There is hardly a city or town in northern South America where you can’t find a statue of Simón Bolívar.  There is even one in New York’s Central Park.  Known as “the Liberator,” Bolívar is seen as the George Washington of much of Latin America.  It was Bolívar that served as the key protagonist in expelling the Spanish from Colombia.  During the wars for independence, he spent time in Cartagena where he wrote his Cartagena Manifesto.  Read on to learn more about Bolívar’s time in Cartagena and the Cartagena Manifesto.

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Photo of the statue of Simón Bolivar in Cartagena, where he penned his Cartagena Manifesto, with him mounted on horseback and his hat held out in his right hand.
Statue of Simón Bolívar in Cartagena’s Centro. Read on to learn more about his time in Cartagena and the publication of his Cartagena Manifesto.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons

The Liberator:  Simón Bolívar’s Role in Independence

Simón Bolívar, whose full name was Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar Palacios Ponte y Blanco (with a name like that you better do something noteworthy), was the son of a wealthy criollo in Venezuela.  Able to study in Europe, he was exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment and came to believe that his native Venezuela and all of Spanish America should be independent.  He famously promised his tutor that he would not rest until Latin America was free from Spanish rule.  (*Read more about the causes and background to independence here).

Bolívar would go on to play an enormously important role in the military campaigns for the independence of not only his native Venezuela, but also Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, which is named in his honor.  A brilliant military leader, his campaign to liberate New Granada is considered one of the greatest military achievements of the early 19th century.  The campaign culminated in the decisive Battle of Boyacá that liberated most of modern day Colombia.

Bolívar would go on to be the president of Gran Colombia, the short lived union of Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and Venezuela.  After independence, Bolívar became a controversial figure who died largely disillusioned.  However, today he is revered across Latin America, and in particular is seen as a national hero in the countries he helped liberate.

A painting depicting the battle with men fighting on the bridge at the Battle of Boyacá.
A painting of the Battle of Boyacá. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Free State of Cartagena

Cartagena had declared absolute independence from Spain on November 11, 1811, becoming the first area in Colombia to set up a truly independent government in the Free State of Cartagena.  (*Read more about Cartagena’s Declaration of Independence here).

Several factors helped draw Bolívar to Cartagena.  With the city now independent, the Spanish monopoly on trade was no more and the city became cosmopolitan center.  Traders from all over sailed in and out of the port, some sticking around.  Corsairs and pirates also began to use the city as a base, and many of them were employed by the city as an informal navy.  (*Check out this book to learn more about the city’s use of privateers during this period).

Cartagena was a haven for just about anyone who was not a Spanish royalist.  It was also fighting a mostly low intensity, but constant war with royalist Santa Marta.  Therefore, they were more than happy to welcome men who had experience fighting.  After the fall of the first independent government in Caracas, Venezuela, many of the veterans from the war, among them Sim´ón Bolívar, took refuge in Cartagena.

Bolívar Makes His Way to Cartagena

Bolívar had returned from his studies in Europe to Venezuela in 1804.  In this period, calls for independence were growing and the French occupation of Spain and deposition of King Fernando VII in 1808 upended colonial authority and set off a political crisis.  In April of 1810, the Spanish governor was thrown out of Caracas, creating the first de facto independent state in Latin America in Venezuela.

Bolívar unsurprisingly joined the cause.  He was sent on a diplomatic mission to Britain, and was later made a colonel.  However, the so-called First Republic in Venezuela was short lived.  Not all of the provinces of the colony joined the struggle and a devastating earthquake in March of 1812 threw Caracas into chaos.  Bolívar’s first military experiences proved to be failures as he lost control of a fort in the face of royalist advances, and the short-lived independent republic of Venezuela fell in mid-1812.

Bolívar infamously turned in the leader of the independence movement Francisco de Miranda to the Spanish and in exchange received safe passage out of Venezuela.  Bolívar supposedly said he was only turning in a traitor to the independence cause as Miranda had signed a peace agreement.  He traveled first to Curacao, and then on to Cartagena.

At this point, Bolívar was just another criollo wanting independence and willing to fight to get it.  He had yet to distinguish himself as a military or political leader, and in fact had probably only distinguished himself as an unsuccessful one.  However, while in Cartagena, he wrote a reflection on why he thought the first attempts to achieve independence in Venezuela had failed.  Many consider this to be when he began to convert himself into the dominant figure in the struggle for independence.

Black and white portrait of Simón Bolívar, author of the Cartagena Manifesto.
Portrait of Simón Bolívar the author of the Cartagena Manifesto.  Image Source:  Wikimedia Commons.

Bolívar’s Cartagena Manifesto

Bolívar had arrived in Cartagena by late 1812.  In December of 1812, Bolívar published his Cartagena Manifesto.  In it he laid out the reasons he felt the First Republic of Venezuela had fallen and what he believed was needed to achieve independence.

At the time of Bolívar’s arrival in Cartagena, the colony of New Granada was in a state of practical civil war.  On the one hand, Cartagena found itself at war with loyalist Santa Marta.  On the other, it and many of the other provinces also found itself in conflict with Bogotá.  This conflict was largely due to the provinces’ desire to have a federal system free from Bogotá’s central control.

Bolívar’s Cartagena Manifesto was largely critical of this type of federal system.  He addressed his letter to New Granada in the hopes of sparing them from the same fate as the First Republic of Venezuela.  In it he offered a blistering critique of federalism.

*Read the full English text of the Cartagena Manifesto here.

He criticized the failure of Caracas to subjugate outlying areas that did not submit to the central authority.  He criticized the failure to raise a professional army and reliance on local militia.  He criticized an outsized bureaucracy that misused public funds.  He criticized Catholic priests for supporting the royalist cause.  He criticized partisan politics.  He criticized the failure of the rest of the confederation to support Caracas, especially after the earthquake.  He concluded his diatribe by saying that “Our division, not Spanish arms, returned us to slavery.”

Bolívar and New Granada

Ironically, considering the fact that the United Provinces of New Granada were in fact a similar confederation to that created in Venezuela, they gave Bolívar a military command.  It was at this point that he started to distinguish himself as a military commander.  He won a series of victories against royalist forces in the area of the Magdalena River in the Magdalena Campaign.  This campaign brought the important Magdalena, the link between the coast and the mountainous interior of Colombia under republican control.

Due to these victories, the federalist government of the United Provinces supported Bolívar in a campaign to retake Venezuela.  They provided soldiers and material support for Bolívar’s Admirable Campaign that resulted in the creation of the short-lived Second Republic of Venezuela in late 1813.

Portrait of Simón Bolívar, the author of the Cartagena Manifesto, on horseback with his sword drawn as if to lead a charge.
Bolívar mounted on horseback. His Cartagena Manifesto outlined what he believed to be the weaknesses of the early independence movement.

However, this new independent republic would fall again to royalist forces the following year, and Bolívar would find himself in New Granada again.  In 1814, he succeeded in retaking Bogotá from a royalist insurrection.  Next, he headed back to the Caribbean coast to try and conquer the royalist stronghold of Santa Marta once and for all.

Bolívar Lays Siege to Cartagena

Bolívar planned to acquire more arms, supplies, and men in Cartagena.  However, the leader in Cartagena at the time, Manuel de Castillo y Rada, was not a fan of Bolívar and refused to support him.  Bolívar set up his forces on La Popa hill and laid siege to Cartagena for a month and a half in early 1815.

In the meantime, royalist forces succeeded in capturing both Barranquilla and Mompox.  Furthermore, a large Spanish force under the command of Pablo Morillo was on its way across the Atlantic with orders from the restored Fernando VII to subdue the rebellions in Spanish America.  Bolívar ultimately decided to break his siege and flee to exile.  He left Cartagena in May of 1815.

Despite this refusal to support him, he would still praise Cartagena’s valiant defense against Morillo’s siege of 1815.  It was Bolívar who coined the nickname of the Heroic City (La Heroica) in honor of Cartagena’s resistance to the Spanish.

Historic Legacy of the Cartagena Manifesto

Bolívar’s words in the Cartagena Manifesto in many ways rang true.  It was precisely the kind of refusal to unify embodied in Cartagena’s refusal to support his attack on Santa Marta that helped let the force under Morillo retake all of New Granada by mid-1816. 

Rather than uniting behind the cause of independence, the different provinces spent much of the initial republican period from 1810-1815 bickering amongst themselves with none wanting to give up their own political prerogatives for the greater cause.  This bickering left them divided, and ultimately too weak to provide a united front against Morillo’s forces.

On the other hand, Bolívar’s Cartagena Manifesto was borderline dictatorial.  While he acknowledged that a mild and tolerant government was acceptable in peacetime, he said in times of war government should be stern, and even suspend civil liberties.  In it and throughout much of his military career, he showed little mercy for Spanish royalists, calling for their execution.

All that being said, his critiques were largely proved true in the downfall of the so-called Patria Boba, or “Foolish Fatherland.”  Division left New Granada weak and susceptible to the Spanish reconquest.  Outside of Cartagena’s heroic resistance to Morillo’s siege, the rest of New Granada offered only token resistance.

Eventually, Bolívar did succeed in his brilliant Campaign to Liberate New Granada, making a daring march across Colombia’s flooded plains to defeat the Spanish and royalist forces at Boyacá in August of 1819.  This victory paved the way for the liberation of Colombia and later Ecuador, Venezuela, Peru, and Bolivia.

A sketch of men on horse back heading up a narrow mountain pass.
A sketch of Bolívar’s troops crossing the mountains.

The Republic of Gran Colombia, consisting of Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela was created in his vision of a unified South America that could be strong enough to resist the outside threats of future subjugation from Britain and the United States.  He also favored a unification or at least a confederation with Peru and Bolivia.  However, the new republic quickly fell into the same type of factional quarreling that had led to his earlier criticisms in the Cartagena Manifesto and the collapse of the Patria Boba

Gran Colombia was beset by partisan and sectional conflict.  Bolívar was himself accused of acting like a dictatorial tyrant.  He had supported the creation of a lifetime presidency and appointment of a successor, and federalist leaders like Paula de Santander vehemently opposed him.

In January of 1830, he resigned as president of Gran Colombia, and he died suffering from tuberculosis and disillusioned on December 17, 1830 in Santa Marta.  Gran Colombia was dissolved around the same time.

Ironically, many of the leaders who opposed Bolívar and promulgated the break of up Gran Colombia, including Santander, went on the create largely centralized states.  Bogotá has long dominated Colombian politics, and the federalist vs centralist debate can be seen as one of the root causes of Colombia’s long internal conflicts.

A painting of Bolívar surrounded by several other mean in a congress meeting, probably debating the issues he raised in the Cartagena Manifesto.
Bolívar in a meeting with other politicians. Upon independence, the unified Gran Colombia quickly succumbed to the type of divisions he discussed in the Cartagena Manifesto.

At the end of the day, Bolívar’s Cartagena Manifesto warrants a critical but contextual look.  As stated earlier, much of it can be read as dictatorial, and it was this tendency that helped to bring about Bolívar and Gran Colombia’s downfall.  On the other hand, Bolívar was being politically realistic, Machiavellian or no.  The internal conflicts and prominence of caudillismo, or strongman political leaders, that has characterized much of Latin America’s history give even more weight to his words.  The outsize and in many ways imperial influence the Untied States has exerted on the region and its smaller, weaker states gives them even more.

Overall, Bolívar’s Cartagena Manifesto stands as an incredibly important document in the history of Simón Bolívar as a military and political leader and in history of Colombia and the region.  Additionally, while Bolívar died with many opponents, today he is revered as the most important hero in the independence of Colombia and much of Latin America, and politicians from the left and right invoke him as a model.

Interested in learning more about Cartagena’s Independence?

This is part 6 of an 11 part series on the celebration and history of Cartagena’s Independence.  Check out the other parts below:

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