by Linda Szugyi
So I’m finally getting around to reading a book my dad gave me awhile back. The Land That Never Was is a nonfiction account of a self-aggrandizing Scot who, in the 1820s, swindled large numbers of people out of large amounts of money by inventing an imaginary Central American nation and appointing himself ruler of it.
Some people merely invested in loans backed by fictitious national holdings. Others traded their life savings for phony currency and phony land grants, boarded ships bound for this phony utopia, and wound up stranded in the untamed jungles of the Mosquito Coast.
Good times, I’m sure.
But that’s not why I’m writing.
The subtitle of this book is “Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History.” While this claim may have been true when the book was published in 2003, it may now be superseded in both audaciousness and deceit with the passage of Obamacare.
But that’s not why I’m writing, either.
I’m writing because the author of this book, David Sinclair, incidentally provided some history of Simón Bolívar, a famous figure in the South American struggle to gain independence from Spain. (Please enjoy the proper accent marks from the “insert custom character” feature. I won’t be bothering with that again.)
Normally, I would have paid little attention to the information on Simon Bolivar, and probably would have forgotten most of it as soon as I finished the book. Because normally, the name would be completely unfamiliar to me. Simon Bolivar would have been one of many characters that played a part in the story of Gregor MacGregor (whose name I would have remembered, because dang what an awesome Scottish name).
However, in addition to the hobby of reading, or at least vainly attempting to read, books that my dad recommends, I also have the hobby of reading and then heaping scorn upon textbooks that children are forced to study in school. Thanks to the latter hobby, the name Simon Bolivar is familiar to me: he was one of the historical figures featured in a recurring sidenote, “Character Trait,” in the Harcourt social studies textbook People, Places, and Change.
In the post History Matters, I discussed the “Character Trait” treatment of George Washington in the very same textbook. Of all the things for which to remember the Father of our Country, the authors and editors of this dog’s hash of a textbook chose “citizenship.” Because . . . well, I can only conclude that it was the least flattering yet most benign trait they could come up with.
Do you know what would have been a great character trait to assign George Washington? Integrity:
17th September, 1796 Farewell Address: “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an ‘Honest Man.'”
The authors and editors decided instead to reserve the trait “integrity” for none other than Simon Bolivar. At the time I read it, the name meant nothing to me. Yet, the description of this dude as the “George Washington of South America” naturally rose my hackles a bit, first because I knew they had screwed GW out of the “integrity” label, and second because I am wary whenever some multicultural figure is casually equated with America’s founders.
Then I started reading about Simon Bolivar in The Land That Never Was, and my wariness became well-founded. According to David Sinclair, Simon Bolivar saw himself not as the South American George Washington, but as the South American Napoleon, “to the extent that he would even stand in the famous pose of the French Emperor, with his right hand tucked inside his tunic . . . .” (The Land That Never Was, pg. 144)
Now, my subsequent internet research (which ate half my Sunday right up, by the way) did not produce a simple picture of the man who was Simon Bolivar. My point is not to demonize him, nor minimize his importance.
My point is to heap scorn upon our education textbook industry. Not only do they over-simplify the rich and complex stories of nations in a way that makes all of them interchangeable and therefore virtually meaningless, they can’t even get the basic facts right.
“In 1811, Bolivar first freed his native Venezuela.”
Um, no he didn’t.
It may or may not be fair to coin Simon Bolivar the “George Washington of South America.” The comparison was made early. George Washington’s family even sent Bolivar a medallion with a lock of George Washington’s hair inside. On the one hand, he emancipated slaves, and he spoke passionately about freedom, and he fought passionately to free his native land from Spanish rule.
On the other hand, his authoritarian inclinations led him to draft a constitution that created a lifetime president and a highly restricted suffrage. Also, he once wrote “I am convinced, to the very marrow of my bones, that our America can only be ruled through a well-managed, shrewd despotism.”
It may or may not be accurate to say that Simon Bolivar embodied the trait of integrity.
But it is definitely not accurate to say that Simon Bolivar freed Venezuela in 1811. According to The Land That Never Was, Bolivar gave an important speech in favor of Venezuelan independence in 1811. (pg. 142) He joined the military effort to oust Spain months later, and promptly suffered a crushing defeat at Puerto Cabello that was so bad he wrote, “my soul is crushed to such an extent that I do not feel able to command a single infantryman. . . .” (pg. 142)
Hey, folks at Harcourt. The first attempt at independence in 1811 failed. Spanish troops reconquered the colony. The Spanish weren’t beaten until 1821, and Venezuela as an autonomous nation wasn’t founded until 1829.
Just, you know, technically speaking. Not that history really matters to a post-American world.
I’m actually going to add a short bio to this week’s post. I never did identify with modern liberalism, possibly thanks to my middle school social studies teacher who was so mean and also so biased that she told us liberals were generous and conservatives were stingy. I knew anything she said couldn’t possibly be right. I write at No One Of Any Import, and if you’ll just subscribe and be patient I’ll write something very entertaining there soon.