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Charles Morris

Bolivar the Liberator, and the Conquest of New Granada

One dark night in the year 1813 a negro murderer crept stealthily into a house in Jamaica, where slept a man in a swinging hammock. Stealing silently to the side of the sleeper, the assassin plunged his knife into his breast, then turned and fled. Fortunately for American independence he had slain the wrong man. The one whom he had been hired to kill was Simon Bolivar, the great leader of the patriots of Spanish America. But on that night Bolivar's secretary occupied his ham-mock, and the "Liberator" escaped.

Bolivar was then a refugee in the English island, after the failure of his early attempt to win freedom for his native land of Venezuela. He was soon back there again, however, with recruited forces, and for years afterwards the war went on, with variations of failure and success, the Spanish general Morillo treating the people who fell into his hands with revolting cruelty.

It was not until 1819 that Bolivar perceived the true road to success. This was by leaving Venezuela, from which he had sought in vain to dislodge the Spaniards, and carrying the war into the more promising field of New Granada. So confident of victory did he feel in this new plan that he issued the following 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."

Bolivar had recently been strengthened by a British legion, recruited in London among the disbanded soldiers of the Napoleonic wars. He had also sent General Santander to the frontier of New Granada, and General Barreiro, the Spanish general, had been driven back. Encouraged by this success, he joined Santander at the foot of the Andes in June, 1819, bringing with him a force of twenty-five hundred men, including his British auxiliaries.

Bolivar in this expedition had as bitter a foe to conquer in nature as in the human enemy. In order to join Santander he was obliged to cross an enormous plain which at that season of the year was covered with water, and to swim some deep rivers, his war materials needing to be transported over these streams. But this was child's play compared with what lay before him. To reach his goal the Andes had to be crossed at some of their most forbidding points, a region over which it seemed next to impossible for men to go, even without military supplies.

When the invading army left the plains for the mountains the soldiers quickly found themselves amid discouraging scenes. In the distance rose the snowy peaks of the eastern range of the Cordillera, and the waters of the plain through which they had waded were here replaced by the rapids and cataracts of mountain streams. The roads in many places followed the edge of steep precipices, and were bordered by gigantic trees, while the clouds above them poured down incessant rains.

Four days of this march used up most of the horses, which were foundered by the difficulties of the way. As a consequence, an entire squadron of Llaneros, men who lived in the saddle, and were at home only on the plain, deserted, on finding themselves on foot. To cross the frequent torrents there were only narrow, trembling bridges formed of tree-trunks, or the aŽrial taravitas. These consisted of stout ropes made by twisting several thongs of well-greased hides. The ropes were tied to trees on the two banks of the ravine, while from them was suspended a cradle or hammock of capacity for two persons, which was drawn backward and forward by long lines. Horses and mules were similarly drawn across, suspended by long girths around their bodies.

Where the streams were fordable the current was usually so strong that the infantry had to pass two by two with their arms thrown round each other's shoulders. To lose their footing was to lose their lives. Bolivar frequently passed these torrents back and forward on horseback, carrying the sick and weakly, or the women who accompanied the expedition.

In the lower levels the climate was moist and warm, only a little firewood being needed for their nightly bivouacs. But as they ascended they reached localities where an ice-cold wind blew through the stoutest clothing, while immense heaps of rocks and hills of snow bounded the view on every side and clouds veiled the depths of the abysses. The only sounds to be heard were those of the roaring torrents they had passed and the scream of the condor as it circled the snowy peaks above. Here all vegetation disappeared except the clinging lichens and a tall plant which bore plumes instead of leaves and was covered with yellow flowers, resembling a funeral torch. To add to the terrors of the journey the path was marked by crosses, erected in memory of travellers who had perished by the way.

In this glacial region the provisions brought with them gave out. The cattle on which they had depended as their chief resource could go no farther. Thus, dragging on through perils and privation, at length they reached the summit of the Paya pass, a natural stronghold where a battalion would have been able to hold a regiment in check. An outpost of three hundred men occupied it, but these were easily dispersed by Santander, who led the van.

At this point the men, worn out by the difficulties of the way, began to murmur. Bolivar called a council of war and told its members that there were greater difficulties still to surmount. He asked if they would keep on, or if they preferred to return. They all voted in favor of going onward, and the knowledge of their decision inspired the weary troops with new spirit.

Before the terrible passage was completed one hundred men had died of cold, fifty of them being Englishmen. Not a horse was left, and it was necessary to abandon the spare arms, and even some of those borne by the soldiers. It was little more than the skeleton of an army that at length reached the beautiful valley of Sagamoso, in the heart of the province of Tunja, on the 6th of July, 1819. Resting at this point, Bolivar sent back assistance to the stragglers who still lingered on the road, and despatched parties to collect horses and communicate with the few guerillas who roamed about that region.

Barreiro, the Spanish commander, held the Tunja province with two thousand infantry and four hundred horse. There was also a reserve of one thousand troops at Bogota, the capital, and detachments elsewhere, while there was another royalist army at Quito. Bolivar trusted to surprise and to the support of the people to overcome these odds, and he succeeded in the first, for Barreiro was ignorant of his arrival, and supposed the passage of the Cordillera impossible at that season of the year.

He was soon aware, however, that the patriots had achieved this impossible thing and were in his close vicinity, and with all haste collected his forces and took possession of the heights above the plain of Vargas. By this movement he interposed between the patriots and the town of Tunja, which, as attached to the cause of liberty, Bolivar was anxious to occupy. It was not long, therefore, before the opposing armies met, and a battle took place that lasted five hours. The patriots won, chiefly by the aid of the English infantry, led by Colonel James Rooke, who had the misfortune to lose an arm in the engagement.

The victory was by no means a decisive one, and the road to Tunja remained in the hands of the royalists. Instead of again attacking his intrenched foe, Bolivar now employed strategy, retreating during the day, then making a rapid countermarch at night, thus passing Barreiro's forces in the dark over by-roads. On the 5th of August Tunja fell into his hands. He found there an abundance of war material, and by holding it he cut off Barreiro's communication with Bogota.


Bridge Entering Quito.

The strength of Bolivar's generalship lay in rapid and unexpected movements like this. The Spanish leaders, bound in the shackles of military routine, were astonished and dismayed by the forced marches of their enemies over roads that seemed unfit for the passage of an army. While they were manúnuvring, calculating, hesitating, guarding the customary avenues of approach, Bolivar would surprise them by concentrating a superior force upon a point which they imagined safe from attack, and, by throwing them into confusion, would cut up their forces in detail. As a result, the actions of the patriot commander in the field seemed less impressive than those of less notable generals, but the sum of effects was far superior.

Bolivar's occupation of Tunja took the Spaniards by surprise. Barreiro, finding himself unexpectedly cut off from his centre of supplies, fell back upon Yenta Quemada, where he was soon followed by his foe, anxious to deal a decisive blow before the royal forces could concentrate. Boyaca, the site now occupied by the hostile armies, was a wooded and mountainous country and one well suited to Bolivar's characteristic tactics. Placing a large part of his troops in ambush and manúuvring so as to get his cavalry in the enemy's rear, he advanced to the attack with a narrow front. On this Barreiro made a furious assault, forcing his opponents to recoil. But this retreat was only a stratagem, for, as they fell back, the Spaniards found themselves suddenly attacked in the flank by the ambushed troops, while the cavalry rode furiously upon their rear.

In a few minutes they were surrounded, and the fierce attack threw them into utter confusion, in which the patriot army cut them down almost without resistance. General Barreiro was taken prisoner on the field of battle, throwing away his sword when he saw that escape was impossible, to save himself the mortification of surrendering it to General Bolivar. Colonel Ximenes, his second in command, was also taken, together with most of the officers and more than sixteen hundred men. All their artillery, ammunition, horses, etc., were captured, and a very small portion of the army escaped. Some of these fled before the battle was decided, but many of them were taken by the peasantry of the surrounding country and brought in as prisoners. The loss of the patriots was incredibly small,—only thirteen killed and fifty-three wounded.

Boyaca—after Maypo, by which Chili gained its freedom—was the great battle of South America. It gave the patriots supremacy in the north, as Maypo had done in the south. New Granada was freed from the Spaniards, and on August 9, two days after the battle, the viceroy, Samana, hastily evacuated Bogota, fleeing in such precipitate haste that in thirty hours he reached Honda, usually a journey of three days. On the 12th Bolivar triumphantly marched into the capital, and found in its coffers silver coin to the value of half a million dollars, which the viceroy had left behind in his haste.

It must be said further that the English auxiliaries aided greatly in the results of these battles, their conduct giving Bolivar such gratification that he made them all members of the Order of the Liberator.

It is not our purpose to tell the whole story of this implacable war, but simply to relate the dramatic invasion and conquest of New Granada. It must suffice, then, to state that the war dragged on for two years longer, ending finally in 1821 with the victory of Carabobo, in which the Spaniards were totally defeated and lost more than six thousand men. After that they withdrew and a republic was organized, with Bolivar for its president.

Two years later he aided the Peruvians in gaining their independence and was declared their liberator and made supreme dictator of the country. After ruling there absolutely for two years, he resigned and gave the country a republican constitution. The congress of Lima elected him president for life, and a new commonwealth was organized in the northern section of Peru, to which the people gave the name of Bolivia, in honor of the winner of their liberties.