World History 2 120 - 8.3.1 The Northern Liberation Movement

Between 1807 and 1810 in the judicial district of Caracas, Venezuela (in the Viceroyalty of New Granada), royalists and patriot creoles from the upper-class elite struggled to create a self-governing body. Then, on April 19, 1810, the creoles of Caracas deposed the Spanish administrative officers and created a junta to govern in the name of Fernando VII. The junta, whose authority was recognized by other cities in the Viceroyalty of New Granada, then called for the creation of a congress, which met for the first time in March 1811.

Not all in the congress favored governing in the name of the still-imprisoned king of Spain. On July 5, 1811, patriot members who believed the body should instead govern on behalf of the people of New Granada officially declared the independence of Venezuela, making it the first South American republic. Royalists struck back. They received support among Venezuela’s large African and pardo population, whose interests had been advanced when the Spanish government gave them the opportunity to purchase White status with the cédula real. White creoles, like the patriots in the Venezuelan congress, had opposed greater rights for people who were not of European ancestry. Cities in the western part of New Granada had not recognized the authority of the Caracas junta or sent representatives to the Venezuelan congress, and they also proclaimed their loyalty to the king.

The royalists received unexpected additional support for their cause when, on the Thursday before Easter in 1812, a massive earthquake hit Caracas, killing thousands. The Catholic clergy, who supported the royalist cause, convinced the lower social classes that God had punished Caracas because of its disregard for the king’s authority, which had been granted by God. The royalist members of the government reinstituted the district’s previous political links to Spain, and a bitter civil war between royalists and patriots ensued.

Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palácios, part of the creole elite and impassioned about the new ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, entered the fight in 1811 as an appointed colonel of the rebel patriot army. After his first defeat, he took refuge on the island of Curaçao and then fled to the city of Cartagena (in modern-day Colombia). From this new base, he was able to launch a successful campaign to invade Caracas in 1813 and reestablish the republic (Figure 8.16).

In this painting, Simon Bolivar wears a military uniform and rides a white horse. Mountains and clouds are visible in the background.
Figure 8.16 The Venezuelan libertador Simón Bolívar in Arturo Michelena’s 1898 painting, made almost seventy years after Bolívar’s death. (credit: “Retrato ecuestre de Bolivar” by Galería de Arte Nacional/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Bolívar’s success in battle was based on his commitment to fighting to the last soldier, in what became known as “war to the death” (guerra a muerte). This strategy aimed at radicalizing the conflict and reducing support for the royalist cause. For example, all Spaniards who did not actively support the movement for independence were sentenced to death. Bolívar’s dramatic military plan left entire provinces depopulated and kept his army almost constantly in battle. His success was short-lived, however. In 1814, defeated in Venezuela, Bolívar returned to Cartagena.

In 1815 after Napoléon Bonaparte’s fall, the newly restored Spanish king Fernando VII sent military forces to South America to shore up his absolute authority. These Spanish forces were able to restore colonial power and defeat Bolívar and his patriot troops. Once again ousted, Bolívar sought shelter in the British colony of Jamaica, where he penned his “Letter from Jamaica” to a newspaper. In this candid document, he outlined his vision of a unified Spanish America and reiterated his defense of independence and conviction that it would triumph.

The most prescient part of the document was Bolívar’s extended analysis of the past, present, and future of Spanish America. The letter reveals his creole bias in its argument that the lower social classes were not equal to the task of gaining independence. Bolívar stressed that the mixed-race people of the Americas were condemned to civic ignorance, oppression, and vice because the Spanish colonial system had acted as a tyrannical father and deprived them of liberty, equality, property, and security. They were forced onto the lowest social rungs, where they were unable to participate in the sociopolitical and economic affairs of their country.

Bolívar’s emphasis on his country’s lack of preparation for self-government was used to reinforce his claim that Spanish Americans in general needed firm guidance and a powerful executive in their newly independent nations. Unlike many others who simply advocated for independence from Spain, Bolívar focused on the need for a strong central government rather than the federal system adopted by Mexico in its Constitution of 1824, in which power rested primarily with local authorities. Bolívar was also a promoter of Spanish American unity, and he expressed hope for a league of American nations whose representatives would regularly meet and assist each other.

Link to Learning

Read Simón Bolívar’s “Letter from Jamaica” from 1815, in which he analyzes his Spanish American heritage. As you read, pay attention to his discussion of the types of government he believes will work best in Spanish America and which will not.

From Jamaica, Bolívar went to Haiti, where he received asylum and economic assistance from President Alexandre Pétion. Though there was a clear bond of sympathy between them, their relationship had its problems. Pétion’s regime was genuinely liberal, but there were schisms within its ranks, and the international situation was shaky—neither France nor the United States had yet recognized Haiti as a nation. Pétion’s assistance was therefore discreet. Bolívar received hard cash, armaments, and a recruited Black military force under one condition: Put an end to slavery in the newly independent nations.

With the help of those forces, Bolívar sailed back to the Orinoco River delta in Venezuela and turned the tide in favor of the patriot army. He was able to do so, however, only after gaining the support of the mixed-race cowboys, the llaneros, who dominated much of the region, and of their chieftain José Antonio Páez. Thousands of llaneros joined Bolívar’s army at this critical juncture. A key reason for his success was likely his ability to enlist both the marginalized mixed-race and Black populations and the creole elites in his cause. It was only after he allowed the common people to join his army that he was able to consistently win the wars of independence, whose decisive victory came at Boyacá, Colombia, in August 1819. After liberating Venezuela, Bolívar took the rest of New Granada. Bogotá fell only after he had led an army of twenty-five hundred men up to the Orinoco River, climbed over the Andes Mountains, crossed flooded rivers and plains in the midst of the rainy season, with Bolívar carrying soldiers who had become too weak to stand, and descended on the enemy.

In 1819, Bolívar established the Congress of Angostura (in modern-day Ciudad Bolívar in Venezuela), which approved the creation of the nation of Colombia (encompassing modern Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador). The congress vested Bolívar with dictatorial powers. He rejected monarchy, with its potential to lead to dictatorship, but he also warned against federalism and popular democracy, for which he felt Spanish Americans were unprepared. He advocated a republican form of government anchored in a powerful hereditary senate. The senate—formed by educated and suitable individuals—was to be a sound intermediary between the people and the government. In his Angostura Address, Bolívar outlined his ideas about how to balance freedom and order as well as how to navigate sensitive race relations. Military brilliance does not necessarily signal political skill, however, and neither Bolívar’s fledgling dream of a representative republican system nor his ideal of pan-American unity were shared by others in the region. With time, it became clear those ideas were not to succeed.

In an 1821 gathering in the city of Cúcuta (in present-day Colombia), patriot representatives from Venezuela and New Granada (also present-day Colombia) decided on the unification of the former territories of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama) into one federative nation called Gran Colombia. Bolívar put Francisco de Paula Santander in charge of New Granada’s regional administration. The revolutionary Cúcuta Congress outlined a liberal program of reforms and adopted a centralized constitution and the gradual granting of citizenship rights to all.

The most pressing Issue was slavery. Enslaved and mixed-race people demanded emancipation, which had been promised in the rhetoric of national liberation and which Bolívar had assured Pétion he would accomplish. In 1820, he ordered Santander to promise emancipation and recruit an army of five thousand willing enslaved people. Afraid of alienating the region’s mine and landowners, who depended on slave labor, Santander limited the recruitment to three thousand and instructed the rest to return to their masters.

Bolívar’s position—already presented in his Jamaica letter’s critique of Spanish colonial control—was clearly reflected in the constitution. Accordingly, the republic of New Granada, the first to grant its citizens the responsibilities of self-government, limited voting rights to male property owners. Minorities (women, poor White people, and people of African descent) still yearned for freedom and equality. The Abolition of Slavery Law, enacted by the Cúcuta Congress, delegated a gradual and complicated process to committees of local notables, which simply prolonged the institution of slavery.

Link to Learning

Read “The Struggle for Abolition in Gran Colombia” by Harold A. Bierck, Jr., to explore cultural inequality in Gran Colombia.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax