Where Bolivar Struck a Great Blow for South American Independence
It was 1815.
South America was a seething cauldron of rebellion. Venezuela, New Granada, Mexico, in fact wherever Spain held sway, the people were discontented. Spain helped things along by shooting colonists, imprisoning some of the best in awful dungeons, and when sending out her troops against a refractory town, placing patriots in front of their own ranks so that friends shot friends unknowingly.
At last New Granada took a firm stand, vowing war to the death.
King Ferdinand saw that something drastic must be done, and therefore sent twelve thousand of his best troops over to South America, under General Morillo. The Spaniard soon subdued Venezuela, and Simon Bolivar, who in 1815 had been proclaimed Liberator of Venezuela, had been forced to fly to Jamaica.
From Venezuela Morillo moved on to Cartagena, New Granada, besieged it for four months, captured it, then marched off to Santa Fe de Bogota, the capital.
Morillo was a brute; he was a ruffian. Wherever he went ruin marked his footsteps. Wherever he found colonists who could read or write, whether men or women, he put them to death, on the principle that it was the educated people who were at the root of the rebellion. The brave (!) general even emulated the deeds of the buccaneers of a previous age, who, on the capture of a town, put its noblest families to the torture to make them confess where they had hidden their treasures. Thus did Morillo, who thought nothing of cutting off the soles of a man's feet, and then making him walk over hot sand. Women's ears and noses were cut off, their eyes gouged out, their tongues cut off.
But Morillo failed; such men as he have always failed, and thus it came about that instead of quenching what he called the "spirit of revolt," he merely fanned it into a fiercer flame, a flame that was destined to burn up the Spanish power in South America.
The rebels, infuriated at treatment that spared neither woman nor child, at last retaliated in kind, and the trees which bore the reeking members of colonists soon had other burdens—Spanish.
So for a time the dreadful warfare went on, while, safe in Jamaica, Bolivar was laying his plans for a great and crushing blow.
He found many sympathisers, English, American, Dutch, and French, and his popularity, his enthusiasm, his patriotism, made him a man feared by Spain.
From Jamaica to San Domingo the Liberator passed, found and made friends, amongst them being President Pétion and Brion, a wealthy Dutch shipbuilder. Ere long Bolivar found himself at the head of a squadron of seven schooners which Brion had fitted out, adding three thousand five hundred muskets to the gift. Bolivar enlisted the aid of English and German officers and men, artillery, lances, hussars, infantry—men who had been engaged in the great European wars, and who were wondering what on earth to do with themselves now that Napoleon was safe in St. Helena.
All arrangements made, Bolivar determined to attack the Spaniards in their weakest spot, namely, New Granada, instead of following the course hitherto adopted of meeting them in Venezuela, where they were strongest. General Santander, chief of the patriots in the Province of Casanare, therefore received instructions to attack the frontier of New Granada, where Morillo had left General Barreiro in command.
Barreiro fell back before the patriots. It was the first step towards Liberation, and as soon as Bolivar heard of the success which had been achieved, he determined upon emulating Hannibal and Napoleon. He would cross the Andes, the South American Alps, break like a deluge upon the Spaniards in New Granada, and drive them out.
Confident of success, the Liberator issued his proclamation to the people of New Granada:
"The day of America has come; no human power can stay the course of Nature guided by Providence. Before the sun has again run his annual course, altars to Liberty will arise throughout your land."
Santander was now at the foot of the Andes, and Bolivar set out to join him, taking four battalions of infantry, one squadron of carabiniers, two of lancers, and a regiment called "Guides of the Apure," a band of herdsmen, led by Paez.
Arrived at Guadahlo, Bolivar rested awhile, and then on June 4th, 1819, set his face towards the Andes. In order to take his foes by surprise, he concealed his destination even from his own men as long as possible, but after a while his object was discovered, and large numbers of his soldiers deserted, afraid to face the terrors of the Andes at that time of the year. Two squadrons deserted en masse, but Colonel James Rook, who commanded the English legion, vowed to march on to Cape Horn if Bolivar found it necessary.
Undeterred by the desertions, Bolivar kept on until he met Santander at Tame on June 11th, from whence he set out across the plains with an army two thousand five hundred strong. Before the patriots lay a journey of many miles, across a water-covered plain, turned into a marsh, in fact, by the swollen rivers—for it was the rainy season. Roads there were none; even in the dry season there was nought but cattle paths, but the rain, falling in torrents, had overflowed the rivers and submerged even these tracks. Rivulets had become rivers hard to cross; through these the warriors swam, carrying their munitions of war with them.
They were used to the water, so feared not the streams. Most of the way they were up to their knees, sometimes to their waists as they marched across the marsh; all day, all night, the rains fell, soaking them through and through. At night they camped where they could, sleeping on the sodden ground.
When the rivers were too wide or dangerous to swim, they ferried across in boats of hide. A dozen of them were forded, and ever had the warriors to look out for the long-nosed alligators or the voracious caribe fish that infested the waters.
Reaching the foot of the Andes on June 25th, the Liberator gave his men a well-earned rest, and then set them the task of crossing the giant mountains. Santander, knowing the mountain defiles, led the way. He chose one that led into the centre of the Province of Tunja, where Barreiro was encamped with two thousand infantry and four hundred cavalry, blissfully ignorant that the patriots were on the march. Who would have imagined that men would take so hazardous a route?
For hazardous it was. High above them the Cordillera reared its snowy peaks, and the rain poured in torrents.
The pass was a treacherous path on the top of a dreadful precipice. Here and there the swollen torrents rushed, barring the way; to pass them it was necessary to cross by bridges made of tree trunks, or if too wide aerial taravitas were used. These were bridges made of the long stems of tropical plants twisted into a rope, greased and fastened to trees on the banks. On these were suspended hammocks or cradles large enough to hold two, which were drawn backwards and forwards by long lines. In order to get the horses and mules across, it was necessary to suspend them by long girths round their bodies.
Sometimes bridges were not needed, the torrents being fordable, but in these cases the currents were generally so strong that the foot soldiers had to cross in twos, their arms around each others' shoulders. Even then it was perilous work, for to miss footing meant—death.
Higher and higher up the mountain the band of patriots went, and the higher they got the greater their difficulties became. Barren ice-clad hills around them; clouds rolling by below, while along the edges of the pass were grim warnings of the perils they ran—little crosses marking the graves of men who had fallen in trying to pass through the way they themselves were going. Cold, dreary, and desolate, the Andes became the resting place of many of that devoted band, for over a hundred died from cold and the rarity of the air. To make matters worse by the time they had reached the coldest part of their journey, provisions gave out, and the cattle which they had brought with them were unable to go any further. The way was so hard that everything that could be spared was dropped, even things that they could ill do without, the spare arms, and some even that the men carried.
Two days of such journeying, and ah! the summit—and the enemy. Three hundred men held the position, one which, had a brave battalion been there, a mighty army scarcely could have taken. But, driven to desperation by all their trials, vowing not to be checked now that they had come so far on their way, the vanguard under Santander hurled themselves on the outpost, rushed the position and sent the Spaniards flying.
It put new heart into the men, who were feeling the hardships and were beginning to murmur. Bolivar held a council of war, told his men that the end was not yet, either of their journey or their toils, asked them if they were ready to push on or willing to fall back and give up all hope of victory. The men chose the better part; on July 2nd they went forward, with renewed hope and vigour, bent on triumph.
On and on they went, still meeting all manner of obstacles, but steadily, surely, surmounting them and ever getting nearer the place and the day when the trial of strength would take place, when liberty would be either won or lost for ever. Men dropped here and there on the side, too weak to proceed further, but urging their fellows to press forward, promising to come when strength returned. Every horse was lost.
At last the valley of Sagamoso was reached; they were in the centre of Tunja Province, after twenty-five days of fearsome toil through the mountain passes. Bolivar at once sent back for the stragglers, rested his men, collected patriots and horses in the neighbourhood, and prepared for the coming conflict.
Before him lay the town of Tunja, which he was determined to take. Between the town and the patriot force rose the heights of Vargas, where Barreiro, who by this time had received the astonishing news that the had crossed the mountains at a time when all had vowed such a thing impossible, had taken up a strong position.
Barreiro's object was to prevent Bolivar's advance on Tunja, whence it would be comparatively easy for him to approach Bogota. For some days the two forces parried each other, but at last Bolivar forced Barreiro to a pitched battle.
On July 25th Barreiro had taken up a position on the heights of Vargas. The Spaniards attacked Santander, who was also on some hills, drove him back, then attacked the centre, and made the infantry give way. Colonel Rook immediately led his English infantry up the heights to the Spanish position. These warriors from the hills and plains of Europe dashed up the hills in the face of a raking fire, heedless of danger and death, and so impetuous was their charge that they carried everything before them, sending the Spaniards racing down the hills.
Rook's feat turned the tide, but meanwhile Barreiro had fallen upon the centre, and was pressing it hard, so Bolivar had to bring up his small reserves and hurl them at Barreiro's centre. Calling on Colonel Rondon commanding the Llaneros, and pointing to the enemy he cried:
"Save the Fatherland!"
The Colonel placed himself at the head of his men, charged with reckless courage at the Spanish cavalry, broke through them and drove them back in great disorder. After them went the infantry, who laid about them with such good effect that the whole column was forced to fly.
Bolivar had gained the first trick, though the game was not over yet. Really, the battle had been indecisive, and the Liberator fell back on his last position.
For about eight days he rested there, receiving reinforcements of nearly a thousand men. Feeling that he must strike at once, he advanced, and Barreiro, who had been at Paipa, immediately moved his men to the Tunja heights. After marching for some time, Bolivar suddenly doubled, crossed the River Paipa, and on the 5th captured Tunja without any trouble, the troops having gone to reinforce Barreiro.
Such tactics disconcerted the Spaniards, who immediately considered it advisable to hasten off for Bogota. The patriot scouts dogged them every step they took, and, as soon as the royalists attempted to reach the road that led through Boyaca to the capital, hurried away to Bolivar with the news.
Bolivar moved forward with all speed, sending about two hundred of his cavalry in advance. These came in sight of Barreiro's advance guard as it neared the bridge at Boyaca, on either side of which were wooded mountains.
The royalists, imagining that they had only to deal with a small outpost, advanced to the bridge, and attempted to turn them back while the main army came on.
They made a mistake; instead of meeting merely a handful of scouts, they met many more of the patriots who had been close on the heels of the advance guard. The Spaniards, after a stiff fight, fell back, while Barreiro was yet about a mile or so away.
Barreiro, meanwhile, stopped and had lunch—which was a mistake. He should have pushed on with all dispatch, for while he dallied the patriots were busy, and when the Spanish troops at last marched on towards the bridge, the foe was ready for them.
Lower down the river was a ford, and across this a large party of cavalry went, the infantry remaining in ambush amongst the woods. When Barreiro arrived and attempted to cross the bridge, lured on by the apparent smallness of the patriot force, the cavalry fell upon his flank, the infantry swarmed down upon his centre, and by the sheer suddenness of the attack, demoralised the Spanish troops. Barreiro managed to get some light artillery posted upon a hill, and this did great damage to the attackers. Rook and his English Legion cared not a rap for the guns, however; they went for the Spaniards in the way they had learned to fight in the great battles in Europe, and, backed up by the men whose freedom they had come to win, they simply hurled themselves at the foe.
For a while the Spaniards fought like brave men, but at last the impetuous rush of the patriots carried everything before it; the artillery was abandoned, and the troops turned to flee. But behind them was the patriot cavalry, which charged them again and again, till seeing that all was up, Barreiro threw his sword away rather than surrender it to Bolivar.
But he surrendered himself, and with him all the troops left alive—excepting about fifty who managed to escape. The battle had been a decisive one; the Spanish army was defeated and captured, together with all its stores and ammunition—of which Bolivar stood in great need—and the way was left open to the capital, whither, a day or so later, Bolivar betook himself, to find all the Spanish officials gone.
The Liberator was winning; the great blow for the Liberation of New Granada had been struck; Spain was finding that tyranny and bloodshed bring their own reward.