Oscar Álvarez-Gila

Óscar Álvarez Gila is a Doctor in History at the University of the Basque Country, where he is currently a professor of New World History.  During the 2008-2009 school year, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Center for European Studies at the University of Oxford.  Two years later, he was the W. Douglass Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Nevada, Reno.  Moreover, in 2013-2014, he was the Elena Díaz-Verson Amos Eminent Scholar in Latin American Studies at the Columbus State University in Georgia.  Finally, in  the 2016-2017 year, he carried out a research stay at the University of Stockholm as a Magnus Mörner Memorial Professor.  His field of research is especially focused on the study of international migrations during the 19th and 20th centuries, with special attention to the case of emigration from the Basque Country to France, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Cuba.  This line of work has allowed him to also study the links between religion and emigration, the institutionalization of emigrant communities, as well as the culture and construction of identities in the communities of the diaspora.  He has also worked on projects and interdisciplinary research collaborations, especially on topics linked to migrations and climate change, or more recently, on topics linked to genetics and history.  He was responsible for organizing the academic events to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aranzazu  of Lima

This entry of our series on the bicentennial of the independence of the New World republics is dedicated to one of the three great leaders in the process of transforming the colonies of the Kingdoms of Spain into the Republics of the New World.

Normally, three are the names that jump to people’s minds when discussing the leaders of the struggle for independence: Agustín de Iturbide in Mexico and General San Martín and Simón Bolívar in South America.

Like all historical figures, their characterizations are multifaceted and complex, and their lives and works have both highs and lows.  It is not easy to escape historical determinism and not think their actions were a definitive turning point in Ibero-American history, and that what a great deal of the New World is going through today is essentially the responsibility of a historical legacy that has given rise to today’s problems.

Nations are like people.  It is true that their “genetic heritage” marks their lives.  But like people, nations have the ability to overcome the obstacles, and defects, they received from that heritage.  And that is largely in the hands of its political, social, and cultural elites, and in their commitment to handling public and economic affairs better than their predecessors did. This management must be focused on creating better, more cohesive, freer, fairer, and more prosperous societies, and not on fattening their wallets and those of their “friends”.

But let’s return to today’s protagonist.  One quick look at his surnames shows that of the three, two have a clear connection to the Basque Country: Agustín de Iturbide, to whom we’ve already dedicated an entry here on the blog, and Simón Bolívar, who even has his own museum in the town of Ziortza-Bolibar in Biscay, which is definitely worth visiting.

Museo Simón Bolivar (Ziortza, Bizkaia, Euskadi)
Simón Bolívar Museum (Ziortza, Biscay, Euskadi)

And the latter is who we are here to discuss in this entry in this series.  Specifically, we’re going to bring you an article by Óscar Álvarez-Gila (who we’ve turned to before) about Simón Bolívar that was previously published in the book “Simón Bolívar, entre el mito y la historia (Simón Bolívar: between the myth and history)”, published in 2008 by the Simón Bolívar Museum to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

As we said before, there can be no doubt that this is a multifaceted individual full of highs and lows, and is far from the mythical ideal of a “perfect” Libertador.  He’s a historical figure who is now at the center of a debate that is more political than historical, given the attempts to appropriate his figure, and his legacy, by a specific political movement.  Something similar happened to another important figure in the history of the New World, General Sandino.

In this article by Dr. Álvarez-Gila that we’re sharing today, several key aspects of his biography are analyzed, with special attention paid to his relationship to the Basque Country




Óscar Álvarez Gila. University of the Basque Country
Published in the book «Simón Bolívar, entre el mito y la historia»
Simón Bolívar Museum (2008).

Forging a Myth

Now almost two centuries after the emancipatory outbreak that separated almost the entirety of the New World from Spanish dominion, giving rise to the birth of a pleiad of independent nations, is it possible to say anything new or original about one of its leading figures, Libertador Simón Bolívar?  It looks like an easy question on the surface, but deep down, it is complex and full of difficulties.  We have before us a figure who long ago left behind his character as a historical figure and has begun entering into the category of myth.  Recognized directly as the “father of the homeland” in no fewer than ten Latin American countries, one of which he named itself after him, Simón Bolívar emerged as a person who is full of highs and lows, at the same time.

What do we know of Simón Bolívar?  If we focused only on the volume of pages which have been dedicated to glossing over the many different aspects of his life and work since the 1820s, we could conclude that we know everything about him.  Bolívar enjoys the privilege of being among the ten historical figures about whom more publications have been written throughout history.  As an example, the only people who have more bibliographic references at the United States Library of Congress are Jesus Christ, the prophet Mohammed, and, logically, given the country that houses this library, President Washington.  Of course, this classification is not a statistic we can generalize, but there can be no doubt that it is a very clear example of the attention Simón Bolívar has garnered among those who study and share history.

There is another fact that has contributed to placing Bolívar on the pedestal of historical mythification from very early on: his early death.  He lived to the age of only 47, which may seem excessively young nowadays, though not so much in the days of Bolívar; however, it did serve to remove him from the public eye after having just achieved his political aims, and even after having suffered his greatest defeats.  When he passed away at the San Pedro Alejandrino hacienda near Santa María, in modern-day Colombia on December 7, 1830, he had just come to understand, bitterly, that his dream, of uniting the whole of Latin America, would never come to be.

Simón Bolívar was born in Caracas on July 24, 1783.  Just seven years earlier, the United States had proclaimed its independence from the British crown, kicking off the independence of the whole New World.  He was born into a family with a long history and deep roots in Venezuelan soil.  But his roots, even though quite far away in time, went all the way back to Europe, specifically to the Basque Country.  Of the at least three places that we know of in the Basque Country called Bolívar, the forebears of the Libertador, with the surname Ochoa de la Rementería, came from the one in Cenarruza, in the area of Markina.  As natives of Biscay, they enjoyed the privilege of hidalguía, or nobility, and in the middle of the 16th century, the first representative of the family, also named Simón Bolívar, nicknamed “El Viejo”, would travel to Santo Domingo, on the island of Hispaniola.  As was usual at the time, when surnames were not yet set, he preferred to take the name of his hometown to the Americas, rather than his family’s name.  That first Simón Bolívar was the secretary of the Dominican Court, whence he would travel to the region of Venezuela in 1588 on the recommendation of the governor, Diego de Ossorio.  Though he returned to Castile, he did so only as the solicitor for the City of Caracas, where he resided, to request some royal favors.  He himself ended up being rewarded with the title of Chancellor of the Royal Exchequer and Councilman of the City of Caracas.  He would never again cross the Atlantic, and he is known to have died in Venezuela in 1612.

The descendants of Simón el Viejo stayed in Venezuela for centuries: they were large landowners in the Aragua valleys, where they owned the San Mateo property; they were the lords of Aroa and eternal candidates for a marquisate that they never quite managed to obtain.  As they took pains to make known in their eventually unsuccessful attempts to enter into the titled nobility, several representatives of the family had held very high roles in Venezuela, and they connected themselves to the descendants of conquistadors and other illustrious Creole families, via marriages which greatly increased their fortunes and social standing.

This would therefore be the environment in which young Simón Bolívar would be raised.  He enjoyed the privilege of having been born into an aristocratic family that was quite well off, considering their family fortune was over 600,000 pesos, including land, houses, and slaves.  His father, Colonel Juan Vicente Bolívar y Ponte, was the fifth-generation descendant of Simón el Viejo, and lived from 1726 to 1786.  His mother, María de la Concepción Palacios y Blanco, came from a well-known family of Castilian and French origin.  This is very interesting information, as it allows us to see his context, as Bolívar was able to use that enormous inherited fortune in his determination to achieve independence, which in his wildest dreams encompassed the whole of South America.  His involvement in that work led him to spend his entire fortune in the attempt: upon his death, his only possessions were mines that were in dispute and from which he never made a profit, and a lifetime salary granted him by Congress in 1823, which he started receiving only shortly before his death.

The mythical figure of Bolívar the Libertador grows with the romantic halo of his personal and love life.  His experience in marriage started quite young: at the age of 19, he got married in Madrid, after a brief but intense courtship between the Spanish capital and the city of Bilbao, with Teresa Rodríguez de Toro, who was herself a descendant of a powerful family from Caracas and was indeed distantly related to Simón Bolívar himself.  A year later, tragedy struck when he became a widower so young; Bolívar would never go on to remarry.  But that does not mean he rejected feminine contact: in his gallant life, he was quite the Casanova, and historian after historian only adds to the list of lovers he had throughout his life, chief among them Manuela Sáenz, who accompanied him in his last eight years.  But he would never have any children with any of them, either legitimate or illegitimate.  Again, the myth found a way to grow: the children who might have fought for the hero’s material or immaterial wealth were replaced by whole nations standing up to take the place as the authentic descendants of their founding father.

In any case, as a product of a society of exclusively masculine values, he undervalued the capacities of women, except in the art of love.  On one occasion, he wrote to his sister María Antonia regarding her participation in some family business: “Would you please avoid the sorrow of taking any steps, especially in matters of papers, as normally women are no good for this kind of thing; and you have made it worse, despite your good wishes, complicating the suit, the letters, and making mistakes… Don’t get involved in anything, especially regarding papers, and I would be very grateful to you for that”.

His rapid identification with the myth gave rise to a personality of extremely powerful characteristics: it is claimed that he “was a great soldier, and better president; a great revolutionary and excellent politician.”  Truth, however, comes to unravel many of the elements of that myth.  It is true that he was a great soldier, but not of his own will, but rather forced into it by circumstance.  Although he is recognized as a liberator, in reality, his revolutionary efforts were limited to the narrow band of the bourgeoisie that he belonged to, which meant, like the good landowner he always wanted to be, his proposals for freedom never included slaves and the “castes” (people of brown and black skin), who he was always afraid would start a rebellion; at the end of his life, he would even adopt a clearly reactionary solution to this point, quite similar to the colonial model.  Regarding his political work, what is true is that, as has happened to many other great liberators, the challenge of peace overwhelmed his abilities, and he could not politically finish that which he had started in war.  Thus, his grand supranational plans, such as the Continental Congress in Panama, the Andean Confederation, and his final and more modest proposal, the plurinational union of the Confederation of Greater Colombia, would end up being separated over time.

The Figure in History

What was Simón Bolívar like, who was the person behind the myth?  We have very detailed descriptions of him, both what he looked like and what his personality was like.  Of the former, all we need to cite are the many portraits of him that decorate political headquarters and museums in all the countries where he left his mark.  We know he was of average height, about 1.77 m (5 10) when at the high point of his public life.  Deductions have sometimes been made based on his proverbial thinness that he was “fine, elegant, and nervous as a Toledan sword.”  In paintings, Bolívar is presented to us with thin arms and thighs; the ovular cranium, bulbous in the forehead, a brow over dark eyes that were very alive, shining with intensity over his white skin – a reflection of the Creole ideal, absent the racial mix of his forebears – and a face that displayed its owner’s expressions with every striking change.

The experience of the prolonged war of emancipation were truly hard tests of Bolívar’s physical strength and stamina.  There are authors who highlight his temple, accentuated during the hardest moments of the war.  In the innumerable biographies of him, it is said that he was strong and bold, never rested, and managed to make all obstacles in his path yield to him.  His contemporaries said he was never seen crying in public.

The moderation of his habits aided him in this.  His image is very different to the stereotype attributed to Creoles.  He ate in abundance, but not in excess, tormented by the ghost of tuberculosis.  Unlike most of his countrymen, he preferred legumes, and especially fruit, to meat.  Nor did he have a sweet tooth, as most people from Caracas did.  Instead, he was crazy for spicy foods, and loved to dress all his dishes with ají sauce, especially salads.  His tastes at the table were also very refined, possibly a reflection of his time in the Court in Madrid, or his experiences in Paris.  Thus, he took great care in the layout of the table and the cutlery, which gave him a reputation as a good gourmet.  He drank in moderation, just a few glasses of bourbon or madeira and a bit of sparkling wine with dinner; he never partook of aguardiente or the strong local liqueurs.  He didn’t smoke or drink coffee, either.

He also took great care of his public image.  During his campaigns, or his political work, he wore magnificent uniforms, while his regular dress was somber: a blue frock coat, white breeches and waistcoat, black cravate, tall boots, and straw hat – the bolívar, which he would make famous in Paris – in all, the image of a wealthy landowner.  He paid special attention to his personal hygiene, bathing and shaving almost daily, except when on campaign.  He cleaned himself painstakingly, combed his hair perfectly, and wore too much cologne.  He was a sleepyhead, but only when circumstances allowed.  If he could, he liked to have a siesta on a hammock, though not regularly.  Sometimes, after lunch, he would work or go for strolls or horse rides.

These traits, elitist to a certain point, as they reflected the way of life of the Caracas oligarchy, did not however prevent his connection with the people who rose up in arms against Spanish dominion.  Firstly, he dominated the art of rhetoric, even getting to the point of being able to turn his eloquence into a weapon that would allow him to sway crows and which added to his traits as a caudillo in the public eye.  Little, however, is left of his verbal expression, barely reflected in the more than 3,000 letters still preserved, as well as his speeches and statements, which were glossed and edited.

But beyond rhetoric, he also knew how to get close to the people, which was another weapon of his.  Facing off against the domination and authority that Bolívar the political leader of masses was Bolívar the general, who played the card of sacrifice, self-denial, and loyalty to his troops.  Like many times before, and since, it has been seen how a Liberator uses the humility and spartan life of the soldier.  It was not infrequent for him to take the gifts of value he was given and hand them on to his subordinates, attributing all success to them.  It is also known that, if necessary, he would sleep on the hard ground next to his soldiers, eating the same salted meat they did, all through the Venezuela campaign, when he went from a military leader to the father of independence.  Moreover, he possessed the virtue of understanding the importance of admitting and rectifying mistakes fully, which was quite in line with his temper and some circumstances that were favorable to violent passions.

In a world in which entertainment was still a privilege for the well-to-do, his favorite distractions were conversation, dancing for hours (preferably a contradanse or waltz), gambling (though he was a poor loser), strolling, reading, and swimming.  When riding, he would sometimes start races, and he always had to win.  He greatly enjoyed debating with his subordinates, enjoying shocking them when telling them his gallant tales in Europe, some more truthful than others.  He had resounding opinions on everything, and did not tolerate differing opinions well.  He read everything he could get his hands on, giving him extensive knowledge of Spanish and French literature, and some English and Italian.  Sometimes, he dazzled his subordinates by reciting verses in French.

His personality, however, showed a darker side that seemed aggressive to the others in the conversation, as he always had to be right and prove his worth in the widest variety of activities.  On occasion, he became obsessed with always remaining the center of attention when in public.  The plainsmen who made up his army had the impression that he was a womanizer, a man of the world who was very cultured, and it was easy for him to create an audience that was simply amazed and often fawning.  With intellectuals, such as Humboldt, Bonpland, and Miranda, he always came across as presumptuous.  His language was always educated, the product of an exacting education: the only curse word he was said to refuse to say in public was also the word that defined his Creole character: carajo.

Forging a Personality

The most prominent characteristics attributed to his personality were, however, pride, ambition, and tenacity.  He has been compared to a peacock, eternally showing off the beauty of his plumage.  Therefore, he never forgave those who made him a laughingstock, such as the Englishman Cunning, the Creole Miranda, or General Monteverde.  He considered his interview with Spanish General Morillo a duel of overwhelming personalities.  Bolívar felt fully realized when he was admired by all, and especially in his Roman-style triumphal entrances.  His pride also denied him having valuable men at his side, as he was afraid they would overshadow him.  His generals’ constant uprisings, more like a self-fulfilling prophecy, were a source of confusion for Bolívar, who could not understand, as his pride would not let him, that anyone could ever oppose him.  He put the attacks he was victim to down to circumstances: the only exception was the so-called “September conspiracy,” a mutiny against him that broke out on September 25, 1828, which did finally make him aware that the public was aware that there were those who wished to kill him.

Of the many other traits attributed to the Libertador, the image of honesty and good faith that always accompanied him is worth highlighting.  It is fair to say that there were good reasons for it.  Even after having been exalted with a greater degree of political power than any other man had ever achieved in his country, he refused to give his family and friends positions in the nascent national administration, and he did not want to take advantage of any other circumstance to become rich or practice the nepotism that was so habitual in his contemporaries.  We’ve already pointed out how he himself died in poverty, frittering off his wealth for the cause he served selflessly and generously, to the end.  When General Santander asked him to accept the post of Protector of the Company that was going to establish communications between the seas across the Isthmus of Panama, he replied on February 22, 1826 that he would not accept any such sinecures under any circumstances and, these are his own words: “I hasten to advise you to not take part in it.  I am sure that no one will smile on either you or I, who have been and who are heading the government, get mixed up in summarily speculative projects…; as for me, I am firmly resolute in not getting involved in this enterprise, nor in any other one of a commercial nature.”

Bolívar was also a man of contradictions, to the highest degree, as his mood frequently changed given his unstable temperament.  Some researchers have classified him as cyclothymic, as he would alternate between moments of depression, when he would speak and act in a way that was completely opposite to his other moments of euphoria.  He had good reasons for both in his political life.

The Father of Independence

The Bolivarian ideology, where he could express himself best, is where the Libertador was able to write most freely about what he considered “the ideal state”: a project for a Bolivian constitution.  The first trait to highlight is its philo- or pseudo-monarchical nature: in that constitution, Bolívar drew up a hereditary, lifelong presidency, in exclusive charge of all things military and diplomatic, leaving the administration and political management to the vice president.  As Bolívar expected to occupy the presidency, he designed it around his true and lasting callings: diplomacy, dating back to his frustrated attempt in London, and the military, the activity that provided him his greatest glories.  Administration had never interested him, and he considered it appropriate for people with temperaments different to his own.  He considered his grand political dreams of uniting the continent as expressions of his diplomatic genius rather than administrative: he longed to achieve great goals; others would have to be in charge of managing them.

Argentine historian Edberto Óscar Acevedo[1] has summarized the Bolivarian ideology as such: “Bolívar tried, more than anything, to be a restorer of the former institutions of a Spanish paternal character.”  In a letter to Andrés de Santa Cruz[2], dated October 11, 1826, claims, “No increases, no quixotic reforms that are called liberal; let’s continue in the old Spanish style: slowly and looking well before leaping.”  Some have even gone so far as to claim that the Bolivarian plan was nothing more than a continuation of the old Spanish empire, but without a king and governed from the Americas.  Acevedo himself recognizes that, “upon seeing the lack of true political leaders, he, noble Bolívar, tried to be the director of civil and political freedom of the peoples in the nascent states.  Let’s recognize that his attempt failed, as did those of all who tried to raise a wall of order that contained the decomposition of the New World body politic.  But let us also recognize, and experience has shown, that that decomposition, a product of the propaganda of the liberal demagogues, is all that is left in our Americas, when it is governed by systems with no hierarchy.”

The five Bolívar siblings, María Antonia, Juana, Juan Vicente, Simón, and María del Carmen (who died at birth), were orphaned quite young: Simón hadn’t turned nine yet when his mother died.  His maternal grandfather, Feliciano Palacios, who was the Royal Lieutenant in Caracas, then tried to leave the raising of the orphans to tutors and private teachers.  That was how Simón Rodríguez, a 21-year-old Caracas man, came to take the child Simón Bolívar under his wing as his letters and grammar teacher, as despite his young age he had been an eyewitness to the French Revolution in Paris.  This experience had marked Rodríguez, and he would enthusiastically and fully pass it on to his disciple, teaching him, in only two months, the educational doctrines of Emile de Rousseau.  All biographers recognize that the influence of Simón Rodríguez would ultimately be decisive in the formative process of Bolívar’s ideology.

At the age of 16, he was sent to Spain for further education, and lived at a house an old liberal Venezuelan and family friend, the Marquis of Uztáriz, had there.  At that time, he would meet and even play with the Prince of Asturias, the future King Ferdinand VII, who was his same age.  After his wedding, he returned to Caracas, but his wife’s unfortunate passing caused him to return to Europe, though this time not only Spain.  In Paris, he witnessed the coronation of Napoleon, whom he admired after having studied his military campaigns.  In fact, Bolívar himself would admit that he learned quite a lot of the art of war from Napoleon, and would later adapt the latter’s strategies in the Americas.  In Paris, he was a lover of Fany du Villars; he met Humboldt and Bonpland, who conveyed to him their opinion that the Americas were ripe for freedom.  He traveled on foot to Rome with his old teacher, Simón Rodríguez, and his classmate and relative, Fernando Toro.  In Rome, one of those moments that is repeatedly mentioned in Bolívar’s military biographies happened: his solemn oath at the summit of Mons Sacer, where he vowed to free his homeland.  To follow through on that vow, upon his return to Caracas, he began to take part in the first conspiratorial movements.

1810 marked the beginning of the process of emancipation.  At first, when the movement seemed initially triumphant, he was commended with the task of going to London to work with the British government to get aid from them for those seeking independence.  The commission, made up of Bolívar, López Méndez, and Andrés Bello, set off on April 19.  But they turned out to be true novices in matters of diplomacy, which led them to an embarrassing private meeting with Lord Wellesley and another with Francisco Miranda, the Precursor of independence, who took advantage of his vehemence.  The results of the commission are uncertain: although they did not get the promise of immediate British aid, they did raise British plans for conquest in the Americas; likewise, upon their return, they brought General Francisco de Miranda with them in order to have him lead the war against Spain.  It is then that Bolívar acts with his friends in the Patriotic Society to have the council of Caracas, working as the national congress, assume the goal of full independence.

Once the war had begun, Bolívar was charged with defending the Puerto Cabello plaza, which failed due to a betrayal that would leave a very deep mark.  Miranda would end up failing, as well.  Bolívar and other officers, who considered Miranda a traitor, arrested him in La Guaira on the eve of again sailing off for England, and turned him into the Spanish authorities.  Bolívar took refuge in Caracas, where he obtained a passport that he was given by Spanish general Monteverde “as compensation for his services to the King with putting Miranda in prison.”  On August 27, 1812, Bolívar set sail for Curaçao from La Guaira.  The initial expectations had been turned upside down by the resounding failure, with the added loss that came from handing Miranda over; he would later die in the dungeons in Cádiz.

But for Bolívar, independence was not a matter that had been finished off.  At the age of 29, he took on a handful of men in the outskirts of Cartagena, with whom he started a military campaign, which gained followers along the way, and in only seven months, it reached Caracas itself.  He had traversed 2,000 km, he had won battles, he had taken cities, and he had decreed along the way “war until death”: “He who is not with me is against me, and must perish.”  That is when his birth city gave him the title of Liberator.  But the pendulum of history would swing once again, and just a year later, after a series of bloody defeats, Bolívar once again had to set off in exile, this time to Jamaica.  Other leaders of the Venezuelan Revolution, meanwhile, continued on with the war momentum, with more or less luck.  In Jamaica, he would write his celebrated “Letter from Jamaica”, where he laid out what was going to happen in Spanish America in the next century.  Perhaps “futurologist” should be added to his list of skills, as almost all of his predictions ended up coming true.  “I can clearly see the future based on the present itself,” he used to say.  Thus, it was a habit of his to give orders for the next few months, even when battles whose success he did not doubt were to take place in the interim.

And while banished, he prepared new projects, and even suffered his first attempted assassination.  Spain had been sent off a punitive expedition of 10,000 men to finish off the last strags of the insurrection, led by General Morillo.  Meanwhile, Bolívar prepared again to attack the continent yet again.  With the approval of the president of Haiti, Pétio, he used that country as a base from which to launch two expeditions in a row, both of which failed.  In the first, it was his own fellow adventurers, Venezuelan, who did not want to accept him as supreme commander, even attempting to assassinate him, again.  In the second one, however, he would manage to plant his flag on Venezuelan soil, in the area near the Orinoco River, which would be his definitive base.  But the problems did not stop there: after ordering General Piar, accused of uprising, to be killed, the following campaigns he launched had no definitive successes, forcing Bolívar to take his army to take refuge in the region of Los Llanos.

Nevertheless, his opponent, Morillo, was not having a better time of it, watching the number of his men drop from 10,000 at the start to just 800 in the span of two short years.  Those who didn’t die fighting succumbed to any of the hundreds of tropical diseases.

In the end, after almost seven years marching around had turned his troops into efficient veterans, he set about putting two great ideas into motion: giving structure to the movement at a congress in Angostura, a republic that did not exist, and taking his campaign outside Venezuelan borders.  The redemption for within would come from without.  He crossed the Andes with his troops, following such an unbelievable and absurd route that it could not be foreseen by Spanish forces, and ended up in the heart of New Granada, which would gain its independence in just one battle, the one at Boyacá on August 7, 1819.  The Crown had lost its first bit of territory: the Viceroyalty of New Granada became a part of the new country of Colombia.

The official birth of this country would come after Bolívar returned to Angostura, where it was baptized and its borders drawn, to which Venezuela, New Granada, and the Audience of Quito (modern-day Ecuador) joined in, with the intention of creating a great block to act as a counterweight to the potential of the United States of America and the future vigor of the new nations that were waking up in the Southern Cone at the same time.  He crossed from one side to the other, traveling thousands of kilometers, even reaching the faraway Cartagena at one point.  And he marched across the middle of Venezuela to free it once and for all.  The strategic plan was carried out in five months, in which he considered meeting with the enemy general, Morillo.  After that meeting was held, General Morillo returned to Spain.  His successor, less professionally brave, would make Bolívar’s triumph easier.  And Venezuela would gain its independence in another great battle, the one at Carabobo, on June 28, 1821.  Spain had lost another country in the Americas.

But Bolívar’s sights went beyond Venezuela, and even beyond Greater Colombia.  A new direction in campaigns would send him south, through Ecuador.  Bolívar advanced on land, while the best of his generals, Antonio José de Sucre, led several battles, winning the definitive battle at Pichincha on May 24, 1820, after which the entire territory of the Audience of Quito would declare its independence.  Twenty days later, Bolívar and Sucre prepared the Peru campaign in Quito.  Not in vain, Lima was the main viceroyal seat in South America, and for the Creoles, it was the name that represented, more than any other, the power of Spain on the continent.

In Guayaquil, the two great promoters of the two processes of emancipation of South America, Bolívar and San Martín, met.  The latter had come up from his homeland in Argentina and achieved the independence of Chile and Lower Peru; but he had left the King’s army intact, and it had withdrawn to Upper Peru on the orders of General Olañeta.  After two successive secret meetings, San Martín, a career soldier who lacked Bolívar’s political genius, was disenchanted of the Libertador who asked him to lead the Peru campaign and be under his orders.  The reasons are not well known, but because of that disagreement, San Martín returned to Chile, and then decided to exile himself to Europe.

By that time, a relationship had already begun between Bolívar and Manuela Sáenz.  They had met in Quito and a burning love of deep romance blossomed.  Rose-colored filters are also necessary to create legends.  But politics and war have their demands.  Again, Sucre went ahead on the Peru campaign, with Bolívar following.  Before going up into the Andes to attack the Spanish in the Altiplano, two successive Peruvian presidents had to be brought down, as they were in negotiations with the enemy: Riva Agüero and Torre Tagle; later, another aristocrat, the Marquis of Berinodaga, would have to be sentenced to death for treason.

In a Peruvian town, Pativilca, Bolívar came down with tuberculosis in 1824.  His parents had died of that disease.  But that did not stop his army from going up into the Andes, until they met Olañeta’s troops in the Battle of Junín on August 6, 1824.  But while the Peruvian campaign was becoming a military march, the situation was getting worse for Bolívar in the rearguard.  Fearful of the excessive power he was acquiring, the Colombian Congress passed a law, introduced by Vice President Santander, to remove Bolívar from the supreme command of the Army abroad.  Sucre and all the army officers on campaign put up a strong protest.  That is one of the reasons Bolívar was not present at the last great battle for independence, at Ayacucho, on December 9, 1824; it would be led by Sucre.

This setback would be the first in a series of disappointments.  Once independence had been achieved with weapons, it was the politicians’ and statesmen’s turn, and they would start building a new state, from the constitution to international relations.  With this goal, Bolívar organized the first Panamerican Congress, in Panama City.  The place chosen could not have been more significant: the bridge between North and South America, and the meeting point between two oceans.  Meanwhile, the Upper Peruvian state, which would be renamed Bolivia, was getting organized, drew up a constitution that would set out its ideals, just as had been presented in Angostura.  In Peru, meanwhile, he was named president for life.

But the political storm blew up in his face when he returned to Bogota, where his adversaries were already well organized.  The unity of the continent is the first battle point.  Venezuela was determined to break away from its union in Greater Colombia, and Bolívar had to leave in a rush for Caracas, where he would stay for six months to solve the imminent problem of an armed conflict between Venezuela and New Granada.  It would his last trip to his hometown, where the new political and military leader of the territory is General José Antonio Páez.  Bolívar would stay in Bucaramanga while the Convention was being held in Ocaña, in which the members would not reach an agreement.  A popular uprising in Bogota named Bolívar dictator.  He accepted the responsibility, given the enormous political tidal wave, but he convened congress within a year and a half.  Once again an attempt was made on his life, when twelve armed young men broke into his bedroom.  He was saved by Manuela Sáenz.

The situation got worse, when the first friction arose between the free states of the Americas.  Peru invaded Colombia, and Sucre, who had renounced the presidency of Bolivia and after an attempt had been made on his life, was charged with pushing back the aggression, defeating the Peruvians at Tarqui in February 1829.  Bolívar traveled to Guayaquil on horseback from Bogota despite his illness, which worsened considerably, bringing him right to death’s door.  He got better, and signed the peace treaty with Peru, and returned to Bogota, where the Admirable Congress was held in 1830.  There, he renounced the presidency and announced his definitive retirement from politics.

His intention was the same as San Martín had done years before: to look for peace in exile in Europe.  He went to Cartagena, and thne Barranquilla and Santa María, following the Caribbean coast, trying to find a ship that would take him to England.  On the way, he learned of the assassination of General Sucre in Berruecos, which only made his sense of unease grow.  Everything he had worked for was falling apart, and now he had lost someone he had loved like the son he had never had, the person he considered his dauphin in the charismatic leadership for the construction of a great South American nation.  While resting at the San Pedro Alejandrino hacienda, owned by Spaniard Joaquín de Mier, he passed away after a long illness, on December 17, 1830 at 1:00 in the afternoon.

Seven days before he passed away, after having received travel allowance from the priest in mamatoco, he drew up his political will, addressed as a proclamation “To the peoples of Colombia”.  He still had hopes that unity would preserve his cause: “If my death contributes to stopping the divisions and consolidating the union, I’ll go down into my grave in peace.”

Quite possibly, this doubly tragic end to his life was the price that had to be paid in order for the myth to become fully formed.  Indeed, Bolívar had died fleeing the country he had helped liberate from its colonial dependency with his hard work.  His dreams had been frustrated, and his friends had either died or he considered that they had abandoned him.  In his mind, disappointment and betrayal worked together against his dying wish.  He would never reach England.  But from that very moment, the ups and downs of his character were set aside to make way for admiration and the respect for his work.  And, as usually happens in these cases, the myth was born.  “In the 19th century, nothin greater happened in the whole continent.  In the first quarter of the 19th century, Napoleon is Europe, Bolívar is the Americas.  But Napoleon was forever stuck in the glory of the past, while Bolívar continued to live and act on.”[3].

Bolívar and the Basque Country

Everything said so far would be enough to gloss over the person under discussion.  But, given that this work’s goal is to commemorate the first twenty-five years of the Simón Bolívar Museum, it would not be complete if we did not mention the relationship between the Libertador and this small slice of Europe called the Basque Country.

In fact, in the short but nevertheless intense bibliography produced in the Basque Country regarding Bolívar, this matter has sparked great interest right from the start.  Indeed, in addition to the clear Basque roots of the surname Bolívar, we must add other milestones in his life, which have been used to justify the link between everything Bolívar and the Basque Country: on the one hand, his paternal ancestors’ genealogy, which, in five generations, situates the origin of the family in the Biscayan town of Bolibar, where this museums now stands; on the other, the year Bolívar spent in Bilbao in his youth.

Curiously, despite all rational clues that would have us suppose that spending one of his forty-seven years must have left a notable mark on the upbringing of the Libertador, little to nothing is known about this time.  Among an infinity of biographies, scientific and informative, old and recent, of Bolívar, his “stay in Bilbao” looms large as a truly dark period.  It is, to more graphically describe it, a biographical “black hole” that we have almost no information about, and the little we do find is contradictory, depending on the author we’re reading.

On the other hand, many are the pages that have been written highlighting the Libertador’s Basque family tree.  We know, in great detail, all the names, surnames, and lifespands of his forebears, not back to just the aforementioned Simón “El Viejo” from the 16th century, but even some of his Ochoa relatives who lived in Rementería at the end of the Middle Ages.  According to this line of thought, the relationship between Bolívar and everything Basque would be based mostly on blood.  Thus it would be his Basque blood, as interpreted by Segundo de Ispizua in the 1910s,[4] that which, among other things, would explain his zeal for independence and his desire for emancipation.  This same line of arguments, by the way, was copied point by point by Adolfo Lafarga during the Franco dictatorship, just replacing “Spanish” where Ispizua put “Basque”[5]Today, this type of explanation may truly surprise us, because fortunately a long time has passed since the evolution of Basque historiography was overcome; but it will always be necessary to remember that they were accepted in other times.  Moreover, they are overly simplistic; in fact, if we were to base ourselves only on factors such as blood or “race”, we’d have to see much more Galician in Bolívar than Basque, as many more of his forebears were from Galicia than from the Basque Country.  We might even be able to trace his thirst for freedom to tropical Africa, were it true that, as some perhaps biased sources point out, there may have been mulato blood in his veins.  The Basque, rather than other regions that might claim his ancestry, stands out more solely because his patrilineal surname was Basque, rather than Galician or from elsewhere.

But, as we’ve already pointed out, in this day and age, the link between surname and lineage serves us only as a privileged way of remembrance and historical commemoration, good proof of which is this museum, without going into any other considerations.  And that therefore allows us to recover that other argument that (this time) does link the personal experiences of the Libertador with the Basque Country.

Yes, Bolívar did reside in the Basque Country.  In fact, he was here with us on no fewer than two occasions.  All authors and sources agree on this, as do they in pointing out what house in Bilbao he lived in (the residence of the Rodríguez de Toro family, who were also from Caracas and of Basque origin), and locating the most torrid moments of his affair with his hosts’ daughter, María Teresa, who would end up being his wife.  But, as we’ve said, up to here, everyone agrees, but after this, more doubts and contradictions arise.

We could start by just asking ourselves whether Bolívar was in Bilbao on two or three occasions, as some authors claim.  We could also wonder about why he came here.  In fact, Bilbao was the first city Bolívar headed for on his first trip from Venezuela to Europe, and he wasn’t simply passing through, as he was here for long enough, a few days, to take care of some business that was very important to him.  Historiography has proven that his boat landed due to rough seas at the port of Laredo, and it would be from this locale in Cantabria, “on his way to Madrid”, that he would stop at Bilbao in June 1799.  Perhaps when compared to London, New York, or Barquisimeto, this explanation might seem logical, but a quick look at the map will show anyone that the route from Laredo to Madird does not go through Bilbao.  So it stands to reason that he had reasons for coming, and staying, though he did not state them.

The same can be deduced by the months he spent there in 1800, during his betrothal to María Teresa, at the Rodríguez de Toro residence.  While not denying how someone in love would want to spend time with the object of their affection, again we are presented with the suspicion that Bilbao must have had other attractions for Bolívar.

And so it was.  The Bolívar family, just like the Uztáriz family, at whose home in Portugalete he stayed for a short while on his first visit to Biscay, and like the Rodríguez de Toro family, were all bourgeois families from Caracas who, among other sources of income, carried out commercial activities with merchants and consignors at the port of Bilbao.  Bolívar, was indeed not seeking the warmth of his beloved in Bilbao, but rather the control and management of his businesses, which had been handled by his father up to that point.

Bilbao would also play an important role, though never duly considered, in Bolívar’s ideological upbringing on political theorty after the French Revolution.  Bilbao, at that time, was a hotspot for French “emigrés”, families who had escaped in the darkets moments of the French revolution and then put down roots in Bilboa without ever losing contact with France.  It was here, for example, where he established friendly and stronger relationships that would allow him to visit Paris later in his life.  It was also in Bilbao where his friendship with Antonio Adán de Yarza, a well-known liberal free thinker, whose library (which Simón Bolívar undoubtedly had access to) was full of numerous banned books.  Many of the readings his tutor Simón Rodríguez could not provide him in Caracas were opened to him in Bilbao.  Bilbao, therefore, would be the logical bridge between his upbringing in Caracas and his education in Paris[6].

As can therefore be seen, Bolívar’s experiences in Bilbao deserve much more attention that the scant six or ten lines Bolívar’s regular biographers dedicate to this period of his life, which was so crucial and so unexplored.  The Basque contribution to the creation of his personality and the myth, which was therefore so much more important than the usually used matters of blood or lineage, is still unfortunately awaiting historical research to bring it out into the light.  History is not the past, but also the future, and remembering that which has brought us together will undoubtedly contribute to strengthening the bonds that bind us.  As we approach the decade when the New World will commemorate the bicentennial of the independence of the republics of Latin America, it is time for the Basque Country, and especially Biscay, to recover and show the world all the details of Simón Bolívar’s experiences in Bilbao.  The year 1800 should no longer be a dark, unknown year in Bolívar’s life, but rather his Basque Year.


[1]   “Conceptos políticos de Simón Bolívar”, Anuario de Estudios Americanos, Sevilla, VIII (1951).

[2]  Bolivian politician and independence leader in Peru; in 1820, he joined the ranks of the emancipation army under José de San Martín.  He was the president of Peru in 1827, and president of Bolivia 1829-1839.

[3]   RUMAZO GONZÁLEZ, Alfonso; Simón Bolívar, Caracas, Edime, 1955.

[4]   ISPIZUA, Segundo de; Los vascos en el descubrimiento, conquista y civilización de América, Bilbao, Imprenta José de Lerchundi, 1914.

[5]   LAFARGA LOZANO, Adolfo; “Simón Bolívar”, en Los vascos en la Hispanidad. Colección de ensayos biográficos, Bilbao, Instituto de Cultura Hispánica, 1964

[6]  It was precisely on his first trip to Paris that his renowned visit to the Bolibar house, origin of his forebears and his surname, took place.  On occasions, the reasons for this visit have been explained as the express desire of Bolívar to see his home.  Nothing could be further from the truth, as he passed through Bolibar on his way to Paris.  At that time, the road from Bilbao to the French border still followed the medieval road which was also the coastal Way of St. James.


The Bicentennial of the Independence of the New World Republics series is a project of the Euskadi Munduan Assocaition, the Limako Arantzazu Euzko Etxea, the Brotherhood of Our Lady of Aránzazu of Lima, and the Editorial Archives of Oiga Magazine.

Last Updated on Oct 25, 2021 by About Basque Country

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