The modern nations of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador are grouped together, from 1740, as the Spanish viceroyalty of New Granada with its capital at Bogotá.
The second half of the 18th century is a time of considerable progress in the region. Spain relaxes the long-standing mercantilist restrictions on trade with its colonies, resulting in a rapid increase in prosperity. An educated and professional class of Creoles begins to emerge, self-confident and increasingly resentful of the privileges of the peninsulares. In these circumstances New Granada is a natural region for the first resistance to imperial rule. There is a brief uprising in Ecuador as early as 1809. But sustained opposition begins elsewhere a year later.
Caracas, the capital of the province of Venezuela, gives the lead in April 1810. But Bogotá, capital of the entire viceroyalty of New Granada is not far behind. On July 20 citizens throw out the Spanish officials who are operating by now on behalf of Napoleon’s puppet king in Spain. A local administration is established, declaring its loyalty to the deposed king Ferdinand VII.
A year later Bogotá goes one step further, claiming independence, but in 1815 Spanish forces recapture the city. By this time the independence movement in Colombia is intimately connected with the campaign of Bolívar to liberate the whole of New Granada and establish Gran Colombia.
Bolívar and Gran Colombia: AD 1810-1822
Simón Bolívar, Venezuelan by birth and the central figure in the story of the independence movements of Latin America, is a young officer in Caracas in 1810. He is part of the conspiracy by which a junta expels the Spanish governor of the province of Venezuela, on April 19, and takes control. For the next twelve years Bolívar’s efforts are directed single-mindedly towards liberating the whole of New Granada from Spanish rule. There are many reverses on the way.
The optimism of July 1811, when a national assembly in Caracas formally declares Venezuela’s independence, is followed by a complete reversal a year later. The Spanish authorities rally, recover a military initiative, and by July 1812 regain control of the entire province.
Bolívar escapes to Cartagena, the main seaport of neighbouring Colombia. The city is in rebel hands, and here he pens a powerful political pamphlet, the Manifesto de Cartagena, addressed to the citizens of New Granada. In it he offers the inspiring vision of a united effort to expel the Spaniards.
He soon proves his own abilities in this great enterprise. In 1813, at the head of an army of liberation, he returns to Venezuela and wins six successive engagements against Spanish forces. On 6 August 1813 he enters Caracas. Welcomed as the Liberator, he takes political control with dictatorial powers.
Again success is short-lived. By July 1814 Bolívar has once more lost Caracas. He marches instead to Bogotá, which he succeeds in recapturing from the Spanish. He makes this capital city his base for a while, but soon the Spanish recover it yet again. Bolívar flees into exile, in Jamaica and Haiti. But by the end of 1817 he is back in Venezuela, building up a new army in an inaccessible region on the Orinoco river.
Here he conceives a bold plan. He will not make another attempt on Caracas. Instead he will strike at the capital city of New Granada by a route which is considered impossible – along the waterlogged plain of the Orinoco and then over the Andes for a surprise attack on Bogotá.
In 1819 Bolívar’s small force, of only about 2500 men, uses cowhide boats to cross a succession of flooded tributaries of the Orinoco (one of his men claims later that for seven days they marched in water up to their waists). This ordeal is followed by one even worse, a mountain crossing during which a considerable number of the rebel band die of cold.
But the surprise holds. They descend from the high passes upon an unsuspecting enemy. In an engagement at Boyacá, on 7 August 1819, the Spanish army surrenders. Three days later Bolívar enters Bogotá. On December 17 the Republica de Colombia is proclaimed. It covers the entire region of modern Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
As yet the republic is little more than a notion, for Venezuela and Ecuador are still securely in Spanish hands. But the Liberator soon puts this right. In Venezuela on 24 June 1821 he wins a battle at Carabobo which yields to him once again his native city of Caracas. And in Ecuador on 24 May 1822 Bolívar’s favourite general, the young Antonio José de Sucre, wins a victory at Pichincha and brings the patriots into Quito.
With this liberation of Ecuador, the Republica de Colombia becomes a reality as a free republic. (To avoid confusion with later republics of Colombia, Bolívar’s pioneering state has subsequently been given the name Gran Colombia by historians, and this now common anachronism is followed here.)
Gran Colombia: AD 1822-1830
Gran Colombia only has eight years as a functioning state, and they are increasingly turbulent. Bolívar technically remains president even during the period (1823-6) when he is away controlling the campaign in Peru. In his absence the acting president is one of his trusted commanders, Francisco de Paula Santander, a native of Colombia.
Unfortunately another close colleague of Bolívar’s is increasingly discontent with the attempted rule of the entire region of Gran Colombia from the capital at Bogotá. The Venezuelan patriot José Antonio Páez leads a rebellion in 1826 demanding independence for Venezuela.
The crisis of 1826 brings Bolívar back from Peru to Gran Colombia. He appeases Páez, allowing him a degree of autonomy in Venezuela, but in doing so he provokes opposition in Colombia – where he assumes dictatorial powers in 1828 (and later in the same year is lucky to survive an assassination attempt).
Meanwhile Ecuador, the third part of Gran Colombia, has been in political turmoil since independence was first achieved in 1823; and its valuable southern port of Guayaquil has remained a bone of contention with Peru. The Peruvians invade in 1829. They are only driven back when Sucre emerges from his recent retirement and defeats them, against heavy odds, on the plain of Tarqui.
By 1830 Bolívar is isolated, ineffective and increasingly ill. Santander has been exiled after the 1828 attempt on Bolívar’s life (in which he was not directly implicated). And in 1829 Páez has launched a renewed separatist movement demanding Venezuelan independence.
In May 1830 Bolívar decides to leave Bogotá, resigning as president and planning to retire to Europe. He only gets as far as Santa Marta, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia, where he dies of tuberculosis – but not before hearing of two final blows. In September both Ecuador and Venezuela secede formally from Gran Colombia. And June has brought news of a more personal loss.
Of his many devoted followers Bolívar has always favoured the talented but unassuming Antonio José de Sucre, treating him almost as a son and seeing him as his likely successor. Early in 1830 Bolívar asks Sucre to preside over a congress in Bogotá, in a final attempt to hold Gran Colombia together. When the congress fails, Sucre sets off to ride home to Quito. He is assassinated on his journey, probably by agents of a political rival.
Bolívar and his associates have won independence for the nations of Spanish America. But the republics begin their separate histories in a lethal atmosphere of mistrust and political gangsterism.