Liberators: Latin America's struggle for independence 1810-1830
by Robert Harvey
John Murray, pounds 25, 561pp
Lord Byron opened his Don Juan with "I want a hero". Robert Harvey has responded with a Magnificent Seven heroes from Latin America's independence wars from Mother Spain, over the years 1810 to 1830 . These "Liberators" are divided geographically into four parts, opening with Francisco de Miranda, moving to his betrayer Simon Bolivar, and the latter's rival Jose de San Martin, then to Bernardo O'Higgins, the ubiquitous Lord Cochrane, Agustin de Iturbide and the Portuguese Pedro de Braganza. All are household names throughout the continent, and statues of San Martin and Bolivar abound. The outline of their deeds is well-known, but Harvey plunges us back into those Republican days and wars that so excited Byron, in his Europe of hereditary absolutism.
The "savage vastness of this continent" had been ruthlessly controlled by the Spanish and Portuguese crowns for around 300 years, but these colonies began to fall apart in the wake of the American and French revolutions, especially in the chaos following Napoleon's invasion of Spain in 1808. Harvey's seven liberators seized this moment. It is Bolivar who dominates, and who, with help, carried out his boast that "I shall march from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Panama to Cape Horn, until the last Spaniard is expelled".
These staggering marches and retreats, criss-crossing the Andes, the burning plains and jungles, are the epic that Harvey narrates: "Bolivar could now claim to rule one of the greatest empires of any military leader in history, some three million square miles in extent... He was on a par with Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, far eclipsing Cortes, Pizarro and Clive of India." Why didn't we know this before, and why do we continue to be haunted by the Conquest and the conquistadores? As Byron wrote, forget Pizarro, shout Bolivar.
The way Harvey alerts us to our ignorance of those "fantastic and surreal" years is to situate the personalities and actions in a landscape of an "almost dreamlike other- worldliness". He has travelled these "awesome" topographies, and is acute on this "lure" and unpredictability. As in a 19th-century novel, history seems to grow organically out of this strange soil. To increase our sense of an epic novel, Harvey gives succinct physical portraits of protagonists, buttressed by eye-witness accounts, and thus avoids psychological speculations on motivation. We follow madmen and their outrageous women in thrilling, cinematic action.
This is romantic, narrative history, written in vivid journalese, concentrating on military and guerrilla activities, so that Bolivar, San Martin and Cochrane are seen to be matters of improvisation. In a further novelistic sense, Harvey has linked together his seven heroes so that they coincide. For example, in London, Bolivar meets Miranda (whose statue stands on the corner of Fitzroy Square), who tutors O'Higgins, who meets San Martin. …