Simon Bolivar, the subject of Robert Harvey's fast-paced and engaging new biography, occupies an awkward position in the roster of late-18th and early-19th-century great military figures. Like Washington (a lock of whose hair he kept in a medallion), Bolivar dreamt of freeing his native land from the yoke of an old empire from across the sea; like Napoleon Bonaparte (whom Bolivar saw crowned king of Italy while he was visiting Milan as a young man), his brilliance on the battlefield eventually brought him to the peak of military power and all the temptations that go along with it.
Harvey's Romantic Revolutionary: Simon Bolivar and the Struggle for Independence in Latin America is enthusiastically fond of its subject, and yet the stark questions of human nature Bolivar so unwittingly dramatised are always on the author's mind. "Given absolute power over a domain larger than those of Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Attila, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane and Napoleon," Harvey asks, "would Bolivar inevitably succumb to hubris and megalomania?"
The territorial claim might have raised objections from some of those names, especially Genghis Khan, and the idea of "absolute power" might have brought one of Bolivar's well-known rueful smiles to his lips, but the question remains compelling.
Bolivar was born in 1783 in Caracas to Venezuelan aristocrats, and tragedy quickly marked his life: his father and mother both died while he was still a child, and the young woman he married at age 19, Maria Teresa Rodriguez del Toro y Alayza, whom Harvey describes as "a tall, pale girl with deep, sad, dark eyes and a complexion of Madonna-like purity" died of a fever only a couple of months after the wedding. Bolivar had been sent to Madrid at age 15 to acquire continental polish (he read Hobbes, Montesquieu, Locke, Rousseau voraciously), but his deepest learning, the most potent shapers of what Harvey calls his "brittle personality", came from the rough handling life gave him right from the start.
It's impossible not to at least grudgingly admire the sheer fervour of Bolivar's response to all those formative losses, even when those responses were no credit to him. He sought out father figures, but he sometimes betrayed them; he was constantly susceptible to the attractions of women, but he betrayed most of them too (when referring to the callous way he treated women, Harvey, ever sympathetic to his hero, rather desperately clarifies: "he was, though, always as courteous in dumping them as in seducing them"). He had many mistresses but virtually no friends. Even as boisterous a biography as this one can't avoid giving the impression that he was an intensely lonely man.
Harvey is an entertaining guide to that private man, but he's much more interested, naturally, in the public man and his accomplishments - and those achievements are epic in scope.
When Bonaparte forced Spain's King Ferdinand VII to abdicate in 1808, he unwittingly gave licence to Spain's long-oppressed American-born colonists to dream - a dream not of life under the hastily appointed rule of Bonaparte's oafish brother Joseph - but of life under no foreign rule at all: independence. In 1811, the Republic of Venezuela was born, and so was the legend of Simon Bolivar.
Internecine war broke out immediately between the new republic and the combined forces of Spain and Venezuelans still loyal to the crown.
Bolivar's first official participation in this conflict, as a colonel at Puerto Cabello under the command of General Francisco de Miranda (one of those ill-fated father figures, described by Harvey at this point as a "powdered, greying dandy of the salons of Europe, the sweet talker of old ladies and diplomats"), ended in failure. He failed to retain the town and fled, pouring out his feelings to his commander in a letter Harvey treats unsparingly: "Whining in tone, hysterical and shrill, it accorded with most of Bolivar's career to the age of 29: a spoilt, highly-strung, egocentric show-off, who was more concerned with his own reputation than the setback for his cause."
When Miranda later surrendered to imperial forces, Bolivar branded him a traitor, urged that he be shot before a firing squad, and eventually - in a move Harvey calls "one of history's epic betrayals, a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions" - turned him over to the very Spanish forces they'd both been fighting. Bolivar's earliest reputation, "more to be feared in bed than on the battlefield", was already taking on tinges of something darker, "a kind of demonic energy that bordered on madness".
Embittered, Bolivar moved to the old fortress town of Cartagena and issued his so-called Cartagena Manifesto. "Popular elections by country rustics and intriguing city-dwellers are one more obstacle to the practice of federation among us," he wrote, "therefore in Venezuela there has never been a free or just vote, and the government has been placed in the hands of men who have either betrayed the cause or were inept or immoral." As a statement of political philosophy, it - and all the manifestos to follow - was every bit as autocratic as the old Spanish rule it meant to replace. Hilariously, Harvey summarises: "Bolivar thus established himself as an unashamed advocate of strong government."
In 1812, Cartagena authorised Bolivar to move up the Magdalena River to the royalist stronghold of Tenerife, which he took with audacity and the first flashes of his military genius. "By using highly trained irregulars, impervious to the discomfort of covering large distances," Harvey writes, "he commanded the element of surprise and he could secure one victory after another."
The most stunning of these early victories was the lightning march on which he led his men across brutal badlands and over a spur of the Andes range previously considered impassible to troops. He was thus able to strike the Spanish forces under Colonel Ramon Correa and eventually break his lines at Cucuta. It had been, according to Harvey, "a close-run thing" and quintessential Bolivar: "Embarking on a superhuman feat, taking on apparently impossible odds, showing foolhardy boldness, all tinged with deceit and persuasiveness - these were the trademarks of Simon Bolivar."
Alas, there were other trademarks. In response to the Spanish putting down a brief, bloody insurrection by an old neighbour of his, Bolivar at Trujillo issued his famous "war to the death" proclamation, authorising "the use of atrocity and terror" against Spanish forces and threatening Latin American populations everywhere with vicious reprisals if they were anything but supportive of the rebellion. If Harvey is at times far too forgiving of his subject, even he draws the line here. "This was not some proclamation issued by a young hothead in the thick of the fighting, or the ranting of a murderous local warlord," he writes. "It was the calculated authorising of racial murder even of the innocent, to secure the greater advantage for his own side: its very selectiveness made it all the more coldly inhuman." In his book's most insightful ongoing argument, Harvey cites Bolivar's "war to the death" manifesto as the predecessor of "many of the terrible excesses that were later to befall the Latin American continent under a succession of tyrants: the notion that he who is not with us is against us".
At times, Harvey must concede that Bolivar himself was one of those tyrants. The "liberator" of Venezuela went on to fight in Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Bolivia and Colombia; there were set-piece battles and master strokes of strategy and daring such as 1819's Battle of Boyaca and 1821's Battle of Carabobo. The Battle of Junin, in 1824, the cavalry engagement that gave Bolivar control over Peru, devolved into hand-to-hand combat and the use of cutlass and lance.
Shortly after Junin, Spanish power was ended in South America - which left it with the task of governing itself. It naturally turned to Bolivar for help; in 1826 he wrote a constitution for the new nation of Bolivia that had many strong points (it abolished slavery, for instance) and one glaring weakness: at its centre it called for an absolute hereditary monarch, the first of which would obviously be Bolivar himself. He wrote that he was convinced the fruits of all his revolutionary struggles should be an enlightened despotism. North American observers (among whom the sharpest was John Quincy Adams) doubted the "enlightened" part.
Despite his even-handedness as a biographer, Harvey never doubts. For him, Bolivar "had wrestled with the dark side of his own nature, where megalomania and ruthlessness had sometimes taken control, and the passion for freedom and rationalism had won". According to Harvey, Bolivar had conquered more than one million square miles of territory but had "refused to set a crown upon his head".
In 1830 he went into exile on the Colombian coast, perhaps hoping to be recalled, perhaps thinking of emigrating to Europe. He died of consumption before either could happen, trusting to the last that history would vindicate him. Romantic Revolutionary certainly asserts that he is worthy of that vindication; it's hard to imagine a more passionate case being made.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.