“José Palacios, his oldest servant, found him floating naked with his eyes open in the purifying waters of his bath and thought he had drowned.” In the arresting opening sentence of his poignant novel The General in His Labyrinth, Gabriel Garcìa Márquez gives us our first glimpse of Simón Bolìvar as his servant found him in the early morning of May 8, 1830, the day on which he would leave Bogotá on the journey into exile that would end with his death, some seven months later, on a sugar plantation close to the Colombian port of Santa Marta. John Lynch, who is not a novelist but a historian, and a former professor of Latin American history at the University of London, starts his new life of Bolìvar almost as effectively: “On 26 March 1812 a massive earthquake struck Venezuela. From the Andes to the coast, from Mérida to La Guaira, the earth heaved and cracked, buildings crumbled and people perished in their thousands.” Lynch begins his book with his hero on the brink of an epic career; Garcìa Márquez begins his as it draws to its prolonged and painful close. In the eighteen intervening years not only Venezuela but all of Spanish America was struck by an earthquake—a human earthquake, whose name was Bolìvar.

Earthquakes, whether natural or human, are not easily recaptured after the event. It is not, then, surprising that the many biographical studies of “the Liberator”—el Libertador—have tended to disappoint. What is true is often so improbable as to read more like fiction than history; what is fiction—and a great deal of fiction surrounds the figure of Bolìvar—is all too likely to be taken as the truth. Of the English-language biographies, Gerhard Masur’s Simon Bolivar, which first appeared in 1948, has long held the field, but is relentlessly pedestrian.1 Bolìvar, by the distinguished Spanish exile and man of letters Salvador de Madariaga, is written with characteristic flashes of insight, but is vitiated by the author’s fundamental lack of sympathy for a man who brought about the dissolution of Spain’s empire in America.2 In attempting a one-volume life of a man who was apparently a mass of contradictions, even to his contemporaries, and who has been both deified and vilified by later generations, John Lynch is nothing if not bold.

No historian from the English-speaking world is better qualified for the task. Lynch has a long and distinguished record of publications in Spanish and Spanish-American history, particularly of the eighteenth century, and is a leading expert on the independence movements of the early nineteenth century and their aftermath.3 He is therefore well equipped to provide a modern life of Bolìvar that takes into account the large amount of work done in recent years on the origins of the independence of Latin America. His approach is calm and judicious, his prose style measured and accessible. If he does not quite catch the full drama of Bolìvar’s turbulent career—and perhaps this is something that only Garcìa Márquez could achieve—he does succeed in evoking the complex personality of a man whose willpower and charisma made him preeminent among the figures who struggled to emancipate Central and South America from Spanish domination. The result, while not particularly innovative, is the best biography to date of “the Liberator.”

Toward the end of his book, Lynch raises some of the questions that confront the biographer of Bolìvar, and explains his own approach:

Was he a man of immutable strategies? Did he defy time and place? Or did he renew his policies as he moved from one phase to the next, deploying further weapons in his armoury and adopting further positions in his project?… No single theory can encompass his life. Historians run the risk of distortion if they enclose him in a conceptual framework and look for models to recreate his past…. Better to interpret the life of the Liberator after it had run its time rather than to look for clues before it had happened. As he himself advised, “To understand revolutions and their participants we must observe them at close range and judge them at a great distance.” The history of Bolìvar has to follow a narrative line, with breaks for analysis and interpretation, and a final pause for appraisal.

This is a pragmatic approach, then, to the life of a man whom Lynch himself depicts as “ever the pragmatist.” While pragmatism may not be quite as much the dominant characteristic of Bolìvar as Lynch suggests, he allows us to make our own assessment through his careful and well-informed account of Bolìvar’s personal background and development after he was born in 1783. He describes his youth in a well-to-do family in Caracas, his formative experiences in Europe, his embrace of the cause of the “liberation” of Venezuela, and the setbacks and triumphs of an extraordinary military career which effectively began with the collapse of the first Venezuelan republic in 1812 and culminated in the final defeat of Spanish arms in South America in 1825. He evokes the frantic and increasingly despairing efforts to find a solution to the enormous political and social problems created by the disintegration of Spain’s “empire of the Indies.” About each of these distinctive phases of Bolìvar’s life, Lynch has valuable points to make, but they also raise significant questions about the character of the movement that led to the creation of Latin America as we know it today.


The first obvious question is: Why Venezuela? Why should this peripheral region of a Spanish-American empire whose heartlands were the viceroyalties of New Spain—Mexico and Peru—have had so prominent a part in the independence movement, producing three of its most important champions, “the Precursor,” Francisco de Miranda, Andrés Bello, who was one of the young Bolìvar’s teachers, and Bolìvar himself? As Lynch shows, Venezuela, a marginalized territory for most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, acquired a new prominence in the eighteenth century, and by 1800 was one of the most flourishing of Spain’s American possessions. It was in the course of this century that it made its real entry into the economy of the Atlantic world, as a result of the growing European demand for agricultural produce for which its fertile soil was particularly favorable—above all cacao, but also indigo and coffee. The demand for these products led to the creation of a wealthy planter class, similar in some respects to the plantation owners of Virginia, although, unlike their Virginian counterparts, these planter families were largely nonresident, and lived in spectacular style in the capital, Caracas.

Like the Virginian planters of the eighteenth century, the plantation owners of Caracas resented their dependence on merchants from the home country, and ran up large debts. Like the Virginia planters, they included men who kept up with European news and ideas, and, like Bolìvar’s own father, had European books in their libraries. Like the Virginia planters, too, they formed the elite of a white population in a racially divided society—in this instance, divided not only between whites and blacks, both slave and free, but also pardos, or free mulattos and Afro-Indians, who made up 50 percent of Venezuela’s population of around 800,000. As relations between the colony and the mother country deteriorated, the landed aristocracy would be faced with the dilemma that had earlier confronted Virginia’s elite, the need to balance the arguments in favor of independence against the deep-seated fear that rebellion would end in racial conflict and social upheaval.

To what extent, if any, was Venezuelan soil conducive to the emergence of a Hispanic George Washington? In 1783, the year of Bolìvar’s birth, Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief and returned to Mount Vernon. Simón Bolìvar belonged to a well-connected family of the Caracas elite. An orphan by the age of nine, he was placed in the guardianship of his uncle, whom he came to hate, and from whom he attempted to escape. He received a rather patchy education, largely from private tutors, but found an outlet for his energies, like many others of his class, in the elite militia corps, in which he enrolled at the age of fourteen. In Spanish, as in British, colonial America, the uniform of a militia officer conferred a social cachet. At the age of fifteen, again like many other gilded young aristocrats of Caracas, he was shipped off to Spain to complete his education.

Having crossed the Atlantic, as Washington never did, he came to know at first hand the country that he was later to depict not as a mother but as an “unnatural step-mother” who had forced her American children into “a sort of permanent infancy with regard to public affairs.”4 After a brief trip to Paris in 1802, which persuaded him that “Spain was a country of savages compared to France,” he married in Madrid a half-Spanish, half-Venezuelan girl and took her back to Venezuela, where she died of a fever within eight months of the wedding. The grief-stricken widower, aged only nineteen, would never marry again, although he made sure that he was never short of women for the rest of his life. The tragedy sent him back to Europe—the Europe of Napoleon—first to Paris and then to Italy, where he did a grand tour.

He returned to Caracas in 1807 by way of the United States. “During my short visit to the United States,” he later wrote, “for the first time in my life, I saw rational liberty at first hand,” although his visit also persuaded him that the North American model was not suited to Spanish America. On his return he devoted himself to the management of his tropical plantations, where he worked alongside his black slaves, but he was soon caught up in the turmoil of events that would set his homeland on the road to independence.


The European years were decisive for Bolìvar’s formation as a revolutionary and future nation-builder. In Paris, he read widely, both in the authors of classical antiquity and in the works of writers of the European pre-Enlightenment and Enlightenment—among them Locke, Spinoza, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau. But he also saw for himself France, and Europe, in the wake of the upheavals unleashed by the French Revolution. He was in a position to scrutinize the impact on France of its revolutionary constitutions, and he was present in Paris on December 2, 1804, when Napoleon crowned himself emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame. In Rome he experienced some sort of epiphany on the Monte Sacro, where he knelt down and vowed that he would liberate his homeland. For an ardent revolutionary, the ruins he saw around him held out the promise that imperial Spain would one day go the way of Rome.

Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in the spring of 1808, soon after Bolìvar’s return to Venezuela, precipitated the succession of events that would bring that day much closer. The deposition of Ferdinand VII and the invasion and the collapse of Spain’s legitimate government created a power vacuum both in the peninsula itself and in Spain’s American territories. Juntas sprang up across the Hispanic world to organize resistance and exercise authority during the enforced absence of the King. In America, as authority disintegrated in Spain, Caracas took the lead. The Spanish-appointed captain-general of Venezuela, accused of French sympathies, was deposed in April 1810, and a supreme junta was instituted to maintain the rights of Ferdinand VII. This junta promoted Bolìvar to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the militia, and dispatched him to London to seek the support of the British government. He met with an equivocal response from Britain’s foreign secretary, but London, where he was greeted by his exiled compatriot, Francisco de Miranda, introduced him to the world of high politics, and his two months’ mission to England gave him valuable British contacts that he would turn to good account.

In Caracas in 1810, the Creole ruling class—the native-born descendants of the Spanish conquerors and settlers—was divided between conservative upholders of the traditional order, partisans of some sort of home rule within the Spanish monarchy, and radicals, like Bolìvar, for whom, in Lynch’s words, “full independence was the only serious choice.” It is at this point that we come to the central problem facing any historian who attempts to assess the career of Bolìvar, or indeed the independence movements as a whole throughout the Americas, north as well as south. Retrospectively, the dissolution of Spain’s, as of Britain’s, American empire seems inevitable, and the “patriot” leaders are elevated to heroic status, while those who opposed them are condemned and vilified. But it is necessary to think oneself back into the situation as it appeared to contemporaries, whether in the British colonies in the early 1770s or in the Spanish colonies after 1808. What, if any, alternatives existed? Was independence at that moment, and in that way, the best, or indeed the only, option available?

Lynch appears to take for granted the correctness of Bolìvar’s assessment of the contemporary scene. “Bolìvar,” he writes,

recognized that the time had come to release these demands [for wider opportunities and a fuller expression of nationality] and express them in absolute independence…. He thus advanced beyond those creoles who would have been satisfied with autonomy within the Spanish monarchy….

This is to speak the language of the post-imperial, post-colonial world. Was full independence, which would have to be fought for and won at an undoubtedly heavy price, necessarily a more “advanced,” and consequently a better, solution at this moment than demands for autonomy?

Recent work on Spain’s American possessions at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries has raised questions about the extent of their desire for full independence, even following the collapse of royal government in Spain in 1808.5 Were the juntas that sprang up across Spanish America from Caracas to Buenos Aires in defense of Ferdinand VII and his rights simply a springboard for independence from Spain? There was a long tradition in the Hispanic world whereby, in the absence of a monarch, sovereignty reverted to the people. Both in Spain and the Americas, the formation of juntas to express the will of the people conformed perfectly to this tradition. When the juntas claimed to be acting on behalf of the deposed Ferdinand VII, it is by no means axiomatic that they did not mean what they said. Loyalty to the crown, among Creoles and Indians, had taken deep root in these overseas societies.

Historians have also been paying close attention in recent years to contemporaneous events in the Iberian peninsula, and in particular to the discussion of “the American question” in the liberal parliamentary assembly of the Cortes of Cádiz, which met in 1810, and were dissolved by a restored and reactionary Ferdinand VII in 1814.6 Unlike the British House of Commons, which dismissed suggestions for the inclusion of colonial representatives in so august a body, in 1810 the Cortes invited American deputies to participate, although not in the numbers that the American territories believed proportionate to the size of their populations. The first article of the famous liberal constitution approved by these Cortes in 1812 proudly asserted that “the Spanish nation is the union of all Spaniards of both hemispheres.”

In other words, the “Spanish” inhabitants of the American territories—a category that included Indians but excluded people of African descent—possessed the same rights as those of the Iberian peninsula. In theory at least, the constitution opened up possibilities for some form of colonial home rule in a Spanish “nation” spanning the Atlantic. In 1813 and 1814, in accordance with the dispositions of the constitution, large parts of Spanish America embarked on an electoral exercise for the filling of places in the new representative bodies for provincial and municipal government. But it was already too late. Not only was the liberal experiment doomed by the return to power of Ferdinand VII, but Spanish America itself was descending into social and ethnic turmoil and open civil war.

That this should have happened was in part the result of the activities of radicals like Bolìvar, pressing and agitating for full independence from Spain. Bolìvar, through his reading, and through his observation of Europe as well as the Americas, had formulated his own vision of the form the colonial societies of America should take after the overthrow of the Spanish Empire. As Lynch shows, he spoke the language of classical republicanism, which traced its lineage to ancient Greece and republican Rome. He was imbued with the notion of liberty; he rejected monarchy; and he favored a mixed form of government, drawing inspiration, according to a recent study, in particular from the writings of John Adams.7 Again casting himself in the mold of the classical republicans, he was obsessed with fame and glory, seeing himself as winning eternal renown, first as the liberator of his people and then as the legislator called upon to draft the laws that would enable his liberated compatriots to live as the citizens of virtuous republics in freedom, equality, and happiness.

This was a heady vision, and he set out to impose it at a time when the odds were still stacked against him. His single-minded approach meant that there could be no truck with those Creoles and Spaniards who were hoping, or working, to retain the links with Spain. Whether their alternative vision of a Hispanic community spanning the Atlantic had any real future in the circumstances of the early nineteenth century is doubtful, even before the stupidity and ineptitude of Ferdinand VII destroyed it for good. Conditions in Spain itself were anarchical. Most members of the Cortes of Cádiz had very little notion or understanding of American conditions and there were strong commercial pressures in the Iberian peninsula for maintaining regulatory control over the colonial economies. Beyond this, the American and French revolutions had wrought a transformation of the Western world, unleashing ideas of liberty, equality, and nationality that had taken on a life of their own. In this sense, Bolìvar was working with the movement of the times, but his comportment and behavior would play their part in ratcheting up the savagery of the conflict that ensued.

When the newly elected congress in Caracas effectively declared independence in 1811 and created what came to be known as the First Republic, it failed to carry most of the country with it. During recent decades the large pardo population of people of mixed race and also the black population had benefited from royal policies, and neither had any wish for a separation from Spain that would leave them to the mercies of the Creole elite. There was also widespread resentment against the dominance of Caracas in a land where local loyalties ran deep. With royalist forces active, and blacks and pardos rallying to the royalist cause, the new republic collapsed within the year. Bolìvar himself, always intolerant of rivals, handed over the original champion of independence, Francisco de Miranda, to the Spaniards, in a shabby act of betrayal that is difficult to excuse. In October 1812 he took refuge in Cartagena, in neighboring New Granada—the future Colombia—where he issued a stirring manifesto and prepared his campaign to wrest control of Venezuela from the Spaniards and the loyalists.

It was the beginning of what Bolìvar announced was to be a “war to the death.” He was as good as his word. No mercy, he proclaimed, should be shown to any Spaniard who failed to support the cause of independence. As Venezuela descended into civil war, appalling atrocities were committed by all parties to the conflict, which was fueled not only by competing loyalties but also by the bitterness of the racial divisions between Creoles, blacks, and pardos. In 1814 Bolìvar, having “liberated” half the country, signed an order for the execution in cold blood of over eight hundred Spanish prisoners held by the insurgents. “Extreme measures,” he later wrote, “though terrible, are indispensable in sustaining an enterprise lacking in resources.” His lack of resources was indeed to be his undoing. Defeated by loyalist troops, he again took refuge in Cartagena, and following the arrival in the spring of 1815 of a large expeditionary force from Spain, he sailed for Jamaica, to plan and plot the next moves in what was increasingly coming to look like a lost cause.

It was here, on September 6, 1815, that he penned his famous “Jamaica Letter” to an English friend living on the island—a document that, as Lynch tells us, would eventually become “part of the political currency of the Spanish American Revolution,” although it was first published three years later in English only, and is not known to have been published in Spanish until 1833. The letter bears witness to the extraordinary command of language that was one of the keys to Bolìvar’s success. It also shows him developing a vision for the future of all of Spanish America, a vision which, in his view, could only be achieved if it were firmly grounded in realities peculiar to the American territories that had been colonized by Spain. He believed that these territories were not suited to federal solutions or to fully representative liberal institutions. Regional antipathies, racial divisions, and the lack of civic preparation meant that the future of a liberated Spanish America lay with strongly centralized nation-states run by enlightened Creoles like himself. Although he was an abolitionist and freed his own slaves, he had no intention of replacing absolutist Spanish regimes with pardocracias—states ruled by pardos.

The rest of his life was to be devoted to the attempt, partly triumphant but ultimately doomed, to turn his vision for Spanish America into a reality. As he gathered reinforcements and returned to the mainland to launch a fresh assault on the Spaniards and the royalists, he revealed himself to be a commander of genius. Shrewd in his assessment of men and situations, ever ready with fresh responses when faced by setbacks and defeat, always willing, in spite of a physique that at first sight seemed far from robust, to share the hardships of his soldiers, he was able to inspire deep devotion by his actions and his words. At the same time he was autocratic, ruthless, vain, and implacable. Lynch is keen to defend him from the charge of being a mere caudillo, in what became the standard Latin American mode. It is no doubt true that he lacked the regional power base of the caudillos who sprang into prominence around him as he fought his way across the continent, but he possessed that personalized sense of power which was so deeply rooted in the patron–client relationships of Spanish-American colonial society. José de San Martìn, who would lead his own army of liberation from Argentina to Peru, and would come face to face with Bolìvar in Guayaquil in 1822, described him as vain and superficial, and possessing a “passion to command.” Where Washington subsumed his personality in the furthering of the cause, Bolìvar conformed the cause to the dictates of his own strong personality.

Lynch leads us succinctly and efficiently through Bolìvar’s military campaigns without losing himself and us in detail, but his readers may not fully appreciate that the war was as much lost by Spain as won by Bolìvar and the insurgent forces.8 Not only did the government in Madrid fail to produce a coherent strategy for dealing with colonies in rebellion, but the follies of royalist officials and the savagery and indiscipline of royalist soldiers achieved the remarkable feat of alienating even those sections of the population most committed to retaining the traditional links with Spain. By the time Spain’s struggle to maintain its hold on America ended in December 1824 with the victory of General Sucre, Bolìvar’s most loyal subordinate, at Ayacucho in Peru, the independence that had been no more than a gleam in the eyes of Bolìvar and a handful of radicals fifteen years earlier had come to seem the logical and inevitable outcome of a long and savage civil war.

The effect of this war—so much more prolonged and bloody than the war that led to the independence of the United States—was to leave wide regions of South America devastated and its populations destroyed. Bolìvar had seen from the first the need to rebuild the shattered societies he had set out to “liberate,” and thought of himself as the new Lycurgus, the one man capable of devising new systems of government that would enable them to be established on solid new foundations. He dreamed of creating a “Republic of Greater Colombia,” uniting Venezuela, New Granada, and Quito (the future Ecuador), and at a congress assembled in Angostura in February 1819 he presented to the delegates, and the world at large, his plans for the new republic, of which he was named the first president.

There was supranationalism as well as nationalism in Bolìvar’s vision of the future of the societies liberated from Spanish rule. But he came up against the harsh realities not only of continental logistics but also of regional and local loyalties in societies that had developed their own characteristics and traditions during more than two hundred years of imperial rule. It was hard enough to hold together the thirteen mainland colonies of British America following independence. In Spanish America it was impossible to achieve the same feat, and, like the Roman Empire on whose relics Bolìvar had gazed from the Monte Sacro, the Spanish Empire fragmented into a multiplicity of independent political units.

Living in a world of abstractions, and yet, as a keen reader of Montesquieu, intellectually aware that laws must be adapted to local circumstances, Bolìvar spent the last years of his life attempting with increasing desperation to square circles of his own devising. In his efforts to save the patria he moved in an increasingly authoritarian direction, producing a constitution for Bolivia with provisions for a strong government under a president for life who would have the right to nominate his own successor. The constitution, which he proposed as a model for the other new nations, proved characteristically controversial. Surrounded by enemies, and faced with rebellions and assassination attempts, he saw his Greater Colombia disintegrate. As he observed in his bitterness, he had been plowing the sea. In Bogotá in May 1830 he said his last farewell to his ever loyal mistress, Manuela Sáenz, and set off on the journey to exile and death from tuberculosis in Colombia.

Lynch ends his book, which is perhaps too generous to Bolìvar but which succeeds admirably in evoking both the man and the leader, with a chapter that attempts to summarize his legacy. As might have been expected, Bolìvar in death has been as controversial as Bolìvar in life, and Lynch, calm and judicious as always, seeks to strike a balance. Not only has the legacy been ceaselessly interpreted, but Latin American politicians have made a habit of adopting it for their own ends. The latest to do so is Bolìvar’s fellow Venezuelan Hugo Chávez, with his proclamation of a “Bolivarian revolution” that Bolìvar himself would have found it difficult to recognize. Whatever Bolìvar was, he was no populist, although he was ever ready to acknowledge, with his golden oratory, the plaudits of the crowds. Yet perhaps there is something of Bolìvar in Chávez. Alberto Garrido, a Venezuelan political analyst, has described the Venezuelan president as “tactically pragmatic, but strategically obsessive.”9 It is a description that would just as well do for the Liberator himself.

This Issue

July 13, 2006