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Reviews of Simón Bolívar: History and Myth

“Michael Zeuske has attempted to situate the evolution of the official and popular Bolivar myths within their historical contexts in this extremely readable explanation, fluently translated by Steven Rendall and Lisa Neal, of the power and endurance of the Bolivar myth in Venezuela and worldwide. Zeuske explains that his ‘goal is to examine not only the myth’s power to produce results, but also its true history and the real origin of the protagonists involved’ (p. 5). In contrast to Evelio Rosero in his recent novel, La carroza de Bolivar (Tusquets, 2.0 iz), with which this book might be compared, Zeuske is trying not just to put forward the other side of Bolivar’s historical actions, but to uncover a set of real and identifiable truths which will then undermine the myth and allow us to appreciate Bolivar in the historical settings in which he lived.
Zeuske’s indignation about the historical inaccuracies that fuel the Bolivar myth is rooted in his anger at the misrepresentation of the meeting(s) between Simon Bolivar and Alexander von Humboldt, which, legend has it, triggered a long-standing mutual respect and friendship between the two. The meeting with Humboldt is one of Bolivar’s three famous encounters with other giants of Great Men’s History, the second being the 1822 Guayaquil interview with Jose de San Martin, Liberator of the Andes, Chile and Peru, which occurred almost in secret and about which historians therefore continue to conjecture. The third was with Napoleon Bonaparte, whom Bolivar claimed to have watched crown himself emperor in Milan in 1805, and in whose shadow Bolivar’s reputation festered during his lifetime. The Bolivar-Humboldt meeting is certainly the least interesting of the three, given that Bolivar was a young, frivolous traveller when the two met in Paris, and indeed that any meeting was short and of little significance for either at that time or thereafter. Most of the significance, as Zeuske archly shows, has been implied or created by later historians and myth-builders.
“Nevertheless, Zeuske argues, ‘in Germany, everyone, literally everyone, who is concerned with Simon Bolivar and the independence of Spanish America thinks first of the phrase “Humboldt and Bolivar”‘ (p. 6). He shows how many German thinkers liked the idea that Humboldt had given Bolivar the idea for independence, and that many Venezuelan myth-builders enjoyed the frisson of legitimacy and intellectual heavyweight status that Humboldt lent to ‘their’ Bolivar. The first two chapters, ‘Historical Foundations: Constructions of a Nation’ and ‘Simon Bolivar: The Man and the Myth’, are very sound introductions to the subject, and I recommend them to anyone seeking a way into the massive literature on Bolivar, or to researchers contemplating writing a biography of Bolivar (they should do a good job of putting anyone off). ‘Instead of a Conclusion: The “Chavist Bolivar”‘ presents a short, insightful overview of the different ways in which Hugo Chavez’s government accommodated its policies to an interpretation of Bolivar as the father of the nation, and the ways in which the Venezuelan opposition to Chavez sought, and failed, to counter this narrative. Zeuske distinguishes himself from much work on Bolivar by commenting that ‘I have deliberately not abstained from giving references for all quotations and written sources, as well as their traces in the text archaeology, in extensive notes. Every reader can examine these references to determine for himself or herself which paths myth constructions follow. They show that historical research is more exciting than any detective story’ (p. 9). In the third chapter, ‘Excursus: “Humboldt and Bolivar” – On a Conversation That May Never Have Taken Place’, the author launches a passionate attack on the foundations of one particular element of the Bolivar myth. He does an excellent job of revealing those assumptions and gaps that inform much of the scholarship, and shows where these come from and who invented them. Indeed, the strength of the arguments elsewhere hangs upon the revelation, presented here, that Humboldt’s meeting with Bolivar was most likely invented by writers who so desperately wanted the historical truth to mirror their imaginings of how history should have been. Linguistic analysis of the careful ambiguity of the phrasing in the few letters exchanged between Bolivar and Humboldt shows that it is indeed by no means certain that they did physically meet, rather than coincide in a place or exchange messages (p. 87). Generally I find this ‘archaeology of the textual layers’ to be convincing, and I learned a lot about Aristides Rojas and his elaboration of the foundations of the Bolivar myths.
“Zeuske conjectures that Rojas ‘created his own source’ (p. 91) about a meeting in 1853 between Humboldt and Daniel O’Leary, Bolivar’s Irish assistant who stopped by Berlin on his way from Italy to Ireland during a lengthy leave of absence from his post as British minister in Bogota. Rojas’ principal source was O’Leary’s travel notes: Zeuske concludes that ‘they simply do not exist… Rojas invented them’ (p. 91). Here, he identifies the keystone undermining the entire Bolivar myth as he sees it: by removing the central pillar, the entire edifice crumbles apart. There was no great, Enlightened, transatlantic Liberator inspired by Humboldt. The truth behind the myth, the memories and the monuments, is revealed as fabrication. And yet… Jo Ann Rayfield relied heavily on O’Leary’s travel diaries for the final chapters of her unpublished doctoral dissertation on his life and times (Vanderbilt University, 1969). Inspired by her account, on several distinct trips to Bogota I also sought out the travel diaries in order to see what she had left out, when I was researching Adventuring through Spanish Colonies (Liverpool University Press, 2006) and then The Struggle for Power in Post-Independence Colombia and Venezuela (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Rayfield’s citations had the diaries in the Biblioteca Nacional, but when I looked in 2001-3, they were not there, presumed transferred to the Archive General de la Nacion (General Archive of the Nation, AGN). I did not follow up this lead until 101 o, when I ordered all of O’Leary’s papers in the AGN, sifted through his private correspondence, tried on his reading glasses and tried to immerse myself in his world through the papers collected in the Fondo Enrique Ricaurte, which had been transferred from the Biblioteca Nacional in the 19905. The travel diaries were not there, however, and with the help of the fabulous assistants and researchers in die AGN, I scoured the catalogues and shelves where they might have been placed in error. We found nothing, and my conclusion, three years ago, was that Daniel O’Leary’s travel diaries had been removed from the collection, probably by thieves, possibly linked to his descendants or individuals looking to safeguard his memory as a patriotic, upstanding general and diplomat. I never saw the travel diaries myself.
“I persevere with this rather anecdotal review of Zeuske’s book because the entire hypothesis hangs on the invention of the Humboldt-Bolivar meeting in 1804, which itself relies upon the non-existence of O’Leary’s diaries, and Rojas’ invention of the Humboldt-O’Leary meeting in 1853. In a brave though reluctant footnote, dated April 2012 (the rest of the book appears to have been written between 2008 and 2011), Zeuske acknowledges receipt of information from Alberto Gomez Gutierrez of the Universidad Javieriana in Bogota alerting him to a correspondence between O’Leary and Humboldt, found in the O’Leary papers in the Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, which indicates strongly that O’Leary was after all in Berlin in 1853. Does this completely undermine Zeuske’s hypothesis? I don’t think so. Even if O’Leary’s travel diaries did exist, and even if they were miraculously rediscovered, this would not change the essential finding of Zeuske’s research: that the Bolivar myth has been grounded in and shaped by waves of Venezuelan cultural and political history, and by the place of Venezuela and its peoples in imperial and global systems since independence until today. Even in the wake of the death of Hugo Chavez, and the inevitable reconfiguration of the popular-socialist Bolivar myth that he encouraged in his later years, new sources still emerge that are allowing historians to get a better sense of the processes of independence and the first years of republican life in Venezuela. Historians just need to learn where and how to look for those sources: Michael Zeuske has given us an excellent lesson in how to do this, and why it remains important today.”
– Journal of Latin American Studies (45 -20013)
“This short volume offers a useful corrective to several of the persistent myths and misconceptions about Bolivar’s life and legacy. …  The book opens with an introduction in which Zeuske (Univ. of Cologne, Germany) discusses the ‘kind of ritualized civic religion’ that surrounds the figure of the Liberator in Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador in order to nurture and advance the interests of the state. The author methodically debunks some of the most repeated stories about Bolivar, including an invented meeting with Alexander von Humboldt in Paris that many claim took place in 1804. He also points out the ways in which various groups or regimes have attempted to harness Bolivar’s memory to their own world views in order to gain political legitimacy. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez would be the best-known example, but many others have attempted to depict Bolivar as a civil rights champion, a populist, a proto-Marxist, or a feminist. Useful as a corrective for undergraduates, in particular. Summing Up: Highly recommended”
— K. L. Racine, University of Guelph, in Choice Magazine

Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco (24 July 1783 – 17 December 1830), commonly known as Simon Bolivar, was a Venezuelan military and political leader. Bolivar played a key role in Hispanic America’s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire, and is today considered one of the most influential politicians in the history of the Americas. Following the triumph over the Spanish monarchy, Bolivar participated in the foundation of the first union of independent nations in Hispanic-America, a republic, which was named Gran Colombia, of which he was president from 1819 to 1830. Bolivar remains regarded in Hispanic America as a hero, visionary, revolutionary, and liberator. During his lifetime, he led Venezuela, Colombia (including Panama at the time), Ecuador, Peru (together with Don Jose de San Martin), and Bolivia to independence, and helped lay the foundations for democratic ideology in much of Latin America. Simon Bolivar: History and Myth by Michael Zeuske (Professor of Iberian and Latin American History, University of Cologne, Germany) and expertly translated into English by Steven Randall (Professor Emeritus of the journal Comparative Literature) with the assistance of Lisa Neal, is a 150-page biographical history that has a special focus on the myths and legends that evolved out of Bolivar’s true life accomplishments and controversies to reveal an historically accurate report of his life and achievements. Enhanced with the inclusion of extensive notes and a ‘Select Bibliography of English Texts on Simon Bolivar’, this outstanding biographical history is a seminal work of original scholarship which is also available and highly recommended (especially in its hard cover edition) for academic library collections.”
— Midwest Book Review

“All over Latin America, and especially in the Venezuela of Hugo Chavez, Latin America’s liberator, Simón Bolívar, is a political idol and symbol of that continent’s new political self-confidence. The legends about him remain alive and have been the basis for many political speeches, plays, and fictional works. Michael Zeuske, one of the world’s leading experts on Bolívar, examines the dimensions of the Bolívar cult and myths and compares these with the real historical person, and the world in which he lived. Zeuske’s account corrects major inaccuracies in the historical texts, such as the legendary meeting between Alexander von Humboldt and Bolívar, which never actually took place. A deconstruction of the myths surrounding Bolívar (including the popular,conservative, military, Marxist and Chavista), the book is also an analysis of Bolivar from a perspective of his slaves and the slaves of the Bolívar family (which proved calamitous for Bolívar).

“Michael Zeuske is a Latin American history specialist who has held the position of fellow at many leading research institutions, including Yale University and the University of Michigan. He is also an expert in the twentieth-century slave trade, and is the author of Black Caribbean: Slaves, Slavery and Emancipation Cultures.”
— H-Net