Gran Colombia: A Dream Gone Awry
When the wave of Latin American independence movements swept through the continent in the early-19th century, many expected the removal of the Spanish Empire to herald a new era of freedom and better governance across the continent. Yet the destruction of the Spanish colonial empire in Latin America did not lead to prosperity. The continent instead fell into political upheaval as many regions of Latin America plunged into massive political instability. This phenomenon is best illustrated by the decades of conflict in the failed confederation now known as Gran Colombia, which failed in spite of being led by “El Libertador” Simón Bolívar. In a situation emblematic of the rest of Latin America, Gran Colombia fell apart due to hollow promises of racial harmony, religious and class differences left over from the colonial regime, economic destruction wrought by warfare, and the ideological differences of federalism and centralism within the country. All of these factors spurred regional arguments shattered Bolívar’s dream of forming a unified Colombian republic, as Gran Colombia rapidly devolved into a divided mess of dictatorships and fragile republics like the rest of Latin America.
The Peninsular Wars began in 1807 when Napoleon decided to invade Portugal for its rejection of his anti-British Continental System, an event that eventually sparked the continent-wide independence movements of the following decade. Critically, Napoleon decided to depose the Spanish monarchy and place his brother Joseph on the throne in place of the Bourbon dynasty. The first source of political instability within the future Latin American states came from the independence conflicts between royalists and “insurgents”, as the removal of the Bourbons triggered revolts against the now illegitimate Spanish colonial government. These revolts stemmed from a long-brewing rivalry between the class of creole elites and the peninsular Spanish royal government. The creoles were angry because they, in the words of Bolívar, “were never viceroys or governors, save in the rarest of instances; seldom archbishops and bishops, diplomats never, as military men, only subordinates; as nobles, without royal privileges.” The creoles wanted more power within the government, and the removal of royal authority from Spain created an opportunity for the creoles to take power.
As the creole class and racial tensions would play a massive role in the Colombian independence movement, it is worth examining the creoles place within the Latin American racial hierarchy, society, and the demographics of the area as a whole. Unlike other parts of Latin America, New Granada was not heavily influenced by indigenous populations or a major slave society. Forty-six percent of the population were mixed-race “libres” (people of all colors) in New Granada, with the rest of the population split between whites (26%), Indians (20%), and the small population of African slaves (8%). Although the criollo class was limited to white people who had been born in the Americas, they were heavily outnumbered mixed-race pardos, especially in urban areas.
However, the creoles were becoming more politically and ideologically active in the lead-up to the revolution, mostly as a result of the scientific and philosophical revolution of the European Enlightenment and the subsequent ideas of the French Revolution (McFarlane 292).
In science, creoles found a means to praise the environment of the New World, and by developing an interest in the resources of their country they also found a way of understanding and identifying with a distinctive patria…the New Granadan “Enlightenment” had nurtured an incipient sense of creole nationhood.
This change in ideology was met with the increasing ineffectiveness of the Bourbon colonial reforms, which were ironically derived from the enlightened absolutism that was also inspired by the Enlightenment. The Bourbon reforms alienated the creole class by centralizing the colonial administration and decreasing local autonomy, which the creole class exclusively controlled. The royalists also rejected the Enlightenment ideals that the creoles cherished. However, some creole reactions showed that their primary motivation was to retain their social status, as seen when they criticized a Bourbon reform that allowed mixed-race pardos to buy their way into the criollo class in 1795. The creoles believed that this process, called gracias al sacar, would break the racial hierarchy and took it as an insult and confirmation that the peninsulares openly disdained creoles. This was an early sign of the creole elite’s desire to remain at the top of society, which would become fatal to Gran Colombia after independence. The pardos were actually considered to be more loyal by the Spanish elite, and staffed many low-level bureaucratic jobs.
In the Audienca of Quito, then part of New Granada, a group of creoles revolted against the colonial government in August 1809 and created an independent “junta”. Juntas in the Hispanic world were essentially administrative bodies, which differs from English perceptions of the word as a takeover by military officials. Quito would eventually became autonomous from the viceroyalty after a second “junta” in December 1811. However, although they stressed their loyalty to Ferdinand VII, royalist forces were raised and defeated the Quito junta. These juntas quickly abandoned any pretenses of support of the crown after defeating royalist forces in a civil war that swept across New Granada, Quito, and Venezuela.
The events in Quito were repeated throughout the Viceroyalty New Granada and in Venezuela (which declared outright independence in 1811). However, the Colombians refer to this first period as the “Patria Boba” or the “Foolish Fatherland”, in which the roots of future instability within Colombia can be found. The revolutionaries struggled internally for power, as conflict began between Antonio Nariño’s State of Cundinamarca and Camilo Torres’ United Provinces of New Granada. Nariño’s new state was a centralist state focused around Bogota and was directly opposed to Torres’ federalist state based in Cartagena. Thus, the new juntas decided to fight a civil war until 1814, when a young Venezuelan creole general named Simón Bolívar captured Bogota. The civil war created unnecessary violence in Colombia that weakened the independence movement. Ferdinand VII then sent an expeditionary force to reconquer New Granada, which was completed by 1816. The infighting and chaos of the initial revolution destroyed the popularity of the United Provinces, which allowed for an easy campaign. When the rebels called for a defense of Bogota in 1816, only six men volunteered to defend the republic. Bolívar fled to Jamaica and then Haiti in search of support for a failed revolution.
This failure during the “Foolish Fatherland” period illustrated two problems that would haunt Colombia and Bolívar in the post-independence years, the federalist/centralist conflict and the issue of race. Already, Nariño and Torres’ conflict laid the groundwork for conflict between federalists who wanted a weak central government and centralists who wanted the opposite. In Venezuela, which changed hands between multiple times between 1811-15 the revolutionaries were also attacked by an unexpected foe, a group of llaneros, mixed-race cowboys from the hinterlands who marched through Venezuela under the command of Jose Tomas Boves. The llaneros would later become famous in guaranteeing the victory of the revolution, but in 1814 they were a royalist army of mixed-race pardos and Afro-Indian zambos, who were more angry at the creole elite as than the royalists. Boves, their ruthless leader, allowed the llaneros to rape and pillage at will, and he was also perfectly willing to ignite the tinderbox of racial conflict, which the creole elites feared after what occurred in Haiti in 1791. The llaneros were also staggeringly effective militarily, and they retook Venezuela from Bolívar’s forces before the Spanish expeditionary force even arrived. The revived royalist regime dismissed the llaneros and the pardos, which irritated the vast majority of the population. In truth, the royalists may have feared the disruption of the racial caste system more than the rebels, but the royalists did not hesitate in executing republican supporters and confiscating property. The harsh pushback and racial tension caused republicanism to actually increased in popularity in Venezuela after the destruction of the republic .
The defeat of the first revolutionary wave did not deter Simón Bolívar from achieving his dream of liberation. Bolívar returned to the scene in 1817 backed by troops from Haiti with a new strategy to help him win the war. In order to gain Haitian support, Bolívar promised the Haitian President Alexandre Petion that he would end slavery and support racial equality. Learning from his previous conflicts against Boves, Bolívar’s new message was one of racial freedom, which he needed to gain the support of the Venezuelan llaneros, and he was able to establish some personal control of republican forces.
However, Bolívar’s racial and military policies during this time period showed that he was not yet comfortable with his embrace of racial equality. Bolívar orchestrated the court-martial and execution of the mulatto General Manuel Piar, who had been insubordinate to Bolívar’s orders and openly accused Bolívar of racism.
I rose to General in Chief by dint of my sword and chance, but because I am a mulatto, I am not allowed to govern in this Republic…I have resolved, on my honor, to fight for those who spill their lifeblood in battle, only to be chained more and more to a shameful slavery.
Bolívar’s centralization of military authority and the execution of Piar signalled an end to the warlordism of previous revolts. Arana writes that “Bolívar’s military machine, one might even say, was born with the fall of Piar.”
Bolívar still managed to forge an informal alliance with Jose Antonio Paez, the new commander of the llaneros in Venezuela. At the Congress of Angostura in 1819, he set himself as President of the Republic of Colombia, which was confirmed after he then launched a stunning march into New Granada and defeated the royalist forces at Boyaca in 1819. The royalists lost the important port of Cartagena in 1821, southern New Granada in 1822, and Venezuela in 1822 after Bolívar and Paez defeated the royalists at Carabobo. The Spanish had been ejected, leaving Bolívar and the revolutionaries to construct a new government. However, the chaos of the wars of independence in New Granada, Venezuela, and Quito led to a series of problems in the new state of Gran Colombia.
With Colombia now free from Spanish rule, the Colombian Constitution was formed at Cucuta in 1821. The Constitution united modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, and parts of Peru under Bolívar’s new central government. However, the fledgling republic and its leader utterly failed to solve the brewing internal problems that had appeared at various points during the revolutionary phase. The first glaring problem within Gran Colombia was the divisive issue of federalism and centralism, which had fatally weakened Colombia during the “Patria Boba” period. Bolívar was a supporter of centralism and believed that federalism had to be removed. Thus, the resulting Constitution of 1821 was centralist, and Bolívar subsequently won the elections for the presidency. Bolívar then left Colombia to liberate Peru and Bolivia and link up with Jose de San Martin for the final defeat of the Spanish. Power was left in the hands of Vice-President Francisco de Paula Santander, who was left to administer the lands Bolívar had freed.
In the decade between 1821 and 1831, all of the roots of political instability that had formed before and during the war of independence combined to shatter the brief unity that Bolívar had fought for. Ultimately, these economic, racial, and social fractures manifested themselves in the regional separatism of Venezuela, Ecuador, and New Granada. The regional arguments were not manifestations of a particular region’s national identity, as nations in Latin America really had no national or cultural identity in the period immediately following independence. While this lack of national identity hurt Gran Colombia, it also does not explain why Gran Colombia fell apart.
One of the primary problems of Gran Colombia was its size, as Bolívar’s dream of creating a huge sovereign state in South America conflicted with the reality of the situation. During the colonial era, the region now encompassing “Colombia” was hardly unified under a single government. The nominal power of the Viceroyalty of New Granada fluctuated depending on the region in question, and the lack of a powerful centralized viceregal regime mirrored the difficulty of creating a centralized republican regime after independence. In the colonial age, Venezuela had a separate captain-general and church system, which allowed for relative autonomy within New Granada, and the province of Quito (later Ecuador) also had autonomy under the Viceroyalty. In Bogota, the power of the viceroy was much more apparent, but communication difficulties and distance prevented the spread of central authority across the Andes.
The regional divisions in Gran Colombia were also fueled by economic inequalities within the nation. Again, many of these differences were set during the colonial period, when the economies of the regions diverged significantly due to Spanish rule. Venezuela had relied upon slavery more than New Granada due to its creole-dominated cacao plantation society that lorded over African slaves. Quito was a more Indianized society that still had close trade links to Peru rather than Bogota. New Granada was not a traditional slave society, and the province’s diversified economy was different and distant from the other parts of Gran Colombia. During the wars, the Venezuelan cacao and ranching economy had been devastated by a decade of continuous warfare. The loss of slaves, laborers, and crops and disruption of exports had hurt the Venezuelan economy far more than New Granada. New Granada, in fact, was relatively well off compared to the rest of the continent, as its non-intensive “stream placering mining industry did not require large infrastructure projects. These economic differences would play into the growing tensions between the Gran Colombian provinces. The Gran Colombian government also embarked on the novel idea of direct taxation of its citizens, replacing the traditional Indian sales tax and other indirect taxes with a truly modern 10% income tax. The government also created a better tariff collection system, which ultimately increased revenue for the state. However, the institution of direct taxes on a citizenry that had never been directly taxed before was, by necessity, unpopular. This problem would recur throughout the continent as central government attempted to generate revenue. Otherwise, life in the countryside remained essentially unchanged under the new regime. The government did not redistribute land. The government’s main role in the lives of rural villagers was conscripting them into the army in order to fight in Peru and Bolivia.
The Colombian government also decided to take out a massive thirty million peso loan from the British that they could not repay, thus becoming the first independent state in Latin America to default on foreign debt. The post-war economy, while not as bad as some areas of Latin America, was still recovering slowly, and a large portion of the country’s population would remain in “poverty and stagnation” for decades after Gran Colombia dissolved. The country’s massive default in 1824 prevented any new foreign credit from developing the infrastructure necessary to achieve growth. The government was unable to gain revenue from taxation, and the only revenue it collected was on customs taxes that hurt foreign trade. The independence movement may have guaranteed political power for the diverse army and the creole elite that survived the war, but this regime was unable to provide any economic growth between 1821 and 1830. When it came time to break away from Gran Colombia, the citizens of Venezuela and Ecuador were not concerned about their economic status in a new state. The importance of economic collapse as a factor in Latin American instability cannot be understated. Gran Colombia‘s example of post-war contraction and unpayable foreign debt was followed throughout the continent.
Religion was another factor in the subsequent disillusionment with the Bolívar/Santander regime, a phenomenon that spoke to the inherent class differences between the educated creole elite and the popular masses. The Congress of Cucuta, inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment that were in vogue amongst the small group of educated creoles, decided to ban all monasterial orders, which did not sit well with the masses. However, unlike the French Revolution, the government did not openly repress the Catholic Church, so there were no outright religious rebellions. Still, certain Enlightenment-inspired decisions by the Santander regime, such as letting in strains of English Protestantism by putting Jeremy Bentham in academic curriculums or sponsoring the English-led Colombian Bible Society, stirred some tensions in the clergy.
Of course, the question of race in the new republic became an issue that would prove critical in the final division of Gran Colombia. The leaders of the revolution recognized the importance of race, and the first act of the Congress of Cucuta was to enact a law that allowed for free birth for children born in the republic and ended the slave trade. This did not free the slaves already living in Gran Colombia, which Bolívar had promised Alexandre Petion in 1816. The slave trade amongst already existing slaves continued, and advertisements for slaves continued to show up in newspapers.
Bolívar had won power partly due to his promises of racial equality, but his government showed that the execution of Piar was to set a precedent when dealing with radicals who called for race war akin to the Haitian Revolution. A “race war” of sorts had begun in 1821, when some Guajira Indian groups had revolted in favor of the monarchy. More Indian groups rose against the republic between 1821 and 1825, but the Colombian leaders still believed that a revolt from the “pardos” and the slaves was a more dangerous prospect. The issue of race played a role in defining regional affiliations within the state. This was not a subtle issue discussed behind closed doors either, as Jose Manuel Restrepo, the Minister of the Interior, even published a strongly worded book in 1825 that classified the entire republic along racial lines:
…in 1825, Jose Manuel Restrepo…portrayed New Granada as Andean and white, in contrast to Venezuela, where “free pardos” dominated, and Ecuador, where Indians were the absolute majority. He included a table with estimates of Gran Colombia’s population by country and “caste”, despite the fact the census of 1825, which he directed…did not include racial information. To whiten New Granada’s population, [he] simply eliminated the category of mestizos and assimilated them into whites…he feared the… ”seeds of disunion with the pardos” as in Venezuela.
If Gran Colombia had any hope of maintaining a unified front while the country’s ministers were openly dividing the country by race, it had to have a dominant leadership committed to preserving racial harmony. Unfortunately, Bolívar, the eminent creole, was as terrified of race war as the rest of the New Granadan government in Bogota. While Bolívar may have believed in racial equality, the policies of his government were mixed on the subject. The castes were given freedom to intermarry, but the government lacked the resources to enforce many of the educational and decrees of manumission.
The Gran Colombian government was unsurprisingly lacking in Venezuelan delegates, although it should be noted that the Venezuelans were fairly disillusioned from the start by the Colombian central government in Bogota, due to its distance from Venezuela. The Venezuelans saw little difference between Spain and Bogota at this point; both regimes had little interest in treating Venezuela as an equal partner. Ecuador also had no high representation within the Colombian government, and were upset with the anticlerical policies and new economic policies that hurt their trading interests. The government, in classical liberal style, had opened free trade, which hurt the local Ecuadorian textile industry. When Jose Antonio Paez led the Venezuelans in a vaguely federalist revolt in 1826, the Ecuadorians were ready to back him against the Santander regime.
The Paez revolt signalled that the bonds that held Gran Colombia together were falling apart. Bolívar returned from Lima to crush the rebellion, but he did not dare engage Paez militarily, instead offering a full pardon to the Venezuelan general. The fact that Paez had been able to temporarily break away from the Bogota government without any consequences did not bode well for Gran Colombia. Bolívar decided to remove Vice-President Santander and create a more autocratic and centralized “republic” with Bolívar declaring himself president-for-life. Santander and Bolívar had differing views on the policies of the government, and the legalistic Santander (his nickname was “Man of Laws”, after all) detested Bolívar’s blatant disregard for the Constitution of 1821. Bolívar, the giant of Latin American independence, ultimately won out, but the supporters of Santander would not have to wait long for Bolívar to finally leave the scene.
In many ways, Bolívar embodies the crisis of political leadership that most Latin American countries faced after independence. While in the end he ruled as a classic caudillo, he genuinely tried to institute liberal republican government before eventually switching sides and embracing a dictatorial agenda. This side-switching also set an example that other caudillos like Santa Ana would follow throughout the century. From a surface-level view, the caudillos of Latin America seem like proof of a triumph of the individual, or an ardent backing of the “Great Man Theory” of history. In reality though, Bolívar’s reign as dictator in Colombia showed that caudillismo was mainly a result of the political instability caused by factors that were completely outside of Bolívar’s control. Bolívar could not stop the racial tensions that fueled Paez’s llanero-backed revolt. Bolívar could not control the economic situation that led to his need to restore authority. As opposed to his heroism during independence, he usually reacted to political circumstances rather than creating the conditions himself, and the same could be argued for many caudillo regimes across Latin America. However, Bolívar was more concerned with the unity of the nation than the Enlightened reforms of his governors, and while he agreed with them in principle, he “considered some of the measures at least premature”
That reign only lasted for two years. In that time, Bolívar decided to revoke all the reforms of the Congress of Cucuta, an ironic decision from the hero of freedom and independence. Under Bolívar’s dictatorship, the liberal press was extinguished, Santander was exiled and turned into an “unperson”, and all of his reforms, from the monasteries, to the indirect Indian tax, were abolished. However, Bolívar defended the manumission law against outside pressure, which shows that he did believe in racial equality to an extent. The liberals attempted to assassinate Bolívar, but he escaped and he summarily executed the conspirators. Bolívar also executed Admiral Padilla, a noted supporter of pardo rights in Gran Colombia. Paez received autonomous control over Venezuela, and his rule was unchallengeable. In 1829, Paez revolted after rumors that Bolívar was going to retire and bring in a European prince to restore the monarchy. Paez rallied his country to the cause of federalism and broke away from Gran Colombia. Bolívar resigned the presidency in 1830 and the state of Gran Colombia ceased to exist in 1831 after Ecuador broke away in autumn of 1830. Santander returned to take control of the government once again in 1832, under a less centralist constitution. While Santander and Bolívar did not directly lead to the formation of the famous Colombian Conservative and Liberal Parties, their respective ideologies were adopted later on by the parties in their longstanding political struggle in Colombia. The two parties would become opposed social institutions in Colombia that resulted in a series of civil wars throughout the 19th-century.
Bolívar’s last two years followed the typical trajectory of other caudillos in the 19th-century Latin American political landscape. Bolívar intended to institute a classic caudillo regime by dissolving the Constitution of Cucuta and ruling as “president for life”. Other caudillos would show similar disregard for constitutions, which contributed to the revolts and instability across Latin America.
Ultimately, the fall of Gran Colombia was the prototypical example of the political instability in Latin America post-independence. It’s all there; economic instability due to lack of foreign credit or government revenue, racial tensions that divided society, and political violence that resulted in endless carousels of dictators, presidents, and ineffective constitutional government. Bolívar himself summed it up best in a letter from 1829:
“We have tried everything under the sun, and nothing has worked. Mexico has fallen. Guatemala is in ruins. There are new troubles in Chile. In Buenos Aires they have killed a president. In Bolivia, three presidents took power in the course of two days, and two of them have been murdered.”
Yet the roots of political instability can be traced back to the colonial regime and the backwards Spanish imperial system that also lacked centralized government or coherent economic policies. The system of racial castes was a byproduct of Spain’s colonial rule, and while Bolívar did try to create a measure racial equality to supersede this unenlightened colonial system, he failed to match the ideals that he championed during his governance. The Latin American colonies were divided, depopulated, undereducated and largely poor before independence. Independence did not really change the lot of the average Latin American peasant. Creating a nation-state that could unite a territory as large as Gran Colombia required the formation of a national identity that could spread beyond the creole minority. This formation was essentially impossible due to the circumstances of Gran Colombia, and other Latin American nations like the Central American Republic and Mexico suffered from similar economic and social constraints. In the face of mounting adversity, leaders like Bolívar of Santander could do little to stem the tide of regionalism, and Bolívar’s attempts to halt the process through dictatorship was unpopular and unsuccessful. While they failed to accomplish their lofty dreams, they had very little to work with in the first place.
Arana, Marie. Bolívar: American Liberator. Simon & Schuster, 2013. 179.
While a traditional biography, Arana’s work is very comprehensively researched. However, in this paper, the work is mostly used to include direct quotations from Bolívar or other contemporaries, not for ideas.
Bushnell, David. Simón Bolívar: Liberation and Disappointment. New York: Pearson Longman, 2004.
Bushnell, David. The Making of Modern Colombia a Nation in Spite of Itself. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993.
All Bushnell footnotes bar one are from this book.
Earle, Rebecca. Spain and the Independence of Colombia 1810-1825. Exeter: U of Exeter, 2000.
Gillingham, Paul “Early Independence: State Collapse and Caudillismo.” Class lecture,
History of Latin America and the Caribbean from Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, September 29, 2015.
Helg, Aline. Liberty & Equality in Caribbean Colombia, 1770-1835. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Lasso, Marixa. Myths of Harmony Race and Republicanism during the Age of Revolution, Colombia 1795-1831. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh, 2007.
McFarlane, Anthony. Colombia before Independence. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. 292.