Gateway to the Classics: Growth of the British Empire by M. B. Synge
Growth of the British Empire by  M. B. Synge

The Heroes of Independence

"The time is ripe, is rotten-ripe, for change,

Then let it come."

— Lowell

W HILE San Martin, O'Higgins, and Cochrane were working to free the southern provinces of South America from the yoke of Spain, Bolivar was at work with the master-spirit, Miranda, in the north.

When little more than a boy, young Bolivar had stood with his tutor amid the ruins of Rome—the city of the Cæsars. In a moment of enthusiasm, he had seized his tutor's hands and sworn to liberate his native land. Did the dream of his life also come to him here,—that of ruling over a united South American republic? He went to London, became an enthusiastic disciple of Miranda, renewed the oath made on the sacred hill of Rome, and returned to South America with Miranda to fulfil his promise.

So successful were the liberators, that in the summer of 1811, Venezuela was ready to declare her independence, as the first republic in South America. All was going well, when the terrible earthquake of 1812 devastated the capital, Caracas. For many weeks, not a single drop of rain had fallen, and a day had been set apart for all the people to pray in the churches, as with one voice, for the much-needed rain. The sky was cloudless, the heat intense. It was four o'clock in the afternoon—the churches were crowded. Suddenly a tremendous roar was heard from the neighbouring hills, the ground rocked violently to and fro, and in a few minutes five large towns, including Caracas, were in ruins, under which lay buried some 20,000 people.

The first republic of Venezuela had found its grave. Panic spread among the revolutionists. Miranda, loaded with chains, was sent to Spain, to languish in a dungeon at Cadiz till he died. Bolivar had to flee. But he was undaunted. He determined to reconquer Venezuela. He collected an army, and in a short time gained for himself a place, among the most famous leaders of his time. With 600 men, in ninety days, he fought six battles; he defeated 4500 men, captured fifty Spanish guns, and restored the republic in Venezuela.

He entered Caracas in triumph, amid the ringing of bells and the roar of cannon. People shouted for their "Liberator"; his path was strewn with flowers; beautiful maidens in white led his horse, and decked his brow with a laurel crown. And Bolivar delighted in this display. There was nothing very heroic in his appearance at this time. Short and rugged, with an olive skin and black deep-set eyes, he wore his black curling hair tied behind, after the fashion of the age. Such was the Dictator of Venezuela in 1813.

But fortune now deserted the revolutionists. The Spaniards collected in force and defeated them. Bolivar was obliged to flee to Jamaica. He spent his exile planning a new war of independence. One night, he narrowly escaped death. The Spaniards had hired a man to kill him, and it was only owing to the fact that his secretary was sleeping in his hammock, that the secretary was slain and not Bolivar.

A few years later, he landed once more in South America to renew the struggle. In none of the colonies was fighting so stubborn, so heroic, so full of tragedy, as in Venezuela. Twice conquered, she rose a third time against her oppressors, ever encouraged by Bolivar. For a time, the Liberator was met by nothing but defeat. His courage was magnificent.

"The day of America has come!" he cried. "Before the sun has again run his annual course, Liberty will have dawned throughout your land."

The next step was perhaps his greatest. He crossed the Andes and captured the capital of New Granada, changing the whole aspect of affairs at one supreme stroke. It was even a more wonderful feat than that of San Martin. It was June 1819. To tell the story of his passage would be but to repeat that of San Martin. There was the same intense cold, the same awful dangers to be faced, but without the careful preparation made at Mendoza. The men under Bolivar were ill-clad, and over one hundred died, while struggling manfully over the snow-covered summits of the Andes. It was a mere skeleton army that descended from the heights into the beautiful valley, where lay the capital of New Granada. The Spaniards were completely taken by surprise and defeated. And Bolivar marched triumphantly into the city, crowned with laurels. The dream of his life was now accomplished. Venezuela and New Granada were thrown into a huge province called Columbia, under the presidency of Bolivar. To the Columbians he cried in his joy: "From the banks of the Orinoco to the Andes of Peru, the liberating army, marching from one triumph to another, has covered with its protecting arms the whole of Columbia."

Soon he had annexed the neighbouring province, whose capital was Quito.

Both San Martin and Bolivar were now advancing on Peru, "the last battlefield in America," as Bolivar said. The moment had come, when the two liberators must meet, to discuss the future of the revolution. San Martin hoped they would be able to work together for the good of their country. But their aims were different. San Martin had no personal ambition: he only wished to see South America freed from the yoke of Spain. Bolivar wished to be President of a united country, and that country one of the largest in the world. The two men met. It was July 1822. They embraced one another warmly, and held a long private interview. It was followed by a banquet and a ball. Bolivar proposed the first toast: "To the two greatest men of South America—General San Martin and myself."

The ball followed. In the middle of it San Martin crept away. He had seen clearly that he and Bolivar could never act together. In a spirit of generosity, unsurpassed in history, he left to Bolivar the completion of his life's work. To him should be "the glory of finishing the war for the independence of South America."

"There is no room in Peru for both Bolivar and myself," he said afterwards to his faithful friend Guido. "He will come to Peru. Let him come, so that America may triumph."

Then he embraced Guido and rode away into the darkness, never to return. He died in voluntary exile in 1850.

The coast was now clear, and Bolivar soon became absolute master of Peru. He thought that all America was his. With the splendid forces of the Argentina army left him by San Martin, he passed from strength to strength. A new Republic was named after him—Bolivia. But his supreme power in 1828 roused the suspicions of the people. They dreaded a second Cæsar—a second Napoleon. A conspiracy to slay him failed, but it forced Bolivar to resign. He died in exile in 1830.

Such is the story of the two men who helped to free South America from Spain. Statues at Caracas and Lima were raised to commemorate the splendid work of Bolivar, but the work of the man, who was ready to sacrifice all, for the good of his country, needs no monuments—for history does not forget such as these.

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