Think Piece

Simón Bolívar: Theorist of Empire?

by guest contributor Peter Morgan

By Peter Morgan

“…a large part of the human race is going to perish…unless Great Britain, the liberator of Europe, friend of Asia, and protector of Africa, consents to be the saviour of America. If I still had a shred of hope that America could triumph on her own, no one would have been more eager than I to serve my country, rather than humiliate it by seeking protection from a foreign power.”[1]

Simón Bolívar to the British Foreign Secretary, 1815

Strange as it might seem, Simón Bolívar belongs with Thomas Hakluyt, Edmund Burke, and James Mill as a British imperial thinker. While he led the campaign to expel the Spanish empire during the 1810s and 1820s, ‘El Libertador’ was at the same time imagining a British imperial order to help organise South American independence.

Latin America was (and remains) the part of Britain’s empire least visible to Britain itself. The irony, of course, is the sheer importance of the region to imperial finance, trade, and political economy. It is no surprise Ronald Robinson and Jack Gallagher made it the main evidence for their theorization of informal empire. And yet, Latin America was not regarded as an imperial political space in the British public sphere. Latin America was concealed by informality rather than a ‘thinning’ of empire from the occupation of property to the occupation of sovereignty – direct to indirect rule – which Fitzmaurice traces in the 19th century. This concealment has also helped keep the region largely out of view to the post-Cold War renaissance of empire scholarship among historians of political thought in the Anglophone academy. Whether due to their own, relatively narrow definition of ‘empire’ or the analytical challenge of grappling with informal empire from an historical perspective, many scholars have passed over it.

The justification of this move by appeal to the absence of informal empire among actors’ categories tends to be both somewhat circular, insofar as informal empire functioned through a measure of public self-denial, and Eurocentric, insofar as recognition of informal empire can be found among past contemporaries if one looks beyond the imperial metropole. Indeed, British imperial power in the Iberian Atlantic was the gargantuan fact of the Spanish American Wars of Independence (c. 1808-24), acknowledged and judged crucial by actors on both sides of the conflict. There was no absence of mind here.

The Battle of Trafalgar (October 1805) gave the Royal Navy control of Spanish imperial communications. Having destroyed the French and Spanish fleets, Britain now ruled the Atlantic. Commerce, military and civilian transportation, news and correspondence could now happen between Spain and its American territories only with British consent. The practical existence of the Spanish empire was, in significant part, a decision for Whitehall. As such, when revolutions began to break out across the region in 1808, and especially from 1810, a great deal of courtship was directed toward the rulers of the British empire by both sides.

One might assume that Spanish Loyalists would have the advantage in this competition for British support. Since 1808, Spain was allied to Britain in its supposedly existential war against France. Moreover, Britain and Spain in this period appear to us as fellow empires, liable to inter-imperial solidarity against Bolívar’s American rebels. A certain tradition of scholarship would injunct here that the Spanish American revolutions were not against Spanish empire at all. They were instead against ‘despotism.’ We must take this claim seriously. In the Spanish American case, there were profound limits to the ‘anti-imperial’ dimension of rebel thought. But the dimension did still exist. Even in the case of ‘despotismo’ – which was one of the most popular evaluations of Spanish rule – the charge was rarely indifferent to empire. Heavily influenced by Montesquieu, the Americans’ concept of despotism was entrenched in a (relatively) ‘anti-imperial’ evaluation of ‘Oriental’ land empires. Indeed, in Bolívar’s 1815 Jamaica Letter he orientalised ‘despotic’ Spanish rule in the Americas by analogy to a then-standard list of ‘Oriental’ powers, especially Persia and the Ottomans.

So, the apparent problem remains: how did American rebels against Spanish empire argue for support from the British empire? As it happens, quite easily. And the way in which they could throws a double light, on the intellectual genealogy of British empire and on historical thought about empire in general.

Bolívar was one of the first Americans to advocate outright independence from Spain (1811, at the latest), and he judged British support as a necessary condition of its achievement.  Moreover, he argued for this support continuously from 1810 onwards, developing a sophisticated vision of the British empire as not only upheld but expanded in the Atlantic world. He was envisaging American independence from Spain as a British imperial project. And this commitment to the British empire was not just a war measure. He continued to use the language of British “protection” (always joined with the advertisement of commercial access) long after the crisis period of the mid-1810s, when the first wave of revolution in Venezuela and New Granada was overcome, and Bolívar penned his desperate appeal to Richard Wellesley quoted in the epigraph. Even a decade later, when American forces had defeated Spain on the mainland, Bolívar was developing his most sophisticated project for the British empire in ‘postcolonial’ Spanish America.

Bolívar’s plan for a ‘Congress of Panama’ envisaged for the new American republics an international “system of guarantees that can serve both in peace and war as shield for our new destiny…a foundation to perpetuate, if possible, the duration of these governments.” It would provide common defence against reconquest by Spain (and its friends in the post-Napoleonic Holy Alliance, Restoration France, and Tsarist Russia), but also compose and regulate a public international law among the members and put down “anarchist factions” (which usually meant either Afro-Latin American political movements or federalist challenges to the sort of centralised republic Bolívar espoused).

This quite formidable Congress of Panama, on an international scale, was not to be a purely American body. In fact, Bolívar was adamant it exclude the United States, Haiti, and the new United Provinces of the Río de la Plata. Whereas Bolívar’s own Colombia (a state which unified modern-day Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela until its tripartite dissolution in 1831) would be the dominant South American power, the essential member was to be Great Britain. “England would necessarily have to take responsibility for holding steady the fulcrum of this equilibrium.” Only British involvement would intimidate Spain and the Holy Alliance. Bolívar judged Spanish American unity, however extensive, insufficient for the purpose. But had Britain joined (the Congress project almost immediately collapsed) it would apparently have been invested with considerable new authority to intervene in the new American republics. Bolívar was not insensitive to the discomfort this prospect caused many compatriots. In a letter to his more US-inclined Vice-President of Colombia, Francisco de Paula Santander (1792-1840), he acknowledged the Congress (or “Federation”) of Panama would involve regrettable “compromises” with British interests but insisted British “protection” was essential to Colombia and should not be discarded for a commitment to “indefinite” liberty and independence.

Bolívar, then, conceded there was a British imperial dimension to his Panama vision. But to audiences less concerned with Spanish American sovereignty he was far more enthusiastic about this feature. In an 1826 text meant to promote the Congress to a British readership, Bolívar elaborated another, cultural aspect of the scheme. Listed among the advantages of membership for Great Britain was the point that: “The character and customs of the British would become models for Americans to strive for in the future.” In light of the fact Bolívar’s more domestic, constitutional and social thought for the Spanish American republics had long been overtly Anglophilic, this element of ‘civilising mission’ he chose to build into the Congress of Panama should not be taken lightly. Closing the text, Bolívar gave this British imperial vision a measure of genuine formality, writing the project, “could well be the occasion to consolidate the union of the new states with the British Empire.”

How does the historian deal with this mess? Bolívar, the official ‘Liberator’ of South America from Spain, theorising its new international status in terms of formalised subordination to the British empire – a systemic counterpoint to the anticolonial worldmaking recently charted in the 20th century Black Atlantic by Adom Getachew. What does this mean for Bolívar’s ‘anti-imperial’ status as a thinker? Keeping it fully intact is not appropriate, but neither is disposing with it altogether. Bolívar’s thought was at once a conscious rejection and endorsement of empire, in different forms, and neither side washes the other. And this hybridity is not uncommon in the modern archive of thought against empire. Indeed, the case of Bolívar would better prompt us to rethink how we apply ‘anti-imperial’ status per se as a category for describing political thought.

Universalist critiques have been rare (not absent) and mostly postdate 1900 in the history of thought against empire. At least on close reading, relative or particular ones have been the norm. And, as in Bolívar’s case, these narrower forms of anti-imperial thought were often integral to the justification of one form or instance of empire at the same time as they called for the abolition of another. Anti-imperial thinking has thus had an unexpectedly ambivalent historical relationship to empire. And so, when describing a past thinker as ‘anti-imperial’, the historian should always try to identify and qualify in what sense.

Simón Bolívar’s thought was participant in the post-Napoleonic imagination of British empire. It belongs in the long intellectual history of that empire (along with several Spanish American contemporaries), as it pivoted from the Americas to Asia, against Bolívar’s will. This does not require wrenching Bolívar away from other traditions – civic republicanism, ‘creole revolution’, Latin American anti-imperialism. Rare is the thinker who belongs to one alone. But it does require expanding the horizon of British imperial historiography. An unwitting product of that historiography, by setting its catchment area for ideologues as the Anglosphere, has been the occlusion of 19th century Spanish America as an important stage in the intellectual history of modern British imperialism.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, all the texts by Bolívar referred to here are available at:

Peter Morgan is a doctoral candidate at University College London working on the intellectual history of the Spanish American Wars of Independence. His broader research interests are the history of political thought about empire and international order since the 18th century.

Featured Image: Map of Gran Colombia, c.1821-1823. Geographic and Historical Atlas of the Republic of Colombia, 1890. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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