Bolivar's War 1809-1825

[ 1809 - 1825 ]

The north and the culmination of independence 

Independence movements in the northern regions of Spanish South America had an inauspicious beginning in 1806. The small group of foreign volunteers that the Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda brought to his homeland failed to incite the populace to rise against Spanish rule. Creoles in the region wanted an expansion of the free trade that was benefiting their plantation economy. At the same time, however, they feared that the removal of Spanish control might bring about a revolution that would destroy their own power.

Creole elites in Venezuela had good reason to fear such a possibility, for a massive revolution had recently exploded in the French Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue. Beginning in 1791, a massive slave revolt sparked a general insurrection against the plantation system and French colonial power. The rebellion developed into both a civil war, pitting blacks and mulattos against whites, and an international conflict, as England and Spain supported the white plantation owners and rebels, respectively. By the first years of the 19th century, the rebels had shattered what had been a model colony and forged the independent nation of Haiti. Partly inspired by those Caribbean events, slaves in Venezuela carried out their own uprisings in the 1790s. Just as it served as a beacon of hope for the enslaved, Haiti was a warning of everything that might go wrong for elites in the cacao-growing areas of Venezuela and throughout slave societies in the Americas.

Creole anxieties also contributed to the persistence of a strong loyalist faction in the Viceroyalty of New Granada, but they did not prevent the rise of an independence struggle there. Creoles organized revolutionary governments that proclaimed social and economic reforms in 1810 and openly declared a break with Spain the following year. Forces loyal to Spain fought the patriots from the start, leading to a pattern much like that which characterized the Plata: patriot rebels held the capital city and its surroundings but could not dominate large sections of the countryside. Some interpreted an 1812 earthquake that wreaked particular destruction on patriot-held areas as a sign of divine displeasure with the rebels. The year 1812 certainly was the onset of a difficult period for the independence armies of New Granada. Loyalist forces crushed the rebels' military, driving Bolívar into temporary exile.

The Liberator soon returned with a new army, and the battle entered a tremendously violent phase. After much of the local aristocracy had abandoned the independence cause, blacks and mulattos carried on the struggle. Elites reacted to the efforts of these common people with open distrust and opposition. Bolívar's forces invaded Venezuela in 1813, waging a campaign with a ferocity that is captured perfectly by their motto, "guerra a muerte" ("war to the death"). With loyalists displaying the same passion and violence, the rebels achieved only short-lived victories. The army led by the loyalist José Tomás Boves here demonstrated the key military role that the llaneros (cowboys) came to play in the region's struggle. Turning the tide against independence, these highly mobile, ferocious fighters made up a formidable military force that pushed Bolívar out of his home country once more.

By 1815 the independence movements in Venezuela and almost all across Spanish South America seemed moribund. A large military expedition sent by Ferdinand VII in that year reconquered Venezuela and most of New Granada. Yet another invasion led by Bolívar in 1816 failed miserably.

The following year a larger and revitalized independence movement emerged, winning the struggle in the north and taking it into the Andean highlands. The mercurial Bolívar, the scion of an old aristocratic Creole family in Caracas, galvanized this initiative. Hero and symbol of South American independence, Bolívar did not produce victory by himself, of course; still, he was of fundamental importance to the movement as an ideologue, military leader, and political catalyst. In his most famous writing, the "Jamaica Letter" (composed during one of his periods of exile, in 1815), Bolívar affirmed his undying faith in the cause of independence, even in the face of the patriots' repeated defeats. While laying out sharp criticisms of Spanish colonialism, the document also looked toward the future. For Bolívar, the only path for the former colonies was the establishment of autonomous, centralized republican government. Liberal in some respects, the Liberator in the Jamaica Letter and elsewhere showed himself to be at heart socially conservative and politically authoritarian. Although he favoured the granting of many civil liberties to all male citizens and the abolition of slavery, for instance, Bolívar worried that the death of so many white soldiers in the wars would condemn Latin America to a system of "pardocracy," or rule by pardos (people of mixed-race ancestry, generally those of a black and white background), an outcome he obviously dreaded. The type of republic that he eventually espoused was very much an oligarchic one, with property qualifications on suffrage and power centred in the hands of a strong executive.

The Liberator emerged as a strong military and political force in the struggles that began in 1817. Bolívar at this point expanded the focus of the movement, shifting his attention to New Granada and courting supporters among the casta majority. A mixed-race group of llaneros led by José Antonio Páez proved crucial to the patriots' military victories in 1818-19. A major step in that success came in the subduing of the loyalist defenders of Bogotá in 1819. After leading his army up the face of the eastern Andes, Bolívar dealt a crushing defeat to his enemies in the Battle of Boyacá.

Consolidating victory in the north proved difficult. A congress that Bolívar had convened in Angostura in 1819 named the Liberator president of Gran Colombia, a union of what are today Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador. In reality, sharp divisions permeated the region even before Angostura; these ultimately dashed Bolívar's hopes of uniting the former Spanish colonies into a single new nation. The Bogotá area, for example, had previously refused to join in a confederation with the rest of revolutionary New Granada. Furthermore, loyalist supporters still held much of Venezuela, parts of the Colombian Andes, and all of Ecuador. Still, the tide had turned in favour of independence, and further energetic military campaigns liberated New Granada and Venezuela by 1821. A constituent congress held that year in Cúcuta chose Bolívar president of a now much more centralized Gran Colombia.

Leaving his trusted right-hand man, Francisco de Paula Santander, in Bogotá to rule the new government, Bolívar then pushed on into Ecuador and the central Andes. There the southern and northern armies came together in a pincer movement to quash the remaining loyalist strength. In 1822 San Martín and Bolívar came face-to-face in a celebrated but somewhat mysterious encounter in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Accounts of their meeting vary widely, but apparently San Martín made the realistic evaluation that only Bolívar and his supporters could complete the liberation of the Andes. From that point on, the northerners took charge of the struggle in Peru and Bolivia. After standing by while Spanish forces threatened to recapture all the lands that San Martín's armies had emancipated, Bolívar responded to the calls of Peruvian Creoles and guided his soldiers to victory in Lima. While he organized the government there, his lieutenants set out to win the highlands of Peru and Upper Peru. One of them, the Venezuelan Antonio José de Sucre, directed the patriots' triumph at Ayacucho in 1824, which turned out to be the last major battle of the war. Within two years independence fighters mopped up the last of loyalist resistance, and South America was free of Spanish control.

History of Latin America

Bolívar, Simón

Independence movement 

The Latin American independence movement was launched a year after Bolívar's return, as Napoleon's invasion of Spain unsettled Spanish authority. Bolívar himself participated in many conspiratorial meetings, and on April 19, 1810, the Spanish governor was officially deprived of his powers and expelled from Venezuela. A junta took over. To obtain help, Bolívar was sent on a mission to London, where he arrived in July. His assignment was to explain to England the plight of the revolutionary colony, to gain recognition for it, and to obtain arms and support. Although he failed in his negotiations on all these counts, he did foster the cause of the revolution by persuading the exiled Francisco de Miranda, who in 1806 had attempted to liberate Venezuela single-handedly, to return to Caracas and to assume command of the independence movement.

Venezuela was in ferment. In March 1811 a national congress met in Caracas to draft a constitution. After long deliberation it declared Venezuela's independence on July 5, 1811. Bolívar now entered the army of the young republic and was placed in charge of Puerto Cabello, a port vital to Venezuela. Treasonable action by one of Bolívar's officers opened the fortress to the Spanish forces, and Miranda, the commander in chief, entered into negotiations with the Spanish commander in chief. An armistice was signed (July 1812) which left the entire country to the mercy of Spain. Miranda was turned over to the Spaniards--some authorities say at Bolívar's instigation--and spent the rest of his life in Spanish dungeons.

Determined to continue the struggle, Bolívar obtained a passport to leave the country and went to Cartagena in New Granada (present-day Colombia). There he published the first of his great political statements, El Manifiesto de Cartagena, in which he urged the revolutionary forces to destroy the power of Spain in Venezuela.

Bolívar now emerged as the champion of strong government for the nascent republics of Hispanic America and was named commander of an expeditionary force whose task was to liberate Venezuela. In a sweeping hard-fought campaign he vanquished the Spaniards in six pitched battles and regained control of the capital. On Aug. 6, 1813, he entered Caracas, was given the title of liberator, and assumed political dictatorship.

But the war of independence was just beginning. In 1814 Bolívar was once more defeated by the Spanish, who had converted the llaneros, or cowboys, led by José Tomás Boves, into an undisciplined but savagely effective cavalry that Bolívar was unable to repulse. Boves captured Caracas in 1814 and subjected the city to terrible atrocities. Thus ended the second Venezuelan republic. Bolívar narrowly escaped Miranda's fate. After some more sporadic warfare, he fled to Jamaica.

In exile he wrote the greatest document of his career: La Carta de Jamaica ("The Letter from Jamaica"), in which he outlined a grandiose panorama from Chile and Argentina to Mexico. "The bonds," wrote Bolívar, "that united us to Spain have been severed." He proposed constitutional republics throughout Hispanic America, modeled on the government of Great Britain, with a hereditary upper house, an elected lower house, and a president chosen for life. The last provision, to which Bolívar clung throughout his career, constituted the most dubious feature of his political thinking.

Liberation of New Granada 

By 1815 Spain had sent to its seditious colonies the strongest expeditionary force that had ever crossed the Atlantic. Its commander was Pablo Morillo. Since neither Great Britain nor the United States would promise aid, Bolívar turned to Haiti, a small republic that had freed itself from French rule, where he was given a friendly reception, as well as money and weapons.

Three years of indecisive defeats and victories followed. In 1817 Bolívar decided to set up headquarters in the Orinoco region, which had not been devastated by war and from which the Spaniards could not easily oust him. He engaged the services of several thousand foreign soldiers and officers, mostly British and Irish, established his capital at Angostura (now Ciudad Bolívar), began to publish a newspaper, and established liaison with the revolutionary forces of the plains, including one group led by José Antonio Páez and another group led by Francisco de Paula Santander. In the spring of 1819 he conceived his master plan of attacking the Spanish viceroyalty of New Granada.

Bolívar's attack on New Granada will always be considered one of the most daring in military history. The route of the small army (about 2,500 men, including the British legion) led through flood-swept plains and icy mountains, over routes that the Spanish considered impassable. The Spaniards were taken by surprise, and in the crucial Battle of Boyacá on Aug. 7, 1819, the bulk of the royalist army surrendered to Bolívar. Three days later he entered Bogotá. It was the turning point in the history of northern South America. 

Indefatigably, Bolívar set out to complete his task. He appointed Santander vice president in charge of the administration and in December 1819 made his appearance before the congress that had assembled in Angostura. Bolívar was made president and military dictator. He urged the legislators to proclaim the creation of a new state: the republic of Gran Colombia, and three days later La República de Colombia was established. It was a federation, but since two of its three departments, Venezuela and Quito (Ecuador), were still under royalist control, it was only a paper achievement. Bolívar knew, however, that victory was finally within his reach. A revolution in Spain had forced the Spanish king to recognize the ideals of liberalism on the home front, and his action quite naturally discouraged the Spanish forces in South America. Bolívar persuaded Morillo to open armistice negotiations, and the two warriors met in a memorable encounter at Santa Ana, signing, in November 1820, a treaty that ended hostilities for a six-month period. When fighting was resumed, Bolívar found it easy, with his superior manpower, to defeat the Spanish forces in Venezuela. The Battle of Carabobo (June 1821) opened the gates of Caracas, and Bolívar's Venezuelan homeland was at last free. In the autumn of the same year a congress convened in Cúcuta to draft a constitution for Colombia. Its provisions disappointed Bolívar. Although he had been elected president, he thought the constitution too liberal in character to guarantee the survival of his creation. As long as more urgent assignments claimed his attention, however, he was willing to put up with its weak structure. Leaving the administration to Santander, he asked permission to continue his military campaign.

At the end of a year, Ecuador was liberated. In this campaign Bolívar was assisted by the most brilliant of his officers, Antonio José de Sucre. While Bolívar engaged the Spaniards in the mountains that defended the northern access to Quito, capital of modern Ecuador, Sucre marched from the Pacific coast to the interior. At Pichincha on May 24, 1822, he won a victory that freed Ecuador from the Spanish yoke. On the following day the capital fell, and Bolívar joined forces with Sucre on June 16.

It was in Quito that the Liberator met the great passion of his life, Manuela Sáenz, an ardent revolutionary who freely admitted her love for Bolívar and accompanied him from the battlefields to the presidential palace.

Liberation of Peru 

The territory of Gran Colombia, comprising what is now Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, had now been completely recovered from Spain and its new government recognized by the United States. Only Peru remained in the hands of the Spaniards. It was the Peruvian problem that brought Bolívar and the Argentinian revolutionary José de San Martín together. San Martín had done for the southern part of the continent what Bolívar had accomplished for the north. In addition, he had already entered Lima and proclaimed Peru's independence. But the Spanish forces retreated into the highlands, and San Martín, unable to follow them, decided to consult with Bolívar. On July 26, 1822, the two men met in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. It is not known what they discussed, but perhaps San Martín came to request military aid from Bolívar. San Martín must have understood that Bolívar alone combined the military, political, and psychological assets needed to gain final victory over the powerful Spanish army in the highlands. Given the situation in Lima, San Martín's presence there could only hinder the performance of that task. On his return from Guayaquil, San Martín resigned his office in Lima and went into exile, letting Bolívar assume sole direction of the war.

The avenue that would lead to Bolívar's ultimate ambition was now open. In September 1823 he arrived in Lima. The Spanish army occupied the mountains east of Lima, and its position was considered to be unassailable. Bolívar systematically assembled troops, horses, mules, and ammunition to form an army, and in 1824 he moved out of the temporary capital in Trujillo and ascended the high cordillera country. The first major battle took place at Junín and was easily won by Bolívar, who then left the successful termination of the campaign to his able chief of staff, Sucre. On Dec. 9, 1824, the Spanish viceroy lost the Battle of Ayacucho to Sucre and surrendered with his entire army.


Bolívar was now president of Gran Colombia and Peru. Only a small section of the continent--Upper Peru--was still defended by royalist forces. The liberation of this region fell to Sucre, and in April of 1825 he reported that the task had been terminated. The new nation chose to be called Bolivia after the name of the Liberator. For this child of his genius, Bolívar drafted a constitution that showed once more his authoritarian inclinations: it created a lifetime president, a legislative body without power, and a highly restricted suffrage. Bolívar was devoted to his own creation, but, as the instrument of social reform that he had envisaged, the constitution was a failure.

Simon Bolivar

Carabobo, Battle of 

(June 24, 1821), during the Latin-American wars of independence, a victory won by South American patriots over Spanish royalists on the plains near Caracas; it virtually freed Venezuela from Spanish control. Following the instructions of the recently installed liberal government in Spain, Gen. Pablo Morillo had signed an armistice with Simón Bolívar, commander of the revolutionary forces in northern South America, in November 1820. Subsequently, the patriots broke the terms of the agreement by moving against the royalist garrison on Lake Maracaibo. At Carabobo, Bolívar led his somewhat numerically superior army of about 6,500 troops, including volunteers from the British Isles, to victory over the Spaniards, commanded by General La Torre. Gen. José Antonio Páez and his llaneros ("plainsmen") and the British and Irish volunteers routed the Spanish right wing while the patriot cavalry crushed their centre. 

Battle of Carabobo

Boyacá, Battle of 

(Aug. 7, 1819), in the wars for Latin-American independence, encounter near Bogotá that resulted in a victory by South American insurgents over Spanish forces. It freed New Granada (Colombia and Venezuela) from Spanish control.

A rebel army of about 3,000 men under generals Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander first surprised and defeated the Spaniards in preliminary engagements at Gámeza (July 12) and the Vargas River (July 25) and captured Tunja on August 5. In the final encounter at Boyacá, Santander cut off the Spanish advance force near a bridge over the Boyacá River, while Bolívar's troops attacked the main force a half mile away, capturing about 1,800 prisoners and the Spanish commander. Bolívar then captured Bogotá on August 10 and was hailed as the liberator of New Granada. He set up a provisional government with Santander as vice president and acting head. Bolívar then went to La Angostura in Venezuela, where he announced his scheme to establish the Republic of Gran Colombia.

Battle of Boyaca

<table class='table table-bordered col-lg-12 col-md-12 col-sm-12 col-xs-12 margin20 row-30' border="0" cellpadding="0" cellspacing="0" width="100%" style="color: rgb(60, 59, 59); line-height: 25px; font-family: 'Times New Roman'; background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);"><tbody><tr><td width="16%">State</td><td width="16%">Entry</td><td width="17%">Exit</td><td width="17%">Combat Forces</td><td width="17%">Population</td><td width="17%">Losses</td></tr><tr><td width="16%">Bolivar</td><td width="16%">1809</td><td width="17%">1825</td><td width="17%">50000</td><td width="17%">1000000</td><td width="17%">10000</td></tr><tr><td width="16%">Spain</td><td width="16%">1809</td><td width="17%">1825</td><td width="17%">100000</td><td width="17%">12000000</td><td width="17%">10000</td></tr></tbody></table>

Total Casualties 20000 Killed and Wounded
Casualties Killed / Wounded
Military Casualties Killed 20000 /Wounded
Civilian Casualties Killed / Wounded
Belligerents Initiation Date Termination Date
Bolivar and Spain 1809 1825 View

Related Conflicts

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