Born in 1783, midway between the us Declaration of Independence and the outbreak of the French Revolution, Simón Bolívar’s life and ideas were stamped—though asymmetrically—by both events. If the British could be driven out of North America by a people belonging to the same race and religion, why not the Spaniards in the South? The three hundred years of colonial rule that had followed the 1521 fall of Mexico were more than enough. And if the wisdom of the French Enlightenment had laid the foundations of the French Revolution, might it not serve the same purpose in Spanish America? Travelling through Europe in the early 1800s, Bolívar would compare the decay and lethargy of the Madrid Court with the ferment of revolutionary Paris, albeit on the eve of Napoleon’s coronation. Till the emperor’s final defeat and the Restoration, Paris would remain qualitatively superior to Madrid and quantitatively ahead of Philadelphia. And, of course, there was always sly, opportunist London, which could not be ignored. Despite the loss of its American colonies, it remained the hub of a strong and growing Empire and its mastery of the seas was now unchallengeable. For that reason alone it had to be won over to the cause of South American independence and reminded of its own imperial interests in the continent.
Of all the revolutionary leaders that bestrode Europe and the Americas in the 18th and 19th centuries, Bolívar’s political goal was the most audacious. A republican, he wanted nothing less than the liberation and unification of the entire Spanish-speaking continent. All his energies were devoted to that end, on which he brooked no dissent. San Martín, O’Higgins and Sucre were undoubtedly brilliant generals, but Bolívar far excelled them in his capacity to think strategically. Experience taught him that if even a single Spanish base were allowed to exist in the Americas, it would always remain a focal point of counter-revolution. For fifteen years he led an epic resistance against the Spanish Empire, conducting a series of long marches across the Andes that have no equal in anti-colonial history, and in 1825 finally succeeded in expelling the Viceroys and Captains-General of the Spanish Army. But though the liberation movement now controlled a region that was five times larger than Europe, continental unity remained elusive. The idea and its originator had triumphed themselves to death. In 1830, as Bolívar lay dying from consumption in a remote farmhouse in Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast of modern-day Colombia surrounded only by a few loyal friends and far away from the cities he had liberated, he compared his struggle for Spanish American unity to ‘ploughing the sea’. It was necessary, he repeated, to start all over again.
Despite his singular achievement, there have been few biographies. The orthodox Left in the Americas and elsewhere tended to avoid the subject of Bolívar, treating Marx’s ignorant remarks on him as gospel. This left the field wide open, but until now no Anglophone historian has attempted a life. His older contemporary Toussaint L’Ouverture was more fortunate in this regard. The Trinidadian historian C. L. R. James, who immortalized Toussaint in his 1938 The Black Jacobins, had an unrivalled grasp of the ebb and flow of the revolutionary tide. John Lynch’s handsome and scholarly new biography of the Liberator, the first for over half a century, makes good use of recent archival work and is particularly informative on the tormented question of race. Here Lynch is ahead of the two most distinguished biographers of Bolívar whose works are available in English, Emil Ludwig and Gerhard Masur. Both were Germans who fled the Third Reich—the first to Switzerland, the second to Colombia—but continued to regard European civilization as innately superior to the colonized natives. Each successive biographer has felt obliged to mock his predecessor. Masur referred to Ludwig as neither ‘authentic nor profound’; Lynch writes more politely of Masur’s work ‘showing its age’. Lynch’s biography too reflects the spirit of its—more conformist—times. But all three accounts, if read in tandem, offer a captivating portrait of their subject, with the weaknesses of each highlighting the strengths of the others.
The rise, decline and fall of Bolívar is an epic of Schillerian dimensions: politics, passions, wars, triumphs and betrayals. Carlyle compared Bolívar to Ulysses, who required a Homer to do him justice. Gabriel García Márquez is the closest we have got to that injunction. The work of the biographers, even taken collectively, has a magnificent rival in García Márquez’s mesmerizing historical novel, The General in his Labyrinth, a work of fiction which contains a wealth of factual details and rare psychological insights that should be the envy of any biographer.
Emil Ludwig’s popular biography was one of his series on the lives of great men, distinguished by their psychoanalytical insights and comparative historical and cultural approach. Sartre wrote in his War Diaries of how, without agreeing on every assessment, he had found much of value in Ludwig’s psycho-portrait of Wilhelm ii. Bolívar: The Life Of An Idealist (1942) exemplifies his style. Ludwig’s earlier work on Napoleon allowed him to compare the Liberator to the Emperor, to shrewd and accurate effect:
If Napoleon had ever worked for the United States of Europe, of which he spoke from time to time, as passionately as Bolívar worked for the United State of Colombia, and for Pan-America beyond it, he would certainly have put his idea into practice, if only for a time, probably just as Bolívar was reaching the first of his goals. Napoleon, however, could only imagine Europe under the hegemony of France, while Bolívar wished to see neither Venezuela as the leader of Colombia nor Colombia as the leader of Pan-America. These divergent conceptions of power and freedom led the one to conquer, the other to liberate.
Gerhard Masur was a scholar and historian who taught for five years at Humbolt University before fleeing his country in 1935 to seek refuge in the Americas. Subsequently he became an adviser to the Minister for Education in Colombia, and it was in this post that he began to accumulate the research that resulted in the magisterial Simon Bolivar in 1948. The power of Masur’s narrative is simply superior to that of his rivals, evoking the political, military and personal crises that confronted Bolívar in affecting prose. The Liberator, for him, is a tragic hero. An extremely gifted leader, he was capable of petty jealousies, serious political mistakes and a ‘blindness to the economic factors of life’; but as a political visionary, he was far ahead of his time: