This biography of Bolívar by a distinguished Venezuelan historian furnishes an important contribution to the existing mass of literature on the Libertador. Mijares believes that the life of a passionate being such as Bolívar cannot be approached objectively; furthermore, he has no desire to dwell on his hero’s small human defects. On the other hand, he has been scrupulously objective in selecting and scrutinizing the documents on which his story is based. His research, he assures us, has not lessened his admiration for Bolívar.
An introductory chapter is dedicated to the colonial background of Venezuela and stresses the ruling aristocracy’s deep roots in the American soil. Mijares quotes from several sources, among them the Leyes de Indias, to prove that the aristocrats’ position as an elite was recognized by Spain as well as by the representatives of the mother country in South America. He asserts: “. . . se sentían por ello legítimos dueños del país” (p. 11). This explanation provides both a historical and a psychological account of the attitude which the Creole upper class adopted at the beginning of the independence movement. The phenemenon that J. J. Johnson has recently termed “creolism” is thus shown to be the natural outgrowth of the colonial power structure.
In describing Bolívar’s childhood the author utilizes the new material that came to light in the archives of the Audiencia, but he discards many anecdotes to which other historians have given credence. There is a fine chapter on Simón Rodrigues which Mijares based on research carried out by Pedro Grases and J. A. Cova, and which analyzes convincingly the educational fervor of Bolívar’s first and only maestro.
Equally interesting is the author’s description of the political climate in eighteenth-century Caracas: “Ya teníamos, pues, en América, un verdadero patriotismo esencialmente criollo y de doble acción: contra el invasor extranjero y al mismo tiempo contra los usurpaciones de los gobernantes metropolitanos” (p. 51). The creolism of the colony was intensified during the last decade of the century because of the rebellion of Gual and España. In view of the current tendency to underrate the revolutionary ferment of the colonies prior to 1808, this reviewer agrees that the rebellion of Gual and España was a significant prelude to revolution.
In describing Bolívar’s stay in Europe, the author also separates legend from documented truth, and considers the famous letter to Fanny du Villars as a fabrication (p. 560). The authenticity of the letter has been questioned by others, but Mijares’ account is interesting and refreshing.
Several chapters are devoted to the role of Miranda as precursor of the independence movement. They discuss also his attitude during and after the campaign of 1812, which led to his arrest and final imprisonment by the Spaniards. Mijares is inclined to deny any personal motives for the conflict between Miranda and Bolívar, finding its roots rather in disagreements concerning military matters. This reviewer, for one, is not convinced that this is a satisfactory explanation of Miranda’s action.
The chapters dealing with Bolívar’s military career make no attempt to minimize the occasional failures of the Liberator, nor do they exonerate him from responsibility when his temperament or personal involvements led him astray. Bolívar was great because he could rise above obstacles, even when such checks were the result of his own errors, as, for instance, in the debacle of Ocumare (p. 302).
The political ideas of the Liberator are presented, though not in as much detail as one might wish. In general the book adheres to a narrative style of biographical writing rather than to a conceptual one. Thus the social and economic forces which entered into the independence movement are given scant attention. Likewise the ideological conflicts between nationalism and internationalism, libertarian and authoritarian ideas in Bolívar’s thought and action do not receive a comprehensive analysis. As a narrative, the book suffers from frequent anticipatory references to events, which the reader, may find incomprehensible, unless he is steeped in the history of Venezuela. This reviewer also regrets that Mijares has failed to take notice of the historical literature on the independence movement which has been published in this country. The studies of Charles C. Griffin, Victor von Hagen, and others would have served him well. For his portrait of Manuelita Sáenz, for example, he still relies on Rumazo’s book. On the other hand, it must be said that he does not accept the taboos which Venezuelan historians have favored so long in their treatment of la amable loca.
For Venezuela, at least, this biography of the Liberator sets a new standard in the biographical literature on Bolívar. It should be warmly welcomed throughout the Americas.