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Bolívar & San Martín
     Bolívar and Gran Colombia
     Argentina and San Martín
     Chile and San Martín
     Peru and San Martín
     The Guayaquil Conference

Peru, Bolivia, Mexico
20th century

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Bolívar and Gran Colombia: 1810-1822

Simón Bolívar, Venezuelan by birth and the central figure in the story of the independence movements of Latin America, is a young officer in Caracas in 1810. He is part of the conspiracy by which a junta expels the Spanish governor of the province of Venezuela, on April 19, and takes control. For the next twelve years Bolívar's efforts are directed single-mindedly towards liberating the whole of New Granada from Spanish rule. There are many reverses on the way.

The optimism of July 1811, when a national assembly in Caracas formally declares Venezuela's independence, is followed by a complete reversal a year later. The Spanish authorities rally, recover a military initiative, and by July 1812 regain control of the entire province.


Bolívar escapes to Cartagena, the main seaport of neighbouring Colombia. The city is in rebel hands, and here he pens a powerful political pamphlet, the Manifesto de Cartagena, addressed to the citizens of New Granada. In it he offers the inspiring vision of a united effort to expel the Spaniards.

He soon proves his own abilities in this great enterprise. In 1813, at the head of an army of liberation, he returns to Venezuela and wins six successive engagements against Spanish forces. On 6 August 1813 he enters Caracas. Welcomed as the Liberator, he takes political control with dictatorial powers.


Again success is short-lived. By July 1814 Bolívar has once more lost Caracas. He marches instead to Bogotá, which he succeeds in recapturing from the Spanish. He makes this capital city his base for a while, but soon the Spanish recover it yet again. Bolívar flees into exile, in Jamaica and Haiti. But by the end of 1817 he is back in Venezuela, building up a new army in an inaccessible region on the Orinoco river.

Here he conceives a bold plan. He will not make another attempt on Caracas. Instead he will strike at the capital city of New Granada by a route which is considered impossible - along the waterlogged plain of the Orinoco and then over the Andes for a surprise attack on Bogotá.


In 1819 Bolívar's small force, of only about 2500 men, uses cowhide boats to cross a succession of flooded tributaries of the Orinoco (one of his men claims later that for seven days they marched in water up to their waists). This ordeal is followed by one even worse, a mountain crossing during which a considerable number of the rebel band die of cold.

But the surprise holds. They descend from the high passes upon an unsuspecting enemy. In an engagement at Boyacá, on 7 August 1819, the Spanish army surrenders. Three days later Bolívar enters Bogotá. On December 17 the Republica de Colombia is proclaimed. It covers the entire region of modern Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.


As yet Gran Colombia is little more than a notion, for Venezuela and Ecuador are still securely in Spanish hands. But the Liberator soon puts this right. On 24 June 1821 he wins a battle at Carabobo which yields to him once again his native city of Caracas. And on 24 May 1822 Bolívar's favourite general, the young Antonio José de Sucre, wins a victory at Pichincha and brings the patriots into Quito.

With the liberation of Ecuador, Gran Colombia becomes a reality as a free republic. Meanwhile Bolívar's attention is directed onwards to Peru. Two months after the fall of Quito he has a famous meeting on this issue, at Guayaquil, with the other great hero of the moment - San Martín, whose wars of independence have begun in Argentina.


Argentina and San Martín: 1810-1816

Argentina takes its first step towards independence more easily than most other regions of the Spanish empire, partly because of the events of 1806-9 in Buenos Aires. When developments in Spain in 1808 force a choice of allegiance, a cabildo abierto (open town meeting) in Buenos Aires on 25 May 1810 quickly decides to set up an autonomous local government on behalf of the deposed Ferdinand VII.

However this first step is soon followed by violent conflict with opposing royalist forces elsewhere in the province. News of this conflict brings back to Buenos Aires an Argentinian-born officer serving in the Spanish army, José de San Martín.


When San Martín reaches Argentina in 1812, the patriot army is under the command of Manuel Belgrano, a Buenos Aires lawyer who has had his first military experience as a member of the Creole militia in 1806. In the early years of the war of independence Belgrano has successes against royalist troops in the foothills of the Andes in the extreme northwest of Argentina, at Tucuman (1812) and Salta (1813). But he is defeated further north, in Bolivia, later in 1813. In 1814 he is replaced as commander by San Martín.

These battles have all been close to the main source of royalist strength, the rich and conservative viceroyalty of Peru. San Martin concludes that Latin America's independence will never be secure until Peru is conquered.


The independence of Argentina is formally proclaimed on 9 July 1816, abandoning any pretence that the junta has been governing on behalf of Ferdinand VII. (The decision is simplified by the reactionary and incompetent rule of the Spanish king after he recovers his throne in 1814.) Meanwhile San Martín is assembling and training an army for his long-term plan of campaign against Peru. He has decided on a two-pronged attack, beginning with an invasion of Chile.

He already has an important Chilean ally in Bernardo O'Higgins, a soldier closely involved in the beginnings of the independence movement in Chile but from 1814 a refugee in Argentina.


Chile and San Martín: 1817-1820

For three years San Martín and O'Higgins gather and train an army for an invasion of Chile. By January 1817 they are ready. They lead a force of 5000 men on a twenty-day march through two high passes in the Andes. As many as 2000 of their force fall by the wayside, whether from death or illness in the extreme cold and high altitude (though the season is summer). Even so, the arrival of the survivors in Chile is so surprising that the Spanish have little time to gather troops in defence of Santiago.

The battle of Chacabuco is fought near the capital on 12 February 1817 and is won by the revolutionaries. San Martín and O'Higgins enter Santiago three days later.


San Martín is greeted as the liberator of Chile and is offered the role of governor, but he urges instead the appointment of O'Higgins - who becomes 'supreme director' of the nation. With royalist forces still a threat, independence is not formally proclaimed until 12 February 1818. The need for caution is demonstrated by the fact that the conclusive battle, finally securing Chile's independence, is fought only a few miles from Santiago - at Maipu on 5 April 1818.

Meanwhile San Martín is preparing the next stage of his campaign of liberation. Another army is being gathered, against Peru. And an envoy is sent to London to invite a brilliant buccaneer, Thomas Cochrane, to create a Chilean navy.


San Martín and Peru: 1818-1821

Cochrane, an eccentric Scottish nobleman, has made a dashing reputation for his exploits at sea during the Napoleonic wars but he has been dismissed from the British navy because of financial fraud. He accepts the Chilean invitation and arrives at Valparaiso in November 1818.

The Chilean navy consists of just seven ships, ranging from fifty to fourteen guns. The Spanish fleet on the Pacific coast is more than twice as powerful, but over the next two years Cochrane harries the enemy and attacks coastal forts in Peru until the advantage changes. His most famous exploit is stealing from Callao harbour, one dark night in November 1820, the Esmeralda - the largest and fastest frigate in Spain's Peruvian fleet.


Ten days previously Cochrane's squadron has landed near Lima an invading army of 4200 men, transported up the coast from Chile under the command of San Martín. The mere news of their arrival causes an entire Spanish battalion of 650 local Creoles to change sides and come over to the rebel cause. In this atmosphere, and to the fury of Cochrane, San Martín decides to wait for a Spanish withdrawal from Lima rather than attack the capital city directly.

Eventually, on 6 July 1821, the royalist garrison begins a retreat inland to a more secure position in the Andes. San Martín enters Lima on July 9 and proclaims Peruvian independence (on July 28) with himself as 'Protector'.


The next stage in the story of Peru is also a turning point in the careers of the two leaders of the American independence movement. While San Martín is attempting to secure his hold over Peru, Simón Bolívar is pressing south through Ecuador to complete his conquest of New Granada. Between the two liberators lies the important harbour of Guayaquil. Each wants it for his own territory. They converge on the town in 1822. Bolívar gets there first. San Martín arrives two weeks later, on July 25.

Over the next two days, with appropriate intervals for feasting, dancing and the toasting of liberty, the two men deliberate in private.


The Guayaquil Conference: 1822

Bolívar and San Martín later write differing interpretations of their conversation at Guayaquil, but a common theme emerges. It is succinctly put in a phrase of San Martín's: 'Bolívar and I together are too big for Peru.'

The subtext of the meeting is a clash between two men whose broad aims are identical (the liberation of America from the Spanish) and whose personal ambition is also the same and therefore incompatible - each wants to prevail in Peru. San Martín is well aware that Bolívar is the greater general. He realizes that nothing will prevent him entering Peru with his army. If he is opposed by San Martín, the result would be (in San Martín's words) 'a humiliating scandal'.


On the surface the conversation is more specifically about the proper government for an independent Peru. San Martín is eager to bring over a European prince to rule as monarch (in recent years there has even been talk of Napoleon being brought from St Helena to inherit a new empire in the west). Bolívar is committed to the identity of the newly independent nations as republics, though he is himself eager to serve as president with dictatorial powers.

Meanwhile there lies ahead the immediate and difficult task of clearing the Spanish out of the Andean fastnesses of Peru - including Upper Peru (the area which is now Bolivia).


San Martín recognizes that on his own he is unlikely to achieve this. He offers to serve under Bolívar in the joint enterprise. Bolívar, foreseeing inevitable trouble and perhaps reluctant to share the coming glory, rejects even this offer.

After the failure of their four-hour discussion (on 27 July 1822), and an evening banquet and ball which he shows no sign of enjoying, San Martín slips away from Guayaquil in his schooner - and then slips almost equally discreetly out of history's limelight. At the first meeting of the new congress in Lima in September 1822 he resigns his post as Protector and retires to private life in Europe. He dies in Boulogne in 1850.


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