Manuel Piar, Venezuela's Pardo Hero:
General Manuel Carlos Piar (1777-1817) was an important leader of the independence from Spain movement in northern South America. A skilled naval commander as well as a charismatic leader of men, Piar won several important engagements against the Spanish between 1810 and 1817. After opposing Simón Bolívar
, Piar was arrested in 1817 before being tried and executed under orders from Bolivar himself.
Early life of Manuel Piar:
Piar was born in Curacao: his father was a Spanish sailor and his mother a mulatto, or of mixed African-European descent. His mixed race would haunt him his whole career: by 1817 he believed that it had limited how far he would go as a soldier. At a young age, Piar moved to Venezuela with his mother. An extremely intelligent young man, he did not attend school but taught himself many materials and languages.
Piar and Venezuela's Pardos:
As a mixture of black and European, Piar was part of the class known as “pardos,” or “browns.” The pardos held a status one step up from blacks: they were free and many became skilled laborers, but held no positions of influence. In Venezuela, they were a powerful group, far outnumbering creole whites. During the battle for independence, Piar was able to recruit many pardos into his army. A Spanish officer once remarked that Piar was the rebel officer who frightened the Spanish the most: he could have ignited a race war had he wanted which might have turned Venezuela into the next Haiti.
Early Military Career:
Starting off as a simple militiaman, Piar served in two revolutions before the age of 35. In Curacao, he helped kick out the British and restore Dutch rule, and in 1807 he went to Haiti to serve in the revolution there. In Haiti, his leadership skills were appreciated and he commanded a warship. He soon became well-known as a skilled military leader and commander. He naturally sympathized with independence movements, and in 1810 he joined the emerging Venezuelan Independence movement.
Piar During the First Venezuelan Republic:
During the First Venezuelan Republic
(1810-1812), he was made a second lieutenant and served on a ship in the port of Puerto Cabello. He was skilled enough to temporarily cut off Spanish shipping to the area in spite of limited resources. Like the rest of the leadership, he was forced briefly into exile in Trinidad in 1812 when the republic collapsed. But by 1813 he was back in Venezuela, fighting for independence alongside Santiago Meriño, Francisco Bermudez and others.
Manuel Piar and Simon Bolívar:
Although they had much in common, Piar and Simón Bolívar never got along. In 1814, as the Second Venezuelan Republic collapsed, Bolívar sought refuge on Margarita Island, then controlled by Piar: Piar declared Bolívar an outlaw and ordered him arrested briefly. Although Piar later recognized Bolívar’s overall leadership, the Liberator never forgot the affront. In early 1817, Bolívar requested reinforcements from Piar as Spanish forces closed in on him, but Piar refused, preferring to see Bolívar taken out so that he could lead the struggle. Bolívar survived, but he knew he could not trust Piar after that.
Piar the Warlord:
Venezuela was a very chaotic place from 1813 to 1817. It was ruled by different warlords, some of whom, like Piar, fought for independence, and some of whom, like Tomas Boves, fought for Spain. Piar's power base was in Eastern Venezuela, and he occasionally allied himself with other leaders like Meriño or Bolivar, but he would just as often fight for his own interests. Bolívar was the most powerful of the warlords, but the others did not answer to him in anything resembling a chain of command. By 1817 Piar was ignoring most of the other warlords and fighting to free “his” area: the Venezuelan northeast and Guyana.
The Battle of San Felix:
On April 11, 1817, Piar recorded his greatest military victory at the Battle of San Felix. Piar’s rag-tag force of 500 riflemen, 800 spearmen, 500 archers and 400 horsemen met Spanish General La Torre and his force of 1600 well-trained and armed infantry, 200 cavalry and a handful of cannons. Piar’s force was largely comprised of untrained pardos and Indians, yet his tactical skills resulted in a massive victory over the Spanish. Some 400 royalists were killed and another 300 taken prisoner, to less than 100 killed or wounded on the patriot side. Piar ordered the slaughter of the royalist prisoners after the battle.
After San Felix, Bolívar visited Piar near Angostura and brought him back in line, but Piar always felt that it was he, not Bolívar, who should be leading the fight. When ordered to move on Guyana, Piar disobeyed and resigned his commission, claiming that he going to recruit soldiers in the interior of the country. In actuality, he had decided to take on Bolívar as well as the Spanish: he knew the pardos and blacks would flock to his cause. Correctly guessing Piar's intentions, Bolívar ordered his arrest. On July 27 1817, Piar was arrested and dragged back to Angostura tied on the back of a horse like a criminal.
Execution and Legacy of Manuel Piar:
Piar was accused of desertion, sedition, insubordination and conspiracy. On October 16, 1817, Piar was taken against a wall and shot: he reportedly met his end bravely and gracefully. Bolívar was in town but did not attend.
The execution of Piar was a mixed benefit for Bolívar. On the plus side, it removed one of the greatest threats to his authority and one that he had personally clashed with on several occasions. Furthermore, it put the other warlords on notice that Bolívar was in charge and that they had better fall in line or meet a similar fate.
The execution of Piar was a costly one for the independence movement, however. Piar was an outstanding general and tactician, and his ability to recruit and keep pardo troops was unmatched. The only ones happier than Bolívar to see Piar go were undoubtedly the Spanish. The execution of this talented ally is a stain on the record of Bolívar, the Great Liberator, perhaps second only in abhorrence to his turning over of Francisco de Miranda to Spanish authorities in 1812.
Bolívar may have averted a bloodbath, however. Piar had become convinced that those of African descent would never hold power in Venezuela unless they took it for themselves: he himself was the perfect example. When he was arrested, Piar may have been trying to begin a race war, in which pardos and blacks would fight against all whites, whether they were Spanish or Creoles. Given the number of pardos and blacks in Venezuela, any uprising based on racial lines would likely have resulted in a Haiti-style massacre. Piar was no stranger to to-the-death warfare: the massacre of the prisoners after San Felix was hardly an exception, and he once ordered the slaughter of two dozen peaceful priests and monks at an isolated mission.
In spite of his ruthlessness and insubordination to the Great Liberator, history has been kind to Piar. He is considered one of the heroes of Venezuelan independence, and his race, once such a hurdle to his advancement, is now celebrated. Many Venezuelans of color regard him as "their" liberator. He has been symbolically interred in the Venezuelan Pantheon of heroes and an airport and a major, multi-million dollar dam have been named after him.
Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.
Lynch, John. Simon Bolivar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.