Simón Bolívar: El Libertador
January 1978

“Simón Bolívar: El Libertador,” Friend, Jan. 1978, 34

Simón Bolívar:
El Libertador

Many young boys dream of someday being president of their country when they grow up. However, one baby boy was born into a family with so much of everything a child could desire that while he was growing up he probably gave no thought to the responsibility of any government leadership. And yet before he was forty-three years old he had been president of Bolivia, Venezuela, new Granada (now Colombia), Peru, and Ecuador. His name was Simón Bolívar.

He was born on July 24, 1783, into a wealthy and aristocratic family. He had an older brother who died while quite young, and two sisters about whom very little is known. His father and mother were both proud of their name, their heritage, their money, and their land. They owned almost all the beautiful Aragua Valley just a few miles outside of Caracas, Venezuela, and thousands of slaves to do the work on their tremendous estate, called San Mateo. Vast herds of cattle and horses were raised, tons of cocoa and other valuable crops were harvested, and two large mines produced tremendous amounts of copper for them.

Simón’s handsome quick-tempered father died when the boy was only six and his mother three years later. The happy early childhood of the Bolívar children was abruptly ended. They were taken into the homes of different relatives. Uncle Palacios became responsible for Simón, and the easy outdoor life he had known was replaced by the severity of Uncle Palacios’ cold and formal home in Caracas. Monks were hired to teach the lonely and homesick boy. Uncle Palacios worried about his unhappy nephew and the monks worried about Uncle Palacios, after he once interrupted their unimaginative teaching about the stars to observe, “The stars in the heavens are there for all to see. One is not forced to observe them by gazing through any one particular window.”

Soon afterward a new tutor was engaged for Simón, a tall, loosely built young man of twenty-three. His name was Rodriguez Carreno and, fired with the revolutionary ideas of freedom, he threw away the dull books the monks had used, exchanging them for long walks, exercise, and philosophical talks. These exciting subjects were to influence Simón and make it possible for him to eventually become a great statesman, soldier, and liberator of the five countries he would later help to free and govern.

Rodriquez taught Simón the history of their country and spoke bitterly about the Spaniards who were rulers there and in much of the rest of South America. It was Rodriguez who also told Simón that these rulers considered the native Venezuelans to be inferior because their Spanish blood had been mixed through intermarriage with people from France or the West Indies (Creoles). Rodriguez’ remarks were shocking to the proud young man, and the tutor’s dream of freedom from Spain became a hope for Simón too.

The Spaniards’ attitude was reinforced when Simón was sent to Spain for further education. By this time he was a slim young man with a thin, suntanned face and dark piercing eyes. He was a better athlete and horseman than any of his admiring friends who benefitted from the almost limitless supply of money Simón provided for their pleasures.

One day while riding his horse, Simón was stopped by the police, searched, insulted, and told that he was no longer welcome in Spain. He was furious at the incident, for it pointed out more clearly than any of his tutor’s words the low regard that the Spanish rulers had for Creoles. Then began his dream to free all of South America from Spanish rule and make it one glorious republic much like the United States of America. Although this dream was not realized, Simón Bolívar is now often called “the George Washington of South America.”

When he was twenty-one he married Maria Theresa, a beautifully slim, black-haired young lady from a wealthy Creole family. The happy young couple immediately left Madrid to establish a home in the beautiful Aragua Valley where Simón had spent his early childhood. Their happiness lasted for only a few months, however. Maria became ill with fever and died after five days of agonizing delirium. “I shall never marry again,” Simón declared, and left San Mateo to go to France in an effort to forget his beautiful Maria. There he was courted and entertained, spent much money foolishly, and became known as “Prince Bolívar” to his admiring friends.

Then one day his old tutor Rodriguez appeared. Disapproving of the way Simón was living, he persuaded the young man to go with him on a walking tour of Italy. They carried their own packs, slept in haystacks, and talked as they roamed the country in the fresh air and sunshine.

They stopped to rest one afternoon on a beautiful green hillside overlooking Rome. Fired by Rodriquez’ ideas and remembering the humiliating experience of being mistreated by the police in Madrid, Simón suddenly arose, stretched out his arms, and solemnly declared, “On my life and honor I promise most faithfully not to rest until I have freed America of her tyrants!” The rest of Simón Bolívar’s life was dedicated to keeping this promise.

He obtained a position in the government of Venezuela and was sent to London. While there he urged people with influence to force Spain to withdraw from his country, but had little success.

Disappointed, he went back to San Mateo where reports of his revolutionary talk had reached Venezuela ahead of him. So before he was thirty he was banished from his beloved country, his estate was taken from him, and he was left without money or friends. Somehow he managed to get passage on a small boat that took him to the little hot and sandy island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea.

The island belonged to England at that time and English merchants provided him with food and a bed. Although Simón talked of a revolution against Spanish rule in Venezuela, they were surprised when he and his young cousin Ribas left the island and set sail for Colombia.

Arriving there, the two young men recruited an army of two hundred untrained men who had no uniforms except ragged civilian clothing. Their powder and bullet pouches were made of roughly sewn cowhide, and their worn-out muskets and bayonets were almost useless. Few of them had hats to cover their heads, and most of them had tattered leather sandals on their feet. But Simón was able to inspire and persuade them to follow him. After only a little training, this army captured a Spanish riverside fort in a surprise attack. There the men found ammunition, clothing, and food.

Simón was soon joined by other revolutionaries. Some battles were lost, but more were won. With odds almost beyond belief, Simón was able to rally his forces and add to them after every defeat. They followed him over the nearly insurmountable Andes Mountains, half frozen, hungry, and exhausted. Several women, wives of the soldiers, took part in this march across the mountains and one of them gave birth to a baby on the slopes of Mt. Pisba. At last they reached the plains of Venezuela where the small band of ragged revolutionaries fought a well-equipped army more than twice its size—and won!

Still poorly equipped and outnumbered, Bolívar then led his troops into other countries and also helped them to obtain their freedom.

However, Simón Bolívar, who was so successful in encouraging, training, and leading armies under the most adverse conditions, was unable to unite the various governments of the countries as he wanted so much to do. Disillusioned by the politicians’ jealousies, littleness, and bickering, he once wrote, “It is a terrible truth that it costs more strength to maintain freedom than to endure the weight of tyranny.”

Another time he saluted all men who fight for freedom with these words:

“I drink to the heroic endurance of the soldiers of both armies, to their loyalty, patience and courage. I drink to the men who, defying all terrors, take up the cause of liberty . … But perish all who desire bloodshed and who shed blood in an unjust cause.”

In November of 1830 Simón Bolívar, who had resigned from active government leadership, despaired of uniting South America and, hurt by the political intrigue of men in governments, became ill. Escaping a planned assassination against his life while in Bogota, Colombia, he fled to Santa Marta, the oldest permanent settlement in South America. Alone, misunderstood, and almost penniless he died there December 17, 1830. His farewell message to his countrymen urged them to continue fighting for freedom.

Statues of Simón Bolívar have been erected in the countries where he was once president, and the standard silver coin of Venezuela is named the bolivar after him—El Libertador, the liberator of South America!

Illustrated by Glen Edwards