived on the harsh Venezuelan plains, were known as the "Legion of Hell." He fought for the Spanish against such leaders as Simón Bolívar
and Manuel Piar
, but answered to no Spanish officer and often acted in his own best interests. Boves was a charismatic leader but also a very cruel and violent man who became known for unspeakable atrocities in the early part of the war.
Smuggler and Exile:
Born into a lower-middle class family in 1782 in Oviedo, Spain, Boves was sent to Venezuela to train as a ship’s pilot, then a very lucrative career. He instead became a smuggler and was caught and sentenced to eighteen years in prison. He still had friends, however, and was able to avoid prison time in exchange for going into exile in the Venezuelan town of Calabozo, located on the rugged Venezuelan plains. The charismatic Spaniard soon made friends with the tough, lawless, violent men who lived on horseback on the mighty plains. He resumed smuggling and took up banditry as well.
Boves During the First Venezuelan Republic:
During the First Venezuelan Republic
, Spaniards like Boves were detested and often killed. Boves, outspoken in his criticism of the Creole elite that had seized power, was jailed in Calabozo. When the Spanish took Calabozo in 1812, Boves and other prisoners were freed. Spanish General Juan Manuel Cagigal (or Cajigal) saw Boves' leadership skills and sent him to raise an army in the plains and Orinoco Basin.
The Legion of Hell:
Before long Boves had an army of four thousand horsemen: he named them “the Legion of Hell” (Legión Infernal”). Boves was able to play off the innate hatred of the plainsmen for outsiders. Most of his recruits were blacks or pardos (a pardo or “brown” was a mixed race Venezuelan: they were looked down upon by whites) who had come to hate their Creole masters: he promised them revenge and land. They followed him fanatically and called him “Taita Boves” Or “Father Boves.” This fearsome force carried bamboo lances: lightweight yet deadly. By late 1813 the Legion was ready for action.
The Legion first saw action at the Battle of Santa Catalina Canyon, where they massacred a small patriot force. Boves then marched on Calabozo where he sacked the town, murdering women and children. Bolívar sent General Campo Elías to deal with Boves. They met on October 14, 1813 at the Battle of Mosquiteros. Boves’ lancers initially devastated the patriot force, but Campo Elías’ men held and eventually won the battle. Campo Elías, following Bolívar’s decree of “War to the Death,” executed some 400 captive plainsmen prisoners. Boves recruited more men and defeated Campo Elías at the first Battle of La Puerta.
Defense of Caracas and Second Battle of La Puerta:
Boves was in a position to take Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Bolívar ordered General José Félix Ribas
to defend the city. With teenage soldiers, Ribas mounted a spirited defense and held off Boves. Santiago Mariño
, a patriot general, foolishly pursued Boves out of the highlands. On June 15, 1814, Bolívar and Mariño met Boves at the second Battle of La Puerta, which was a huge victory for the royalists. Campo Elías was killed and Bolívar and Meriño barely escaped with their lives. This second battle effectively marked the beginning of the end for the Second Venezuelan Republic.
The Siege of Valencia:
Bolívar and Mariño defended the city of Valencia against Boves and his troops for ten days before retreating. Boves agreed to a truce: the city would surrender in exchange for no further bloodshed. Boves even swore to this on a bible in the town church. But before long the women were rounded up and raped, the men massacred. Back in Caracas, Bolívar heard of the atrocities. Knowing he did not have the troops to resist Boves (who by now was acting independently of the Spanish chain of command), he decided to evacuate the city before the vicious plainsman army arrived.
Brutality and Atrocities:
Boves was infamous for murdering, raping and torturing his enemies and the populations of the towns he captured. Bolívar’s aide Daniel O’Leary wrote of one time when Boves captured a father and son. He was going to execute the father when the son begged him not to. Boves agreed to spare him if the son did not cry out when his nose and ears were cut off. The boy did not cry, but Boves executed them both anyway. On another occasion, he had a pregnant woman ripped apart so he could laugh at the struggles of the fetus. Bolívar himself wrote of Boves that he was “a demon in human flesh who drowned Venezuela in blood.”
Flight and Battle:
Boves rode into Caracas on July 16: finding the patriot army and patriot sympathizers gone, he chased them, but not before subjecting Caracas to rape and pillage. Bolívar, Mariño and others fought a rearguard action, but Boves’ forces caught up to them in the town of Barcelona: it was a bloodbath, and thousands of innocent civilians were murdered by Boves’ troops, then under the command of Tomas Morales. Bolívar’s wretched refugee column proceeded to Cumaná. Although many of the refugees were able to flee into exile (including Bolívar, Mariño and other leaders), Boves arrived in time to massacre more than a thousand.
Death and Legacy of Taita Boves:
After chasing Bolívar out of Venezuela, Boves turned his attention to the east, where other patriot generals including José Félix Ribas were still fighting. He met Ribas at the Battle of Urica on December 5, 1814. Although Boves’ force won the battle, he himself was mortally wounded by a lance and died shortly thereafter.
Boves and his dreaded Legion of Hell were able to tip the scale against the Second Venezuelan Republic: he is almost singlehandedly responsible for its downfall, at least militarily. His participation in the war (and that of his successor Morales) certainly prolonged the struggle for Venezuelan independence.
Boves’ success taught Bolívar and the other patriot leaders some important lessons. First of all, hatred for whites among the blacks and “pardos” was at an all-time high: Boves had been able to use that hatred to form his mighty army. His slogan, "white lands for blacks," drew thousands to his side. The patriots also learned that the men of the plains, generally disregarded before the Second Republic, were a force to be reckoned with. Later, Patriot General José Antonio Páez would once again mobilize the plainsmen, only this time for the patriot side.
Boves is today remembered for his cruelty and indifference to the suffering of innocents. Although some royalist officers earned the grudging respect of their adversaries, Boves was universally loathed by everyone in Venezuela except for his own men. He has gone down in history more as a monster than a leader of men. Perhaps because of his evil reputation, he is a popular figure among those who write about that turbulent era: Boves, el Orogallo is a well known book by Venezuelan author Francisco Herrera Luque. The award-winning film, Taita Boves, is about him as well.
Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.
Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.
Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.