The Spanish colonies of South America remained for three centuries in quiet submission to the mother country, if we except the desperate attempt of the Peruvian Indians, under Tupac Amaru, to throw off the yoke of their oppressors. Never were despotism, avarice and slavish obsequiousness to power, more thoroughly displayed than in Spanish America, under the government of the viceroys and captains-general, who, with all the principal officers of the viceroyal court, were sent to America from Madrid, and who, without being under any efficient responsibility, administered their authority with every species of tyranny and venality. Justice was bought and sold, and the most important legal decisions were made in favor of the highest bidder. The mercantile policy of the parent country was equally despotic and rapacious. The establishment of manufactures was not permitted, while cargoes of Spanish commodities, the refuse of the shops, were forced, in barter for silver and gold, upon a half-civilized people, who neither wanted nor could possibly use them. Foreign commerce was interdicted on pain of death; all social improvement was suppressed; and to prevent the inhabitants from knowing the extent of their degradation, all intercourse whatever was strictly forbidden with any country or people, besides Spain and Spaniards, and allowed even with them under many restrictions. Superstition and ignorance were upheld as the surest support of the colonial system; so that, previous to 1810, the whole continent, from Lima to Monte Video, contained but one wretched printing-press, and that in the bands of the monks, who consigned to the dungeons of the Inquisition every man who possessed a prohibited book.
The example of the revolt of the British North American colonies had a slow effect in propagating revolutionary ideas in the south; and the usurpation of the crown of Spain by Napoleon precipitated those movements which resulted, after a bloody struggle, in wresting from the dominion of Spain the whole of her continental possessions in America. In this momentous contest, Simon Bolivar bore the most conspicuous part, and his life comprises the substance of the history of the country in which his military exploits were performed during its most eventful period.
This celebrated man was born in the city of Caraccas, in July, 1783. He belonged to a family of distinction, and was one of the few natives of the Spanish colonies who were permitted to visit Europe. After finishing his studies at Madrid, he went to France, and during his stay at Paris rendered himself an acceptable guest in its social circles, by the amenity of his manners, and his other personal recommendations. In the midst, however, of all the seductions of that gay capital, his sanguine temper and ardent imagination anticipated the task which the future fortunes of his country might impose upon him, and even in his twenty-third year he is said to have contemplated the establishment of her independence. While at Paris his favorite occupation was the study of those branches of science which contribute to the formation of the character of a warrior and statesman. Humboldt and Bonpland were his intimate friends, and accompanied him in his excursions in France; nor did he think his travels finished till he had visited England, Italy, and a part of Germany. On his return to Madrid, he was married, and shortly afterwards returned to America, where he arrived in 1810, at the very moment when his countrymen were about to unfurl the standard of independence. On his passage homeward, he visited the United States, where he gathered some political knowledge which subsequent events rendered highly useful to him.
The revolution began in Venezuela on Good Friday, April 19, 1810, when, by a popular movement, the captain-general of Caraccas was arrest ed and deposed, and a congress convened to organize a new government. The talents and acquirements of Bolivar pointed him out as the best qualified person to be placed at the helm but he disapproved of the system adopted by the congress, and refused a diplomatic mission to England. He even declined any connection with the government, though he continued a staunch friend to the cause of independence. But at length he consented to proceed to England, where he solicited the British cabinet in vain to espouse the cause of the revolution. Finding them resolved to maintain a strict neutrality, he returned to Caraccas after a short stay. In the mean time, the declaration of independence was boldly maintained by military force. Miranda was appointed commander-in-chief. Bolivar took the post of colonel in the army, and governor of Puerto Cabello, the strongest place in Venezuela.