Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independenceby Robert Harvey
In this "informative and inspiring volume" (Chicago Tribune), Robert Harvey reconstructs in vivid detail the gripping story of Latin America's independence and those who made it possible. Treated with contempt by their Spanish overlords, given to dissipation and grandiose proclamations, these fearless men nonetheless achieved military feats/b>/b>
In this "informative and inspiring volume" (Chicago Tribune), Robert Harvey reconstructs in vivid detail the gripping story of Latin America's independence and those who made it possible. Treated with contempt by their Spanish overlords, given to dissipation and grandiose proclamations, these fearless men nonetheless achieved military feats unsurpassed elsewhere in history. The aristocratic Simón Bolívar led his guerilla armies through swamp, jungle, and Andean ice to surprise his enemies and liberate most of northern South America. The inarticulate San Martín joined Bernardo O'Higgins, illegitimate son of a Spanish viceroy, to do the same in the south. These and five others waged the war for freedom against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, the American Revolution, the collapse of the Spanish Empire, and the revolutionary ferment of the nineteenth century. Despite the success of their revolutions, all seven liberators died in poverty, disgrace, or oblivion.
This fascinating and dramatic story takes in a vast range of martial experience, from butchery in the torrid Orinoco basin to a cavalry fought with lances 13,000 feet up in the mountains of Peru. It is one of the greatest and least-known epics of history, told here in unprecedented detail.
Times Literary Supplement
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Read an Excerpt
On 28 March 1750 a boy was born into a peaceful, sleepy, temperate city of red-roofed houses with whitewashed walls. Sebastián Francisco de Miranda was the son of a first-generation immigrant from Spain, of distinguished family but looked upon with scorn by the old Caracas aristocracy; his mother, however, was of good Caracas stock. He had an idyllic childhood, the eldest of two brothers and three sisters, playing with neighbouring children, eating perfumed chocolates and sipping cold drinks in the heat. Instructed first by private tutors, he then attended the Academy of Santa Rosa, followed by the Royal University.
The Captaincy-General Audiencia of Caracas was permeated by a sense of hierarchy and discrimination. There were only about 200,000 whites, outnumbered slightly by the 210,000 Indians and overwhelmingly by the 430,000 free blacks and 60,000 black slaves. The white overclass was uncomfortably aware that it was sitting on a volcano. Yet the whites themselves were sharply divided. The backbone of the country comprised the old settlers, the criollos, the most elevated of whom traced their descent from the conquerors of the continent three hundred years before. They regarded themselves as of (usually exaggerated) noble Spanish descent, but first and foremost as American citizens; and many bore traces of racial intermarriage. They looked with hatred upon the swaggering officials from Spain or the Canary Isles, and with contempt upon Spaniards newly arrived to make their fortunes. In many ways, this colonial aristocracy was notattractive: the contemporary historian Miguel José Sanz describes them as ill-educated (Spain deliberately discouraged education in the colonies), vain, proud, and prone to `abusing the prerogatives of their birth because they were ignorant of what these were for'.
Francisco was envied for his wealth and snubbed for his Spanish blood. In his teens he was refused entry to the `White Battalion', the élite junior army cadet corps, and even threatened with prison when he challenged his exclusion. The Spanish government took his side, and he was forcibly admitted which hardly increased his popularity; the criollo nobility did, however, manage to keep him out of the prestigious senior corps, the Royal Corps of Cadets. Conceited and overbearing, apparently unconcerned about making enemies, he was delighted to be invited subsequently to serve in the army in Spain. In January 1771, not yet twenty-one, he embarked for the two-month journey across the Atlantic to Cadiz. On arrival he set off on a month-long tour of Spain, ending in Madrid. There he found lodgings, studied mathematics, and collected the first volumes of what was to become an impressive library. From the beginning Miranda was a howling snob: from the official college of arms he obtained copies of his family arms and tree, showing his descent from the dukes of Miranda, one of Spain's oldest and most distinguished families.
In December 1772 he finally joined the Spanish army, as an infantry captain. From the first his superiors disapproved of his haughtiness, and of an independence of mind that verged on insubordination. He cut a strong and unusual figure, tall and well-built, always immaculately and expensively dressed, but with a prominent nose which detracted from otherwise refined features, a small, pursed mouth with a disdainful expression and strong, penetrating, determined, intelligent eyes. His chin jutted confidently, and his hair fell forward insouciantly over a large brow. His looks made him irresistible to women, and as vain as a peacock.
He was despatched to serve in Spain's African colonies. In 1775 Abdul Hamid, the Moroccan Pasha, launched a war to expel the Spanish from his country, and Miranda found himself caught up in the siege of the fortress of Melilla. He distinguished himself by leading 230 men in a night attack which succeeded in spiking Hamid's main battery of cannon. The Moroccan way of war slitting solidiers' throats, executing one of their own generals for failing to break the Spanish resistance impressed Miranda at an early stage with a horror of unnecessary bloodshed. He himself narrowly avoided death or worse when three bullets, passing between his legs, tore his trousers.
In Spain, Miranda's abilities were recognised, but he continued to be prickly, and rude to his superiors, feeling that he was treated as a second-class soldier because of his American origins which was probably true. In his mid-twenties he was twice briefly imprisoned in Cadiz for disobedience. Then a new commanding officer accused him of withholding funds he had been given to pay a merchant who supplied his regiment, and of stripping and beating two of his soldiers, wounding one with his sword. Miranda denied the charges, claiming that an adjutant was responsible for the embezzlement and a soldier for the beatings. In truth, such deeds seem out of character: although a strict disciplinarian as a commander, Miranda was neither impetuous nor cruel; nor was he financially dishonest.
But the case was brought to the attention of the inspector-general of the army, the Conde de O'Reilly, who like most of his superiors intensely disliked the bumptious Miranda, and eventually reached the ears of the King himself; Miranda found himself confined to routine duties. He subsequently visited Gibraltar, where he was invited to the governor's New Year Ball: it was the beginning of a lifelong passion for all things British, and it may be that he was even recruited by the British secret service. With his military career in the doldrums, nursing a grudge over his shabby treatment by the Spaniards he had so passionately admired a decade earlier, and alive to the intriguing rife in Cadiz, a hotbed of Latin American grumbling against Spanish excesses, it was probably about this time that he first began to nurture his revolutionary views.
The American War of Independence broke out in 1775; under the Franco-Spanish alliance of 1779 Spain was obliged to help the fight against the British, and Miranda, appointed aide to General Juan Manuel de Cagigal, the new Spanish commander in Cuba, distinguished himself in the two-month siege of the British stronghold of Pensacola in the spring of 1781. Promoted lieutenant-colonel, he helped a French fleet reach Chesapeake Bay to assist George Washington at the battle of Yorktown in the autumn of that year. At about this time, Miranda's detractors accused him of having permitted a British officer to inspect the defences of Havana which if true would have amounted to treason. Cagigal, however, demonstrated his confidence in his aide by letting him supervise an exchange of prisoners between Spain and Britain in Jamaica. In 1782 Cagigal and Miranda were sent to the Bahamas to accept the surrender of the capital, New Providence, by the British.
By the age of thirty-two Miranda had the reputation of an able and prominent officer. But if once he had resented the snubs of the criollo aristocracy of Caracas, he now much more deeply disliked the arrogant Spaniards he had served for more than ten years. The American War of Independence led him to conclude that the liberation of the Spanish colonies could not be long delayed; it was unnatural for such vast and far-flung territories to be ruled by a country so many thousands of miles away.
Friends and relations in Venezuela bombarded him with letters complaining of the brutality of Spanish rule under the new Captain-General, Bernardo Galvez 'a new Nero and Philip II rolled into one!' According to Miranda's correspondents, Galvez had `just sent an order to all governors that no American gentleman may travel abroad without the King's permission'. They begged Miranda, Venezuela's `eldest son', to save them: `The least sign from you will find us ready to follow you as our leader to the end, and to shed the last drop of our blood for causes that are great and honourable ... in our name and that of our entire province you may make compacts or contracts with our full power and consent. Also, if you judge it convenient, you may negotiate with foreign powers in order to release us from this accursed captivity.'
Returning to Havana Miranda was suddenly arrested, on Galvez's orders, accused of engaging in contraband clearly a trumped-up charge and sentenced to ten years in gaol. Cagigal, standing as his guarantor, had him released, and Miranda spent several months under a cloud, sometimes in hiding. He had reached a turning-point: fearful of rearrest, although he was still protected by Cagigal, beset by enemies, suspected of spying and intrigue, he planned, although it was tantamount to desertion, to travel back to Europe, via North America, in order to prove his innocence to the King of Spain in person. In June 1783 he set off, very bitter about the way he had been treated.
He left in style, with a piano, a sofa, and his growing library. He disembarked in North Carolina, where he confided to his diary his astonishment at the sexual liberty afforded single women there, while married ones were forced to live like recluses in their homes. In Philadelphia he was greeted by senior government officials, and in December at last met George Washington. Impressed by the American leader's entry into the city, `like the redeemer entering Jerusalem', he found him moderate and urbane but curiously lacking in intelligence, and rather taciturn. In New York Miranda met Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Paine, and visited the principal battle sites of the war, Saratoga, Albany, Newhaven and Boston (where he met Lafayette who impressed him not at all: `a mediocrity accompanied by activity and perpetual motion').
He was appalled by the low level of debate in Congress, and by the representatives' obsession with trade. `Why, in a democracy whose basis is Virtue, is there no place assigned to it? On the contrary all the dignity and powers are given to Property, which is the blight of such a democracy. Another point is the contradiction I noticed between admitting as one of the rights of mankind that of worshipping a Supreme Being in the manner and form in which it may please one, yet afterwards excluding a man from office if he did not profess Christianity.' Miranda's visit to America hardened his conviction that his own continent could and must secure its freedom. He became suspicious that the United States' intentions were expansionist when Thomas Jefferson argued that the Confederacy should be thought of as the heart `from which all America, north and south, should be peopled' and suggested that Spain's colonies could be gained `piece by piece'.
England, however, held an intellectual fascination for him, and after a year and a half in the United States Miranda arrived in London early in 1785. He lodged at the Royal Hotel and there penned a vigorous defence of his actions to the King of Spain, resigning his commission and seeking a formal exculpation. Even at this stage, it seems, he regarded himself as a loyal Spanish subject bent on having his good name restored. The Spanish Embassy in London received him courteously, but there was no reply from Madrid to his letters.
His extraordinary blend of charm and self-importance proved as seductive in London as it had in the United States. A poseur of a very characteristic Latin American kind, Miranda soon numbered among his friends although the closeness of the relationship may have been more obvious to him than to them Jeremy Bentham, Lord Howe, Lord Sydney, Lord Shelburne, Lord Fitzherbert and General Rainsford. Snubbed by Madrid, he decided the time was ripe for public advocacy of independence for Spain's colonies. The Political Herald & Review recorded that:
The jealousy which confined the appointments of government in Spanish America to native Spaniards, and established other distinctions between these and their descendants on the other side of the Atlantic, has been a two-edged sword, and cut two ways. If it has hitherto preserved the sovereignty of Spain in those parts, it has sown the seeds of a deep resentment among the people. Conferences are held, combinations are formed in secret among a race of men whom we shall distinguish by the appellation of Spanish Provincials. The example of North America is the great subject of discourse, and the grand object of imitation. In London, we are well assured, there is at this moment a Spanish American of great consequence and possessed of the confidence of his fellow-citizens, who aspires to the glory of being the deliverer of his country ... This gentleman, having visited every province in North America, came to England, which he regards as the mother country of liberty, and the school for political knowledge ...
He is a man of sublime vision and penetrating genius gifted in modern tongues, learned and worldly-wise. He has spent many years studying politics ... We admire his talents, we admire his virtues and for the least wish well to the most noble aspiration that can occupy the mind of any mortal, that of giving the benefits of freedom to millions of his fellow citizens.
This glorious tribute signalled to the Spaniards that Miranda was not only beyond redemption, but dangerous as well.
Meet the Author
Robert Harvey is a distinguished journalist and former member of Parliament. He is the author of numerous books including, most recently, A Few Bloody Noses: The Realities and Mythologies of the American Revolution.
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