Simón Bolívar, or el Libertador as he is known, is one of the most important figures in South American history. When Bolívar was born in 1783, in what is today Venezuela, the Spanish Empire had been ruling much of his home continent for nearly two hundred and fifty years.
Bolívar was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family in the Captaincy-General of Venezuela. Bolívar’s early childhood was characterised by tragedy, with both of his parents dying before he was nine. Crucially, however, Bolívar was taken under the wing of Simón Rodríguez, a prominent philosopher. Rodríguez is credited with having taught Bolívar the value of liberty, science and philosophy.
Once he reached his teenage years, Rodríguez sent Bolívar to Europe to further his military, historical and political education. Across the Atlantic he became enamoured with the French revolutionary movement and its philosophy of ‘liberté égalité fraternité.’ Rodríguez’s mentoring and Bolívar’s time in Europe had a powerful influence on his character. These experiences, combined with Bolívar’s indomitable ambition, drove him to excel in Latin America’s political landscape.
Upon Bolívar return home, he almost immediately became involved in revolutionary movements. The people of South America, not just Venezuela, were weary of the imperial control from their Spanish overlords. Latin Americans felt that they were being exploited by the colonial government. When Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808 the dissidents saw their chance and made a bid for power. The fighting was fierce and much ground was both gained and lost on both sides. Bolívar finally secured independence for Gran Colombia (present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama) after the Battle of Carabobo in 1821.
With this new power base, Bolívar had the resources to embark upon his ambition of creating a unified Southern American nation. Over the next decade, in order to reach this goal, he undertook a number of famous military campaigns. By 1830, Bolívar had liberated Peru and also the central regions of South America. His vision, however, was ultimately never realised due to his inability to convince the diverse peoples of Latin America to unite, and these internal divisions plagued his new territories. Bolívar’s health failed him at the age of forty-seven, and he died a broken man in late 1830. He lamented this lack of unity in his home continent on his deathbed.
Bolívar is still upheld as a nationalist hero in many nations, particularly those that were liberated by him. Some historians contend that he was merely an opportunist who used the ideal of liberty to excuse his bid for power; but others maintain that he was a genuine visionary seeking to free Latin America from Spanish oppression. Either way, Bolívar is an impressive figure whose legacy is still strong today.