Historical Context

Historical Context – Simón Bolívar

Just as the historical events outlined in my last post such as the Caracazo and Chávez’s 1992 coup attempt were cornerstones of Chávez’s overall narrative, Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, was also a central figure. Indeed, as the revolutionary who led the fight for freedom from Spanish rule in Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador and Peru, Bolívar is celebrated throughout Latin America. Bolivia takes her name from him, as does the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela since 1999, when Chávez’s new constitution was approved and Venezuela was officially renamed. We’ll explore the significance of Chávez’s repeated references to Bolívar in an upcoming post, in which we’ll return to Baker’s discussion of narrative theory. In the meantime, this post provides additional historical context necessary to continue building an understanding of the narratives that intersect to form Venezuela’s history and culture.

Simón Bolívar was born in 1783, and his early life was quite tragic. In Simón Bolívar: A Life, John Lynch notes that by nine, Bolívar had lost both parents to tuberculosis (7). Thanks to his family’s wealth, young Bolívar lived in comfort, and his life as a young man included two extended trips to Europe. During his first trip, Bolívar met his wife—the two married in 1802—and shortly after their wedding, they returned to Venezuela, where she contracted yellow fever and died in 1803 (20). He then returned to Europe, and his second trip there was defined by Bolívar’s formation of a political consciousness: of the French Revolution, of shifting attitudes in Europe, and the implications for these changes on Latin America (24-38). In fact, on August 15, 1805, during a trip to Rome and in the presence of his long-time teacher and friend, Simón Rodríguez, Bolívar made his famous Oath of Monte Sacro,[1]  in which he swore:

…que no daré descanso a mi brazo

ni reposo a mi alma,

hasta que no haya roto las cadenas

que nos oprimen por voluntad

del poder (Español)! (Bolívar “Oath of Monte Sacro…”)

[…neither my arm

nor my soul will rest

until the chains with which

the (Spanish) Crown oppresses us

are broken!]

Bolívar returned to Venezuela with his revolutionary spirit in 1807, though popular opinion on the matter of independence did not immediately align with his own (40). Lynch notes the slow change in public perception as news started reaching Latin America of Napoleon’s 1808 conquest of Spain and the abdication of the throne by Fernando VII de Borbón (44). News of these events reached Venezuela prior to the formation of early Venezuelan printing presses, as Lynch observes, though due to its location, news from Europe first reached Venezuela before being disseminated through Latin America. Then, Napoleon and the new Spanish government attempted to establish their authority over the region, which had been declared to make up part of a “single nation” that included Spain (Lynch 45). However, as the lack of “equality of representation” for the American side of this nation became increasingly evident, the Junta Conservadora de los Derechos de Fernando VII [Board for the Conservation of the Rights of Fernando VII] was formed as a response (Lynch 47-48). This junta rejected the newly installed captain general of the Napoleonic government on April 19, 1810, and later sent Bolívar (and others) to London on a diplomatic mission to seek British support of their cause (Lynch 48-49).

In London, Bolívar resided with Francisco de Miranda, a great champion of Venezuelan independence, who had led an unsuccessful mission to free Venezuela from Spanish rule in 1806 (“Miranda, [Generalísimo] Fransisco de”). Miranda and Bolívar shared the objective of the “absolute independence” of Venezuela, rather than loyalty to Fernando VII (Lynch 50). First Bolívar and then Miranda returned to Venezuela in 1810, the mission to London having no great effect (50-54). Back in Venezuela, an independent Congress made up of landed creoles was formed. While pardos were excluded from participating, Lynch indicates that they took part in other revolutionary assemblies. For his part, Bolívar turned the organization, Sociedad Patriótica, into a mouthpiece for revolution and independence. Representing the Sociedad Patriótica, Bolívar urged the newly formed Congress to declare Venezuelan independence. It did so on July 5, 1811, forming Venezuela’s First Republic (54-55). However, early uprisings against the Spanish were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, and while Miranda was promoted to Generalísimo, his negotiated surrender to Spain on July 25, 1812 effectively ended the First Republic (57-61). His surrender also eventually resulted in his being turned over to and imprisoned by Spanish forces, in whose company he died in 1816 (“Miranda, [Generalísimo] Fransisco de”). Following Miranda’s surrender, Bolívar authored his Cartagena Manifesto, in which he described the factors that contributed to Venezuela’s defeat and spoke to the need to continue the fight for independence (Lynch 66).

Venezuela’s Second Republic lasted from approximately 1813-1814, during a military campaign in which Bolívar continued to fight Spanish rule. His military achievements were celebrated by the Venezuelan assembly that conferred the title Libertador de Venezuela on him in 1813 (79). Later, he was granted “supreme power” over the Venezuelan government. However, disunity and key battle losses led to the defeat of the Second Republic (77-85). Bolívar eventually retreated to Jamaica, where he wrote his famous Carta de Jamaica [Letter from Jamaica]—required reading in any Latin American history course. In this letter, he outlined his plans for the future governments of the free countries of Latin America (92). The Third Republic began with Bolívar’s declaration upon invading Venezuela from Haiti on December 31, 1816 and lasted until 1818. Lynch notes that these were among the “most difficult” years of his life, due to major challenges on all fronts, including the necessity to “defeat Spain in the field,… overcome insubordination in his own ranks and… fend off [a] race war” (117). Bolívar had decreed the freedom of slaves “on condition that they joined the republican forces” in 1816 in laws that were not well received by slave owners (109).

On February 15, 1819, Bolívar delivered his famous Angostura Address, inaugurating the Angostura Congress that passed a new constitution on August 15, 1819 and on December 17, 1819 created Gran Colombia (or the Republic of Colombia, a territory consisting of Venezuela and Nueva Granada [present-day Colombia, Panama and parts of Ecuador and Venezuela]) (“Bolívar, Simón” 99). Bolívar was named president, and victories in key battles, such as the Battle of Boyacá on August 7, 1819 and the Battle of Carabobo on June 24, 1821, secured independence for much of Gran Colombia. As noted in the Historical Dictionary of Venezuela, Bolívar would go on to fight for the independence of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia as well—he also wrote Bolivia’s constitution (“Bolívar, Simón” 99). And while successful in achieving independence for this great portion of Latin American, Bolívar would not achieve his dream of unity under a single government. His “attempt to form a broader territory of freed territories” through the 1826 Congress of Panama ultimately failed, and he spent his final years dealing with dissention and rebellions as the territories of Gran Colombia split apart (first Venezuela and then Ecuador) (“Bolívar, Simón” 99-100). Bolívar died on December 17, 1830, having given up the presidency of Colombia, his disillusionment with the fight for the American cause evidenced by comments in a November 9, 1830 letter to a friend: “Those who serve a revolution plough the sea” (trnsltd in Lynch 276).


[1] Lynch notes the historical significance of the ground of Monte Sacro on which Bolívar swore his oath: “the Monte Sacro where Sicinius led the people of Rome in protest against their patrician rulers” (26).


Works Consulted

“Bolívar, Simón.” Historical Dictionary of Venezuela. 2nd ed. 1996. 96-100. Print.

Bolívar, Simón. El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar. Trans. Frederick H. Fornoff. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.

—. “The Oath of Monte Sacro: a pocket-epic.” Trans. Lily Ford. London: Bolivar Hall of the Venezuelan Embassy. 22 Apr. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

—. Selected Writings of Bolívar. Compiled by Vicente Lecuna, ed. Harold A. Bierck Jr., trans. Lewis Bertrand. 2 vols. New York: The Colonial Press Inc., 1951. Print.

Bushnell, David. “Chronology of Simón Bolívar.” El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xiii-xvii. Print.

—. “Introduction.” El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. xxvii-lii. Print.

Lynch, John. Simón Bolívar: A Life. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006.

“Miranda, [Generalísimo] Fransisco de.” Historical Dictionary of Venezuela. 2nd ed. 1996. 443-444. Print.

Alaina Brantner holds an MA in Spanish to English Translation from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. She serves as a Director for MATI and is an active member of the ATA. Alaina currently resides in Milwaukee, WI, USA.

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