Marie Arana makes a gripping tale from the life story of Simón Bolívar, the dramatic but controversial son of Spanish America. The pages turn easily, the notes and quotes are voluminous and easily consulted, and it would be ungracious to complain of the odd Americanism, such as ‘roiling’ and ‘shuck’, or the absence of a timeline to remind the reader of what year it is as the story unfolds.
Bolívar was the spoilt and badly educated son of an old and rich Venezuelan landowning family. He was brought up mainly by his nanny, a black slave named Ipolita, to whom he remained forever devoted. Broadly speaking, the Creole (white and American born) landowners in Venezuela were seen by their mixed race and black social inferiors as the principal barrier to the latter’s advancement, while the imperial government in Spain was seen by them as the nearest thing they had to a protector. Bolívar understood Venezuela’s racial mixture. His consistent support of absolute freedom for slaves was unusual for his class and an essential part of his appeal. (Two hundred years later Hugo Chávez, who – unlike Bolívar – belonged to the non-white majority yet styled himself as Bolívar’s heir, played on that simple fact and won election after election, no matter how much of a mess he was making of running the country.)