Simón Bolívar played a significant role in the South American independence movement in the early 19th century. A Venezuelan soldier and statesman, Bolívar led several campaigns against Spanish rule, ultimately contributing to the liberation of six countries and to him being honoured with the sobriquet ‘El Libertador’, or ‘The Liberator’.
As well as lending his name to the modern country of Bolivia, Bolívar simultaneously served as president of Peru and of Gran Colombia, the first union of independent nations in Latin America which included present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador.
Here are 10 facts about Simón Bolívar, an extraordinary figure revered as a hero of South American history.
1. Simón Bolívar came from one of the richest families in Venezuela
Bolívar was born into a wealthy family in Caracas, today the capital and largest city of Venezuela. He was born on 24 July 1783, the same year that the American Revolution ended. He was educated abroad, arriving in Spain aged 16. In Europe, he watched Napoleon’s coronation and met with Enlightenment scientist Alexander von Humboldt.
Bolívar was the son of a colonel and his noble, 23-years-younger wife. His parents were extremely prosperous. They were owners of numerous businesses, incorporating a copper mine, rum distillery, plantations and cattle ranches and a labour force of hundreds of slaves.
Simón was named for the first Bolívar to emigrate from Spain two centuries earlier, while through his mother he was related to the powerful German Xedlers.
2. The loss of his wife changed Bolívar’s life
Prior to his return to South America, Bolívar married Maria Teresa del Toro Alayza in 1802, whom he had met in Madrid two years earlier. The couple had only been married for several months when Maria died after contracting yellow fever in Caracas.
Bolívar never remarried, preferring short-lived flings. He later described Maria’s tragic death as the reason for his dedication to his political career.
3. Simón Bolívar financed independence movements across South America
There was deep frustration with Spanish rule in Caracas in the late 1700s. Its absolute rule strangled colonies, which were forbidden from trading with each other, while entrepreneurship was suppressed. The product of the monarchy’s repressive taxes went entirely to Spain.
Bolívar began campaigning for independence in Latin America in 1808, prompted by the distraction of the Peninsula War which raged in Spain. He funded independence movements from his own family’s wealth. Bolívar’s wars of independence would last until 1825, with the liberation of Upper Peru, by which time much of that wealth had been exhausted by the cause.
4. Simón Bolívar pushed the Spanish from Latin American shores
With no formal training as a soldier, Bolívar nevertheless proved to be a charismatic military leader capable of pushing the Spanish from Latin America. In her biography of the man, Marie Arana captures the scale of his success in “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.
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. Marie Arana, Bolivar: American Liberator (W&N, 2014)
5. Bolívar betrayed the revolutionary Francisco de Miranda
Simón Bolívar was not the only soldier with a mind for independence from Spain. Other glorified revolutionary figures include Argentinian José de San Martín and Bolívar’s forerunner in Venezuela, Francisco de Miranda. Miranda had participated in the American Revolutionary War and the French Revolution before a failed attempt to liberate Venezuela in 1806.
After a coup in 1810, Bolívar persuaded Miranda to return. However, when a Spanish army entered the territory in 1812, Miranda capitulated. For this act of apparent treason, Bolívar arrested Miranda. Extraordinarily, he turned him over to the Spanish, who imprisoned him for the next four years until his death.
6. He ruled with supreme power
After securing independence for all of Spanish South America, Bolívar dedicated himself to consolidating the former colonies including the majority that made up Gran Colombia. Yet wavering confidence in Bolívar’s judgement and dissent against centralized government in the countries he had created led to internal divisions.
As a result, Bolívar became convinced that Latin Americans were not, in fact, ready for democratic government. He instead resolved to act as a stern disciplinarian. He installed a dictator in Bolivia and sought to do the same in Gran Colombia.
Following the failure of the 1828 Convention of Ocaña to resolve political differences, Bolívar proclaimed himself dictator on 27 August 1828.
7. Bolívar spared a friend convicted of conspiring to assassinate him
Francisco de Paula Santander was a friend of Bolívar’s who had fought beside him at the decisive Battle of Boyacá in 1819. By 1828, however, Santander resented Bolívar’s autocratic tendencies. His dissatisfaction led to Santander being swiftly blamed for an assassination attempt in 1828, despite a lack of evidence. He was then pardoned by Bolívar, who also ordered his exile.
8. He was commended for his military strategy
Bolívar became famed as the George Washington of South America. They shared in common wealthy backgrounds, a passion for freedom and an aptitude for warfare. Yet Bolívar fought for twice as long as Washington, across a much greater area.
Bolívar made tactical gambles that often paid off and one victory in particular has cemented Bolívar’s reputation.
In 1819, he led an army over the freezing Andes to surprise the Spanish in New Granada. He lost a third of his troops to starvation and the cold, as well as most of his weapons and all of his horses. Yet hearing of his rapid descent from the mountains, perhaps recalling Bolívar’s ruthless 1813 decree which permitted the killing of civilians, the Spanish abandoned their possessions in haste.
9. Two nations are named after Bolívar
While Bolívar’s ambition to permanently unite Latin America didn’t materialise, the modern countries of the continent bear resonances of the Liberator. His profound legacy is most conspicuous in the names of two nations.
Upon the liberation of Upper Peru in 1825, it was named the Republic of Bolívar (later Bolivia). As President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez (1954-2013) renamed the country “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and added an extra star in honour of Bolívar to the national flag.
10. Bolívar died from tuberculosis aged 47
The risk from detractors and rebellious deputies to Bolívar’s personal health had been severe. Yet despite his wartime record and the numerous assassination attempts made against him, Bolívar died from tuberculosis. By the time of his death, Bolívar had renounced command over Gran Colombia and he was no longer tremendously wealthy.
He died in exile in relative poverty.