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20: For Attempts to Assassinate Bolívar

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During the twenty years which Bolívar spent in the service of his country, his various enemies made many attempts against his life. We will briefly narrate the four more notable assassination plots, recorded by historians, in all of which Bolívar miraculously escaped death.

The first three attempts were made by the Spaniards, during the time Bolívar was engaged in the struggle to free South America. The last took place after he had accomplished his mission, and involved a plot by some of his disaffected countrymen and a small group of disloyal officers to destroy him.

The first episode occurred in 1814. Bolívar, then thirty-one years of age, had arrived in Kingston, Jamaica, a voluntary exile from Colombia. Many of his compatriots, both military and civilian, who had emigrated to Jamaica from Venezuela came to him for financial assistance; one of these was Captain José Félix Amestoy. Having no money, Bolívar instead offered to let Amestoy share his lodgings, graciously occupying a hammock and giving his guest the only bed.

Meanwhile, Spanish General Pablo Morillo, Supreme Commander of the Spanish forces in Tierra Firme (Venezuela and Colombia), had put a price of five thousand pesos on Bolívar's head, and had instructed Brigadier-General Salvador Moxó, the Acting Military Commander of Caracas, to have Bolívar assassinated. Moxó delegated this task to a Spaniard residing in Jamaica, who in turn bribed Bolívar's negro valet to perform the deed.

One night Amestoy returned to the lodgings earlier than usual, and, it being rather warm, he decided to sleep in the hammock. Bolívar came in later and, finding the hammock occupied, lay down on the bed. About an hour afterward the slave stealthily entered the room and murdered Amestoy as he slept in the hammock, thinking it was Bolívar. The negro was apprehended and condemned to death by hanging.(1)

The second attempt occurred in 1817, at a time when Bolívar's fortunes were at their lowest ebb, as a result of seven years of continuous and unsuccessful struggle to liberate his country.

Returning to Venezuela after a third self-imposed exile, the Liberator went from Margarita to Barcelona in eastern Venezuela, and was proceeding to Guayana with an entourage of only fifteen officers and a few attendants. Unbeknown to Bolívar, a half-caste, Jesús Alemán, at the head of a platoon of enemy troops, was waiting in ambush at Quiamare (State of Anzóategui), with orders to assassinate the entire party. Fortunately, patriot Colonel Parejo, reconnoitering the jungle ahead of Bolívar and his men, discovered the trap and alerted the others. Hastily dismounting, they pretended to be awaiting the belated arrival of a large rearguard force, and shouted orders to attack the flanks and center of the enemy. As a result of this subterfuge and a few shots fired from the enemy's rear, Alemán and his guerrillas panicked and fled.

The third attempt came the following year, in 1818. Bolívar was encamped with a small contingent of troops at "El Rincón de los Toros," about 180 miles southeast of Caracas, while the enemy, under the command of Spanish Colonel Rafael López, was entrenched a few miles away. A defecting soldier had furnished López with the password for Bolívar's camp, and he took advantage of this information to send a platoon of eight picked soldiers under Captain Tomás de Renovales to assassinate the Liberator.

Moving through the patriot camp in the darkness of the early morning hours, Renovales encountered Colonel Santander, Bolívar's Chief-of-Staff, and gave him the password, saying he was looking for the Liberator to personally give him an account of his reconnaissance of the enemy's position. Santander guided Renovales and his men to a group of hammocks hung in a clump of trees and pointed to a white one where Bolívar was supposedly asleep. The conspirators immediately discharged their rifles in that direction, killing several of the officers sleeping there. However, Bolívar had left his hammock only a few moments before, to look for his horse, and thus escaped being struck by the assassins' bullets.

The fourth attempt against the Liberator's life took place in Bogotá, Colombia, on September 25, 1828. Near midnight a group of some twenty-six conspirators (of whom ten were civilians and the rest soldiers from an artillery battalion) assaulted the Palace of San Carlos, the seat of Bogotá's government and Bolívar's residence.

Surprising the small palace guard of about thirty soldiers, they killed three sentries and disarmed the others. The civilian conspirators, led by Augustin Hormet, a Frenchman, then stormed Bolívar's quarters while the rebel officers remained outside guarding the entrance. In the ensuing struggle one of the Liberator's most faithful aides-de-camp, Colonel William Fergusson of the British Legion, was killed, and another, General Diego Ybarra, badly wounded.

The commotion of the attack awakened Bolívar, who dressed hurriedly and, taking his sword and pistols, escaped by jumping through a French window into the street below.(2) In the dark and humid street Bolívar was joined by one of the members of his household who happened to be passing by, and together they took refuge under a bridge of the San Agustín River, a few blocks away.

At the same time as the conspirators were at the San Carlos Palace, another group of civilians and some rebel artillery soldiers attacked the barracks of the infantry battalion "Vargas," which was loyal to the Liberator. After a bloody hand-to-hand combat, the "Vargas" battalion succeeded in repulsing their attackers, pursuing them through the dark streets of the city, shooting at random while looking for the Liberator and shouting his name.

Bolívar had been in his hiding place for the better part of two hours, but emerged upon hearing the shouts of his faithful soldiers, who immediately provided him with a horse. Surrounded by his troops, he went first to the barracks of the Horse Grenadiers, all loyal Venezuelans, and then returned to the palace.

A military tribunal sentenced twenty or twenty-one of the conspirators to death, but only fourteen were actually executed. General Santander, who up to the year before had been Vice-President of the Republic, was also implicated in the plot and condemned to death, but his sentence was commuted and he was sent into exile abroad.

The heroine of that fateful night, who was responsible for saving the Liberator's life, was Manuelita Sáenz, an Ecuadorian. This beautiful woman, possessed of superior intelligence and an adventurous nature, had met Bolívar in Quito in 1822, and a romance soon developed between them. Manuelita had followed Bolívar to Perú, and in 1828 was living in a private residence in Bogotá. In a letter to General O'Leary, written twenty years later, she described in detail what took place inside the palace that night. She related that about 6 P.M. Bolívar, being troubled with a slight cold, asked her to come to the palace, and while he took a warm bath, she read to him. He then retired and was soon sound asleep. Around midnight, hearing the barking of the Liberator's two dogs and strange noises, she awakened Bolívar. Persuading him not to open the door, she made him dress and urged him to jump through the window, while she confronted the conspirators at the chamber door. Thus the lovely Manuelita, by her alertness and prompt action, was instrumental in Bolívar's escape from the nefarious plotters.

This last attempt against the Liberator's life was to some extent a contributing factor in his untimely death two years later.(3) His health, which had been poor since his return from Perú, was worse than usual that night, and he was running a slight fever. In this condition, he spent the better part of two hours in the unhealthy cold and penetrating dampness under the bridge of the river. His weakened physical condition was undoubtedly aggravated by the staggering psychological blow of realizing that some of his most trusted friends and countrymen, upon whom he had showered honors and bounties, had returned his generosity by treacherously plotting to assassinate him.

1. Commenting on this episode, the eminent historian Dr. Vicente Lecuna says: "Due to a disagreement between Bolívar and the owner of the boarding house, Bolívar did not sleep there that night. He was elsewhere." And Perú de Lacroix, writing in his "Diario de Bucaramanga", says: "Bolívar himself explained to me that because of differences of opinion with the woman owner of the inn, he moved that afternoon to another boarding house

2. Since Bogotá is situated in the foothills of the Monserrate and Guadalupe mountains, the streets leading down into the valley are steeply inclined. Thus, the balcony or French window from which Bolívar jumped, although situated on the second floor of the building, was scarcely six or seven feet above street level. This permitted him to jump unharmed.

3. The Liberator died in his own bed, of natural causes, on December 17, 1830.

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