Simon Bolivar was like Washington and Lincoln all wrapped up in one: after he freed five South American countries from Spanish rule, he abolished slavery. All in one sweep move. Well, not really, it took him several tries. Nevertheless, in South America he is considered sort of a super hero. So here are 15 facts about Simon Bolivar so you can get to know him too:
Fact 1: Simon Bolivar was born incredibly wealthy and died in poverty
Both of Simon Bolivar’s parents were distinguished and very rich. They owned gold, silver, and copper mines, along with many large plantations and properties. And their families had been accumulating wealth for two centuries in the Americas by the time Simon was born in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1783.
Nevertheless, Simon did not inherit the business-savvy of his ancestors. He was not good at making money, he was only great at spending it.
Simon traveled several times to Europe in style, accompanied by servants. In Paris he lived in the most expensive hotel… in the most expensive rooms. He had his own carriage and a box at the opera.
Back in his natal Venezuela he was known for his expensive tastes. He wore imported perfumes in abundance, dressed sharply, bought jewels for his mistress, and entertained generously. Yet, all of that would not have been enough to dry up his vast fortune.
The thing is Simon Bolivar, like many other South American patriots, funded the independence wars out of his own pocket. And even more damaging to his personal finances, he liked rewarding his officers by giving them his plantations and properties as gifts.
By the end of his shortish life (47), Simon had given all his money and most of his properties away. So he no longer had income sources.
He died in exile, poor, and living from the generosity of others.
But why is Simon famous? Read next: Simon Bolivar’s Four Greatest Achievements
Fact 2: Simon Bolivar lost both his parents before he was ten
Simon’s father, Juan Vicente de Bolivar, was a colonel in the Battalion of White Volunteers of the Aragua Valley and the mayor of his city.
But Simon did not get to know the colonel since he died when his son was only two.
And Simon’s mother, Maria Concepcion, died when Simon was nine.
After his mother died, Simon went to live with his kind maternal grandfather, Feliciano Palacios. But the blows kept coming. His grandfather died only a year later, and the boy now became the guard of his uncle Carlos Palacios, an unmarried, tough man that did not have an easy relationship with his nephew.
Fact 3: Simon lived eight years in Europe
When Simon was 15 his uncle sent him to study abroad in Europe, like most boys of his status did. But perhaps his uncle also wanted to get rid of him a bit.
Simon spent almost four years in Europe. Most of the time he lived in Madrid, where he learned languages, humanistic subjects, and military strategy.
He returned to Venezuela when he was 19, but within a year he was back in Europe for four more years.
This time he lived in Italy and in sophisticated Paris, where he attended one party after another and picked up plenty of revolutionary ideas.
Humboldt had traveled extensively through South America, and he told Simon that a strong leader could free the Spanish colonies. Humboldt just never imagined he was planting a seed, and that the party-loving young man he was speaking to would be that leader.
At the end of that second trip Simon was in Rome with one of his friends. They were standing on top of a hill, overlooking the city, when Simon felt inspired. The ancient Romans had dethroned their monarchy and established a great republic (509 BC). Venezuelans could do the same. Right then and there, Simon vowed to free his fatherland from the Spanish crown and to turn it into a republic.
Fact 4: At home, Simon was a second-class citizen
In spite of how distinguished and wealthy his family was, Simon was a second-class citizen in Venezuela because he was a Creole.
Creoles were pure-blooded Europeans born in the Americas.
And the Spanish crown did not trust Creoles because they could revolt. So the legal system kept them from having too much power. For example, they were banned from high appointments in government, the military, and the Church. Those positions were reserved for men born in Spain.
Creoles, also called “Americans,” could only own land and be appointed to minor-ish positions like mayor or colonel.
Simon bitterly complaints about it in a famous letter he wrote from Jamaica in 1819: “Americans, under the Spanish system now in vigor, have in society no other place than that of serfs fit for work, and, at the most, that of simple consumers. (…)
In short, do you want to know what was our lot? The fields, in which to cultivate crops (…); the solitary plains, to breed cattle; the deserts, to hunt the wild beasts; the bosom of the earth, to extract gold, with which that avaricious country [Spain] was never satisfied.
So negative was our existence that I can find nothing comparable in any other civilized society. (…)
We were never viceroys or governors except by very extraordinary reasons; archbishops and bishops, seldom; ambassadors, never; military men, only as subordinates; nobles, without privileges; lastly, we were neither magistrates nor financiers, and hardly merchants. (…)
Those born in America have been despoiled of their constitutional rights.(…)”
Fact 5: Simon had energy to spare
His contemporaries said Simon had an overabundance of energy. Even as and adult he would skip, jump, or run when walking with someone. He also loved riding horses, swimming, and military activities. And he could dance for hours -he was an accomplished dancer-, sometimes even on top of tables.
That excess energy served him well. During the independence campaigns he waged in South America against Spain, Simon covered three times more territory on horseback than Napoleon and twice as much as Alexander the Great (about 90,000 km/ 56,000 mi).
He also fought in more than 100 battles himself.
Fact 6: Simon Bolivar had a fiery temper
Simon had a short fuse, but a few moments later he had forgotten all about his temper tantrum and carried on as if nothing had happened.
He was also impulsive, a trait Simon himself considered both one of his best characteristics and one of his flaws.
Those who disliked him found him too rash and authoritarian.
And all who knew him agreed he was passionate. He did not do things half-way.
Fact 7: Simon Bolivar was a womanizer
His contemporaries agree that Bolivar was nothing special to look at. They describe him as short, skinny, and say his face was common. Yet women found him irresistible.
When young Simon was studying in Madrid he met Maria Teresa del Toro, a Spanish girl who was the niece of two marquises. They fell madly in love.
After a two year courtship the happy couple got married and traveled to Venezuela to settle there. But eight months into the marriage Maria Teresa caught the yellow fever and died. Simon was devastated. The 19-year-old widower vowed to never marry again.
He left for Europe and began a dissipated life full of parties and women. But even though Simon had hundreds of lovers after Maria Teresa’s death, most of his relationships were short-lived. He enjoyed the flirting, the flings, the passion, yet he did not want to fall in love again.
Simon kept his word and never remarried, but his heart eventually betrayed him. He fell passionately in love once more, in his late thirties, with Manuela Saenz.
Manuela was a Creole like him, the daughter of wealthy landowners from Ecuador, who was committed to the independence movement.
Manuela was as passionate and fiery as Simon, and she adored him. They were in an open relationship for 8 years until Simon’s death.
When Manuela found out he had died, she tried to kill herself.
Fact 8: Simon Bolivar had a way with words
Aside from his military and political skills, Simon is also remembered for his letters and speeches.
In his speeches he was clear, grandiose, and inspirational. And as general, he could easily rouse his troops to action.
He also wrote more than 10,000 letters which he sent to his friends, family, lovers, supporters, and political acquaintances in Europe and the Americas.
In most of the letters he explains his political thought, while in the ones he sends to his lovers he gives free reign to his passion and romanticism.
All of them are widely admired for their style. If he had not chosen a military life, Simon could have been a writer.
Fact 9: Simon was close to three of his slaves
Hipolita was an enslaved African woman who worked for the Bolivars. She was Simon’s wet nurse and took care of him throughout his childhood -even more so after the death of his parents.
When the general was an adult, he called her “my mother and father” and “the only mother I have ever known.”
There were two other enslaved people that Simon remained emotionally close to throughout his life: Matea and Dionisio, who was Hipolita’s son. Both were about his age, and the trio grew up playing together.
Dionisio became a sergeant in Simon’s army. While Hipolita and Matea chose to keep living with the Bolivars after Simon freed them.
Fact 10: Simon Bolivar freed 5 countries
Simon wanted to see the Americas free from Spanish rule.
He first tried to free his country, Venezuela, several times, but failed. So when he saw the opportunity to beat the royalists in neighboring Colombia, he went for it, and succeeded.
He then rode back to Venezuela and freed it for good. Since he was now in a roll, he rode south and freed Ecuador, then Peru, and Bolivia.
The feat earned him the nickname of the Liberator.
Fact 11: The territory Simon freed is twice the size of the original U.S.
The territories Simon Bolivar freed had an area of more than 4’900,000 km² / 1’891,901 mi².
For comparison, that is twice the size of Napoleon’s empire (2,100,000 km2 / 810,000 mi2), and also twice the size of the United States when it won its independence in 1783 (2’071,990 km² / 800,000 mi²).
Fact 12: Simon Bolivar abolished slavery
Simon Bolivar tried to abolish slavery in all the countries he freed.
He succeeded in Bolivia since he wrote their Constitution. In his project for the Constitution he stated:
“Slavery is the infraction of all laws. (…) [slavery] is the most striking violation of human dignity. One man owned by another! A man a property! (…) An image of God under the yoke, like a brute! (…) No one can break the saintly dogma of equality (…) God has destined man to freedom.”
The abolition took longer in the countries that relied heavily on slave labor -like Ecuador and Venezuela. After several unsuccessful attempts to end slavery once and for all, Simon and the other patriots agreed to abolish it in steps. Every child born from a slave after 1821 would be free and receive an education, and no new slaves were to be imported. That way the slave population would diminish.
Within 30 years of the independence, slavery was fully abolished in northern South America.
Fact 13: Simon Bolivar survived many assassination attempts
Luck was definitely on his side, for Simon Bolivar survived many assassination attempts. And two of them were really close calls.
In 1815 he had exiled himself in Jamaica after one of his bids to free Venezuela failed. And since the Spanish crown had confiscated all his properties, he was staying at a cheap inn.
A royalist bribed Simon’s slave, Pio, to kill him. So in the middle of the night Pio approached Simon’s hammock -Simon loved hammocks- and thrust his knife twice into the neck of the man sleeping there, killing him. Except the victim was not Simon.
Earlier that night Simon had run into a friend who offered him better accommodations. The general had taken him up on the offer, and one of Simon’s officers ha decided to sleep in the empty hammock.
The second most dramatic attempt happened when Simon had already freed the colonies and turned them into one big republic called Gran Colombia.
Simon had been the president of the republic for several years, but in 1828 some of his supporters declared him dictator, which did not sit well with many who believed he wanted to become king.
Soon after, 38 armed men burst into the presidential palace at night in Bogota, Colombia. Simon was sleeping with Manuela. They heard the noise and knew they were coming to kill him, so fearsome Manuela took charge.
She urged Simon to flee through a window while she angrily faced the intruders. Simon spent the next eight hours or so hiding under a bridge, in the rain. After that he used to call her the “Liberator of the Liberator.”
Fact 14: Karl Marx was not a fan of Simon Bolivar
Simon had plenty of enemies both during his lifetime and afterwards.
Among the critics was famous German communist Karl Marx, who thought Bolivar was a “false liberator who merely sought to preserve the power of the old Creole nobility to which he belonged.” And that was one of the nicest things he wrote about him.
On the other hand, U.S. president Harry Truman was team Bolivar. He even hung Simon’s picture in the Oval Office.
Fact 15: Not one, but two countries are named after Simon Bolivar
Two of the countries he freed, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and Bolivia, are named after him, along with their currencies.
There are also avenues, airports, universities, provinces, and innumerable objects and places around the world named after Bolivar.
In Paris both an avenue and a metro station bear his name.
And in the United States at least twelve towns are called Bolivar. One is in West Virginia, others in Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, Oregon, Missouri, Texas; there are two Bolivars in New York, and two more in Indiana; plus the Bolivar Peninsula in Texas, and the Bolivar County in Mississippi.
The U.S. also has a submarine named after the South American hero, the USS Simon Bolivar.
And even a minor planet, the 712 Boliviana discovered by a German astronomer, is named after Simon.
Fact 16: You can bump into Simon’s statue almost anywhere in the Western Hemisphere
Next time you travel you can play “find Bolivar’s statue.” You are sure to succeed in cities like New York, Houston, New Orleans, Missouri, Miami, Orlando, Paris, London, Barcelona, Brussels, Vienna, Berlin, Hamburg, Prague, Sofia, and Bucharest, to name a few.