The Guayaquil Conference
The South American wars of independence are barely known outside its borders: a bloody, twelve year conflict spanning the entire continent. On one side was a group of poorly armed rebels, mercenaries, and escaped slaves; on the other, the might of the Spanish Empire.
Simón Bolívar led the insurrection in the North, liberating what is now Venezuela, Columbia, and Ecuador, dealing with ambushes, jungle crossings, and man-eating swamps along the way.
The lesser known José de San Martín deserted the Spanish Army and raised the flag of rebellion in his native Argentina. He scaled the Andes and took Santiago in a daring assault, then attacked Lima by sea with the help of a disgraced British sea captain who was secretly angling to place Napoleon on the thrown of a unified South America.
By 1822, the Spanish had retreated to the highlands of Cusco and Upper Peru (or what is now known as Bolivia) and neither San Martín nor Bolívar had sufficient soldiers to finish them off; the two generals had to come together somehow.
They had been corresponding for some time and San Martín had recently sent Bolívar reinforcements while he was locked in the battle for Quito. They agreed to meet in the port town of Guayaquil, just north of the Peru-Ecuador border, to discuss the conclusion of the war.
San Martín sailed up from Lima, while Bolívar raced down from Quito on horseback, surprising San Martín by arriving before him and claiming the city as his own. They embraced awkwardly on the Guayaquil pier, the two Liberators of South America meeting for the very first time.
Later that day, they entered the City Hall alone, without witnesses, and no record was made of their conversation. Their respective aides gathered outside, anxious, unsure how the meeting would go. Essentially they were both on the same side; however neither would readily submit to the authority of the other.
To the consternation of his men, San Martín resigned as Protector of Peru and handed over control of his armies to Bolívar, who went on to immortalize himself in the final battles winning South America’s freedom. San Martín, however, died in exile, anonymous and forgotten.
So, what happened inside that room? Why did a man at the peak of his career, on the verge of glory, step aside? History can be no guide here: we can only glean the barest of details from the handful of occasions they mentioned it in correspondence.
What is perhaps the most momentous incident in South American history is a complete mystery.
I’ve spent the last five years trying to figure out the answers, a journey which began in northern Peru where I first heard of the Guayaquil Conference and San Martín’s inexplicable abdication.
At first, I was merely trying to piece the puzzle together to satisfy a natural curiosity; I simply wanted to know why San Martín walked away. It was like an itch I couldn’t scratch. I started researching the war, hoping to find clues to his actions, building up a picture of the man. Next I was ordering books and making copious notes.
I discovered a period of history rich with characters that leap off the page, impossible feats of derring-do, and secret societies. A world populated with noble thieves, cynical mercenaries, and vagabond adventurers. A society rife with betrayal, corruption, and torrid love affairs.
I also discovered that I had become obsessed. Not just with telling the tale of San Martín’s improbable war, but also the story of the ordinary people who lived and died for South American independence—the ghosts that flicker in the margins of the history books.
What began as simple curiosity turned into a five year labor of love: A Storm Hits Valparaíso.
David Gaughran, March 26, 2012