Nariño, Antonio (1765–1823)

A native of Bogotá (New Granada) and one of the founders of the Colombian Republic, Antonio Amador José de Nariño Bernardo del Casal (such was his full name) served as Governor of the State of Cundinamarca from 21 September 1811 through 14 May 1814 (with a short break from 19 August to 12 September when he left Bogotá for the military expedition to Tunja) and as Vice President of the Republic of Colombia from 4 April to 6 June 1821. Nariño spent many years (1797–1803, 1809–1810 and 1814–1821) in Spanish prisons and extensively travelled abroad, including Great Britain.

Nariño came from a prominent neogranadine family and served as treasurer of the diocese tithe (tesoriero de diezmos). In December of 1793 he privately printed 80 or 100 copies of his translation of the 1789 Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. On 29 August 1794, he was arrested on charges of the subversive activities and swindling ecclesiastical funds and on 28 November 1795 he was sentenced to the 10 years of prison in one of the Spanish African presidios (on the king’s choice) and asset forfeiture. On 17 March 1796, on the way to Africa, Nariño escaped from Cádiz and went to Madrid where he managed to get a fake passport for one José Palacio[s] y Ortiz. After a vain search of support from the French authorities, Nariño went to London (6 August – 4 October 1796) where he also failed to receive any attention from persons of note in politics. On 5 April 1797, Nariño returned to Bogotá where he decided to face trial which resulted in his imprisonment till his release on bail in 1803.

His trial in 1794–1795 showed that Nariño with his few friends (among whom was Francisco Antonio Zea, the future unacknowledged Colombian Minister to London in 1820–1822) translated (or perused a translation) of the parts of the pamphlet Le Destin de l’Amérique ou Dialogues pittoresques… (‘Londres’, in fact, probably Leiden, 1780) by a French radical Antoine Marie Cerisier (1749–1828) in which the author appealed to the European powers to give independence to their American colonies.

According to his words at the 1797 trial, in London Nariño, pretending to have come with commercial goals, stayed in the house of the Caracas merchant Esteban Palacio from Caracas and met British merchants certain Campbell and Short (unfortunately, we were unable to locate their first names from consulted sources, including the printed merchant and bankers’ directories) who failed to introduce him to the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger or other politicians. On 13 August 1797, Nariño rejected the charge that he had planned the revolution against Madrid and added that he would have preferred death to the change of the Spanish rule by the ‘heavy yoke of the English’ (duro yugo de los ingleses), ‘with another religion, language and customs’ (con otra religión, otro idioma y otras costumbres). It should be stressed that, in spite of the usual claims in historiography dating back to Benjamin Vicuña Mackenna (1831–1886) and Bartolomé Mitre (1821–1906), there is no evidence that Nariño met Francisco de Miranda (1750–1816) in person, neither in Paris nor in London, and that he participated in his revolutionary schemes. Though in mid-1798 Spanish Ambassador in Paris thought that Miranda’s aid Pedro Caro introduced Nariño to Miranda in England (Archivo Nariño, vol. II, p. 233) and Francisco de Miranda later claimed that he had met Nariño in Paris and sent him to London with Pedro Caro (Archivo del General Miranda, vol. XVII, p. 87), the existing sources prove that it was Caro who met Nariño in Paris in 1796 and later informed Miranda about him (the first mention of Nariño in the very extensive and detailed Miranda’s archive dates back to the Pedro Caro’s letter to the British cabinet of October 15, 1797, and Miranda is first mentioned in the Archivo Nariño only in the cited letter of mid-1798 – see, Archivo del General Miranda, vol. XV, p. 185).

In 1810 Nariño joined the revolution in New Granada leading the centralist faction in Cundinamarca. Eventually becoming the head of independent Cundinamarca and planning to unite Columbia, he undertook a military expedition in the south of the country. On 14 May 1814, Nariño was captured by the Spanish troops and then sent to jail. He was liberated from the prison in Cádiz on 23 March 1820, contrary to the wish of Fernando VII in the tumultuous time of the Spanish revolution of Rafael de Riego (Trienio Liberal). First, Nariño went to Gibraltar where he stayed till late June 1820.  Disregarding the fact that Fernando Peñalver (1765–1837) had written to Simón Bolívar (1783–1830) to say that Nariño was needed in Gibraltar as an agent for the Spanish American cause in the vicinity of Cádiz, Nariño chose to go to London where he met his old friend Zea who was trying to receive support against Spain from the British authorities (6 July – 19 October 1820). Soon, however, Nariño left London and went to France and then to Spanish America which he reached just in time to prepare for the Congress in Cúcuta which aimed to unite the provinces of New Granada and Venezuela. The Congress ratified the President Bolivar’s appointment of Nariño as Vice-President of Colombia, and on 29 May 1821, Nariño proposed a project for a Colombian Constitution.

At this time when Nariño’s influence reached its peak his reputation was destroyed by a conflict with the commander of the Irish Legion (volunteers who came to fight for the independence of Spanish America with Simón Bolívar) General John D’Evereux (1778–1860). D’Evereux accused him of the improper behaviour towards Mary English (1789–1846), the widow of the 1st British Legion commander James Towers English (1782–1819), who had been asking Nariño for compensation for her late husband’s service, and challenged him to a duel on 30 May 1821. The D’Evereux English affair was used by Francisco Paula Santander (1792–1840) whose career in the Spanish American revolutions started among the rebels fighting against Nariño’s centralism. On 5 July 1821 Nariño resigned and Santander eventually succeeded him after many rounds of votes as the Vice-President of Colombia. In April-May 1823 Nariño faced the second attack from the Santander’s party which tried to impeach him as a Senator. After a successful rebuttal of charges, Nariño asked leave from Bogotá on health grounds and soon died in his estate at Leyva.

On first impression, it may seem that Nariño remained attached to those Spanish American revolutionaries who preferred the North American to the British constitutional model, even in view of his preference for centralism over federalism in Colombia. Young Nariño’s private study was decorated with the bust of Benjamin Franklin and in his theses for defense in July-August 1795 he admired [North] America which had become a ‘sanctuary of reason, liberty and tolerance’, a ‘motherland of Franklins, Washingtons, Hancock and Adamses’ (…el santuario de la razón, de la libertad y tolerancia. ¡Oh patria de los Franklin, de los Washington, de Hancock y de los Adams!). For his newspaper La Bagatela he chose (from 22 September 1811) a motto Pluribus unum reminding of the United States, called the U.S. Constitution ‘the best in the world’ and was dreaming of Franklines, Waschingtones y G[e]ffersons for South America (17 November 1811). In the first issue of this newspaper Nariño named William Penn Platon del Nuevo Mundo who planned Pennsylvania, ‘this Republic of Philosophers’ (esta República de Filósofos) ‘in the shade of peace and laws’ (á la sombra de la paz y de las leyes), and juxtaposed him to ‘the Machiavellis of the Spanish and Portuguese Courts’ (los Maquiavelos de las cortes de España, y Portugal).

Nonetheless, one issue of La Bagatela (1 December 1811) was fully devoted to the Jeremiah Bentham’s optimistic plans on the future of Spanish America reprinted from the London El Español of José Blanco White (1775–1841). Curiously, La Bagatela, though authored by the translator of the Declaration of Rights…, contains no mentions about the French Revolution. In his letter to the aforementioned Zea (Gibraltar, 1 June 1820, first printed anonymously in the Correo del Orinoco (Angostura), No. 76, 19 August 1820), Nariño noted that Spanish Americans did not need to imitate neither the classical republican examples, nor the models of the European ‘decrepit governments’ (los decrépitos gobiernos de Europa) but had to study these models in order to avoid errors and distinguish ‘opulence and enlargement from happiness’ (estudiémos los para evitar sus errores y distingamos la opulencia y el engrandecimiento de la felicidad). Nariño considered ‘happiness’ the ultimate goal of societies and individuals and noted that the English were ‘more opulent and powerful than happy’ (Los ingleses, a mi ver, son más opulentos y poderosos que felices).

Sources: El precursor: documentos sobre la vida pública y privada del general Antonio Nariño, ed. E. Posado, P. M. Ibañez (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 1903); G. Hernández de Alba, El proceso de Nariño a la luz de documentos inéditos (Bogotá: Editorial ABC, 1958); A. Nariño, La Bagatela (1811–1812). Edición Facsimilar, ed. G. Hernández de Alba (Bogotá: Vanegas, 1966); Cartas íntimas del general Antonio Nariño, ed. G. Hernández de Alba (Bogotá: Ediciones Sol y Luna, 1966); Proceso contra don Antonio Nariño por la publicación clandestina de la declaración de los derechos del hombre y del ciudadano, 2 volumes, ed. G. Hernández de Alba (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 1980–1984); Defensa del General Antonio Nariño Pronunciada ante el Senado de la República, Mayo 14 de 1823, ed. G. Hernández de Alba (Bogotá: Imprenta Nacional, 1980); Archivo Nariño, 6 volumes, ed. G. Hernández de Alba (Bogotá: Fundación para la Conmemoración del Bicentenario del Natalicio y el Sesquicentenario de la Muerte del General Francisco de Paula Santander, 1990); T. Blossom, Nariño: Hero of Colombian Independence (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1967); A. Cacua Prada, Yo soy Nariño (Bogotá: Guadalupe, 2008); M. Brown, ‘Adventurers, Foreign Women and Masculinity in the Colombian Wars of Independence’, Feminist Review, 2005, vol. 79 (1), pp. 47–48; R. Silva, Los ilustrados de Nueva Granada 1760-1808. Genealogía de una comunidad de interpretación (Medellín: Fondo Editorial EAFIT – Banco de la República, 2002). Bibliography: G. Jaramillo, Bibliografía selecta de Nariño (Bogotá: Academia Colombiana de Historia, 1953). Iconography: G. Hernández de Alba, F. Restrepo Uribe, Iconografía de don Antonio Nariño y recuerdos de su vida (Bogotá: Empresa de Teléfonos, 1963).

Author: Andrey Iserov

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Thematic categories: 

Politics ; War and the Military ; Press, Journalism and the Media; Exile and Migration