Guest lecturer Sandy Cares has been sharing her insightful and entertaining lectures aboard Oceania Cruises voyages throughout the Caribbean and Central America since January 2014. Below, Sandy provides a fascinating portrait of Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan statesman and leader instrumental in the revolutions against the Spanish empire, along with highlights of his legacy in Santa Marta, Colombia.
Santa Marta, Colombia, is where the Great Liberator of South America, Simón Bolívar, finally succumbed to the toll of tuberculoses. That coupled with the punishing physical strain his body endured during decades of fighting battles, leading entire armies across the snow-capped Andes mountains, forging torrential rivers flooded to chest-height and riding on horseback over 75,000 miles, (the same distance from Anchorage, Alaska to the tip of South America five times).
Bolívar faced as many setbacks as victories in his lifelong pursuit of releasing South America from the clutches of Spanish rule. He went into exile three times and freed the slaves of South America a half century before slaves knew freedom in North America. By the end of his life, Bolívar had liberated and governed the six modern day nations of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and his namesake, Bolivia. Heartbroken at failing in his ultimate pursuit of a unified South America, he died at 47. He was a wisp at 77 pounds.
A guided excursion to Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in Santa Marta, Colombia, sheds light on the closing chapter of Bolívar’s tumultuous life while offering a wonderful opportunity to experience the joyously fresh and temperate climate and vibrant scenery of this idyllic spot. Bolívar only enjoyed the crisp bright air and mountain views at Santa Marta for a few days before he died here on December 17, 1830.
It is said that this working sugar plantation estate reminded Bolívar of the familiar smells of sugar processing from his childhood days. The amenities of the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino were offered to the ailing general as a comfortable place to stay while awaiting the vessel intended to take him on a final voyage to Europe. In his final days, his doctors watched over him. Bedridden and severely consumptive, he insisted on greeting his visitors while soldiers and guards gambled and played cards loudly in nearby rooms, often keeping him awake at night. His favorite cook served meals he relished in healthier days but could barely touch any more. Meanwhile, his nephew Ferdinand took hasty and sporadic dictations as Bolívar spelled out his last wishes and expressed his enduring vision for South America. He instructed his trusted Irish aide de camp, Daniel O’Leary, to burn the entirety of his extensive writings upon his death, a request O’Leary wisely disregarded.
Born to arguably the richest family in Caracas, Venezuela, and quite possibly one of the richest families in all of South America, Bolívar inherited immeasurable wealth from family mines, plantations and properties by the time he was orphaned at nine years of age. He managed to spend the vast majority of it on the Revolutionary cause, leaving some paltry crumbs to his sisters and nephews. He died a virtual pauper.
A great-grandnephew of George Washington felt compelled to send Bolívar a token in the spirit of solidarity during the Liberator’s glory years. General Lafayette encouraged the gesture, avowing his high esteem of Bolívar. A little locket containing a strand of hair with Washington’s cameo on the cover was dispatched with a note declaring Bolívar the “George Washington of South America.” Bolívar received it and wore the treasured locket as the pinnacle of honor, and it is now depicted on Bolívar’s chest in statues and paintings.
The grounds at Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino also provide a glimpse into the lavish lifestyles of the colonial Spanish era that sugar cultivation afforded the privileged planters. The rooms are filled with examples of period furniture, carriages and relics in situ, just as they were during Bolívar’s brief stay, including the famous clock that stopped when he died after one o’clock and was never re-set. A thoughtful collection of paintings, valuable art and artifacts in nearby rooms all make this museum a testament to Bolívar’s colorful life and mythic accomplishments inspiring curiosity and igniting the imagination.
At a leisurely stroll away, the stark marble Bolívar memorial glimmers achingly white against the sapphire sky, commemorating his life achievements and last days at Santa Marta. He was buried in the nearby Santa Marta Cathedral. His wish to be reburied in Caracas came true twelve years later.
Simón Bolívar’s quest for a free and unified South America is a circuitous story rife with unexpected twists and turns that blaze with flames of victory and crumble with the ashes of defeat while steadily rolling through a chunk of South America the size of Europe.
Today, his legacy is misunderstood as often as it is misused by contradictory political factions invoking him as their own legitimate precursor in an attempt to garner support under the aegis of his hallowed name. The meteoric rise and plummeting fall of imperfect leaders across the recent political landscape of South America is quintessentially “Bolivarian.”
Join Sandy’s talk, “Simón Bolívar: A Great American,” for a portrait of the daunting rise and fall of Simón Bolívar on these voyages in 2016: