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  • James Houser

August 7, 1819 - Simon Bolivar & the Battle of Boyaca

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 7, 1819. After nine years in the Latin American struggle for independence from Spain, Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar is about to turn the tide. He has suffered defeats, marched across mountains and through jungles, and been kicked out of his country more than once, but today will make it all worth it. The decisive battle dawns in the mountains of Colombia at Boyaca.

Spain had controlled a large empire in South America since its conquests in the 1500s, and by 1800 almost all of Central and South America still flew the Spanish flag. For most of their history, the colonies had been ruled loosely – used primarily as resource farms for the Spanish Empire with little respect for the people that lived in them. A complex racial caste system emerged in the colonies as a result of this collision of cultures. The “Peninsulares” – that is, native Spaniards – were at the top of this food chain. “Criollos” (Creoles), people of Spanish descent born in the colonies, were decidedly second-rank. The mixed-race “Mestizos,” were next, followed by the lower rungs of the Indios and the Negros, which are what they sound like. Racial categorization is a Kafkaesque nightmare in the best of cases, and Latin America was not the best of cases.

The primary conflict in the Latin American Wars of Independence was a class and racial struggle between the dominant Peninsulares and the Criollos, with the “underclasses” filling the ranks of both sides’ armies. There are *shades* of the American Revolution in this conflict, but it happened in a totally different political and cultural context. Most noticeable is that, while the Wars did consist of colonial subjects trying to break away and form their own states, there was a heavy racial and ethnic element to the struggle that did not exist in the American Revolution. (Despite what some people may think, other countries have racial problems too.)

The class and racial tensions may have been the tinder for the struggle to come, and they had fuel poured on them by the ideals of the Enlightenment and the examples of the American and French Revolutions. As long as Spain still maintained firm military control over its colonies in the Americas, though, no fire was going to be lit. There could be no revolution without an opportunity.

Opportunity struck in 1808, when Napoleon replaced the Spanish King with his brother Joseph Bonaparte. This move sparked the Peninsular War, which saw French troops occupy most of Spain. A military council had to take over the government since their monarch was imprisoned, and this meant that the colonies were basically left to fend for themselves. Local juntas (governing committees) began to pop up throughout the colonies to maintain Spanish authority. In the Americas, these juntas soon fell into the power of the Criollos – the wealthy and influential second-class citizens who began to seek independence from Spain.

The northern portion of the Spanish Empire in South America consisted of the Viceroyalty of New Granada, containing the modern-day countries of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. Most of the New Granada juntas favored independence from Spain, and among these was a small organization in Caracas led by two prominent Venezuelan criollos: longtime revolutionary Francisco de Miranda and his young, charismatic protégé, Simon Bolivar.

Simon Bolivar is a national icon across South America, and he was a rarity even among historical figures since he was – of all things – an idealist. He not only believed in independence from Spain, he was enraptured by the idea of a unified South American republic. This did not mean he was irrational; he continually criticized other revolutionaries for failing to take account of the gritty political reality. Throughout his life, he was forced to concede to the realities of South American politics – especially the regional divisiveness, lack of education, poverty and racial caste system.

Bolivar grew more autocratic and came to advocate a less democratic government, including a lifetime presidency and a hereditary Senate that resembled the British system more than the American. Despite being a great admirer of the American and French Revolutions, even enrolling his nephew in Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia (only cause Virginia Tech didn’t exist yet) he was aware of the French Revolution’s failures and the impossibility of placing the American system on a land that was not yet able to govern itself.

So, Bolivar is complex. He’s not just a military figure – in many ways, he represents all the problems and dreams of Latin America to this day, and is probably the central figure of South American history both by his actions and the way his legacy has been interpreted and reinterpreted for almost 200 years. The actual man is fascinating, and I would encourage anyone to take a crack at Marie Arana’s “Bolivar: American Liberator.”

In 1810, along with multiple other juntas all over South America, the Supreme Junta of Caracas deposed the colonial administrators and achieved virtual independence for Venezuela. The return of the legendary revolutionary and exile Francisco de Miranda in 1811 seemed to settle events for good. Even though the Spanish Army could not stop them, though, the Peninsulares – the political elites – were still out there, and much of South America descended into civil war. This ended with Miranda, after several defeats, trying to sign a surrender to the Peninsulares in 1812. In one of his most morally questionable acts, Bolivar led the other revolutionaries to seize Miranda and hand him over to the Spanish. It remains questionable whether the young Bolivar was trying to remove a rival or punish a defector.

Either way, Bolivar had to flee Venezuela – not for the last time. For the next several years, Bolivar began his long cycle of returns and exiles to his homeland as he tried desperately to stir up resistance to the Spanish and their Peninsular allies. Bolivar found allies in Colombia, and led remarkable campaigns time and again – only for the Spanish or their local proxies to expel him from Venezuela. One thing was evident about Simon Bolivar: you just could NOT keep this guy down.

Quick and dirty summary: in 1812, after the fall of the first Venezuelan junta, Bolivar fled to Colombia. There, he raised an army, crossed the mountains back into Venezuela, and launched what is called the “Admirable Campaign” and reconquered his country by 1813. Here he was proclaimed “El Libertador” and declared the (Second) Republic of Venezuela. By the next year, though, he had been defeated and expelled by pro-Spanish rebels. He fled BACK to Colombia, where he managed to retake Bogota from the Spanish in 1814, then fell out with the Colombian junta and had to flee AGAIN, this time taking refuge in Jamaica to ask for British support. While he was gone, the Spanish reconquered Colombia AGAIN. Then someone tried to kill him, hang on…

(deep breath)

Bolivar dodged an assassination attempt in Jamaica and fled AGAIN to Haiti, where he asked for support from its leaders. The Haitians gave him support in exchange for a promise to end slavery in any lands he freed. So Bolivar returned to Venezuela AGAIN in 1816 with Haitian soldiers and lots of war materiel. Instead of making a run for the capital again, though, Bolivar led his troops into the interior of the country where he could carry on the war. This went on for several years, as Bolivar basically used hit-and-run tactics against the Spanish forces in Venezuela.

Okay, so now we’re caught up.

A note on the armies here. At first, the armies of both the pro-Spanish and pro-independence forces were made up in large part from locals – mainly the lower racial castes of Latin America. In 1815, though, Napoleon had finally been defeated and Spain liberated, freeing up a LOT more Spanish troops to come to South America and try to reassert control over their colonies. This ended up uniting a lot of people who had previously been fighting each other behind Bolivar and his independence faction, since loyalty to the King was a lot easier when the King’s soldiers weren’t stealing your food and smashing your windows.

Secondly, the end of the Napoleonic Wars also saw the British willing to help the independence faction a lot more. The British did not do this out of the goodness of their hearts – they never did ANYTHING for that reason – but instead because they saw an independent Latin America as a much better field for trade opportunities than one still under the control of Spain. The Spanish Crown had long held an iron commercial monopoly on its Latin American colonies, with the state controlling almost all commerce and stifling free trade. This was one of the many grievances the colonists had against Spain, and if there was one thing Britain liked it was free trade. Britain ruled the seas, and free trade could only benefit them. Yeah, yeah, Latin America wanted freedom, sure…but they NEEDED British merchants and goods. Obviously.

The upshot of all this was that Bolivar now had access to cash, supplies, and…surprisingly…men. A large number of British soldiers, unemployed by the end of the war, were recruited by Bolivar’s agents in London and came to Latin America to join his army. In the campaign that followed, the British Legion made up nearly half of Bolivar’s force, becoming his elite unit, and some 5,500 recently discharged Redcoats eventually came to fight for Simon Bolivar.

Throughout 1817 and 1818, Bolivar not only fought his guerrilla campaign against the Spanish but brought most of the Venezuelan resistance leaders under his control. He won a number of small victories over the Spanish in the central plains and won the llaneros, or plains cowboys, over to his side – a critical victory, since they were previously Spanish allies. The llaneros’ leader, Jose Antonio Paez, refused to leave Venezuela – but his horsemen were essential to eventual triumph.

With Paez on his side, Bolivar planned a bold move that would break the long stalemate and finally begin to turn the tide against the Spanish. Across the Andes, the Spanish had retaken most of Colombia, including Bogota; there was still a resistance army in Colombia fighting under Francisco Santander, but they were outnumbered. Bolivar had come to understand that if every independence army fought its own separate war, they would remain weak and divided, but if they were able to unite and place pressure on one area, they could achieve local superiority and win. Rather than try to take over their own regions with their own forces, the independence leaders needed to combine and conquer.

In 1819, Bolivar decided to make his move. It was a desperate campaign by a desperate man, but if he was successful the rewards were great. He would have Paez’s cavalry launch diversionary attacks in the plains, while he snuck his main army past the Spanish outposts, led it up into the Andes into Colombia, and joined forces with Santander. Then they could liberate Colombia. Even after they joined forces, they would only have about 2,500 men against 4,500 Spanish troops in Colombia. To achieve surprise over superior numbers, he would move during the rainy season, with all the hardships that entailed.

Bolivar began his long march on May 26. The Spanish got wind of his march, but doubted he could make the trip. The route took his men across the central plains – hot, humid and flooded from the heavy rains. His small army waded through a virtual sea for days, a miserable experience that included crossing seven flooded rivers. Then they had to march into the Andes, a punishing crossing through an icy pass 13,000 feet above sea level that killed 100 ill-equipped, poorly clothed men of exposure, oxygen deprivation, or falls in the steep Pisba pass. On July 5, though, Bolivar’s army came staggering out of the mountains – to the appalled surprise of the Spanish.

Bolivar drafted locals into his ranks to build up his numbers as he moved as fast as possible and folded Santander’s Colombians into his army; he had the element of surprise and needed to move before the Spanish could get their shit together. His force moved quickly, striking north with speed and overwhelming small detachments as the Spanish scrambled to recover the situation. On July 25, at the Pantano (Swamp) de Vargas, he ambushed a royalist force trying to reach the poorly defended capital of Bogota. Despite his troops’ exhaustion after crossing a floodplain, a mountain pass, and a swamp, he scattered the Spanish force after the British Legion’s bayonet charge and a shrieking, galloping assault by his Venezuelan lancers.

Soon Bolivar and his small army was pelting towards Bogota, where the Spanish viceroy and his government were nearly paralyzed with fear from the speed and violence of the invasion, and the bulk of Colonel Jose Barreiro’s Spanish army was on its way to defend the capital from his attack. The royalists took the fastest route, which led through the rainforest over the Boyaca bridge. But guess who was there waiting for him on August 7, 1819?

Bolivar came in like a wrecking ball, catching the two halves of the Spanish army as they were crossing the Boyaca bridge. The Spanish vanguard had been sent ahead to secure the bridge while the rest of the army stopped to eat, but Bolivar’s army moved behind a ridge to slip in right behind the vanguard. He cut the Spanish in two with this surprise maneuver. While his British riflemen and Santander’s Colombians held off the vanguard at the bridge, the rest of Bolivar’s army assaulted the surprised and demoralized Spanish force.

These two armies were small – Bolivar had about 2,800, the Spanish 2,600 – but the fighting was fierce and merciless. The Battle of Boyaca, though, had really been over as soon as it began.

1,600 Spanish soldiers surrendered to Bolivar, with 250 dead and wounded – and the republican force had lost less than 70. The Spanish viceroy and his government fled Bogota in such a hurry that they left the treasury behind; on August 10, Bolivar’s army entered the capital to riotous celebration. With Bolivar’s victory, Colombia was free, and this time for good; it was the first country in New Granada to be fully liberated from the Spanish.

As Bolivar had planned, the fall of one country precipitated the fall of them all. By 1822, Bolivar’s armies had liberated his home country of Venezuela; by 1823, Ecuador; by 1824, Peru and Bolivia (the country that bears his name.) In all, Simon Bolivar fought over 100 battles and rode 70,000 kilometers on horseback in his campaigns to free South American from Spanish dominion.

And for all that, Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America never came to pass. For all that he had done, he could not turn the racially divided, poor, and degraded peoples of his homeland into the model country he wanted. By the end, even Venezuela had rejected and exiled him, and his vision of “Gran Colombia” fell apart the year he died, ill, alone, and abandoned by all but a few. Before he passed away, he sighed that “America is ungovernable.”

Perhaps – but thanks to Bolivar and people like him, it was ungovernable on its own terms, not those of a foreign power. I suppose that’s something.

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