Old Iron-Arse

Simon Collier

  • Liberators: Latin America’s Struggle for Independence, 1810-30 by Robert Harvey
    Murray, 561 pp, £25.00, May 2000, ISBN 0 7195 5566 3

Nine years from now there will be a longish round of spectacular jamborees in Latin America, as its various nations celebrate the bicentenaries of their independence from the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. The cycle will begin in 2010, two hundred years after the opening shots in the Spanish American wars of independence were fired on the bleak plateau of what is now Bolivia. It will end in 2025, with the bicentenary of the end of the wars and the independence of Bolivia. Robert Harvey’s splendid book gives us the first large-scale narrative of Latin America’s struggle for independence in English since – well, when exactly? It is hard to think of any comparable attempt to come to grips with the whole vast story, and in such vivid detail. Bits of it, of course, have been well written up before: there were some grand, spacious narratives by Latin American historians in the 19th century, and there was plenty of scholarly spadework in the 20th. But nobody in recent times, as far as I can recall, has tackled the story in Harvey’s way – as a drama of epic proportions.

In the 1810s and 1820s, Simón Bolívar and other Latin American ‘patriots’ were household names in Europe and the new United States. In Italy in 1821, Lord Byron christened his newly built yacht the Bolivar, overriding his impulse to name it after his mistress Teresa Guiccioli. Byron even thought (briefly) of migrating to Venezuela, because it was ‘Bolívar’s country’. (It’s not very easy to picture him there.) In the United States, as settlement began to spread across the continent, new townships were sometimes named Bolivar, invariably mis-stressed as Bolivar. There are Bolivars in at least half a dozen American states, one of them a couple of hours down the freeway from where I live in Tennessee. There is even a Bolivar County in Mississippi, not a state nowadays first in line to recognise liberal heroes.

The wars of independence were fought across a vast and often inhospitable territory, and fought, to make matters worse, by many different armies led by a bewildering number of generals. In South America, the scene of the most serious fighting, there were two separate theatres of war, one in the north (Bolívar’s arena) and one in the south (Argentina and Chile), but in each the main stream of events was complicated by numerous cross-currents. Harvey sorts things out very successfully by anchoring his narrative in the life-stories of the seven supreme actors in the drama: Bolívar, the Liberator par excellence; his forerunner, the Venezuelan ‘Precursor’ (and tireless plotter against the Spanish Empire), Francisco de Miranda; José de San Martín, the Argentine general; Bernardo O’Higgins, the Chilean national hero; Agustín de Iturbide, the Mexican; Emperor Pedro I of Brazil; and, finally, Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, the astonishing Scottish maverick who played a key part in the liberation of Peru and the consolidation of Brazilian independence. It was not fashionable in the later 20th century to see history in terms of its great men. Yet however sophisticated we become in our understanding of underlying social structures and economic processes – T.S. Eliot’s ‘vast impersonal forces’ – the suspicion always remains that political and military leaders make a difference. Bolívar certainly believed that ‘the specific actions of individuals,’ as he wrote in 1815, ‘can produce general results, especially in times of revolution.’ Be that as it may, the heroes of Latin American independence fully deserve reinstatement as the important players they were once seen to be in the ‘democratic revolution’ that embraced the entire Western world from the 1770s to the 1820s.

Latin American independence was the third and last of the great revolutionary convulsions. In some ways it was the strangest – almost, it could be said, an unintended consequence of Napoleon’s imperial rampages in Europe. It stemmed neither from the well-organised anti-taxation protests of colonial farmers and lawyers, as in the English 13 colonies, nor from the systemic crisis of an Ancien Régime that gave the French revolutionaries their chance. The Spanish and Portuguese Empires in America had stood the test of three centuries, and seemed immovable. Reforms in the 18th century had given them more effective government (and greater prosperity) than ever before. Whatever their discontents, the conservative-minded creole elites of the Spanish colonies and Brazil had no particular desire to be liberated, something humiliatingly discovered in 1806 by the flamboyant Francisco de Miranda. He descended on Venezuela with a small expedition, hoping to provoke a general insurrection. Nobody lifted a finger. Where Miranda failed, however, Napoleon succeeded quite fortuitously, with his invasions of Portugal and Spain in 1807-8. His brusque dethronement of King Ferdinand VII caused consternation in Spain’s transatlantic colonies, prompting creole leaders to snatch power from colonial viceroys and governors and (in 1810) to set up embryonic national governments, outwardly (and mostly sincerely) professing loyalty to Ferdinand VII and the Empire. In Spain itself, reform-minded politicians (the first in the world to label themselves ‘liberals’) took advantage of Ferdinand’s banishment in France to conjure up a parliament that replaced the time-honoured absolutist government with a constitutional monarchy. The entire Spanish Empire was thus plunged into crisis, giving revolutionaries such as Bolívar a golden opportunity to press their agenda of independence.

Of Harvey’s seven liberators, none is as remarkable as Bolívar. He was the embodiment of a Byronic hero, the man of action Byron always longed to be (and which he tried to be at the end of his life when he put on his red uniform at Missolonghi). Bolívar is probably the only one of the seven whose name is more than vaguely familiar now, and Harvey is clearly mesmerised by him. Born into one of the oldest and richest creole families of colonial Venezuela, the familias mantuanas as they were known (from the long white mantua or gown worn by the women), he was one of the privileged few who could afford to travel in Europe as a young man. In Paris in 1804, he was dazzled by the spectacle of Napoleon’s coronation and yearned for similar personal glory. An eccentric tutor, who was a disciple of Rousseau, won him over to revolutionary ideals. None of which would have made the slightest difference without the Spanish imperial crisis, which gave Bolívar his chance. Back in South America, he was soon embroiled in a savage civil war, fought in Venezuela and most of the other Spanish colonies, between ‘patriots’ and pro-Spanish ‘royalists’. Ferdinand VII, restored to his throne in 1814 (after thoroughly messing up the Loire château where Napoleon had put him), harshly repressed the liberal upsurge in Spain and repaid creole loyalty in America by sending troops to crush the growing but still fragile independence movements. The issue, everywhere, had to be decided by force of arms.

‘My element is war,’ Bolívar himself once said. His stamina was amazing. He campaigned for thousands of miles on horseback (his soldiers nicknamed him Culo de Hierro, ‘Old Iron-Arse’), but never seems to have tired for long. He dictated his orders and decrees from wherever he slung his hammock. He always managed to have a good time: he danced well, rarely lacking for partners, or, for that matter, mistresses. (A widower at the age of 19, he never remarried.) The longest-running mistress, Manuela Sáenz, found the Liberator much more interesting than her English doctor husband. As a general he was entirely self-taught. Harvey’s blow-by-blow description of his campaigns, especially the early ones, reveals mistakes, muddles, foolish tactical decisions, disastrous setbacks and defeats. Bolívar was indomitable, however. ‘Always great, he was greatest in adversity’ – so thought Daniel O’Leary, his Irish aide-de-camp. He understood (or anyway learned) when boldness would pay off, or stand a good chance of paying off. In 1819, he decided to bypass the main concentration of Spanish strength in Venezuela and to liberate neighbouring, more lightly defended New Granada (the modern Colombia) before returning to mop up the royalists in Venezuela. It was an astonishing gamble, entailing a painful four-month march through swamps and across 13,000-foot Andean passes, but it worked. His biggest stroke of luck was the unexpected liberal revolution in Spain in 1820, which briefly stymied Ferdinand VII’s restoration. A large Spanish army destined for South America was halted in its tracks. This placed the freedom of northern South America beyond dispute, and enabled Bolívar to shift his operations to Peru, where he and his favourite lieutenant, Antonio José de Sucre, won the final battles of the wars of independence in 1824-25.

By Napoleon’s standards, the armies led by Bolívar (and the other liberators) were fairly small. There were about eight thousand patriot soldiers (and this was one of the larger forces) at Bolívar’s last major battle, at Junín in August 1824 – a cavalry action with no shots fired, fought at 14,000 feet. The soldiers were motley and usually ill-clad, recruited (sometimes forcibly) from the city streets, from peasants and ranch-hands, from the cowboys of the Venezuelan plains, even (in San Martín’s Army of the Andes) from slaves who were given their freedom in return for enlisting. Desertion was common in both the patriot and the Spanish armies. The patriot cause, however, was strengthened by several thousand foreign volunteers, including sizable contingents from Britain and Ireland. Some were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, eager to find another theatre. Many, no doubt, were simply adventurers. But they could not really be described as mercenaries. The Legión Británica played a conspicuous part in several of Bolívar’s battles; it was a Captain George Brown who raised the patriot standard over Spanish lines after Sucre’s victory at Ayacucho in December 1824, the battle that clinched independence. Bolívar liked his British officers: a Union Jack catches the eye in the fresco that adorns the Pantheon in Caracas, where his remains now lie.

Quite apart from his military genius, Bolívar was, in his own way, an impressive political thinker, and expressed his ideas in a lucid prose that is still a pleasure to read. An admirer of ancient Rome and of Britain, he was insistent on the need for a strong (but strictly constitutional) executive authority to steer Spanish America (with its caste-conscious, multi-ethnic societies, omnipresent poverty and illiteracy, and immersion in the authoritarian traditions of the Spanish Empire) towards a more liberal future. He was also persuaded that the fragmentation of the Empire into small, weak nation-states would place Spanish America at a disadvantage in dealings with the predatory Great Powers of Europe or that future giant, the United States. His instinct was to group the new nation-states in large political units like his own short-lived Colombian republic (Venezuela, the modern Colombia, Ecuador) and if possible to unite all of them in a permanent and potentially powerful confederation – perhaps under British protection, though that was never remotely on the cards.

Bolívar’s political prescriptions made excellent sense, but they fell on deaf ears. In many parts of Latin America, the next few decades were dismal beyond belief. Indeed, his vision of a united, free and prosperous Spanish America is still a long way from being realised nearly two centuries on. By the time he died, aged 47, in December 1830, destroyed by tuberculosis, disillusioned and penniless, he could see what was coming – not the stable institutions he dreamed of, but petty dictatorship, the men on horseback, the caudillo tradition that was to loom so large over Spanish America. Ironically, the only Spanish-speaking country which came to embody (in its own way) his ideal of strong but constitutional executive power was Chile, where his influence was negligible. Worse still, with the disintegration of his cherished Colombian republic into three separate nations in the months before his death, he could also see clearly that his fears for the future were only too well-founded, that fragmentation was irreversible. In hindsight it is not difficult to see why this was the case. Physical geography was partly to blame. The landowning elites who ruled the new republics, happily lording it over their isolated patches, saw no advantage in Bolívar’s visionary schemes, which might well have undermined their own local control.

Harvey’s 15 chapters on Bolívar would make a good biography in their own right. But the Liberator’s campaigns from eastern Venezuela to the Peruvian highlands (a laborious overland journey even today) are not the whole story. Harvey swiftly moves on to the second great theatre of the war, in southern South America, where the life-stories of three more of his liberators – San Martín, O’Higgins and Cochrane – are closely intertwined. San Martín was Bolívar’s counterpart in the south. A professional soldier back from the Spanish wars, a bit of a plodder, he conceived and executed the first assault on the stubbornly royalist Viceroyalty of Peru, without whose capture South American independence would remain at risk. (Creole Peruvians did not want to be liberated, but that was neither here nor there.) His Chilean friend and ally, O’Higgins, the son of an Irish Viceroy of Peru, was ‘honest, kind-hearted, straightforward, unsuspecting’, or so he was described by San Martín’s English aide, William Miller. San Martín first expelled the Spaniards from Chile, leading his army from Argentina on an epic crossing of the high Andes, two years before Bolívar’s. O’Higgins’s new Chilean Government, organising for the planned attack on Peru, eagerly recruited Lord Cochrane, who was about to leave England under a cloud following his imprisonment for a famous Stock Exchange fraud. ‘Always go at them!’ Nelson had once advised him, and he always did. His naval campaigns combined audacity and staggering bluffs. Cochrane’s strong interest in prize-money was never terribly well disguised, but, again, he cannot really be seen as a mercenary. As the Admiral of Chile’s small Navy, he won command of the sea and opened the way for San Martín’s invasion of Peru.

It was at this point that the northern and southern liberation movements began to intersect. In July 1822, San Martín sailed north to meet Bolívar in the steamy Ecuadorian port of Guayaquil. They did not hit it off. They could not even agree on the strategy for defeating the powerful Spanish armies still at large in the Peruvian interior. San Martín blinked first. His abrupt withdrawal into private life, which allowed Bolívar to take the lion’s share of the credit for Peru’s independence, has often been seen (especially in Argentina) as qualifying him for something approaching sainthood. It may be that he was simply tired. Harvey follows him into his lonely but not altogether unhappy European exile and to his death in 1850 in a flat in Boulogne, where today an equestrian statue of him (a bit rusty the last time I saw it) stands on the promenade.

Harvey’s chapters on Mexico and Brazil form an elegant pendant to the main narrative. Both countries followed unusual paths to independence. Harvey describes his selected Mexican actor, Iturbide, as ‘the non-liberator, an embarrassment, the man … Mexicans prefer not to regard as the founder of their nation’. They prefer to look back on the earlier insurgent guerrilla priests, Father Hidalgo and Father Morelos. The priests’ insurgency, however, carried strong overtones of class war, scaring the Mexican creole elite into accepting continued Spanish rule. The independence movement, when it came (in 1821), largely under Iturbide’s deft if opportunistic leadership, was in some ways a conservative backlash against the liberal revolution in Spain that so helped Bolívar. Iturbide, who was definitely not a Byronic hero, would ideally have liked to negotiate an association between Mexico and Spain, with a Bourbon prince on the Mexican throne. The obtuse Ferdinand VII, true to form, would have none of it. Iturbide simply declared independence and seized power, proclaiming himself emperor. As Bolívar intuitively understood, no creole could ever become a real emperor. Iturbide lasted ten months before being forced out, and Mexico became a republic in the proper Spanish American way.

Brazil did get a real emperor, a prince of the Braganza dynasty. Thanks to him (and to Cochrane’s corralling of its northern provinces) the huge country remained united. This was the simplest story of all, entailing virtually no bloodshed. Once again, Napoleon gave the first push. As his armies bore down on Lisbon in 1807, the entire Portuguese Court (ten thousand people in forty ships) fled to Brazil, escorted by the Royal Navy. Rio de Janeiro suddenly became the centre of the Portuguese Empire. When King João VI returned to Portugal in 1821, his heir, Prince Pedro, was left behind as regent, discreetly encouraged by his father to take charge of any independence movement that might develop. It was Pedro himself, the only ‘royal liberator’, who gave the cry of ‘Independence or death!’ on the banks of the Ipiranga, a little stream near (and nowadays well within) São Paulo. Two months later he inaugurated the Western hemisphere’s only serious post-colonial monarchy, when he was crowned as Emperor Pedro I ‘by the will of God and the unanimous acclamation of the people’. The people (nearly half of them were slaves in 1822) had nothing much to do with it. Pedro himself was in many ways an attractive figure, though his sexual appetite was even more voracious than Bolívar’s. ‘The morals of Brazil are at a lower ebb than imagination can reach,’ a British visitor to Pedro’s Court reported in 1824. The Emperor, he wrote, ‘sometimes lugs out, in company, to see whether he, or the others, have the longest’. In the end, Pedro tired of squabbling politicians and in 1831 renounced his throne and sailed home to Portugal, leaving Brazil to his young son, Pedro II, who reigned happily ever after. Or almost: Brazil’s republicans did not overthrow him until 1889.

Harvey’s narrative touch is confident and assured throughout, except perhaps in his handling of the ‘vast impersonal forces’. He stumbles occasionally. Rather puzzlingly, he has the Venezuelan polymath Andrés Bello (the most distinguished Latin American intellectual of the 19th century) studying Greek in Francisco de Miranda’s London house before 1810, which in fact is when he arrived there, to begin a penurious 18-year English exile. It is even more puzzling to find one of Bolívar’s deathbed sayings appearing as ‘The three great killers of humanity have been Jesus Christ, Don Quixote – and myself!’ Killers? The word Bolívar used was majaderos, more commonly translated as ‘idiots’ or ‘dimwits’. Harvey’s text also has too many misplaced or omitted accents for comfort (Iturbide does not need the one he is given, but the Venezuelan general Anzoátegui does need one). Such mistakes should be put right in the paperback edition the book deserves.