There are statues of Simon Bolivar all over the world -from Washington and Paris to Tehran-, Netflix has a series on him, and the man is considered a hero in South America. So what exactly did Simon do to earn all the praise? Well, here are Simon Bolivar’s four greatest accomplishments:
1. Simon Bolivar’s greatest accomplishment: Freeing five countries from Spanish rule
Simon Bolivar’s greatest accomplishment, numero uno, is winning the independence wars against Spain.
Simon has been repeatedly called “The George Washington of South America.” For the general freed five modern countries from Spanish rule: his natal Venezuela, plus Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia.
It was 1810 and Napoleon Bonaparte, the French emperor, was invading continental Spain. That was great news for Spain’s colonies. While Spain was busy fending off its own invasion, the colonies could revolt.
Two other European colonies, the United States and Haiti, had already successfully revolted by then, inspiring the rest of the Americas.
Spain had divided its huge American territories into four viceroyalties in order to administer them better.
The Viceroyalty of New Spain still controlled most of North America, while the other three viceroyalties were in South America. The hero of our present article, Simon Bolivar, freed two of them: the viceroyalties of New Granada and Peru.
While an Argentine general called Jose de San Martin freed the southern most viceroyalty, the one of Rio de la Plata.
The viceroyalty of New Granada falls
Simon was born in Venezuela, which at the time was part of he Viceroyalty of New Granada.
He belonged to a wealthy family and had been educated in Europe, where he picked up the revolutionary ideas of the French.
He returned to the Americas in 1807 and joined the independece movement. In the following years Venezuela declared its freedom several times and established its own government ousting the crown’s officials, but each time the crown regained control.
By c. 1814 Simon had become Venezuela’s main revolutionary leader. His army battled the royalists plenty of times. Eventually, though, he realized that he had a better shot at winning if he switched battle grounds.
So Simon Bolivar did quite a feat and crossed the imposing Andes Mountains through a pass everyone thought impossible to hike. He surprised the Spaniards at the other side and freed Colombia. With the viceroyalty weakened at its heart, he rode back to Venezuela and freed it too.
Inspired by his success, the Panamanians declared their own freedom. That meant that three out of the four territories of New Granada were now free. Simon Bolivar rode to the fourth, to Ecuador, and freed it too. With that, New Granada fell.
Now the viceroyalty of Peru falls
But the Spaniards still had a stronghold in South America: the Viceroyalty of Peru. So Simon set off to free it, and once that was done, he rode further south and battled the Spaniards for Bolivia, the only territory of the former Viceroyalty of Rio de la Plata that was sill under their command.
Thus, by 1825 Simon had brought down two viceroyalties and freed Bolivia. South America was now free of Spanish rule.
Bolivia and Peru became sovereign countries, while the four countries which had been part of New Granada (Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador) were joined in a new republic: Gran Colombia.
So that was Simon Bolivar’s greatest accomplishment, and the one he is most remembered for: freeing five countries. Without it, his two other great achievements would not have been possible.
2. Simon Bolivar’s second greatest accomplishment: Abolishing slavery
Not many people are aware of this other great accomplishment of Simon Bolivar’s, but it sure deserves recognition.
Simon, in spite of inheriting thousands of African slaves, was an abolitionist. In 1826 he wrote:
“Legislators! Slavery is the infraction of all laws. (…) A man a property! An image of God under the yoke, like a brute! (…)“
It was in Bolivia that Simon was able to abolish slavery promptly. After he liberated Bolivia, its citizens decided to name their country after him and asked him to write its constitution. Simon did, and in it he abolished slavery. By 1831 slavery was no more in Bolivia.
In the other freed territories the task proved to be more difficult. It would take several tries.
Simon first tried to end it in 1816 during one of his attempts to liberate Venezuela, but it did not take.
Later in 1819, during the Congress of Angostura, he pushed for the abolition of slavery once more. But he failed again.
Finally in 1821 a compromise was reached. Since many of the ex-colonies depended heavily on slave-labor, it was decided to abolish it in steps.
No new slaves were to be imported, and the law of “freedom of wombs” was established: everyone born in the new republics from 1821 onwards was born free, even the children of slaves. Furthermore, the “owner” of the enslaved mother was to educate her free-born children.
With both measures -stopping import and free birth- the patriots expected the number of slaves to diminish on their own in the ex-colonies.
The process was not fast or easy, but 30 years later, all the republics Bolivar freed had indeed legally abolished slavery.
3. Simon Bolivar’s third greatest accomplishment: Equality under the law
Independence brought many social changes. Simon Bolivar and the patriots declared the equality of all people under the law. And in doing so abolished the caste system that had been in place for three centuries.
The Spanish hierarchy: who is the boss
While Spain governed the colonies, there was no equality. There was a racial hierarchy established by law.
The Spaniards had a very clear idea on who was on top: they were.
Only the people born in Spain (Peninsulars) had all privileges: they could be viceroys, governors, archbishops; could own land, could trade, etc.
And since the Spaniards only married other whites, their children belonged to the second legal tier of colonial society: the Creoles, aka whites born in the Americas.
The crown did not fully trust Creoles. Since they were born in the colonies, their loyalty could lie on the wrong side of things, and they could revolt against Spain.
So they were never allowed to occupy the top positions of power.
Nevertheless, they were granted some legal privileges. For example they could own land and exploit it, and they could be appointed to middle-positions in government, church, and the military.
Ironically, the Creoles ended up rebelling because of that glass ceiling. Simon Bolivar himself was a Creole.
The upper-classes were all white.
The caste system
Upper-class whites may have only married other whites, but they had plenty of children outside of wedlock with Natives and Africans.
The people of mixed-blood were called ‘castes’ and made up the third tier in colonial society. They belonged to the lower classes and had few rights.
Within the caste system not all mixed blood people were equal, though. Their legal and social status depended on their exact ethnic make-up. For example, someone with a white parent and an Indigenous one was a Mestizo.
Mestizos were the luckiest, for they could sometimes hold low-entry positions in church and the military, that is, they could be priests and soldiers. But they could hold no middle positions and were banned from government, universities, and most other institutions.
People who had a white and a black parent, mulattoes, fared worst. They had even fewer rights, were not accepted as priests, and they could be enslaved, like their black parent.
Since in the colonies the mixing possibilities were endless -say, Mestizos and Mulattoes could have a child (a sambo), which in turn could have children with any other race-, by the 18th century ‘caste’ paintings had appeared. They were charts which showed how to call a person according to the ethnicity of each of his/her parents.
Spaniards called themselves “People of reason,” and all the other races were considered “people without reason.” So in general terms, the more ‘unreasonable’ blood a person had, the fewer rights they had, more taxes they payed, the more forced labor they could be subjected to, etc.
And at the bottom of the pyramid
At the bottom of this social and legal hierarchy were the full-blooded Natives and Africans.
The indigenous population could own some land -like the whites- but only communal land granted by the king, not private properties. They were taxed the most, and although they were not technically enslaved, in practice they were.
And the people of African descent were outright enslaved.
The new republican system of equality
When Simon Bolivar freed the colonies he also tried to establish a more egualitarian society. In one of his early speeches (c. 1816) Simon said: “The nation is the common land to all who were born and live in it, regardless of caste, race, or religion.”
Once in power, Simon Bolivar and the patriots -although they were all upper-class Creoles- abolished the caste system and declared that everyone, of any race, was equal before the law.
They eliminated the astronomical taxes and the forced labor that the indigenous population had been subjected to.
And Simon created public schools which accepted children of all races and mixes -it was quite a novelty.
4. Simon Bolivar’s fourth greatest accomplishment: Religious tolerance
Furthermore, Simon Bolivar decreed religious freedom.
Until then every person living in the colonies had to be Catholic. People who practiced other religions, like Judaism, were banned from entering the colonies.
And the crown had sent plenty of priests over the centuries to the Americas to forcefully convert the Native population.
With independence came religious tolerance. And Simon and the patriots abolished the Inquisition which, believe it or not, still existed and had been happily arresting people and burning books up until 1820.
So religious freedom was his fourth great accomplishment.
And there you have it. Now you know which were Simon Bolivar’s greatest achievements, and why he is famous and his statue can be found in most major cities in the Western Hemisphere.