On 26 March 1812 a massive earthquake struck Venezuela. From the Andes to the coast, from M��rida to La Guaira, the earth heaved and cracked, buildings crumbled and people perished in their thousands. The royalist chronicler Jos�� Domingo D��az was there, his journalist instincts aroused:
It was four o'clock, the sky of Caracas was clear and bright, and an immense calm seemed to intensify the pressure of an unbearable heat; a few drops of rain were falling though there was not a cloud in the sky. I left my house for the Cathedral and, about 100 paces from the plaza of San Jacinto and the Dominican priory, the earth began to shake with a huge roar. As I ran into the square some balconies from the Post Office fell at my feet, and I distanced myself from the falling buildings. I saw the church of San Jacinto collapse on its own foundations, and amidst dust and death I witnessed the destruction of a city which had been the admiration of natives and foreigners alike. The strange roar was followed by the silence of the grave. As I stood in the plaza, alone in the midst of the ruins, I heard the cries of those dying inside the church; I climbed over the ruins and entered, and I immediately saw about forty persons dead or dying under the rubble. I climbed out again and I shall never forget that moment. On the top of the ruins I found Don Sim��n Bol��var in his shirt sleeves clambering over the debris to see the same sight that I had seen. On his face was written the utmost horror or the utmost despair. He saw me and spoke these impious and extravagant words: 'We will fight nature itself if it opposes us, and force it to obey.' By now the square was full of people screaming.
Thousands died in churches that Holy Thursday, and the churches of La Trinidad and Alta Gracia, which were more than 150 feet high, collapsed into ruins no higher than five or six feet. The great barracks of San Carlos plunged on to a regiment waiting to joint the processions. Nine tenths of Caracas was entirely destroyed. Nothing could resist the heaving of the ground upwards like a boiling liquid and the shocks crossing each other from north to south and from east to west. The death toll reached nine to ten thousand in the city alone. As cries for help were heard from the ruins, mothers were seen bearing children in their arms desperately trying to revive them, and desolate families wandered in a daze through clouds of dust seeking missing fathers, husbands and friends. A group of Franciscan friars carried out corpses on their shoulders to give them a burial. Bodies were burned on funeral piles, and the wounded and sick were laid on the banks of the River Guayra, without beds, linen or medicines, all lost in the rubble. A frightened society suddenly remembered its duties: partners hastened to get married, abandoned children found their parents, debts were paid, fraud was made good, families were reconciled and enemies became friends. Priests had never been busier. But Bol��var had to fight the Church as well as nature, for the catastrophe was exploited by many royalist clergy who preached that this was God's punishment for revolution. Amidst the dust and the rubble he confronted one of the priests and forced him down from his makeshift pulpit. He hated the destruction and disarray with a personal hatred. The earthquake was a double blow, to his birthplace and to his revolution.
'Noble, rich and talented,' an aide recorded of Sim��n Bol��var, and these were his assets from the beginning. He was born in Caracas on 24 July 1783 to Juan Vicente Bol��var y Ponte and Mar��a de la Concepci��n Palacios y Blanco, the youngest in a family of two brothers and two sisters, and he was christened Sim��n Jos�� Antonio de la Sant��sima Trinidad. He was seventh-generation American, descendant of the Sim��n de Bol��var who came to Venezuela from Spain in 1589 in search of a new life. The family lineage has been scoured for signs of race mixture in a society of whites, Indians and blacks, where neighbours were sensitive to the slightest variant, but, in spite of dubious evidence dating from 1673, the Bol��vars were always whites. Their economic base was also secure. Basques by origin, in the course of two centuries they had accumulated land, mines, several plantations, cattle, slaves, town houses and a leading place among the white elite. The San Mateo estate, the favourite of the family, dated from the sixteenth century, when it was supported by an encomienda, or grant of Indian labour in the valley. In Caracas they lived in a large house in the centre of town. The Bol��vars were rooted in the history of Venezuela and had a reputation as cabildo officials, militia officers, and supporters of royal policies, accompanied by a claim to aristocratic title. Sim��n's uncle Jos�� Bol��var Aguirre had collaborated eagerly in the suppression of the popular rebellion of 1749.5 On the maternal side, too, the Palacios were a superior family with aristocratic pretensions and a record as office-holders, their history running parallel to the Bol��vars in the public life of Venezuela. There was no doubt that Sim��n Bol��var was of the elite, but where did his country stand?
Venezuela lay on the southeastern rim of the Caribbean and was the closest to Europe of all Spain's mainland colonies. Bol��var never tired of advising his countrymen to let nature, not theory, be their guide and to cherish the endowments of their native land: 'You will find valuable guidance,' he told the constituent congress of 1830, 'in the very nature of our country, which stretches from the highlands of the Andes to the torrid banks of the Orinoco. Survey the whole extent of this land and you will learn from nature, the infallible teacher of men, what laws the congress must decree.' Travellers approaching Venezuela by sea from Europe first passed Macuro, where in 1498 Columbus encountered mainland America, the Isla de Gracia as he called it, white beaches and lush vegetation with steep jungle slopes behind. Skirting the island of Margarita where prolific pearl fisheries once flourished, they saw further ravishing coastline with clumps of coconut trees, tall palms and shores populated with pelicans and flamingos, and in the dusty ground around Cuman�� the tunales densely planted with giant cacti and further inland beautiful tamarind trees. Inland in the distant south lay the River Orinoco and Angostura, the pride of Spanish Guayana. Westwards along the Caribbean coast, to the port of La Guaira, the jungle came right down to the beach and mangroves grew on the seashore. At La Guaira sunstroke, yellow fever and sharks were all a hazard before the traveller reached the high plateau inland and the relative safety of Caracas.
Along the west coast, beyond the inland cities of Maracay and Valencia, Coro came into view with its ancient cathedral and vast sand dunes. Regions of great beauty then spread south from the coastal range of mountains into valleys, lakes and rivers, the home of plantations of sugar cane, coffee, cotton and, above all, of cacao. Tropical paradise gave way to the savannahs, or llanos, of the east and centre whose vast grasslands were crossed by numerous rivers and subject to relentless droughts and floods, and then in the far west the traveller reached the Segovia highlands with their plateaus, valleys and semi-deserts, and beyond these Lake Maracaibo, where Indian dwellings on stilts gave the Spanish discoverers an illusion of Venice and the country its name. The Venezuelan Andes, running south-west from Trujillo, were topped by M��rida, the roof of Venezuela, recently convulsed by a revolt of the common people against Bourbon exactions.
The German scientist and traveller Alexander von Humboldt, who visited Venezuela in 1799-1800, was overawed by the vastness of the llanos: 'The infinite monotony of the llanos; the extreme rarity of inhabitants; the difficulties of travelling in such heat and in an atmosphere darkened by dust; the perspective of the horizon, which constantly retreats before the traveller; the few scattered palms that are so similar that one despairs of ever reaching them, and confuses them with others further afield; all these aspects together make the stranger looking at the llanos think they are far larger than they are.' The native population of whites and pardos were joined in the late eighteenth century by rebel Indians, fugitive slaves, outlaws and rustlers, rejects of white society, making the llanos, in Humboldt's view, 'the refuge of criminals'. The llaneros, so remote from the culture of the young Bol��var, were to move nearer the centre of his life in the wars to come; they were the army's lancers, 'obstinate and ignorant' with low self-esteem, but always treated with consideration by their general. His first horizons, however, were those of Caracas. Of Venezuela's 800,000 inhabitants, a mobile population apparently in constant transit, over half (455,000) lived in the province of Caracas, which was the prime region of cacao production and of the two new growth exports of indigo and coffee.
The capital city of Caracas was set in a fertile valley between two mountain ranges some forty miles and a day's journey by the colonial road, in places little more than a mule track, which wound its way inland from the coast and the port of La Guaira. At three thousand feet above sea level the city enjoyed a warm but more temperate climate than the tropical coast. Central Caracas was well built around one main square and two smaller ones, with straight, grid-like streets, many of them paved, and low buildings appropriate to a land of earthquakes, some of brick, most of adobe. Here the Bol��vars owned a number of properties: in addition to the family house in the Plaza San Jacinto, Sim��n inherited from his wealthy uncle Juan F��lix Aristeguieta y Bol��var a house on the main square between the Cathedral and the bishop's palace. Houses of this kind were decently constructed with spacious patios and gardens watered by canals fed from the River Catuche, and growing a variety of tropical fruits and flowers. Gracious living included a distinct, if modest, social and cultural life, and many homes had libraries they could be proud of. The University of Caracas began its academic life in 1725 and, while innovation struggled with tradition, the students were able to study most disciplines of the time and had access to European thinkers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Spinoza, Locke and Newton.
Humboldt was impressed by the cultural standards of many creoles (American-born whites), particularly by their exposure to European culture and knowledge of political matters affecting colonies and metropolis, which he attributed to 'the numerous communications with commercial Europe and the West Indies'. He detected among the creole elite of Caracas two tendencies, which he identified with two generations: an older one attached to the past, protective of its privileges and rigid in abhorrence of enlightenment, and a younger one less preoccupied by the present than by the future, attracted to new ways and ideas, firmly attached to reason and enlightenment, and drawn in some cases to a rejection of Spanish culture and a risky connection with foreigners. Bol��var was born into the first group and graduated into the second.
Venezuela was no longer the forgotten colony of Habsburg times, a staging post on the way to the prized viceroyalties of Mexico and Peru. The real history of Venezuela began not with the first conquest but with the second, in the eighteenth century, when Spain reordered the political and economic life of the country and gave it new institutions. The instrument of economic reconquest was the Caracas Company, a Basque-based enterprise that was given a monopoly of trade with Venezuela and soon provided a new impulse to production and export, and a new market for Spain. Bourbon modernization took Venezuela out of the viceroyalty of New Granada and in 1776 gave it an intendant of its own for fiscal and economic administration, and in 1777 a captain-general for political and military control, officials responsible directly to the central government in Madrid and not to an adjacent viceroy. An audiencia, or high court of justice, was located in Caracas in 1786 and a consulado, or merchant guild, in 1793; Venezuela's legal and commercial business was now its own business and not administered by other Spanish colonies. These institutions did not empower Venezuela: they represented imperial rather than local interests, and Venezuelans were still subject to a distant metropolis. Nevertheless their country now had an identity of its own and was beginning to be conscious of its own interests. It may not have been the heart of the Spanish empire, or the centrepiece of the revolution to come, but as the colonial world receded and Venezuela advanced into a new age, it gave birth to three giants of Spanish American Independence: Francisco de Miranda, the Precursor, Sim��n Bol��var, the Liberator, and Andr��s Bello, the Intellectual.
The Spanish empire was becoming more imperialist. This was not always so. Like all great empires, Spain had the capacity to absorb its colonial peoples. The Habsburg empire had been governed by compromise and consensus, seen first in the growing participation of creoles in the colonial bureaucracy and the law courts, and in the recognition by the crown that colonial societies had identities and interests that it was wise to respect and even to represent. But the years after 1750 saw a de-Americanization of colonial government, the advance of the Bourbon state, the end of compromise politics and creole participation. Bourbon policy was personified in a Spanish intendant, a professional bureaucrat, a generator of resources and collector of revenue. Creoles were no longer co-opted, they were coerced, and they were acutely conscious of the shift. Juan Pablo Viscardo, the Jesuit ��migr�� and advocate of independence, had been a direct observer of policy trends in Peru and bore witness to the fact that the Bourbons moved from consensus to confrontation, alienated the creole elite, and eventually drove them towards independence. 'From the seventeenth century creoles were appointed to important positions as churchmen, officials, and military, both in Spain and America.' But now Spain had reverted to a policy of preference for peninsular Spaniards 'to the permanent exclusion of those who alone know their own country, whose individual interest is closely bound to it, and who have a sublime and unique right to guard its welfare'. This 'Spanish reaction' was felt throughout America, and not least in Venezuela. Bol��var himself was to complain of the exclusion of Americans from civil, ecclesiastical and financial office, 'perhaps to a greater extent than ever before'. No Venezuelan was appointed to the audiencia of Caracas in the period 1786-1810, when ten Spaniards and four colonials held office.
Creoles were aware of their condition, constantly reminded that their country existed for Spain and that their prospects depended upon others. Bol��var himself never forgave or forgot the extreme underdevelopment to which his country was confined, forbidden to compete with the agriculture, industry and commerce of Spain, such as it was, its people forced 'to cultivate fields of indigo, grain, coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cotton, to raise cattle on the empty plains; to hunt wild beasts in the wilderness; to mine the earth for gold to satisfy the insatiable greed of Spain'. Yet creoles like Bol��var belonged to a colonial elite, well above the mestizos, mulattos and slaves toiling at the bottom of society, and as long as their expectations were not too high, with a country estate and a house in Caracas, they could enjoy a life of ease and security under Spanish rule. Few of them were ready to overturn their world.
In Venezuela cacao production and export created a working economy and a regional elite, which in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were largely ignored by the crown and found their economic lifelines in the Americas rather than Spain. From about 1730, however, the crown began to look more closely at Venezuela as a source of revenue for Spain and cacao for Europe. The agent of change was the Caracas Company, a Basque enterprise that was given a monopoly of trade and, indirectly, of administration. Aggressive and novel trading policies, allowing fewer returns for struggling immigrants and even for the traditional planters, outraged local interests and provoked a popular rebellion in 1749. This was quickly crushed and Caracas then had to endure a series of military governors, increased taxation and a greater imperial presence than it had previously experienced. The highest in society were offered capital stock in the reformed Caracas Company, a palliative to secure their collaboration and detach them from popular causes. Thus the new imperialism of the Bourbons, the move from consensus to confrontation, had its trial run in Venezuela. The Caracas experience of regional growth, elite autonomy and royal reaction was early evidence of the great divide in colonial history between the Creole state and the Bourbon state, between compromise and authority. As a leading Bourbon minister observed, colonial peoples will perhaps learn to live without the fruits of freedoms they have never had, but once they have acquired some as of right and enjoyed the taste, they are not going to have them taken away. Bol��var was born into a colony ruled not by consent and devolution but by centralism and absolutism. His parents' generation accepted the innovations in Bourbon government and the loss of traditional creole influence without resistance. The next generation would not be so docile.
Excerpted from SIM��N BOL��VARby JOHN LYNCH Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.