Caribbean Rogue: The Antilles and the Fall of the Spanish Colonies in Latin America

When Simon Bolívar delivered his famous speech before the Congress in Angostura (presently Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela) on February 15, 1819 he effectively created with a sleight of hand the country that would come to be known as the Gran Colombia (incorporating Venezuela, Colombia and later Ecuador). The war of independence was far from over but the elements necessary for the final victory were all in place. Spain had recognized (tacitly) the existence of an army faithful to a political entity, Nueva Granada (present day Colombia), not just to an individual General; Bolívar had stamped his authority with ruthlessness, consolidating his position as overall leader; General Boves, the patriots’ nemesis, had been killed in action; and Spain was reticent to send any more troops or funds to fight for the Colonies. Soon the separatist initiative would steamroll through the provinces claiming them one by one in quick succession, making the inevitable outcome of the struggle just a matter of time. However, the tumultuous sequence of events that led from the proclamation of the independence of Venezuela on April 1810 to the establishment of a unified Congress of the republican regions in February 1819 is plagued with ups and downs that make for a fascinating story of treachery anddeceit in which Caribbean governments, individual islands and Antillean characters play a fundamental role.

Bolívar at the Congress of Angostura, Tito Salas (1919). Photo: oas.org.

As so many other episodes in the history of the New World, the series of revolts that eventually climaxed with the dissolution of the largest Empire of the time were triggered directly (though unintentionally) by events that took place in the remote courts of Europe, where the Napoleonic invasion of Spain led to the deposition of King Ferdinand VII and created a political vacuum that was used by some members of the ruling class in the South American mainland to seize virtual autonomy. A spontaneous demonstration took place in Caracas on April 19, 1810 and it would not be appeased until it became official that the entity (Captaincy General of Venezuela) would proclaim its independence from occupied Spain and remain faithful to the King. Less than two months later, a similar initiative in Buenos Aires led to the same result, this time relating to the Viceroyalty of Río de la Plata. Suddenly, and inadvertently, the wheels of independence were set in motion.

Vicente Emparan before the cathedral in Caracas, April 19th 1810, by Juan Lovera (1835). Photo: wikipedia.

Venezuela’s First Republic (1810 – 1812) was an ill-fated affair characterized by the candidness and lack of commitment of the republican forces, which eventually cost the country’s most illustrious leader, Francisco de Miranda, his life. Critically, the loyalists’ use of the abolition of slavery as a strategy to gain public support gave the struggle a distinctly racist hue, which further complicated the conflict with an element of civil strife that never was fully overcome.

Among the discrete accomplishments of Venezuela’s first exercise in foreign politics, however, stands out the diplomatic mission which Bolívar himself, along with Andrés Bello and Luis López Méndez, carried out in London. The British, now allied with Spain in their struggle against Napoleon, did not offer the support expected, but a sympathetic neutrality was negotiated. Furthermore, public support for the initiative was mustered through the creation of a society of sorts – the Sociedad Patriótica – which went some way to divulge the intentions and raise awareness of the struggle abroad. Among those lured to fight for the cause counted Gregor MacGregor, a colorful Scot who would go on to invent a country of his own (Poyais), and Manuel Piar, an experienced rebel of mixed Curacaolean origin who had fought against the British in Curacao, against the French in Haiti and now joined the republican forces against the Spanish in Venezuela.

Piar (left) would distinguish himself as one of the bravest and most accomplished officers of the war. He was revered by his troops and respected by his comrades, but he was not particularly attached to Bolívar, acting, rather, on the eastern front, along with Santiago Mariño and José Francisco Bermudez. Indeed, confronted by the loyalist offensive against the newly formed republic, Piar set sail along the Orinoco River in an effort to take control of Guyana. But the republican army was comprehensively beaten by the Spanish leader Domingo de Monteverde in the battle of Sorondo in 1812, which precipitated the ultimate fall of the First Republic. Piar, Mariño and a host of soldiers made perfect use of Britain’s position, fleeing to Trinidad with impunity, although ostensibly secretly.

While Piar sought refuge in Trinidad, Bolívar escaped on August 27, 1812 to Curacao, where he met and befriended two important benefactors to the cause: Luis Brión and Mordechai Ricardo. For the next five years the focus of the revolutionary intelligentsia would revolve around the Caribbean waters, seeking refuge, assistance and support in Trinidad, in Haiti, in Curacao, in Jamaica. In Brión, Bolívar found a valuable ally who, beyond his expertise in seafaring and his wealth, offered him the most treasured quality a leader could seek in a follower: loyalty. Bolívar would depart to Cartagena de Indias (present day Colombia) two months later, where he would prepare his first political Manifesto and would rile the troops necessary to carry out the invasion of Venezuela in what came to be known as the Admirable Campaign. By this time, his relationship with Brión was already cemented both at a personal and military level, as the Antillean offered shelter to Bolívar’s sisters before taking active part in his friend’s campaign against the royalist army.

Flag of the First and Second Republics of Venezuela

Meanwhile, Manuel Piar, Santiago Mariño and José Francisco Bermudez were still “hiding” (i.e. plotting) in Trinidad. They set off with an army of roughly 45 men from a small island on the delta of the Orinoco River in January 1813, embarking on the invasion of Venezuela from the eastern end. Thus, the royalist forces were faced by prospect of two invading armies attacking simultaneously (although not coordinately) from opposite fronts. Predictably, the patriots came up on top, with Bolívar entering Caracas in August 1813 to establish the Second Republic.

However, the defeat of the Spanish Brigadier Domingo de Monteverde signified little more than the emergence of a new figure at the helm of the royalist forces. José Tomás Boves was as much a mercenary as he was a natural leader. His allegiance was not so much with the King or the Regency, but against the republicans, and his men were prepared to live and die by his word. He was the epitome of the Latin American caudillo and he was perfectly used by the royalist forces to counter the exact phenomenon against which they fought. He swept through the central part of the country with great speed and reached Caracas by mid-1814.

Faced with a crisis that was evidently beyond repair, the patriotic army cracked. Following successive defeats that pushed the republican forces almost as far east as the Paria Peninsula, Mariño and Bolívar were arrested by – lo, and behold – Manuel Piar and José Félix Ribas, who subsequently banished them to Cartagena de Indias. The change at the top of the revolutionary forces was symptomatic of the fractioning that would assail the republican cause in the coming years. However, it was inconsequential in military terms, as Boves continued his successful campaign until he was met by a torrid spear that cut through his chest and left him dead on the fields of Urica, after a battle that was more academic than anything else. The Second Republic was already lost, and Piar’s insubordination had highlighted not only the issue of leadership among the rebels, but the one of race. He was a mulatto in an army that was vastly dominated by white creoles, in a war where the rhetoric about equality of castes and abolition of slavery was yet to play a fundamental role. On the bright side, however, loomed large the death of Boves, an irreplaceable figure who might have dominated the early history if Venezuela, had he been able to survive.

Boves’ success prompted a massive migration to the east, depicted here by Tito Salas (1913). Photo: simonbolivar.org.

At this stage, Bolívar was desperate to secure British support. In his famous “Letter from Jamaica” he expansively states the case for international support of the rebel forces, in a missive that was not so much directed to his addressee, Henry Cullen, but to the diplomatic establishment in London. In his effort to lobby for British intervention, Bolívar spent seven months in Jamaica, from May to December 1815. But the British were still too busy with the events in Europe to give any attention to the Colonies, and their sympathetic neutrality was extended, to the point where all Bolívar could expect was assistance from private enthusiasts, such as Gregor MacGregor.

Bolívar headed next to Haiti, where he was reunited with his friend Luis Brión. Various meetings in January 1816 with Alexandre Pétion, the mulatto President of the southern Republic of Haiti, culminated in an agreement between the two, where Pétion pledged his support in exchange for the immediate abolition of slavery in Venezuela, as soon as the country was re-conquered. Wasting no time, Bolívar engaged Brión to assemble a small fleet and set off to Venezuela from Les Cayes on March 1816. In order to avoid contact with patrolling Spanish ships, expert seafarer Brión suggested a route that took the seven schooners to Vieques first, before reaching Saba late in April and finally, after defeating a small Spanish contingent off the island of Los Frailes, arriving in Margarita on May 3, 1816.

Bolívar proclaimed the abolition of slavery on June 2 in Carúpano, and then again on July 6 in Ocumare de la Costa, but beyond infiltrating pockets of patriots inland, the expedition was a failure. Bolívar returned to Haiti, seeking further reinforcements from Pétion. He set sail again, this time from Jacmel, reaching the Venezuelan coastline on New Year’s Eve, 1816. With Piar and Mariño again striking from the east and MacGregor and others left behind after the first expedition joining the new forces, the republican army gained strength and successfully established itself on the eastern end of the country.

Portrait of Alexandre Pétion. Photo: nypl.org

Piar and Mariño embarked on the invasion of Guyana, so far a stronghold of royalist rule. Their rotund success was instrumental in the consolidation of the patriotic territories, which now controlled the vast majority of the eastern and southern portions of the land. It triggered, however, a new power struggle between Piar, Mariño and Bolívar, who seemed to be Supreme Leader only in name. Alas, Piar went too far in his challenge for leadership, ostensibly encouraging black and mixed soldiers – all former slaves who had been granted “liberty” only upon the condition that they joined the revolutionary army – to disobey the orders of their white Generals. In the ultimate case of setting an example, Piar was charged with treason, sentenced to death by a panel that included his fellow countryman Luis Brión and executed with the express consent of Bolívar, whose authority was ratified by his ruthlessness. At this point the territory that would later host the first Congress of the Republic was already in rebel hands, and Bolívar could safely assume he would not be challenged again for some time. The attention shifted to the central and western portions of Venezuela, to consolidate the patriotic position and to promote the unity of the liberated countries.

Much was still to come, with final independence achieved only in 1819 (Colombia), 1821 (Venezuela) and 1822 (Ecuador). The Caribbean had played its role, but circumstances had turned Bolívar and the Gran Colombia away from Haiti and the rest of the islands. Pétion’s only condition, the abolition of slavery, was not granted until 1852 in Colombia, and two years later in Venezuela. However, he had again played an instrumental role in the shedding of the colonial yoke in the New World.

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S DAILY HERALD ON DECEMBER 12, 2009.

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