BOLIVAR THE LIBERATOR, AND THE CONQUEST OF NEW GRANADA.
One dark night in the year 1813 a negro murderer crept stealthily into a house in Jamaica, where slept a man in a swinging hammock. Stealing silently to the side of the sleeper, the assassin plunged his knife into his breast, then turned and fled. Fortunately for American independence he had slain the wrong man. The one whom he had been hired to kill was Simon Bolivar, the great leader of the patriots of Spanish America. But on that night Bolivar's secretary occupied his hammock, and the "Liberator" escaped.
Bolivar was then a refugee in the English island, after the failure of his early attempt to win freedom for his native land of Venezuela. He was soon back there again, however, with recruited forces, and for years afterwards the war went on, with variations of failure and success, the Spanish general Morillo treating the people who fell into his hands with revolting cruelty.
It was not until 1819 that Bolivar perceived the true road to success. This was by leaving Venezuela, from which he had sought in vain to dislodge the Spaniards, and carrying the war into the more promising field of New Granada. So confident of victory did he feel in this new plan that he issued the following proclamation to the people of New Granada: "The day of America has come; no human power can stay the course of Nature guided by Providence. Before the sun has again run his annual course altars to Liberty will arise throughout your land."
Bolivar had recently been strengthened by a British legion, recruited in London among the disbanded soldiers of the Napoleonic wars. He had also sent General Santander to the frontier of New Granada, and General Barreiro, the Spanish general, had been driven back. Encouraged by this success, he joined Santander at the foot of the Andes in June, 1819, bringing with him a force of twenty-five hundred men, including his British auxiliaries.
Bolivar in this expedition had as bitter a foe to conquer in nature as in the human enemy. In order to join Santander he was obliged to cross an enormous plain which at that season of the year was covered with water, and to swim some deep rivers, his war materials needing to be transported over these streams. But this was child's play compared with what lay before him. To reach his goal the Andes had to be crossed at some of their most forbidding points, a region over which it seemed next to impossible for men to go, even without military supplies.
When the invading army left the plains for the mountains the soldiers quickly found themselves amid discouraging scenes. In the distance rose the snowy peaks of the eastern range of the Cordillera, and the waters of the plain through which they had waded were here replaced by the rapids and cataracts of mountain streams. The roads in many places followed the edge of steep precipices, and were bordered by gigantic trees, while the clouds above them poured down incessant rains.
Four days of this march used up most of the horses, which were foundered by the difficulties of the way. As a consequence, an entire squadron of Llaneros, men who lived in the saddle, and were at home only on the plain, deserted on finding themselves on foot. To cross the frequent torrents there were only narrow, trembling bridges formed of tree-trunks, or the a๋rial taravitas. These consisted of stout ropes made by twisting several thongs of well-greased hides. The ropes were tied to trees on the two banks of the ravine, while from them was suspended a cradle or hammock of capacity for two persons, which was drawn backward and forward by long lines. Horses and mules were similarly drawn across, suspended by long girths around their bodies.
Where the streams were fordable the current was usually so strong that the infantry had to pass two by two with their arms thrown round each other's shoulders. To lose their footing was to lose their lives. Bolivar frequently passed these torrents back and forward on horseback, carrying the sick and weakly, or the women who accompanied the expedition.
In the lower levels the climate was moist and warm, only a little firewood being needed for their nightly bivouacs. But as they ascended they reached localities where an ice-cold wind blew through the stoutest clothing, while immense heaps of rocks and hills of snow bounded the view on every side and clouds veiled the depths of the abysses. The only sounds to be heard were those of the roaring torrents they had passed and the scream of the condor as it circled the snowy peaks above. Here all vegetation disappeared except the clinging lichens and a tall plant which bore plumes instead of leaves and was covered with yellow flowers, resembling a funeral torch. To add to the terrors of the journey the path was marked by crosses, erected in memory of travellers who had perished by the way.
In this glacial region the provisions brought with them gave out. The cattle on which they had depended as their chief resource could go no farther. Thus, dragging on through perils and privation, at length they reached the summit of the Paya pass, a natural stronghold where a battalion would have been able to hold a regiment in check. An outpost of three hundred men occupied it, but these were easily dispersed by Santander, who led the van.
At this point the men, worn out by the difficulties of the way, began to murmur. Bolivar called a council of war and told its members that there were greater difficulties still to surmount. He asked if they would keep on, or if they preferred to return. They all voted in favor of going onward,and the knowledge of their decision inspired the weary troops with new spirit.
Before the terrible passage was completed one hundred men had died of cold, fifty of them being Englishmen. Not a horse was left, and it was necessary to abandon the spare arms, and even some of those borne by the soldiers. It was little more than the skeleton of an army that at length reached the beautiful valley of Sagamoso, in the heart of the province of Tunja, on the 6th of July, 1819. Resting at this point, Bolivar sent back assistance to the stragglers who still lingered on the road, and despatched parties to collect horses and communicate with the few guerillas who roamed about that region.
Barreiro, the Spanish commander, held the Tunja province with two thousand infantry and four hundred horse. There was also a reserve of one thousand troops at Bogota, the capital, and detachments elsewhere, while there was another royalist army at Quito. Bolivar trusted to surprise and to the support of the people to overcome these odds, and he succeeded in the first, for Barreiro was ignorant of his arrival, and supposed the passage of the Cordillera impossible at that season of the year.
He was soon aware, however, that the patriots had achieved this impossible thing and were in his close vicinity, and with all haste collected his forces and took possession of the heights above the plain of Vargas. By this movement he interposed between the patriots and the town of Tunja, which, as attached to the cause of liberty, Bolivar was anxious to occupy. It was not long, therefore, before the opposing armies met, and a battle took place that lasted five hours. The patriots won, chiefly by the aid of the English infantry, led by Colonel James Rooke, who had the misfortune to lose an arm in the engagement.