Simon Bolivar - a potted biography

Feted as the liberator of South America, there’s barely a town on the continent that doesn’t have a street/square/park named after him, or a statue - there was even one in Havana! When Simon came on the scene, South and Central America had been dominated bu the Spaniards (with a side-serve of Portuguese and Dutch) for three hundred years and was governed by the dissolute and corrupt glitterati of Madrid. It was divided into three colonial blogs “New Granada” (now Columbia, Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela etc.); “new Spain” - all of Central America; and “La Plata” (Uruguay, Chile, Argentina).

Lima was the central control for trade and provisioning, with shipments to Buenos Aires and Montevideo on the Atlantic coast first having to unload at Lima, then shipped or trekked overland back to the east.

The stupidity of this opened the way to all manner of pirates, smugglers and vagabonds, bringing both goods and subversive ideas and revolutionary sentiments from France, England and Holland, conveniently accelerating to the disintegration of the Spanish empire.

Bolivar was born into a privileged existence in Caracas, the youngest child of a dysfunctional family. His father was a role, his mother had a penchant for lovers. Simon’s dad carked it when he was three, whereupon his mother offloaded the impossible little tyke on her lawyer, who promptly handed him back. He then obnoxiously tore through a string of tutors - rude, opinionated, but highly intelligent. Eventually he met his match in one Rodriguez (a disciple of Jean-Jaques Rousseau), who diverted Simon’s energies to philosophy, swimming and riding - he became an excellent horseman. By age 14, he had developed mature ideas on the rights of man, and following Rodrigues’ revolutionary tenets, he was packed off to the army, where he shone, despite being a constant source of disruption and trouble.

For a brief few weeks in 1806 - during the Napoleonic successes, the British held Buenos Aires and Montevideo, encouraging revolutionary spirit - a trend that fluctuated in line with European politics. Exiles from South America proliferated in Europe, excited by the Napoleonic principle of liberty, equality and fraternity. When Simon arrived in Madrid, he was taken under the wind of Francisco de Miranda - a serial offended in the seduction department, but also politically astute and well-connected with the powers-that-be in Britain, Holland, France and Russia.

In Madrid, his cousin was a man of status - close to the King and Ministers, so Simonchummed up with the young prince and heir apparent, Ferdinand, although he suffered from the fact that he was a ‘local’ - the Spanish colonial pecking order was homeland Spanish, Criollas (Spanish descendants), Spanish adventurers, those of mixed blood, native Indians, slaves.

Still in his teens, Simon had an apartment of his own and rated as a wealthy aristocrat from Caracas, which led him to be taken under the wing of a compatriot, de Marquez; who encouraged him to read extensively and hopefully mature. Simon met on Maria Theresa, two years his elder, and instantly fell in love, proposing marriage which received the thumbs down from her father, who promptly spirited her out of Simon’s way by shipping her off to Bilbao. Simon pursued some time later and repeated the offensive proposal, whereupon papa Don Bernado del Toro upped sticks and carted his daughter back to Madrid. Finally, with Simon back in Madrid, Don Bernado agreed to the union and the youngsters married and headed for Venezuela, where Maria Theresa contracted a tropical disease and died, aged 22, just eight months after the marriage.

Simon was devastated, but fortunately, in 1804 at age 21, his inheritance came due, so he headed to Europe and a spendthrift and libertine pursuit of aristocratic pleasure in Paris, supported by his London fortune.

When Simon arrived back in Venezuela in 1808, appalled by the decadence of the Madrid ruling classes, imbued with Napoleonic fervour, and having met Von Humboldt and being impressed with his scientific expeditions, he was met with a cool reception, being regarded as a “well-born womaniser and wastrel”. Napoleon had overthrown the Spanish monarchy and installed a French king, and was looking to put his own man in charge of Venezuela, thereby fomenting revolutionary fervour - both the Spanish and French now being on the nose.

Simon’s chaps conquered Caracas on 19/4/1810, immediately lifting taxes and despatching delegations to the USA and UK, seeping support. The next twenty years saw Simon lead numbers sorties, with victory, defeat and mass slaughter by both the revolutionaries and Spanish forces. But Simon’s great campaigns were Andean crossings, surprising the Spanish with his motley but hard brigade of loads and mercenaries commandeered after the Napoleonic Wars finished in 1812. The mercenaries included Gregor McGregor from Scotland and Dan O’Leary from Ireland.

Simon’s campaigns expelled the last of the Spaniards by 1826, having lost 250,000 men in the process on both sides. Bolivia ceded from “Gran Colombia” and Simon wrote, shortly before his death in 1830, at the age of 47, that South American (because of assassinations/warlord intervention/tribal battles) “is ungovernable …with unbridled mobs and the petty tyrannies of all races”.

Simon Bolivar was one tough cookie - his campaigns were logistical and military marathons across the most inhospitable terrains, from the Orinoco River in the east, to Cartagena in the North and Lake Titicaca and La Paz in the south. He was neither corrupt nor racist, understood the worth of individual freedoms and was a brilliant general, and remains the formative giant of the political landscape of South America.

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