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Colombian History on Display at Ambassador’s Residence

By Jonas Meuleman

The Thomas T. Gaff House — itself a piece of local history that today serves as the residence of the Colombian ambassador — was home to a night of Colombian history on Sept. 12.

The stately residence in Dupont Circle, inspired by the Château Balleroy in Normandy, France, has been the home of a U.S. senator and a Cabinet member, as well as a former president of Colombia.

Last month, it served as a venue to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Colombian independence with a display of important documents dating back to the turbulent period between 1808 and 1827.

Colombia History Map
A map of Gran Colombia — which encompassed Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama following its liberation from the Spanish monarchy — shows the 12 departments created in 1824 and the territories disputed with neighboring countries. Colombian Ambassador Francisco Santos Caldéron recently showcased nearly a dozen documents chronicling the history of Colombia since its independence 200 years ago. Photo: By Agustín Codazzi, Manuel Maria Paz, Felipe Pérez - Atlas geográfico e histórico de la República de Colombia

During this time, Colombia — then known as New Granada, the name given to it by Spanish conquerors — underwent various insurgencies, starting with uprisings in Bogotá in 1810 and subsequent attempts to free it from Spanish rule and influence.

These events culminated in the Battle of Boyacá in 1819, in which New Granada was liberated from the Spanish monarchy and became Gran Colombia, a region much larger than present-day Colombia, encompassing Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama.

The exhibition showed multiple original documents dating back to this era, including: a manifest by Antonio Nariño, president of the rebel state of Cundinamarca in colonial Colombia from 1810 to 1815; the original 1821 Constitution of Gran Colombia; and two elegant maps of the region dating to the 1820s that reflect the earlier work of Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt.

The institution that made the exhibit possible was the John Carter Brown Library (JCB) based in Providence, Rhode Island.

“What we did here, with these 11 documents, is created a very new collection,” said JCB librarian Neil Safier. “Four to five of these documents were only purchased in the last two years or so. One of the more wonderful things about the JCB Library is that it was provided through the will of John Carter Brown with funds to allow us to buy more documents. We have done that, and these funds have increased over time thanks to the John Carter Brown Associates who are actually celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. This group was formed in 1944 in very difficult times, precisely to support the collecting and preservation of documents related to the past of the Americas.”

Battle of Boyacá Painting Martín Tovar y Tovar
The 1819 Battle of Boyacá — which is depicted in a painting by Martín Tovar y Tovar above — was the decisive battle that ensured the success of Simon Bolívar’s campaign to liberate New Granada and is considered the beginning of the independence of the North of South America from Spanish rule. Photo: Painting of Martín Tovar y Tovar exhibited in the Federal Palace, Caracas

Colombian Ambassador Francisco Santos Caldéron said he was delighted to highlight these precious documents dating back two centuries. “When I first talked to Neil Safier, I was so absorbed by the possibility of seeing these documents,” he said. “I was astounded, breathless, to be very sincere — because a lot of the history that we share and learn brings us back there.”

Santos, a former journalist and vice president of Colombia under the Álvaro Uribe administration, also led a panel discussion on the artifacts along with Cristina Soriano, associate professor of Latin American history at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

Soriano provided scientific insights into the documents, addressing the complexity of Hispanic independence movements and highlighting the then-substantial schism between federalism and centralism.

Two of the leading figures in the drive for South American liberation were Francisco Paula de Santander and Simón Bolívar. Santander was a Colombian military and political leader who became president of Gran Colombia, while Bolívar was the iconic 19th-century Venezuelan liberator who led the secession of the modern-day states of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama from the Spanish Empire.

Simón Bolívar Venezuelan Liberator Painting
Documents that were recently on display at the Colombian ambassador’s residence shed light on the life of Simón Bolívar, the iconic 19th-century Venezuelan liberator who led the secession of the modern-day states of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama from the Spanish Empire.

Both men led Gran Colombia at different points and both were revered for their independence efforts, but eventually political and ideological differences emerged between them, with Santander insisting on the sanctity of constitutional-based rule of law, while Bolívar advocated for more flexibility to deal with realities on the ground, especially when it came to the first Venezuelan uprising in 1826. These differences were documented in a military memoir written by Santander that was featured in the exhibition.

“The thing that we often get taught is that Santander and Bolívar were opponents, that they couldn’t stand each other … because of their different ideas about politics and ideology,” Soriano explained. “But these documents show that instead of discontentment with one another, they both recognize that it’s impossible to liberate New Granada without their mutual collaboration. That without the cooperation between these two men, liberation will not work.”

Another item in the exhibition is the document of a patriotic speech given by Manuel Fernandez Saavedra at the metropolitan church in Bogotá.

“This was printed on the first anniversary of the Battle of Boyacá,” Safier said. “In his very, very patriotic speech, he’s essentially bestowing all of the virtues of all of those who had fought against what we call the iron-steel yoke of the barbarous Spanish.”

Francisco Paula de Santander Statue Medellin
A statue of Francisco Paula de Santander — a leader in the 1810-1819 independence war of the United Provinces of New Granada (present-day Colombia) — stands in Medellin. Photo: By SajoR - Own work

Ambassador Santos likened the intertwined history of Colombia and neighboring Venezuela to the current relations between the two countries in the wake of the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela under the embattled presidency of Nicolás Maduro.

Political and economic instability in Venezuela has caused an estimated 1.5 million Venezuelans to flee to Colombia, whose government has worked hard to accommodate and absorb the influx. In August this year, Colombian President Iván Duque announced that over 24,000 Venezuelan children would be given citizenship in the country. In doing so, he was in a sense returning the favor because for years Venezuela took in Colombian refugees fleeing drug violence and poverty in their homeland.

Santos said a shared history binds the two neighbors, despite the sharp differences between the Duque and Maduro governments. “Especially the document between Santander and Bolívar shows the relationship between Colombia and Venezuela and that is relevant for today. When you go to a Colombian or a Venezuelan restaurant and you hear the music there, that music is 200 years old. It brings me also to think about the future and frankly understand the possibilities of common sense should prevail. Unfortunately, there is not much common sense in the world nowadays. But I’m always optimistic.”

Safier said he hopes that by making these documents available in a digital format, everyone has a chance to learn more about the region’s history and “that everyone has their own individual engagement with it. That they can then recognize that these messages were spun out by people [with] competing ideas, competing thoughts, competing forums for all of this to take place. And these documents are just a mere representation of what that larger [history] represented.” 

Jonas Meuleman is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.



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