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The Bicentennial of the Battle of Boyacá

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(The guest post is by Marie Arana, a Peruvian-born historian, journalist and former books editor for the Washington Post. She is currently the literary consultant to the U.S. Librarian of Congress.)

Version en español.

Two hundred years ago, as July slipped into August of 1819, one man began to turn the tide of liberation in Spanish America. Sweeping over a treacherous mountain peak in the Andes and spilling into the viceroyalty of New Granada (corresponding roughly to present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, and Venezuela), he surprised Spain’s colonial masters where an attack was least expected.

Simon Bolivar / engraved by M.N. Bate, active 1812-1821, engraver. London : Published Feby. 1, 1819, by Mesrs. Colnaghi & Co. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A group of New Granadan rebels heard him before they saw him: the sound of hooves striking the earth, steady as a heartbeat, urgent as a revolution. When he emerged from the sun-dappled forest, they could barely make out the figure on the magnificent horse. He was small, thin. A black cape fluttered about his shoulders.

The rebels had been heading the other way. They eyed the rider with unease. All four had been riding north, fully expecting to come upon a royalist fleeing in the other direction, away from the battle at Boyacá where, on August 7, the Spanish armies had been surprised by a lightning strike of South American revolutionaries—barefoot, wild-eyed—swarming down from the Andes. The Spaniards were running now, scattering over the landscape like a herd of frightened deer.

“Here comes one of those losing bastards,” said Hermógenes Maza, the New Granadan rebel general in command. He spurred his horse, rode forward. “Halt!” he cried out. “Who goes there?” The rider only advanced, ignoring him. When the stranger got near enough to render his features sharp and unmistakable, he turned coolly to glare at the rebel. “Soy yo!” the man shouted. It is I! “Don’t be a dumb S.O.B.”  Maza’s jaw went slack. He lowered his lance, let the horseman pass.

So it was that Simón Bolívar rode into Santa Fé de Bogotá, the capital of the New Kingdom of Granada, on the sweltering afternoon of August 10, 1819—three days after the Battle of Boyacá. Less than two weeks later, sitting in the viceroy’s palace, Bolivar dashed off a note to the military governor of Neiva, one of the many provinces liberated as a result of that battle. In a racing hand, he asked to be sent an immediate shipment of sulfur to produce the revolution’s urgently needed gunpowder. The Spaniards had blown up their stores of the chemical as they evacuated the capital. That letter, written and signed in Bolivar’s hand now rests in the Library of Congress, in one of the world’s richest Latin American collections. It is a testimony to the military acuity of the Liberator Bolívar.

A letter signed by Simón Bolívar, urgently requesting more sulfur. Simón Bolívar papers, 1819. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Getting to Bogotá had not been easy. Bolívar had spent 36 days traversing the flooded plains of Venezuela; six days marching over the vertiginous snows of the Andes. By the time he reached the icy pass at 13,000 feet called the Páramo de Pisba, his men were barely alive, scarcely clothed, flogging themselves to revive their failing circulations. He had lost a third of them to frost or starvation, most of his weapons to rust, every last horse to hypothermia. Even so, as he and his scruffy troops staggered down the cliffs, stopping at villages along the way, he had rallied enough fresh recruits and supplies to win a resounding victory that in time would link his name to Napoleon’s and Hannibal’s. As news of his triumph spread, it quickened the rebels’ hopes and sent a cold prick of fear through the Spaniards.

The liberation of New Granada came to a quick head only days after the last of Bolívar’s soldiers descended the snowy heights of Pisba. It was a measure of Bolívar’s genius that his army had met with no resistance; he had sprung that army into a winning war.

With the Battle of Boyacá, the entire balance of power in South America shifted. By mid-morning of that fateful August day, the Liberator’s army had taken a position near the bridge at Boyacá, on a hill that oversaw the road to the capital. At two in the afternoon, the royalist army appeared. The Spanish general in command sent out a vanguard, assuming that the row of patriots he saw on the far bluff was merely a band of observers. He ordered his second in command to scare them off so that the main body of his troops—three thousand strong—could pass. But Bolívar accelerated the patriot march, and, before long, his entire army coursed over the hill, wave after wave of roaring soldiers. By four o’clock, the battle was won. The Spanish general, in desperation, tried to retreat to a hillside to regroup his forces, but by then his army had been devastated—two hundred lay dead in the open meadow, the rest were in disarray. When the rebel cavalry charged up that hill with bloodied lances, the Spaniards quickly laid down their arms. Sixteen hundred royalists were taken prisoner that afternoon. The fighting had lasted all of two hours.

The Simón Bolívar papers, 1819. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.
The Simón Bolívar papers, 1819. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

The capital of the viceroyalty was the first to react. On hearing of Bolívar’s advance, agents of the Crown abandoned their houses, possessions, and businesses. Whole families took flight with little more than the clothes on their backs. Rebel general Hermógenes Maza could hear the deafening detonations as Spanish soldiers destroyed their gunpowder arsenals and hurried for the hills. Even the cruel and ill-tempered viceroy, Juan José de Sámano, disguised as a lowly Indian in a poncho and grimy hat, fled the city in a panic. He knew that Bolívar’s retribution would be swift and severe. “War to the Death!” had been the Liberator’s battle cry. When Bolívar got word of the evacuation, he leapt on his horse, ordered his aides-de-camp to follow, and raced ahead, virtually alone, toward the viceroy’s palace.

Although Maza had fought under the Liberator years before, he hardly recognized the man passing before him now. He was gaunt, shirtless, his chest bare under the ragged blue jacket. Beneath the worn leather cap, his hair had grown long and grizzled. His skin was rough from wind, bronzed by the sun. His trousers, once a deep scarlet, had faded to a dull pink; his cape, which doubled as a bed, was stained by time and mud.

He was 36-years-old, and, although the disease that would take his life already coiled in his veins, he seemed vibrant and strong, filled with a boundless energy. He had been fighting this revolution for nine long years.

The Battle of Boyacá was a clear turning point in Latin America’s wars for independence. In the official report to Spain’s Ministry of War, General Pablo Morillo, the most important Spaniard in those American colonies, would sum it up this way:

The rebellious Bolívar has occupied the capital of Bogotá, and the deadly outcome of this battle gives him dominion over the enormous resources of a highly populated, abundantly rich nation, from which he will take whatever he needs to prolong the war. . . . In just one day, Bolívar has undone all we have accomplished in five years of this campaign, and in one single battle he has re-conquered all the territory that soldiers of the king have won in the course of so many past conflagrations.

Bolívar’s handwritten note, imploring his cohort for munitions to continue the revolution, protect his armies, and defeat the Spanish—even after a glorious victory—is a penetrating insight into the strategy and diligence of this singular revolutionary hero. Bolívar’s note was donated to the Library of Congress in 1942 and is now part of the collections of the Manuscript Division.

Are you interested in learning more about Simón Bolívar and the wars of independence in Spanish America? Search the Handbook of Latin American Studies (HLAS) using the following subject headings:

-Bolivar, Simon

-Wars of Independence—Spanish America

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