Friday, December 18, 2015

Simón Bolívar's Quest for Glory

Richard W. Slatta and Jane Lucas De Drummond

There are commonalities among the many who have achieved recognition for their efforts. As it should be, these commonalities do not always fall within the categories of “exemplary” or “deplorable.” After all, these larger than life individuals are mere mortals, and like everyone else they are filled with conflicting principles, emotions, convictions, and bursts of self doubt amid moments of rejoice. What makes them great, however, is the persistent common denominator of achieving the tasks assigned to them by fate, destiny, or by personal choice. Then there is Simón Bolívar, who joined the movement of independence in 1807, and after six years of involvement in the War of Independence, he was appointed President of the Second Republic when he was thirty years old.

One would be hard pressed to find a more complex, intriguing, and misunderstood subject considering that while Bolívar had reached his zenith, and begun his decline by the time he turned forty, most other historical figures were comparatively much older when they got started: George Washington was forty-three years old when he was appointed to lead the Continental Army against the British; Abraham Lincoln was even older, at fifty-two, when he became President in 1861. In the Twentieth Century, Benito Musolini was thirty-nine when he became Prime Minister of Italy in 1922; Joseph Stalin was fifty-one when he consolidated his power in the Soviet Union in 1929; Adolf Hitler was forty-four when he became Chancellor of Germany in 1933; and Mao Zedong did not become Chairman of the Communist Party's Central Committee, in China, until 1945 when he was 52 years old. This age comparison does not make Bolívar better than the others; it makes him worthy of a more in depth and objective—objective being the key word—study of his life, his daring, his achievements, and his failures. Beginning with the title, “Simón Bolívar's Quest for Glory” this publication is not that study. Professor Richard W. Slatta falls victim to his own warning, “Bolívar remains little known out side Latin America [.... He] proved equally adept at wielding the pen and the sword [....]” But, because Bolívar “earned his glory on the fields of battle” and “much of our attention focuses on his military struggles.... (p. 7)” the reader never really gets to know Simón Bolívar, the man.

A biography, narrative, or history that begins by enumerating and dwelling on the main character's (at times perceived as ) negative traits, coupled with the overused mention of the man's sexual escapades to imply lack of responsibility, inadequacy, or some other such personality defect, leaves the reader with little reason to go beyond the initial chapters. If that were the case, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton would not be sitting right and left of Franklin D. Roosevelt at the Trinity on the altar of Politics.

Starting with the “Introduction,” Slatta subtly but negatively compares Bolívar to George Washington as a way to set up Bolívar as inadequate against the exemplary leader of the north. In an impartial comparison, Slatta would have delved into Washington's flaws and foils, just as he delved into Bolívar's, but that is not the case. Slatta fails to remark that, in spite of the recognition received from the governor of Virginia, Washington's failures in his early military career leading the Virginia militia against the French, stationed at Fort Duquesne (Pittsburgh, PA), were in part the reason he was denied service in the British Army. In fairness to Washington, at 22, he was not experienced enough to lead an attack against the French. Slatta also fails to point out that being turned down for service in the British army is what flared Washington's resentment against British rule, its military, and its attitude towards colonials. One could easily argue that, just as with Bolívar, Washington's “Glory” became his guiding light. Being that any successful warrior has to have some degree of preservation instinct, and a great desire to achieve, implying that someone who risks it all in the pursuit of freedom for his country, as a way to attain his due “glory,” is a rather odd way to start an objective biography. But while Bolívar did often mention his “glory,” the word is not always to be interpreted as an attestation of the man's ego, but of his “legacy.”

In spite of the research, and abundant bibliography, this publication lacks “scholarly” credence and reads more like a historical novel. Contrary to the author's comment in the Introduction, “Instead of a plethora of footnotes, there is a brief bibliographical essay that features other important sources ...” (p.8), keeping “historical accouterments to a minimum” clouds the reader's mind with doubt. It is most surprising that a reputable publisher, such as Texas A&M, would put this publication out as part of its Military History Series. Footnotes make a history book verifiable, providing the reader interested in further information with a direct link to a specific publication. Footnotes also identify specific passages which are not original to the author, but a reinterpretation of material extracted from another original source—otherwise, it becomes plagiarism. Footnotes and citations give credibility to the references or quotes used by the author, and likewise lack of footnotes reflect negatively on the author for not giving credit where credit is due, or for using sources which have long been discredited.

Slatta is disingenuous when he criticizes Guillermo Antonio Sherwell's biography on Bolívar for treating him as a “godlike figure rather than as a human being (p. 8).” True, Sherwell's work is short on criticism, and long on praise, however his book must be judged by the times and the circumstances under which it was written, and published: The sponsor of the book was the Bolivarian Society of Venezuela—hardly a disinterested party, or one which would have been keen in promoting a devastatingly negative portrayal of the Libertador. Sherwell's book was first published in 1921 under the watchful eye of Dictator Juan Vicente Gómez who, like all other dictators and pretend-presidents, used the name and image of Bolívar to drape himself in credibility: One needs to look no further than today's blind worship of Bolívar in Venezulea by government officials and the “pueblo” who have probably never read anything or anything negative about the man, his writings, or his ideas. Sherwell's portrayal, while flawed, is not worse than Slatta's present publication. In fact, in the omission of criticism, Sherwell's book may be more objective: Judging from the repeated use of “glory,” in the title and throughout the text, as if to imply Bolívar's only raison d'être, and the subtle overuse of other prejudicial phrases, the reader is left with the thought that Slatta's overall desire is to give credence to Bolívar's detractors. This is glaringly obvious in the unusual credibility Slatta gives discredited pseudo-biographer Ludwig Heinrich Villaume and his “Memoirs of Simon Bolivar and his Principal Generals.” A descendant of French Hugenots who emigrated as a result of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Villaume was born in Brandenburg, Prussia, in 1772 to Pierre Villaume and Suzane Marre. His father, a preacher in Schwedt, Germany, near the Polish border, instilled in his son a deep rooted hatred towards everything Catholic.1 Villaume, himself a prisoner in Spain while in the French army, augmented that deep rooted hatred of Catholics to include Spaniards—mostly all Catholics themselves. While a mercenary in France, Villaume assumed the name Lafayette Ducoudray, at times simply Ducoudray (a bastardized version of du Coudray) to enhance his image; to pretend Danish origin, he added Holstein to his newly adopted surname (The province of Schleswig-Holstein did not fully become part of Germany until 1842).

Slatta appears not to know that Ducoudray was never a general in Bolívar's army, or that Ducoudray's claim that Francisco de Miranda “... preferred English and French officers to his own countrymen,” is just as dubious a claim considering that Bolívar, Carlos Soublette, Fernando del Toro, his brother the Marques del Toro, Marques Casa de León, José de Sata y Bussy, Manuel Aldao, and others, were Creoles among Miranda's officers and advisors. Indeed, while there were many European mercenaries in the Venezuelan army, this was largely due to the overwhelming number of soldiers who, as Slatta himself points out (p.164), suddenly found themselves out of work in their own countries after the French Revolution, and the wars against Napoleon. Slatta simply takes and repeats Ducoudray's comments, and undocumented quotes, as fact. Taking into account that Francis Loraine Petre's book Simon Bolivar “el libertador” (London, 1910) is listed in the bibliography, it is rather odd for Slatta to have placed such faith in Ducoudray. Petre, a well known historian of the time, was unequivocal about Ducoudray's unreliability, “Considering the marked bias of Ducoudray, and many notable instances where Bolivar showed plenty of personal courage, there seems very insufficient reason for believing this story, circumstantial though it be.”1 “The impression of this author, [Ducoudray,] conveyed by a perusal of his work, is of a conceited [German of French ancestry] French Adventurer always striving to make himself out a person of much more ability and importance than he really was.”2 Discredited British mercenary Gustavus Butler Hippisley also appears, though not as prominently, in Slatta's publication.

There is also the matter of unnecessary repetition of events, or circumstances which do not carry the story forward. In one such case, Slatta makes much of “eminent historian” E. Bradford Burn's comment, as though it were a heretofore unknown revelation, that of all the viceroys, captains-generals, and bishops, in Spanish America very few were Creoles, and of those, most were born to Spanish officials (p. 48). Considering that Spain's policy was one of crippling the colonies in favor of the mother country, it would have indeed been strange and newsworthy had the majority of appointees been Creoles. Being that most were Peninsular (a common term denoting those born in the Iberian Peninsula) added another reason for the Creoles to rise against Spain. But Slatta is well aware of this as he makes repeated mentions of it prior to, and after, he quotes Burn's passage.

There are some extended quotes/explanations which are totally unnecessary, and distract from the topic of discussion, particularly when the information could and should have easily been incorporated into the main body of the text. One such case is the incorporation of an online discussion, on the beneficial use of mules as beasts of burden, by six different commentators—none of whom had anything significant to add—as a way to explain Bolívar's urgent request for mules, and his concern over one particular animal, his personal mule. Slatta seems surprised enough to dedicate two pages (pp.162-163) to a subject that everyone in Latin America, or anyone who has lived outside of a metropolitan area, understands from birth.

Then there is the opposite problem: Not devoting enough space to explain a situation. John Quincy Adams' quote in reference to recognition of Spanish colonies as independent nations, at a time when the mother country could easily have taken the colonies back, is very valid. While Adams was not speaking from the point of view of a wise old sage, he was well aware, from personal experience, that the United States colonies had been in the same situation a mere thirty four years prior until the Treaty of Paris, signaling the colonies' independence, was ratified on 9 April, 1784. Prior to that ratification, the United States colonies were in the same situation as their southern hemisphere neighbors, when they declared themselves free of the English yoke, yet they were not totally free: European countries were not willing to officially recognize them as an independent nation when England could, at any point, take its former colonies back. Furthermore, in 1818 the United States was still suffering from growing pains and had recently been subject to a devastating invasion by England (1812-1814) in an effort restrain expansion by the United States; should England have prevailed, it could have retaken its former colonies. Slatta explains, by way of a dismissal, Adams' concern with a snide remark, “Obviously, with all the series of Patriot setbacks of the year, Bolívar could not expect recognition from the hemisphere's first republic (p.175).”

Simón Bolívar's Quest for Glory” is an uncomplicated, easy to read, narrative of what should have been a great story. Slatta vacillates between criticism and praise of Bolívar, which is totally different from objective criticism and objective praise—damning criticism in the form of stereotypical notions and negative comparisons are never far behind of what Slatta tries to pass off as genuine praise.

It is perhaps because the original research belongs to Jane Lucas De Grummond, and Slatta was given the task of finishing the project, that he has two major problems in writing on Bolívar: As an author he comes off as never really wanting to immerse himself in the circumstances, and culture of the times, or to delve deeply into the mind of the man, enough to present a more objective picture. Instead Slatta comes off as having randomly gathered bits of information from different publications, which he reframed into one book. The other problem with Slatta is that he is unable to stand outside of Washington's shadow long enough to fully understand that neither Washington nor Bolívar wanted to be the other. Otherwise, Slatta would have been able to present a more accurate and diverse picture of the man that was and is Simón Bolívar.

Simon Bolivar's Quest for Glory
Texas A&M University Military History Series (Book 86)
Richard W. Slatta and Jane Lucas De Drummond

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press; 1 Edition (2003)
Language: English

1 Morón, Guillermo, Memorial de los agravios. Alfadil Ediciones, Caracas, 2005, pp.107-108

1 Petre, F. Lorraine. “Simon Bolivar 'el libertador': A life of the chief leader in the revolt against Spain in Venezuela, New Granada and Peru,” John Lane, London, 1910-Chapter VII, p. 172, n. 1.

2 Ibid. Chapter VII, p. 175 n. 1.

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