Monday 2 April 2012

The Fires of Liberty in the New World

Two very important anniversaries in the Americas are coming up: the 4th July is the Independence Day of the United States, and the 5th July that of Venezuela. Both those dates commemorate the end of revolutions, and the men who initiated and fought are today remembered as heroes and liberators. The Caribbean, in fact, has had many revolutionaries in the French, English and Spanish colonies. The upheavals acted as triggers for migration, and especially we in Trinidad have ancestors who came as the result of revolution in their previous homes. During the times of British colonialism, the heroes of other nations were all but forgotten. "One of the troubles with our system of education is that it ignores the region to which we belong. What does the school-boy in San Fernando know about Simon Bolivar? Or about Jose Marti? Or about Toussaint of Haiti?" said Prof. Dr. Philip Sherlock in a radio programme in 1964. Today, as an independent nation, we will blow away the thick layer of dust from the marble busts of the heroes, an have a look at who some of those revolutionaries really were.

The close of the 18th century was a pivotal period for the western hemisphere north and south. It was a time of war, where England  fought its old enemy France, who in turn supported the colonists in North America who were struggling for independence. Spain, who was now out of the race for European dominance of the New World, fought to keep her colonies in South America; colonies she could hardly now afford to maintain.  

The colonies in both North and South America overthrew the monarchies—the House of Hanover, England's ruling dynasty, in the North, and Spain's House of Bourbon in the South—and went on to write for themselves republican constitutions. 

The war of American Independence came to an end in 1781 with the surrender of General Cornwallis, the commander of English troops in the American colonies. Great Britain recognised the government of the United States of America as independent. Slavery was made illegal in the state of Massachusetts on the ground that the words in the constitution of 1780 were "All men are born free and equal", which was a nullification of slavery. Maryland followed and also outlawed the slave trade.  

George Washington was born in Bridges creek, Virginia, in 1732. His great-grandfather was first mentioned in Virginia about 70 years earlier, where he acquired wealth and public standing. George's father Augustine died while George was still a little boy. George was a healthy boy, and in 1747, he went to Mount Vernon, the residence of his eldest half-brother Lawrence, who had inherited most of the estate. In 1748, George gained employment with the Fairfaxes, the family of Lawrence's wife, as a surveyor of the Fairfax property. During his employment, George learnt to hunt, to use arms and became interested in the strategies of warfare. In 1751, George came to the Caribbean, to Barbados to be precise, to accompany his half-brother in the last months of his life; he died the following year of consumption. George inherited the estate and became guardian of his niece. 

In 1755, Washington became involved in warfare for the first time, when the English colonies of America sent an expedition against the French colonies of that continent. Four years later, he married a rich young widow, and upon the death of his niece he became one of the richest men in America.

The British colonies in America became involved in a five-year quarrel with Britain in 1765. Washington first had the viewpoint of peaceful measures and negotion, but soon changed his view in that he favoured force to defend his countrymen's rights. He took a leading part in the political arena, and being neither an orator nor a writer, he excelled in common sense and management of affairs. Becoming commander-in-chief,  he led the first American contingent against the British in Boston in 1775.  

In the following six years, the Americans waged a war for independence against the British. In close alliance with the French from 1778 onwards, the war was eventually won in 1781, and George Washington resigned his commission as commander in chief of the American army, having accomplished his great work of defeating the British forces. In 1793 he laid the cornerstone of the Capitol in Washington in a masonic ritual in which he presided as master.  

In the war for the independence of the British colonies in North America, several thousand Africans had fought on both sides. Slaves gained their freedom for serving the Union under General George Washington. Some black regiments came from as far away as Haiti.

"The aim of the Franco-American alliance was to evict the British from Savannah, Georgia," remarks Smithsonian Museum their publication "The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution". They continue: "In early September [of 1779], a French fleet of thirty-three sail, under the command of the Comte d'Estaing, anchored off the Georgia cost and discharged its troops. As reported in the Paris Gazette, there were 2,979 'Europeans' and 545 'Coloureds': 'Volunteer Chasseurs, Mulattoes, and Negroes, newly raised at St. Domingo,' the latter called the Fontages Legion after its French commander. 

"Among the coloured volunteers in the American cause were young men destined to become famous in the Haitian revolution—among them were André Rigaud and Luis Jacques Beauvais, non-commissioned officers at Savannah; Martial Besse, a general under the Versailles Convention; Jean Baptisete Mars Belley, deputy to the convention; and Henri Christophe, future king." 

French revolutionary thinkers, such as the Marquis de Lafayette, influenced the framers of both the American and Haitian constitutions. As a result, Haitian patriots supported Washington's war for independence.

Among many Haitians who came to Trinidad and Tobago were also the descendants of General Alexander Dumas, another hero of the Haitian revolution. Today, the family of Reginald Dumas, former head of the Public Service, still live in our country. 

Africans fought also for England, as witnessed by the Company Villages in south Trinidad. Soldiers of these Black detatchments in the British army were transported to Trinidad and given land and freedom. 

In Trinidad, 1783 was a pivotal year. It saw the promulgation of the Cedula of Population, a document issued from the Spanish Royal Court at Madrid that was of special importance to our island. It established an immigration policy to Trinidad, and defined the creation of modern Trinidad as distinct from the old, Spanish times. It opened the doors to significant agricultural development. Even after the abolition of slavery here in 1838, this agricultural foundation went on to make this island one of the wealthiest territories in these parts. The cedula also served to create one of the most racially diversified places in the world through its terms. The whole agreement was the work of a significant man, Philippe Rose Roume de St. Laurent, who had been born in the island of Grenada. Roume de St. Laurnet later served the French government as 'ordinateur' (judge) in Tobago. He represented Napoleon Bonaparte as one of the commissioners of Haiti. When he married Marianne Rochard, a coloured woman from Tobago, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Toussaint L'Ouverture and his brother were their witnesses.

Simon Bolivar

1783 was also the year that Simon Bolivar, the great liberator of South America, was born in Caracas. For more than 200 years, this city had been one of the great centres of Spanish imperial power in South America. Ever since de Losada had founded it in 1567, Caracas had grown in size, power and influence. 

The Bolivars were one of the great families of Caracas. In their veins ran the blood of Africa, of the Iberian peninsula, and of the natives of the Andes. They owned large estates of sugar cane which were worked by slave labour, as well as silver mines that produced tremendous wealth. Simon's grandfather had been granted a colonial title of nobility by the Spanish court. 

Orphaned before his fifteenth birthday, Simon Bolivar's maternal grandfather, Feliciano Palacios, took him in his care and arranged for him to have the best possible education in Venezuela and in Spain. Amongst his tutors were Simon Rodriguez and Andres Bello. Simon distinguished himself during the years of his education in Spain with his academic accomplishments. There, at the age of 18, he fell in love with Teresa del Toro, who was a year younger. The families insisted on a year's delay of marriage. At the end of the year, Bolivar married Teresa and took his wife back to one of the family's plantations in the valley of Aragua, near Caracas. Not long after, Teresa died of a malignant fever, and the heartbroken Simon swore never to remarry. He kept his oath, however, he always enjoyed the company of women and admitted that the inspiration he gained from them was a necessity to him.

Single, young Bolivar returned to Europe. He was the guest of the Marquis de Uztaiz, who gave him access to one of the greatest private libraries of Spain, famous for its collections on the physical sciences, history, philosophy and politics. It was during this period at Cadiz that Simon met Francisco de Miranda.  

Miranda was a remarkable person. He was the type of intellectual that revolution turns into a military leader, and he became the precursor of Venezuela's fight for independence. Born in Caracas, Francisco's education was immense. He had devoted many years to the study of politics. Simon Bolivar was greatly influenced by the older man's grasp of culture and history, and of the philosophy of the "rights of man". Bolivar became a member of Lodge Lautro in Cadiz in 1803, together with two other great South American patriots, José de San Martin, later the liberator of Argentina, and Bernardo O'Higgins, later the national hero of Chile. 

Argentine soldier and statesman, national hero of Argentina, José de San Martin was born in Yapeyu in 1778. Played a great part in winning independence for his native land, Chile and Peru. Officer in the Spanish army (1789-1812), but helped Buenos Aires in its struggle for independence (1812-1814). Raised army in Argentina, and in January 1817 marched across the Andes to Chile, where he and Bernardo O'Higgins defeated the Spanish at Chacabuco and Maipo, thus winning independence for Chile. Subsequently, he won independence for Peru and became this country's protector. He resigned in 1822 after differences with Bolivar and died in exile in Boulogne in 1850.

Bernardo O'Higgins, the Chilean revolutionary, born in Chillán in 1778, illegitimate son of Ambrosio O'Higgins, the Irish-born viceroy of Chile and Peru. Played a great part in the Chilean revolt of 1810-1817, and became known as the 'Liberator of Chile'. In 1817-1823 he was the new republic's first president, but was deposed after a revolution and retired to Peru, where he died in 1842. 

This was a time when words like "liberty" and "equality" were powerful concepts. The term "rights of man" can be understood only against the background of a Europe dominated by autocratic monarchs, supported by aristocracies that excluded vast majorities of the population. The furnace of the French Revolution had branded those ideas upon the consciousness of a generation. The revolution in France was followe by the era of Napoleon Bonaparte, and there was a growing interest in science and the roots of another revolution, the Industrial Revolution.  

In Paris, Simon Bolivar met the great German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, who knew South America well. Bolivar told him his feelings of the dignity of life in his homeland, and to this von Humboldt replied: "I believe that your country is ripe for emancipation. But who will be the man to undertake so vast an enterprise?" 

Bolivar traveled to Rome in the company of his former tutor Simon Rodriguez. There, one golden afternoon, they climbed to the top of the Aventin Hill, where more than 2000 years before the ancient Romans had been accustomed to reaffirm their right for freedom.

Simon Bolivar gazed long at the monuments and the ruins of classical buildings spread before him. Then, all of a sudden, he turned to Rodriguez and said:"I swear before you, I swear by the God of my fathers, by my fore-fathers themselves, by my honour and my country, that I shall never allow my hands to be idle or my soul to rest until I have broken the shackles which bind us to Spain."

Thus, great decisions are made, and this one was to be the turning point for South American affairs. Sometimes, a person would move to the moment of decision so gradually that at first, there is no sign of change or of the turn in his or her life. But to others, it is a bolt from the blue, a moment of revelation, such as happened to Paul on the Damascus Road. 

Not long after his stay in Rome, upon his return to Caracas, Bolivar met with a group known as the Patriotic Society. They were in disorder and had no idea how to go forward. Bolivar forced the issues, cried out to them: "These doubts are the sad effects of our ancient chains. Chains we no longer need to wear. They say that we should prepare for great projects with calm - are not 300 years of calm sufficient? Without fear, let us lay the cornerstone of South American independence."

Events moved swiftly. Bolivar, Andres Bello and others went to London in search of British help. They also persuaded Francisco de Miranda to return and lead the armies of Liberation. It was his second attempt to break the shackles that bound the southern continent to Spain. 

But the general, who had once commanded an army on the Rhine, was now too old - he could not adapt himself to guerrilla warfare, bungled the campaign and accepted terms from the Spanish. Bolivar arrested him. The rot, however, had set in. 

The revolution was smashed, the leaders arrested. Miranda was sent to Spain in chains. Bolivar escaped to Curaçao and eventually to Haiti, where Toussaint L'Ouverture offered asylum. All his property and estates in Venezuela were confiscated. Notwithstanding, he kept his courage and his flaming faith in the cause of liberation.

When Bolivar returned to Venezuela, the tide was turned from the neighbouring island of Trinidad. From there, a small band of men, remembered as the "Immortal 45", crossed the Gulf of Paria under the command of a young man by the name of Santiago Moreño. They took the coastal towns, drawing thousands to their cause.  

Bolivar's famous Cartagena manifesto demonstrated the importance for all American States to work together for independence. The second phase of the revolution was now underway. Final victory was yet a long way away., however. 

Simon Bolivar kept the course and held before him the lesson "Let no motive therefore make you swerve from your duty, violate your vows or betray your trust." 

 "United we are strong" is a concept as old as humanity. In the history of nations, it manifests itself in the form of federations. Simon Bolivar had a dream of a federation of South American states, with his home country, Venezuela, being part of that. Partly liberator and elected president, partly dictator, Bolivar succeeded in joining Venezuela, Colombia and New Granada into a republic called Colombia. In 1822, Ecuador was joined, and in 1824 Peru. Upper Peru was named Bolivia in his honour, however, the inhabitants of that state were not at all satisfied with Bolivar's consitution and drove out his troops. In 1828, also the republicans in Colombia rebelled against Bolivar's supreme power, and in 1829, Venezuela split from the federation and elected José Antonio Páez as president. A year later, Bolivar died, leaving behind a shattered federation, but a dream of federation very much alive in the former Spanish colonies of South America. 

Páez' power collapsed in the 1840s, when liberal ideas became stronger. From 1846 to 1858, control of the country was in the hands of José Tadeo Monagas and his brother José Gregorio. They were not liberal, and apart from the abolition of slavery in 1854, nothing much was achieved for the people.

After the collapse of the Monagas regime, chaos and turmoil struck Venezuela for twelve years. Páez tried to once more restore order in the early 1860s, but failed. The turmoil ended with Antonio Guzmán Blanco assuming power in 1870 and assuming dictatorial rule until 1888.  

A quantity of Venezuelan families from both Caracas and the coastal towns came to Trinida in the period of the dictators. Others merely renewed older links with the island. French creole families, such as the Ganteaumes and the Pantins, and German creoles such as Wuppermann and Siegert, married into Caracanian families, such as Machado and de Tova. 

Guzmán, like the other dictators, did not achieve any alleviation in the mass poverty of Venezuela. He rebuilt Caracas, but the rural masses remained in their hovels. After his regime ended, the country again fell into chaos, until stability was re-gained at the terrible price of oppression and brutality. Cipriano Castro ruled from 1899 to 1908, followed by Juan Vicente Gómez from 1908 until 1935.

 "Bolivar's dreams of liberty and freedom proved illusory," writes Esmond Wright (ed.) in "History of the World". Dr. Philip Sherlock adds in a lecture on Radio Guardian, 1964: "Bolivar had been successful in the war because he had the support of the great conservative families. They were hostile to Spain. But when Spain was defeated, all hte old vested interests began to assert their power and take charge. It was the old landed estate, the latifundia, against any form of democratic rule. Bolivar dreamed of a great federation of the South American continent, that would be the counterpart of the United States. The nine years between 1821 and 1830 found Bolivar struggling to defeat the parochialism and selfishness of the landed proprietors. The struggle brought frustration and defeat."

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