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.

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