Bolivar: American Liberatorby Marie Arana
It is astonishing that Simón Bolívar, the great Liberator of South America, is not better known in the United States. He freed six countries from Spanish rule, traveled more than 75,000 miles on horseback to do so, and became the greatest figure in Latin American history. His life is epic, heroic, straight out of Hollywood: he fought battle after… See more details below
It is astonishing that Simón Bolívar, the great Liberator of South America, is not better known in the United States. He freed six countries from Spanish rule, traveled more than 75,000 miles on horseback to do so, and became the greatest figure in Latin American history. His life is epic, heroic, straight out of Hollywood: he fought battle after battle in punishing terrain, forged uncertain coalitions of competing forces and races, lost his beautiful wife soon after they married and never remarried (although he did have a succession of mistresses, including one who held up the revolution and another who saved his life), and he died relatively young, uncertain whether his achievements would endure. Drawing on a wealth of primary documents, novelist and journalist Marie Arana brilliantly captures early nineteenth-century South America and the explosive tensions that helped revolutionize Bolívar. In 1813 he launched a campaign for the independence of Colombia and Venezuela, commencing a dazzling career that would take him across the rugged terrain of South America, from Amazon jungles to the Andes mountains. From his battlefield victories to his ill-fated marriage and legendary love affairs, Bolívar emerges as a man of many facets: fearless general, brilliant strategist, consummate diplomat, passionate abolitionist, gifted writer, and flawed politician. A major work of history, Bolívar colorfully portrays a dramatic life even as it explains the rivalries and complications that bedeviled Bolívar’s tragic last days. It is also a stirring declaration of what it means to be a South American.
“This is a magnificent story. Deeply researched and written with clarity, honesty, and verve, Marie Arana’s book tells the life of one of the greatest heroes and founders in world history. North Americans who know only of George Washington will thrill to read the epic adventures of his South American counterpart. As fantastic as Bolivar’s life appears, ‘it is not,’ as Arana says of Latin America’s bloody past in general, ‘magical realism. It is history. It is true.’”
“With the eye and ear of a novelist, Marie Arana chants the epic of Bolivar with love, zest, and compelling authority.”
“Simon Bolivar has found the perfect biographer in Marie Arana, a literary journalist, brilliant novelist of South America, and wise historian as well. Her portrait of Bolivar is human and moving; she has written a powerful and epic life and times."
“Most North American historians have mentioned [Bolivar] only in passing, usually making 'the George Washington of Latin America' reference. . . . That conception obviously needed correction in the form of a comprehensive biography that makes Bolivar’s life accessible to a large readership in the United States. Bolivar is unquestionably that book. . . . Bolivar is magisterial in scope, written with flair and an almost cinematic sense of history happening. . . . A monumental achievement destined to win some major literary prizes.”
"Wonderful. . . . In Arana's energetic and highly readable telling, Bolívar comes alive as having willed himself an epic life. . . . She brings great verve and literary flair to her biography of Bolívar."
“Inspired. . . . Arana ably captures the brash brilliance of this revered and vilified leader.”
“Arana is an indefatigable researcher, a perceptive historian, and a luminous writer, as shown in her defining, exhilarating biography of the great South American liberator Simón Bolívar. . . . Her understanding of the man behind the fame—and behind the hostility that enveloped him in his later years—brings this biography to the heights of the art and craft of life-writing.”
“[Arana's] vivid portrait shows us a charismatic man of high ideals, fiery oratory, unflagging energy and resolve, bold strategies, and a romantic aura. . . . Arana’s dramatic narrative is appropriately grand and enthralling . . . and it makes Bolívar an apt embodiment of the ambitions and disappointments of the revolutionary age.”
“This well-rounded work reveals not just an accomplished military tactician but also an able statesman. . . . An important contribution to Bolivarian studies.”
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Meet the Author
Marie Arana was born in Lima, Peru. She is the author of the memoir American Chica, a finalist for the National Book Award; two novels, Cellophane and Lima Nights; and The Writing Life, a collection from her well-known column for The Washington Post. She lives in Washington, DC, and Lima, Peru.
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Read an Excerpt
We, who are as good as you, make you our lord and master.
We trust you to defend our rights and liberties.
And if not: No.
—Coronation ceremony, Spain
They heard him before they saw him: the sound of hooves striking the earth, steady as a heartbeat, urgent as a revolution. When he emerged from the sun-dappled forest, they could barely make out the figure on the magnificent horse. He was small, thin. A black cape fluttered about his shoulders.
The rebels eyed him with unease. All four had been riding north, fully expecting to come upon a royalist fleeing in the other direction, away from the battle at Boyacá. Three days before, the Spaniards had been surprised by a lightning strike of revolutionaries—barefoot, wild-eyed—swarming down over the Andes. The Spanish were running now, scattering over the landscape like a herd of frightened deer.
“Here comes one of those losing bastards,” said the rebel general. Hermógenes Maza was a veteran of the wars of independence in Spanish America. He had been captured and tortured by royalists, had honed a hunger for revenge. He spurred his horse, rode forward. “Halt!” he cried out. “Who goes there?”
The rider pressed on at full gallop.
General Maza raised his lance and bellowed his warning one more time. But the stranger only advanced, ignoring him. When he got near enough to render his features sharp and unmistakable, he turned coolly to glare at the rebel general. “¡Soy yo!” the man shouted. “Don’t be a dumb sonofabitch.”
The general’s jaw went slack. He lowered his lance, let the horseman pass.
So it was that Simón Bolívar rode into Santa Fe de Bogotá, the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada, on the sweltering afternoon of August 10, 1819. He had spent thirty-six days traversing the flooded plains of Venezuela; six days marching over the vertiginous snows of the Andes. By the time he reached the icy pass at thirteen thousand feet called the Páramo de Pisba, his men were barely alive, scarcely clothed, flogging themselves to revive their failing circulation. He had lost a third of them to frost or starvation, most of his weapons to rust, every last horse to hypothermia. Even so, as he and his scruffy troops staggered down the cliffs, stopping at villages along the way, he had rallied enough fresh recruits and supplies to win a resounding victory that in time would link his name to Napoleon’s and Hannibal’s. As news of his triumph spread, it quickened the rebels’ hopes and sent a cold prick of fear through the Spaniards.
The capital of the viceroyalty was the first to react. On hearing of Bolívar’s advance, agents of the crown abandoned their houses, possessions, businesses. Whole families took flight with little more than the clothes on their back. Maza and his companions could hear the deafening detonations as Spanish soldiers destroyed their own arsenals and hurried for the hills. Even the cruel and ill-tempered viceroy, Juan José de Sámano, disguised as a lowly Indian in a poncho and grimy hat, fled the city in a panic. He knew that Bolívar’s retribution would be swift and severe. “War to the Death!” had been the Liberator’s battle cry; after one battle, he had called for the cold-blooded execution of eight hundred Spaniards. Sámano understood that he, too, had been ruthless, ordering the torture and extermination of thousands in the name of the Spanish throne. Reprisals were sure to follow. The king’s loyalists flowed out of Santa Fe, as Bogotá was then called, flooding the roads that led south, emptying Santa Fe until its streets were eerily silent and the only residents left were on the side of independence. When Bolívar got word of it, he leapt on his horse, ordered his aides-de-camp to follow, and raced ahead, virtually alone, toward the viceroy’s palace.
Although Maza had fought under the Liberator years before, he hardly recognized the man passing before him now. He was gaunt, shirtless, his chest bare under the ragged blue jacket. Beneath the worn leather cap, his hair had grown long and grizzled. His skin was rough from wind, bronzed by the sun. His trousers, once a deep scarlet, had faded to a dull pink; his cape, which doubled as a bed, was stained by time and mud.
He was thirty-six years old, and, although the disease that would take his life already coiled in his veins, he seemed vibrant and strong, filled with a boundless energy. As he crossed into Santa Fe and made his way down the Calle Real, an old woman rushed toward him. “God bless you, phantom!” she called, sensing—despite his dishevelment—a singular greatness. House by house, others ventured out, at first tentatively, and then in a surging human mass that followed him all the way to the plaza. He dismounted in one agile movement and ran up the palace steps.
For all his physical slightness—five foot six inches and a scant 130 pounds—there was an undeniable intensity to the man. His eyes were a piercing black, his gaze unsettling. His forehead was deeply lined, his cheekbones high, his teeth even and white, his smile surprising and radiant. Official portraits relay a less than imposing man: the meager chest, the impossibly thin legs, the hands as small and beautiful as a woman’s. But when Bolívar entered a room, his power was palpable. When he spoke, his voice was galvanizing. He had a magnetism that seemed to dwarf sturdier men.
He enjoyed good cuisine, but could endure days, even weeks, of punishing hunger. He spent backbreaking days on his horse: his stamina in the saddle was legendary. Even the llaneros, roughriders of the harsh Venezuelan plains, called him, with admiration, Iron Ass. Like those men, he preferred to spend nights in a hammock or wrapped in his cape on bare ground. But he was equally comfortable in a ballroom or at the opera. He was a superb dancer, a spirited conversationalist, a cultivated man of the world who had read widely and could quote Rousseau in French and Julius Caesar in Latin. A widower and sworn bachelor, he was also an insatiable womanizer.
By the time Bolívar mounted the stairs to the viceroy’s palace on that sultry August day, his name was already known around the world. In Washington, John Quincy Adams and James Monroe agonized over whether their fledgling nation, founded on principles of liberty and freedom, should support his struggle for independence. In London, hard-bitten veterans of England’s war against Napoleon signed on to fight for Bolívar’s cause. In Italy, the poet Lord Byron named his boat after Bolívar and dreamed of emigrating to Venezuela with his daughter. But there would be five more years of bloodshed before Spain was thrust from Latin American shores. At the end of that savage and chastening war, one man would be credited for single-handedly conceiving, organizing, and leading the liberation of six nations: a population one and a half times that of North America, a landmass the size of modern Europe. The odds against which he fought—a formidable, established world power, vast areas of untracked wilderness, the splintered loyalties of many races—would have proved daunting for the ablest of generals with strong armies at his command. But Bolívar had never been a soldier. He had no formal military training. Yet, with little more than will and a genius for leadership, he freed much of Spanish America and laid out his dream for a unified continent.
Despite all this, he was a highly imperfect man. He could be impulsive, headstrong, filled with contradictions. He spoke eloquently about justice, but wasn’t always able to mete it out in the chaos of revolution. His romantic life had a way of spilling into the public realm. He had trouble accepting criticism and had no patience for disagreements. He was singularly incapable of losing gracefully at cards. It is hardly surprising that, over the years, Latin Americans have learned to accept human imperfections in their leaders. Bolívar taught them how.
As Bolívar’s fame grew, he became known as the George Washington of South America. There were good reasons why. Both came from wealthy and influential families. Both were ardent defenders of freedom. Both were heroic in war, but apprehensive about marshaling the peace. Both resisted efforts to make them kings. Both claimed to want to return to private lives, but were called instead to shape governments. Both were accused of undue ambition.
There the similarities end. Bolívar’s military action lasted twice as long as Washington’s. The territory he covered was seven times as large and spanned an astonishing geographic diversity: from crocodile-infested jungles to the snowcapped reaches of the Andes. Moreover, unlike Washington’s war, Bolívar’s could not have been won without the aid of black and Indian troops; his success in rallying all races to the patriot cause became a turning point in the war for independence. It is fair to say that he led both a revolution and a civil war.
But perhaps what distinguishes these men above all can be seen most clearly in their written work. Washington’s words were measured, august, dignified—the product of a cautious and deliberate mind. Bolívar’s speeches and correspondence, on the other hand, were fiery, passionate. They represent some of the greatest writing in Latin American letters. Although much was produced in haste—on battlefields, on the run—the prose is at once lyrical and stately, clever but historically grounded, electric yet deeply wise. It is no exaggeration to say that Bolívar’s revolution changed the Spanish language, for his words marked the dawn of a new literary age. The old, dusty Castilian of his time, with its ornate flourishes and cumbersome locutions, in his remarkable voice and pen became another language entirely—urgent, vibrant, and young.
There is yet another important difference. Unlike Washington’s glory, Bolívar’s did not last unto the grave. In time, the politics in the countries Bolívar created grew ever more fractious, his detractors ever more vehement. Eventually, he came to believe that Latin Americans were not ready for a truly democratic government: abject, ignorant, suspicious, they did not understand how to govern themselves, having been systematically deprived of that experience by their Spanish oppressors. What they needed, in his eyes, was a strong hand, a strict executive. He began making unilateral decisions. He installed a dictator in Venezuela; he announced to Bolivia that it would have a president for life.
By the time he was forty-one, his wisdom began to be doubted by functionaries in every republic he had freed and founded. His deputies—jealous and wary of his extraordinary power—declared they no longer supported his dream of a unified Latin America. Regionalisms emerged, followed by border squabbles, civil wars, and, in Bolívar’s own halls, cloak-and-dagger betrayals. Trumped at last, he had no choice but to renounce command. His forty-seventh—and final—year ended in poverty, illness, and exile. Having given away the sum total of his personal fortune to the revolution, he died a poor and ravaged man. Few heroes in history have been dealt so much honor, so much power—and so much ingratitude.
But on the afternoon of August 10, 1819, as he stood at the viceroy’s splendid desk in the palace in Santa Fe de Bogotá, there was no limit to the possibilities of Bolívar’s America. The Spanish despot had left the room in such alarm that he had neglected to take the bag of gold on his table. Indeed, as Bolívar lay claim to the hoard of pesos left behind in the viceregal treasury, he understood that the tide had finally turned: his revolution stood to inherit all the abandoned riches of a waning empire. It would also inherit a whirlwind of political and social chaos. In a matter of a few years, Spain’s three-century yoke on the Americas would be sundered and the truly difficult journey toward freedom would begin.
THE JOURNEY OF SIMÓN BOLÍVAR’S life began in 1783, a year that was rife with incident. In an otherwise unremarkable building in Paris, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams signed a treaty with the king of England that effectively ended the American Revolution. In the radiant palace of Versailles, an emotionally fragile Marie Antoinette lost the much awaited child she was carrying. In an austere military academy in northeastern France, an adolescent Napoleon was developing a keen interest in war games. In the ancient city of Cuzco, the cousin of Túpac Amaru II led a violent insurrection against the Spanish, for which he was tortured, killed, and dismembered. In a drinking establishment in Manhattan, George Washington ended his command of the Continental Army by bidding a warm farewell to his officers.
But in the balmy city of Caracas, walled from the vicissitudes of the Caribbean by a string of green mountains, life was a sleepy affair. On July 24, 1783, as dawn filled the windows of the Bolívar family’s stately mansion in the center of the city, the only sound was the serene trickle of drinking water filtering through rock into a pantry jar. Before long, the cock would crow, the horses neigh, and a whole bustling household complete with children and slaves would burst to noisy life as Doña María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco went into labor.
She was a dark, wavy-haired beauty whose will and fortitude belied her twenty-three years. She had been married at fourteen to Colonel Don Juan Vicente de Bolívar, a tall, self-possessed, blond bachelor thirty-two years older, whose predatory sexual escapades had often landed him before the bishop of Caracas. Both man and wife brought long traditions of wealth and power to their marriage: their elegant manse on San Jacinto Street and the extensive properties they had inherited over the years were a measure of their station in a privileged world. On that summer’s day, as they awaited the birth of their fourth child, they owned no fewer than twelve houses in Caracas and the port of La Guaira, a sprawling hacienda in the valley of Aragua, a copper mine, sugar fields, fruit orchards, a rum distillery, a textile business, cacao and indigo plantations, as well as cattle ranches, and hundreds of slaves. They were among the most prosperous families of Venezuela.
As Latin American custom has it, in a ritual that goes back five hundred years, no sooner had word of Doña Concepción’s labor spread from the servants to the neighbors than friends began to gather in the house’s parlor to await the birth. By the time the child was born that night, a festive crowd of well-wishers was toasting his health, among them the bishop, the judge, the velvet-sleeved patriarchs of Caracas’s old families, and a rich priest who would baptize the boy and, within a matter of months, bequeath him a fortune. They stood in the great room, resting their elbows on ponderous carved mahogany chests and tables. The chairs were covered in dark upholstery; the mirrors heavy with decoration; the damask curtains a deep, gleaming purple, crowned with cornices of burnished gold. The servants offered refreshments from trays and, under the glittering chandeliers, the conversation was jovial and lighthearted. One by one, intimate family members were admitted to the chamber next to the living room, where they saw the pale mother bedecked in white lace, sitting up in bed under a brocade canopy. Beside her, in a lavish cradle, was the sleeping child.
Although she previously had borne three healthy children—María Antonia, who was then six; Juana, five; and Juan Vicente, two—Doña Concepción was well aware that she was ailing. As soon as she told Don Juan Vicente of her pregnancy, he arranged for one of their prized female slaves to marry, conceive, and deliver a child at about the same time so that his wife could be relieved of the responsibility of nursing the newborn. It was a common enough practice at the time. The black slave Hipólita would prove to be a devoted nursemaid whose tender attentions to the boy would later be vividly remembered, even glorified, but on July 24, she had yet to give birth and had no milk to offer her master’s child. For the first few weeks of the infant’s life, Doña Concepción had to rely on one of her closest friends—Inés Mancebo, the Cuban wife of Fernando de Miyares, who later became governor-general of Venezuela—to do the nursing. Frail but determined, Doña Concepción was making the best of things. She did not yet evince the yellow, waxen skin that betrays the victims of tuberculosis. The small circle of intimates who gathered in her bedroom had every expectation that mother and boy would thrive.
Though Don Juan Vicente’s lively blue eyes shone as he chatted with friends and relatives in the parlor, those eyes, too, were lit with his wife’s fever. Consumption, as it was known, was prevalent in the world at that time, but in few places was it more rampant than in the sweltering South American tropics. The colonel was nearing sixty and looked far older than his years, yet, when the priest asked him what name he wanted to give his son, he replied with youthful energy. “Simón,” he said, and pointed to the image of the man whose bold, confident face dominated the room.
THE PORTRAIT IN THE ELABORATE gold frame above Don Juan Vicente’s sofa was of Simón de Bolívar, “El Viejo” (“The Old Man”), who, almost two centuries earlier, had been the first Bolívar to emigrate from Spain. The Old Man was by no means the first of the Liberator’s ancestors to reach the New World. Through Doña Concepción, the newborn was also a descendant of the powerful Xedlers, a family of German nobles who had settled in Almagro, Spain, and acquired interests in the Americas. In 1528, Charles V had granted a select group of German bankers the right to conquer and exploit the northern coast of South America. Their advent marked the start of a ruthless era, dominated by the relentless pursuit of riches and, especially, the legendary El Dorado, the “lost city of gold.” Another of the family’s distant relatives, Lope de Aguirre—the infamous Basque conquistador also known as El Loco—had wreaked murderous havoc up and down the continent in search of the same dazzling chimeras.
But Simón de Bolívar, a Basque from the town of Marquina, had come on a very different mission. He arrived in Santo Domingo in the 1560s as a member of Spain’s royal civil service, whose express purpose during those years was to impose some measure of discipline on the wild bonanza that Spanish America had become. Santo Domingo was the capital of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola—now Haiti and the Dominican Republic. As the first seat of colonial rule in the Americas, Santo Domingo was, during that period, the staging area for a new, brash initiative to tame the unruly coast of Venezuela, where hostile Indian tribes and rapacious pirates were playing havoc with Spain’s efforts at colonization. Toward that purpose, in 1588, King Philip II bestowed on the island’s governor, Diego Osorio, the additional responsibility of governing the province of Venezuela. Osorio decided to take de Bolívar, by then his trusted aide and scribe, to Caracas with him to carry out the king’s wishes. Accompanied by his wife and son, de Bolívar set himself up handsomely in that emerging city, and went about acquiring enormous tracts of land even as he did the governor’s bidding.
Under Osorio’s auspices, de Bolívar became regent and procurator of Caracas and accountant general of Venezuela, and in those capacities sailed to Spain to report on the status of “Tierra Firma,” as South America was known, to King Philip II himself. De Bolívar turned out to be a fairly civic-minded leader. He introduced large-scale agricultural projects—until then, unknown in that area of South America—and, with the collaboration of the Church, established a system of public education. With Osorio, he conceived and built the port of La Guaira, which would increase Venezuela’s fortunes into the unbounded future. In 1592, he helped found the seminary that would eventually become the University of Caracas. De Bolívar built haciendas and created new wellsprings of commerce; he gave the city its first coat of arms. He also regulated the annual shipment of goods between Spain and the port of La Guaira, including the transport of one hundred tons of black slaves from Africa. In such ways did America’s first Bolívar step into the continent’s roiling history—not as an adventurer or settler, but as a high-ranking emissary of the Spanish crown.
Alongside this march of history, however, was the steady hardening of a racial hierarchy that would define South America into the modern age. It had begun when Christopher Columbus’s men had landed on Hispaniola, and imposed their will over the Taíno people. At first, Queen Isabel and the Church roundly censured the capture and massacre of Indians. Columbus’s men had committed harrowing atrocities, burning and destroying whole tribal villages, abducting natives as slaves, unleashing murderous plagues of syphilis and smallpox on the population. The priests who accompanied the crown’s “civilizing missions” made a point of recording it all. As a result, the state tried to take a strong stance against any kind of institutionalized violence. It introduced a system of encomiendas, in which Spanish soldiers were assigned allotments of Indians and, in exchange for the task of instructing them in the Christian faith, were given the right to put them to work on the land or in the mines. The soldiers were often harsh and corrupt, killing natives who did not comply with their brutal demands, and, eventually, the system of encomiendas had to be abolished. But the notion of encouraging soldiers to work the land rather than live from plunder opened the way for a new era of plantation life.
Throughout, the state had a hard time enforcing laws that prohibited slavery. Even the queen had to agree that without the use of physical force, the Indians would refuse to work and the mines so necessary to Spain’s economy would cease to function. There could be no gold, no silver, no sugar, without the systematic subjugation of American Indians. In 1503, a mere decade after Columbus stepped foot in America, the queen hedged on her initial disapprobation of slavery and decreed:
Forasmuch as my Lord the King and Myself have ordered that the Indians living on the island of Hispaniola be considered free and not subject to slavery . . . I order you, Our Governor . . . to compel the Indians to cooperate with the Christian settlers on the said island, to work on their buildings, to mine and collect gold and other metals, and to work on their farms and crop fields.
In other words, killing was a Christian sin and genocide would not be tolerated, but “compelling” rebellious natives was a necessary evil. The Spanish colonizers understood the tacit approval in this. Despite the official condemnation of slavery, the state had conceded it would turn a blind eye. Indians continued to be a commodity to be owned and traded. And though Spanish sailors and Indian women had propagated freely from the start, a psychology of superiority and inferiority was established. It was best to be Spanish—unfortunate to be indigenous—in the New World that Europe had made.
The Dominican priest Bartolomé de Las Casas took issue with all this, especially the moral dithering about slaves. A former slave owner who had undergone an emphatic change of heart, he fumed about the brutalities Spaniards had visited on the Taíno people and the boatloads of indigenous slaves that Columbus was transporting regularly to Spain. “Slaves are the primary source of income for the Admiral,” Las Casas wrote of Columbus. Finally, in an impassioned plea to Charles V, he argued that institutionalized barbarism had cruelly decimated the Indian population: “Spaniards are still acting like ravening beasts, killing, terrorizing, afflicting, torturing, and destroying the native peoples.” In Hispaniola, they had reduced three million people to “a population of barely two hundred”; on the mainland of South America, they had stolen more than a million castellanos of gold and killed some 800,000 souls. A “Deep, Bloody American Tragedy” he called it, “choakt up with Indian Blood and Gore.” To mitigate the damage—to prevent the depletion of these “humble, patient, and peaceable natives”—he advocated that Spain begin the importation of African slaves.
Eventually, Las Casas was to see the hypocrisy of that proposal, but not before the colonies had swung into a lively commerce. By the time Simón de Bolívar had made his children and grandchildren indisputably the richest landowning aristocrats of Caracas, there were ten thousand African slaves working the fields and plantations of Venezuela. The Indians, less able to toil in the sun, too easily affected by heat prostration, were sent off to work in the mines.
As soon as the crown was able to impose some semblance of control, it moved to enforce strict divisions between the races. A ruthlessly observed system of racial dominance was put in place. At the top were the Spanish-born, crown-appointed overseers, such as Simón de Bolívar; below them, the Creoles—whites, born in the colonies—such as de Bolívar’s own son. After that came the pardos, an ever burgeoning mixed-race population that was either mestizo, part-white, part-Indian; or mulatto, a mixture of white and black; or sambo, a combination of black and Indian. As in most slave societies, labels were fashioned for every possible skin color: quadroons, quintroons, octoroons, moriscos, coyotes, chamisos, gíbaros, and so on. For each birth, a church registry would meticulously record the race, for there were concrete ramifications for the color of a child’s skin. If he were Indian, he would be subject to the Spanish tribute, a tax imposed by the crown; if he were unable to pay, he was forced to meet his debt through hard labor. Indians were also subject to the mita, a period of compulsory toil in the mines or fields. Many of them didn’t survive it. Chained, herded in gangs, separated from their families, those serving the mita would often be shipped great distances to satisfy the viceroy’s demands.
Indians were also forced to buy goods according to laws of repartimiento. The governors would sell them food and supplies and expect them to pay with gold or silver. Often, the result was a disgraceful trafficking of sick mules, spoiled food, or faulty goods, sold at double or triple the normal prices. Sometimes these commodities were absolutely useless: Indian men who had no facial hair were made to buy razors. Women who wore tribal wraps were forced to buy silk stockings. The proceeds were gathered dutifully and sent off to the royal coffers in Madrid.
For blacks, life in Spanish America was equally punishing. Severed from family, country, language, they were brought as fishermen, pearl divers, cacao and sugar field workers. They were Bantu from Angola and the Congo, Mandingo from the Gold Coast. In the course of a little more than two hundred years, an estimated one million slaves were sold into South America by the Portuguese, Spanish, and English. Uniformly disdained as the lowest rung in the human hierarchy, they nevertheless left an indelible imprint on the culture. They worked their way from field hands to skilled craftsmen, from house slaves to beloved nursemaids, but it wasn’t until after Bolívar’s revolution that they were released into the mainstream of possibility.
For all of Spain’s attempts to retain absolute control of its colonies, it could not prevent the interracial mixing that was inevitable in a world forged by male conquistadors. The crown quickly—and by necessity—took the attitude that marriage between races was acceptable, as long as Spanish men could persuade non-Spanish women to be baptized Christians. In truth, the Spaniards were hardly racially “pure” Europeans. After centuries of tumultuous history, the bloodline contained traces of Arab, Phoenician, African, Roman, Basque, Greek, Ligurian, Celt, German, Balkan, and Jew. But once they began mixing with Indians and blacks in the Americas, a cosmic race representative of all continents began to emerge. When Simón de Bolívar, the Spanish overlord, arrived in Venezuela in the late 1500s, the population counted 5,000 Spaniards, 10,000 Africans, and 350,000 native Indians in the country. Two hundred years later, when the Liberator was born, according to anthropologist Alexander von Humboldt, Venezuela had 800,000 inhabitants, of whom more than half were mestizo or mulatto. Today, more than two thirds of all Latin Americans are mixed-race. Nowhere else on earth has a civilization of such ethnic complexity been wrought in such a short span of time.
IN THE PATRICIAN HOUSEHOLD TO which Simón Bolívar was born, race was hardly a preoccupation. Marriages had long been arranged in order to ensure future generations all the privileges an aristocratic bloodline could afford. But in 1792, when Doña Concepción decided to seek official approval for a title of nobility her father-in-law had bought sixty years earlier, Spain’s rigorous wheels of justice went into motion and secret doubts about the family’s racial purity began.
For Creoles like the Bolívars, a title of nobility was an enormously valuable asset. In spite of the wealth and comfort they enjoyed, Creoles were second-class citizens, barred from the government’s most powerful positions. Many of them yearned for the singular advantages—the opportunity to hold office, the possibility of higher income, the ability to hand down hereditary rights—a marquisate or baronetcy might bring. When the Liberator’s grandfather Juan de Bolívar learned in 1728 that King Philip V had donated a marquisate to a Spanish monastery in order to raise money for the monks, he bought the title outright. It cost him 22,000 ducats. In such ways were noblemen made.
Juan Vicente de Bolívar, his son, had every right to use that title and call himself the Marquis of San Luis, but he didn’t. For him, it was enough to be a Bolívar, the descendant of so many rich and illustrious Bolívars before him; it was enough to lord over the vast holdings he had inherited. But when Juan Vicente died and Doña Concepción decided to try to make the marquisate official for her sons, she learned that the Bolívar family tree wasn’t so pristine, after all.
It turned out that Juan de Bolívar’s grandmother had been the illegitimate daughter of a liaison between his great-grandfather, Francisco Marín de Narváez, and a chambermaid. Whether the servant was white or brown or black was uncertain—no one was able to say. But Spain’s strict laws of succession did not allow for such aberrations, quite apart from the prickly question of race. The title remained in official limbo, unavailable to Juan Vicente de Bolívar’s sons. They hardly seemed to care. In time, they would drop the “de” from the Bolívar surname, ignoring that last marker of peerage.
Bolívar’s racial makeup has been a subject of endless fascination for generations of historians, but ultimately the debate comes down to the color of this one servant and, in the end, it is a matter of conjecture. Some claim that the personal chambermaid of a rich seventeenth-century Caracas matriarch would most likely be white; others say that she was bound to be mulatta or mestiza. One thing is sure: no mention of race is made in the family’s papers or letters. And more: upon the illegitimate child’s seventh birthday, she inherited much of her father’s vast estate. Whatever her mother’s skin color might have been, when little Josefa Marín de Narváez reached fourteen, she became a highly marriageable young woman.
Historians are not the only ones who argue over the “knot of Josefa Marín.” Simón Bolívar’s political boosters and detractors alike have used it to support opposing points of view. For some, Josefa’s mother was an Indian from Aroa; for others, she was a black slave from Caracas. Bolívar’s critics have often raised the question of race to impute a character flaw. His disciples see it as a way to identify an ethnic group with greatness. But if Bolívar had African blood in his veins, it very well might have been in the family before his Spanish ancestors ever set foot in America. If he had traces of Indian blood, he was probably no different from many Latin Americans who have it, yet consider themselves pristinely white. In the end, the question of Josefa’s race serves more as a mirror on history’s polemicists than as any possible insight into the man. For all the ink that has been expended on the subject, “the knot of Josefa Marín” is little more than unsubstantiated gossip.
There was, however, very real reason for gossip in the house where Don Juan Vicente presided over guests and Doña Concepcion cooed over their newborn baby. Little Simón’s great-great-great-grandfather hadn’t been the only one in the family to exercise his droit de seigneur over the female servants. His father, Don Juan Vicente, had been doing it for years.
Don Juan Vicente de Bolívar y Ponte had been born into a considerable fortune, the careful accrual of many generations of Creole wealth. He had inherited the splendid house on San Jacinto Street and the lucrative cacao plantations from none other than Josefa; a side chapel in the Cathedral of Caracas from his great-grandfather Ponte; and the sprawling sugar estate in San Mateo from a legacy that dated all the way back to the original Simón de Bolívar. As a youth, he had trained in the military arts and, at the age of sixteen, served the Spanish king by defending Venezuela’s ports against marauding British invaders. At twenty-one, he was appointed procurator of Caracas and was held in such high esteem by Spanish authorities that he was called to the Court of Madrid for five years. He returned to Venezuela in 1758 an educated, sophisticated man, and so was rewarded with even more prominent responsibilities. By the age of thirty-two, he had become a veritable institution.
He had also become something of a sexual profligate. He came home to his bachelor’s empire flush with a sense of license. He began to molest his female servants, demand that they surrender physical favors. He singled out the most attractive and sent their husbands on faraway expeditions. He waylaid the women in bedrooms, boudoirs—in the secluded alcoves of his capacious house. The transgressions were so flagrant, so persistent—verging on outright rape—that his victims could no longer remain silent. When the bishop of Caracas made a pastoral visit to the plantation of San Mateo in 1765, he began to hear a litany of complaints from Don Juan Vicente’s housemaids as well as from the wives of male employees.
One claimed she had been forced to be his love slave for three years—to be at his beck and call whenever he fancied her. She testified that there were at least two other servants he was abusing similarly at the same time; he would choose among them at whim, summon the unfortunate woman to his bedroom, then lock the door and defile her. Another witness named Margarita claimed he had assaulted her in a corridor and was in the process of dragging her into his room, but when he was told a visitor was on the way, he thought better of it. Even though she had been spared on that particular occasion, Margarita admitted that she eventually succumbed; she didn’t dare lock her room against him, “fearing his power and violent temper.” Margarita’s sister, María Jacinta, too, wrote a petition to the bishop, begging him to intercede on her behalf against “this infernal wolf, who is trying to take me by force and consign us both to the Devil.” She claimed that, for days, Don Juan Vicente had been importuning her to sin with him, going so far as to send off her husband to a remote cattle ranch so as to better carry out his designs. “Sometimes I wonder how I can defend myself against this wicked man,” she told the bishop, “and sometimes I think it best for me simply to say yes to him, take a knife in with me, and kill him outright so as to liberate us all of this cruel tyrant.”
The bishop was so appalled by the accusations that he was moved to address them with Don Juan Vicente himself. He suggested to the colonel that his “loose ways with women” were growing too obvious to go ignored by the Church; that it was known far and wide that he lived in “a state of moral disorder.” The bishop had been careful to warn each of the witnesses that it was of utmost importance that their accounts be absolutely accurate, but as the testimonies emerged—utterly compelling, mutually corroborating—there could be no doubt: Don Juan Vicente was a moral reprobate. He had to be stopped.
But the bishop also knew that the man who stood accused was no ordinary citizen. Don Juan Vicente’s station among Creoles in Venezuela had few equals; his honors and titles flowed directly from the Court of Spain. The bishop decided to recommend that the women commit themselves to prayer, avoid contact with their tormentor, and take up a strict vow of silence. To Don Juan Vicente, he intimated that he really did not believe the witnesses, but that if similar violations continued to be reported, he would be obliged to correct his lordship “by force of law.” He advised him to cease all commerce with females and to contact them only through the offices of a priest. The bishop’s warning had a clear and unavoidable implication: the Church would brook no more complaints. It was time for Don Juan Vicente to get married.
WHEN MARÍA DE LA CONCEPCIÓN Palacios y Blanco married Don Juan Vicente at the age of fourteen, she was no younger than other brides of her class in Venezuela: American aristocrats were known to marry off daughters as early as twelve. A girl might be sent to the convent at four and then emerge eight years later to exchange lifelong vows with a boy of sixteen.
These were the Mantuanos, the highest class of Creoles to which the Bolívars and Palacios belonged. Wealthy, white, and exceptionally favored, they were the backbone of Spain’s empire in Venezuela, and oversaw all of the colony’s assets, commanded all the colony’s troops. In Caracas, their ranks were said to consist of nine families. The Mantuanos displayed their coats of arms, carved into great slabs of stone, over their doorways. They wore fancy hats and carried canes. Their wives were the only women permitted to wear mantillas or mantuas, veils that marked their status as they rode through the city on elaborate, gilded litters, borne by black slaves. Wherever they walked, tiny bells sewn into their skirts announced their approach.
We will never know with any certainty how Concepción’s parents managed to arrange her marriage to the prominent, powerful, forty-six-year-old roué that was Don Juan Vicente, except that there was one strategic advantage: they were his neighbors. The Palacios lived just behind the Bolívars, on the corner of Traposos Street—only a few meters away. The city of Caracas was small, no longer than fourteen blocks in one direction and twelve in the other. In the tiny quadrant the Palacios and Bolívars inhabited, the elite were close acquaintances, often related to one another through generations of intermarriage. It is safe to assume that, in the close, insular world of eighteenth-century Caracas life, Don Juan Vicente learned on his return from Madrid that a baby had just been born to the Palacios family. The father was a mere four years younger, after all, and a fellow military man. Both were eminent Mantuanos, active in the public life of Caracas. Having so much in common with the father, Don Juan Vicente certainly had opportunities to glimpse the daughter. As years passed and Concepción grew to puberty, Don Juan Vicente noticed that she was a lively and beautiful child.
However the subject of marriage materialized, nuptial agreements were made, two influential families were joined, and Don Juan Vicente settled down to a quiet, even sedate connubial life. Doña Concepción proceeded to dedicate herself to wifely duties. As someone who had grown up in a bustling household with ten siblings, she must have found the Bolívar house, for all its handsome rooms, a dour place, as dark and forbidding as a tomb. She opened the doors to its patios and brightened its halls with light. She decorated the heavy sideboards with an abundance of flowers. She filled the air with music. By the time she was eighteen, she began to populate the many rooms with children. María Antonia, the first, was most like her—petite, brunette, and determined. Three more followed quickly thereafter: Juana, a languid, fair-haired girl, who more resembled her father; Juan Vicente, a sweet, blond boy with blue eyes; and, last, Simón, the scamp with curly black hair.
For all the differences, Doña Concepción had one characteristic in common with her husband. Her ancestry was as renowned and illustrious as his. Her mother, Francisca Blanco Herrera, was a descendant of medieval kings and princes. Her father, Feliciano Palacios y Sojo, came from a family with a pronounced intellectual bent. From her uncle Pedro Palacios y Sojo, a celebrated priest, musician, and founder of the Caracas School of Music, she learned she had a natural gift for music. She was skilled at the harp, which was her preferred instrument, but she also loved to sing, play the guitar, and dance. Although fate would allow Simón Bolívar only a fleeting time with his mother, there were two traits he would inherit from her: a vibrant, affirmative energy and a hearty passion for dance.
AS DON JUAN VICENTE SETTLED into his new life, he began to be alarmed by Spain’s dominion over it. For fifty years he had been a loyal subject of the king, a trusted judge, governor, and military commander, but by 1776, just as the British colonies declared their independence, Don Juan, too, was dreaming of insurrection. He had good reason to. Spain’s Bourbon regime, which had high ambitions, had decided to impose a strict rule over its colonies. It put into place a number of anti-Creole laws that had a direct effect on Don Juan Vicente’s businesses. First, Venezuela was separated from the viceroyalty of New Granada, a sprawling region that originally reached from the Pacific to the Atlantic over the northern territories of South America; next, an intendant was installed in Caracas to administer economic affairs, and a captain-general to rule over political and military matters. With a direct umbilical to Madrid now, Venezuela began to suffer tighter restrictions on its ranches, mines, and plantations. The Council of the Indies, which governed the Americas from Madrid and Seville, strengthened its hold. Taxes were increased. A ubiquitous imperial presence was felt in all transactions. The Guipuzcoana Company, a powerful Basque corporation that monopolized imports and exports, was reaping great profits on every sale.
If Don Juan Vicente feared the impact of these new regulations, he saw that the blow would be more than financial. Creoles were being squeezed out of government roles. Throughout the Spanish Americas, from California to Buenos Aires, Spain began appointing only peninsulares—those born in Spain or the Canary Islands—to offices that decided important affairs. This was a sweeping, ultimately radicalizing change, reversing a culture of trust between Creoles and Spaniards that had been nurtured for more than two hundred years. In Italy, an exiled Peruvian Jesuit priest, Juan Pablo Viscardo y Guzmán, wrote angrily that it was tantamount to declaring Americans “incapable of filling, even in our own countries, places which, in the strictest right, belong to us.”
The most infuriating aspect of this for Creoles such as Don Juan Vicente was that the peninsulares being assigned the highest positions were often inferior in education and pedigree. This was similar to a sentiment held for years in British America. Both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin had registered strong objections to preferences given to British-born subjects when it was clear that the American-born were far more skilled. In the Spanish colonies, the new emissaries of the crown were largely members of Spain’s middle class: merchants or midlevel functionaries with little sophistication. As they took over the most coveted seats of power, their inadequacies were not lost on Creoles who now had to step aside. In Spain, not everyone was blind to the implications. A Bourbon minister mused that colonial subjects in the Indies might have learned to live without freedoms, but once they acquired them as a right, they weren’t going to stand by idly as they were taken away. Whether or not the court in Madrid understood the ramifications, Spain had drawn a line in the sand. Its colonial strategy shifted from consensus to confrontation, from collaboration to coercion; and to ensure its grip on the enormous wealth that America represented, it put a firm clamp on its laws.
Don Juan Vicente and his fellow Mantuanos may not have been fully aware of it, but their disgruntlement was part of a rebellious spirit sweeping the world. It was called the Enlightenment. Its seeds had been planted much earlier by the scientific revolution in Europe, which had challenged laws, authority, even faith itself. But by the time Don Juan Vicente and Doña Concepción began having children, the wheels of an extended American revolution—north and south—were already in motion. Adam Smith had published his Wealth of Nations, which advocated tearing down artificially imposed economic controls and freeing people to build stronger societies. Thomas Paine, in Common Sense, had posited that monarchies in Europe had done little more than lay “the world in blood and ashes.” In France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire argued eloquently for freedom, equality, and the will of the people. In his Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu had anticipated Don Juan Vicente’s resentment: “The Indies and Spain are two powers under the same master; but the Indies are the principal, while Spain is only an accessory.” It made no sense for political forces to try to shackle a principal to an accessory, he argued. The colonies were now inherently the more powerful of the two.
On February 24, 1782, a year and a half before the birth of the child who would bring luster to his family name, Don Juan Vicente met with two fellow Mantuanos, composed a letter proposing revolution, and sent it off to Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan colonel and dissident who had been bold enough to say publicly that his homeland should shuck its allegiance to the crown. Miranda had fought in a Spanish regiment in the Battle of Pensacola, been reprimanded by his superiors for exceeding his mandate, and had since turned against Spain, making no secret of his rancor. The letter addressed to him by the elder Bolívar reported that the noblemen of Caracas were exasperated with the insults heaped on them by Spanish authorities. The new intendant and captain-general were “treating all Americans, no matter what class, rank or circumstance, as if they were vile slaves.” The three Mantuanos urged Miranda to take up their cause of rebellion, but went on to express a certain trepidation, given Spain’s ruthless quashing of rebels elsewhere: “We want to take no steps, nor shall we take any without your advice, for in your prudence have we set all our hopes.”
So it was prudence, not valor, that was the animating spirit behind this sedition. The Mantuanos were not ready to topple their world.
DON JUAN VICENTE WOULD NEVER have imagined that the child in the cradle under his own roof would be the one to wrest independence from the colonizers, not for Venezuela alone, but for much of Spanish America. What he did know by the time his son reached a mere one and a half was that even if the family estate crumbled the boy would grow up to be a rich man. A priest had ordained it. Juan Félix Jerez de Aristiguieta, who had baptized the boy, was, like many powerful clerics of the day, a wealthy landowner with valuable properties. He was also Don Juan Vicente’s nephew. When he died in 1785 with no direct heirs, he surprised everyone by leaving the diminutive Simón his entire fortune, including a magnificent house next to the cathedral, three plantations, a total of 95,000 cacao trees, and all his slaves.
The following year, Don Juan Vicente, too, would die. The tuberculosis that had fevered him for years finally took him one warm January night in 1786 as he lay in the house on San Jacinto Street. He was not yet sixty. His son Simón was not yet three. His wife was pregnant with a fifth child, who would not see much light of day.
Don Juan Vicente’s will and testament, which he had the presence of mind to prepare even as he lay dying, was a model of diligence. In it, he reported that he owed money to no one. He laid out his ancestry and described the lofty positions he had held during his long and illustrious career. Despite his brief, halfhearted flirtation with rebellion, he insisted that his remains be buried in the family chapel in the Cathedral of Caracas, “decorated with my military insignia and interred with the privileges which I enjoy under military law.” He distributed his holdings evenly among his five children (including the one unborn), gave power of attorney to his wife and father-in-law, and added a special clause that required Doña Concepción “to carry out what I have imparted to her in order to relieve my conscience.” The phrase could only mean one thing: he had arranged for her to distribute money to his illegitimate children. The will went on to specify how many priests and friars were to accompany his coffin to its final resting place and how many fervent Masses were to be said for his soul as it approached reckoning day. Clearly, he died a worried man.
His departure might have thrown the household into turmoil had his wife not had a practical and business-minded nature. Doña Concepción buried her husband, carried her pregnancy to term, lost the baby girl a few days later, and then set about putting the family properties in order. Relying on her father and brothers to help her manage what had become a veritable conglomerate of businesses, she tried to impose some order in her children’s lives.
Simón, in particular, was an unruly child. He had been raised by his wet nurse, the black slave Hipólita, whom he would later credit as the woman “whose milk sustained my life” as well as “the only father I have ever known.” She was adoring and infinitely patient with the little boy, but she could hardly control him. Willful, irascible, in obvious need of a stern hand, he became progressively ungovernable. As much as his mother tried to enjoin the male members of her family to help discipline him, the men found his impudence perversely funny. No one scolded him, much less punished him. Eventually, she found support in none other than the Royal Audiencia, Spain’s high court in Caracas, which monitored all legal affairs. Since the boy had inherited such a large estate, and since his father was dead and unable to supervise it, the Audiencia appointed an eminent jurist to oversee the progress of young Simón. His name was José Miguel Sanz.
Sanz was the brilliant dean of the college of lawyers, known for his progressive views on education. An avid reader and writer, he had labored for years to persuade colonial authorities to allow him to import the first printing press to the colony. He was never able to accomplish it. Nevertheless, Sanz was highly respected by Spaniards, admired by fellow Creoles—what’s more, at age thirty-six, he was the very model of a conscientious young father. It would have been difficult to find a better surrogate for the boy. As administrator of Simón Bolívar’s fortune, Sanz had dutifully visited his young ward and seen for himself the extent of the boy’s cockiness. But before Simón turned six, Sanz decided to take fuller responsibility and brought him to live under his own roof.
Blind in one eye, grim in demeanor, Sanz could be an intimidating presence, even to his own wife and children, but not to Simón, who is said to have issued many a brazen response to his demands. “You’re a walking powder keg, boy!” Sanz warned him after one of Simón’s more blatant insubordinations. “Better run, then,” the six-year-old told him, “or I’ll burn you.”
As punishment for his many transgressions, Sanz locked Simón in a room on the second floor of his house and instructed his wife to leave him there while he went off to see about his many court cases. Bored, exasperated, the boy yelled and made his fury known, and Sanz’s wife, taking pity, tied sweets and freshly baked breads to a long pole and passed them to him through an open window. She swore Simón to secrecy, making him promise not to reveal her disobedience. Every afternoon when the lawyer returned and asked how he had behaved, she simply smiled and said the child had been the essence of tranquillity.
Eventually, Sanz hired a learned Capuchin monk, Padre Francisco de Andújar, to come to his house and give Simón a moral education. The mathematician priest, hoping to ingratiate himself with his student, tempered instruction with a liberal dose of entertaining stories, but no amount of patience or charm could budge the boy from what he was: a joker, a prankster, a pampered child. It’s not clear how long Simón remained under Sanz’s care or whether he actually spent nights under his roof, but certainly before his eighth birthday he was back in the house on San Jacinto Street. By then, his mother’s health was failing and she was finding it difficult to focus on the management of her family, much less the comportment of her younger son. Worried that she might infect her children with her disease, she quarantined herself on the sugar plantation at San Mateo and left them and the servants to their own devices. Simón spent his days cavorting with the slaves’ children, running wild.
If Doña Concepción had one driving ambition during her swift decline, it was to secure for her older son, Juan Vicente, the marquisate that her father-in-law had purchased so many years before. The Palacios family, unlike the Bolívars, had always attached great importance to prestige and nobility, and when Don Juan Vicente de Bolívar had died, making the title potentially available to her sons, Doña Concepción had sent her brother Esteban to Spain to hurry along the enterprise. When Esteban reported that the proceedings had come to a halt because of Josefa Marín de Narváez’s questionable lineage, Don Feliciano Palacios called off the venture, unwilling to press a case that could reveal unwanted blood in the Bolívars and potentially smear them all. To be sure, managing the Bolívar fortunes had become a cash cow for the Palacios. The income from the properties that stood to be inherited by Juan Vicente and Simón was supporting their mother’s siblings. The in-laws had been living on Bolívar assets for years.
On one of her long, recuperative visits to San Mateo, Doña Concepción stayed into the rainy season, and her affliction took a grave turn for the worse. She returned to Caracas and died of acute tuberculosis on July 6, 1792, leaving her four children in her elderly father’s care. Not entirely well himself, Don Feliciano Palacios took up his pen and wrote to Esteban in Madrid, delivering the news with admirable equanimity: “Concepción decided to lay her illness to rest and she expelled a great deal of blood through her mouth, continuing her deterioration until this morning at eleven thirty, at which point God took it upon Himself to claim her.” It had been a long and grueling death: she had bled for seven days.
Once his daughter was interred in the Bolívar family chapel, Don Feliciano dedicated himself to arranging the marriages of his orphaned granddaughters. Within two months, he married fifteen-year-old María Antonia to her distant cousin Pablo Clemente Francia. Three months after that, he wed Juana, who was only thirteen, to her uncle Dionisio Palacios. As for his grandsons, Don Feliciano decided to leave Simón and Juan Vicente—then nine and eleven, respectively—in the house on San Jacinto Street, under the supervision of the Bolívar family servants. He had a connecting passageway built from that house to his own, so that the boys could spend days with him and then retire to their old, familiar beds at night. It seemed a rational enough solution, comforting the children with an illusion of permanence and stability. That flimsy solace did not last long, however. Don Feliciano Palacios died the following year, leaving his grandsons to face yet another loss in their waning family universe.
The boys were immensely wealthy, with a net worth equivalent today to at least $40 million, and because of it, they would never go ignored. But money had bought them little happiness. Within the first decade of life, Simón had lost his father, mother, grandparents, a sister, and most of his aunts and uncles on the Bolívar side. That so few Bolívars had survived to lay claim to the family fortune convinced the Palacios it was theirs to take. So confident was Don Feliciano Palacios of this rightful heritage that he took care before his death to make sure that all the wealth eventually flowed to his own children. He drew up a will, making his sons legal guardians of the Bolívar boys. Twelve-year-old Juan Vicente was put in the custody of his uncle Juan Félix Palacios and transferred to a hacienda fifty miles away. Ten-year-old Simón was entrusted to his uncle Carlos, an ill-humored, lazy, and grasping bachelor who lived with his sisters in Don Feliciano’s house—at the other end of the passageway.
So busy did Carlos become in the venture of squandering Bolívar profits that he had little time for his impressionable young charge. He relegated the boy’s welfare to his sisters and servants. Ever headstrong, Simón began to spend time in the company of street boys, neglecting everything his tutors had tried to teach him, learning the vulgar language of the time. Whenever he could, he headed for the back alleys of Caracas, or took a horse from the family corral and rode out into the surrounding countryside. He avoided his studies and turned his attention instead to the highly imperfect world around him, a world that Spain had made. He would not understand much of what he saw until later, until he had crisscrossed the continent as a full-grown man. But it was an education that would serve him for the rest of his life.
FOR TWO HUNDRED YEARS, FROM the mid-1500s through the mid-1700s, the world that Spain had made had struggled against fiscal failure. The empire whose motto had once been a rousing Plus Ultra! had glutted world markets with silver, thwarted the economic growth of its colonies, and brought itself more than once to the brink of financial ruin. Nowhere was Spain’s misguided fiscal strategy more evident than in the streets of Caracas in the late 1700s, where a deep rage against the madre patria was on the rise.
The case of the Spanish American colonies had no precedent in modern history: a vital colonial economy was being forced, at times by violent means, to kowtow to an underdeveloped mother country. The principal—as Montesquieu had predicted a half century before—was now slave to the accessory. Even as England burst into the industrial age, Spain made no attempt to develop factories; it ignored the road to modernization and stuck stubbornly to its primitive, agricultural roots. But the Bourbon kings and their courts could not ignore the pressures of the day: Spain’s population was burgeoning; its infrastructure, tottering; there was a pressing need to increase the imperial revenue. Rather than try something new, the Spanish kings decided to hold on firmly to what they had.
At midnight on April 1, 1767, all Jesuit priests were expelled from Spanish America. Five thousand clerics, most of them American-born, were marched to the coast, put on ships, and deported to Europe, giving the crown unfettered reign over education as well as over the widespread property of the Church’s missions. King Carlos IV made it very clear that he did not consider learning advisable for America: Spain would be better off, and its subjects easier to manage, if it kept its colonies in ignorance.
Absolute rule had always been the hallmark of Spanish colonialism. From the outset, each viceroy and captain-general had reported directly to the Spanish court, making the king the supreme overseer of American resources. Under his auspices, Spain had wrung vast quantities of gold and silver from the New World and sold them in Europe as raw material. It controlled the entire world supply of cocoa and rerouted it to points around the globe from storehouses in Cádiz. It had done much the same with copper, indigo, sugar, pearls, emeralds, cotton, wool, tomatoes, potatoes, and leather. To prevent the colonies from trading these goods themselves, it imposed an onerous system of domination. All foreign contact was forbidden. Contraband was punishable by death. Movement between the colonies was closely monitored. But as the years of colonial rule wore on, oversight had grown lax. The war that had flared between Britain and Spain in 1779 had crippled Spanish commerce, prompting a lively contraband trade. A traffic of forbidden books flourished. It was said that all Caracas was awash in smuggled goods. To put a stop to this, Spain moved to overhaul its laws, impose harsher ones, and forbid Americans even the most basic freedoms.
The Tribunal of the Inquisition, imposed in 1480 by Ferdinand and Isabel to keep a firm hold on empire, was given more power. Its laws, which called for penalties of death or torture, were diligently enforced. Books or newspapers could not be published or sold without the permission of Spain’s Council of the Indies. Colonials were barred from owning printing presses. The implementation of every document, the approval of every venture, the mailing of every letter was a long, costly affair that required government approval. No foreigners, not even Spaniards, could visit the colonies without permission from the king. All non-Spanish ships in American waters were deemed enemy craft and attacked.
Spain also fiercely suppressed American entrepreneurship. Only the Spanish-born were allowed to own stores or sell goods in the streets. No American was permitted to plant grapes, own vineyards, grow tobacco, make spirits, or propagate olive trees—Spain brooked no competition. It earned $60 million a year, after all (the equivalent of almost a billion today), by selling goods back to its colonies.
But, in a bizarre act of self-immolation, Spain enforced strict regulations on its colonies’ productivity and initiative. Creoles were subject to punishing taxes; Indians or mestizos could labor only in menial trades; black slaves could work only in the fields, or as domestics in houses. No American was allowed to own a mine; nor could he work a vein of ore without reporting it to colonial authorities. Factories were forbidden, unless they were registered sugar mills. Basque businesses controlled all the shipping. Manufacturing was rigorously banned, although Spain had no competing manufacturing industry. Most galling of all, the revenue raised from the new, exorbitantly high taxes—a profit of $46 million a year—was not used to improve conditions in the colonies. The money was shipped back, in its entirety, to Spain.
Americans balked at this. “Nature has separated us from Spain by immense seas,” exiled Peruvian Jesuit Viscardo y Guzmán wrote in 1791. “A son who found himself at such a distance would be a fool, if, in managing his own affairs, he constantly awaited the decision of his father.” It was as potent a commentary on the inherent flaws of colonialism as Thomas Jefferson’s “A Summary View of the Rights of British America.”
A rich orphan boy wandering the streets of Caracas would not have understood the economic tumult that churned about him, but the human tumult he could not fail to see. Everywhere he looked, the streets were teeming with blacks and mulattos. The colony was overwhelmingly populated by pardos, the mixed-race descendants of black slaves. European slave ships had just sold 26,000 Africans into Caracas—the largest infusion of slaves the colony would ever experience. One out of ten Venezuelans was a black slave; half of the population was slaves’ descendants. Though Spain had prohibited race mixing, the evidence that those laws had been flouted was all about him. Caracas’s population had grown by more than a third in the course of Simón Bolívar’s young life, and its ranks swarmed, as never before, with a veritable spectrum of color. There were mestizos, mixed-race offspring of whites and Indians, almost always the product of illegitimate births. There were also pureblood Indians, although they were few, their communities reduced to a third of their original numbers. Those who weren’t killed off by disease were pushed deep into the countryside, where they subsisted as marginal tribes. Whites, on the other hand, were a full quarter of the population, but the great majority of these were either poor Canary Islanders, whom the Creoles considered racially tainted and markedly inferior to themselves, or light-skinned mestizos who passed themselves off as white. Even a child, kicking stones in the back alleys of this crowded city, could see that a precise, color-coded hierarchy was at work.
The question of race had always been problematic in Spanish America. The laws that forced Indians to pay tribute to the crown, either through forced labor or taxation, had provoked violent race hatreds. As centuries passed and colored populations grew, the system for determining “whiteness” became ever more corrupt, generating more hostility. Spain began selling Cédulas de Gracias al Sacar, certificates that granted a light-skinned colored person the rights every white automatically had: the right to be educated, to be hired into better jobs, to serve in the priesthood, to hold public office, to marry whites, to inherit wealth. The sale of Cédulas created new income for Madrid; but it was also a canny social strategy. From Spain’s point of view, the ability to buy “whiteness” would raise colored hopes and keep Creole masters from getting cocky. The result, however, was very different. Race in Spanish America became an ever-greater obsession.
By the time of Bolívar’s birth, a number of race rebellions had erupted in the colonies. The trouble began in Peru in 1781, when a man who called himself Túpac Amaru II and claimed to be a direct descendant of the last ruling Inca kidnapped a Spanish governor, had him publicly executed, and marched on Cuzco with six thousand Indians, killing Spaniards along the way. Diplomacy hadn’t worked. Túpac Amaru II had first written to the crown’s envoy, imploring him to abolish the cruelties of Indian tribute. When his letters went ignored, he gathered a vast army and issued a warning to the Creoles:
I have decided to shake off the unbearable weight and rid this bad government of its leaders. . . . If you elect to support me, you will suffer no ill consequences, not in your lives or on your plantations, but if you reject this warning, you will face ruin and reap the fury of my legions, which will reduce your city to ashes. . . . I have seventy thousand men at my command.
In the end, the royalist armies crushed the rebellion, costing the Indians some 100,000 lives. Túpac Amaru II was captured and brought to the main square of Cuzco, where the Spanish visitador asked him for the names of his accomplices. “I only know of two,” the prisoner replied, “and they are you and I: You as the oppressor of my country, and I because I wish to rescue it from your tyrannies.” Infuriated by the impudence, the Spaniard ordered his men to cut out the Indian’s tongue and draw and quarter him on the spot. But the four horses to which they tied his wrists and ankles would not comply. The soldiers slit Túpac Amaru’s throat instead; cut off his head, hands, and feet; and displayed these on stakes at various crossroads in the city. The torture and execution were repeated throughout the day until all members of his family were killed. Seeing his mother’s tongue ripped from her head, Túpac Amaru’s youngest child issued a piercing shriek. Legend has it that the sound of that cry was so heartrending, so unforgettable, that it signaled the end of Spanish dominion in America.
Word of Túpac Amaru II’s fate reverberated throughout the colonies, inflaming and terrifying all who would contemplate a similar rebellion. For blacks, for whom slavery’s depredations were ever more untenable, the urge for an uprising only grew; they had nothing to lose. But for Creoles, the thought of insurgency now spurred a fear that revenge would come not only from Spain but from a massive colored population. Those fears were tested in New Granada months later, when a Creole-led army of twenty thousand marched against the viceroyalty in Bogotá to protest high taxes. One of the leaders, José Antonio Galán, swept by the fever of the moment, proclaimed the black slaves free and urged them to turn their machetes against their masters. Galán was executed—shot and hanged—as were his collaborators, and, for the moment at least, Spain succeeded in quashing the malcontents with a brutal hand.
But Spain could hardly quash the eloquent calls for liberty that were issuing from the European Enlightenment and traveling, despite all injunctions against foreign literature, to the colonies. In 1789, the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” was published in France. Five years later, one of the leading intellectuals in the viceroyalty of New Granada, Antonio Nariño, secretly translated it along with the American Declaration of Independence and smuggled the documents to like-minded Creoles throughout the continent. “L’injustice à la fin produit l’indépendance!” was the rallying cry—Injustice gives rise to independence!—a line from Voltaire’s Tancrède. Nariño was arrested and sent to the dungeons of Africa. But in the interim, as French republicans stormed the Bastille and guillotined the royal family, as Marie Antoinette’s severed head was held high for all Paris to see, a bloody echo resounded on the streets of Santo Domingo, and Venezuelans, too, took up the battle cry.
It wasn’t the stately ascent to independence that intellectuals like Nariño had envisioned. It was an insurrection led by the son of slaves. José Leonardo Chirino—half black, half Indian—had traveled from Venezuela to Santo Domingo and seen firsthand how the slave revolt there had virtually exterminated the island’s whites and transformed that colony—once the most productive in the New World—into the black Republic of Haiti. He returned to Venezuela in 1795 and raised a revolutionary force of three hundred blacks, who plundered the haciendas, killed white landowners, and terrorized the city of Coro. But it didn’t take long for the Spanish to subdue them. Chirino was chased down and decapitated, his head displayed in an iron cage on the road between Coro and Caracas, his hands sent to two different towns due west. There was a crystal-clear lesson in this for the disgruntled Mantuanos: those willing to lay down their lives for liberty might also want equality. A revolution could truly turn.
Simón Bolívar doubtless heard news of these events in the street, in the stables, in the kitchen, as he listened to the frightened servants. He was all of twelve years old.
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