Rocafuerte Rodríguez de Bejarano, Vicente (1783- 1847)

A stateman, diplomat, writer, translator, businessman and traveller born in Guayaquil (Ecuador) who devoted his financial resources, time and energy to the cause of Latin American Independence during his entire life, frequently while based in the British Isles. Both his parents, María Josefa Rodríguez de Bejarano and Juan Antonio Rocafuerte y Antoli, belonged to the wealthiest and most influential families of Guayaquil and owned a large firm of cocoa export. As member of the Creole elite, Vicente Rocafuerte first crossed the Atlantic when he was a teenager to complete his studies. He attended the aristocratic Colegio de Nobles in Granada (Spain) and completed his secondary school at a college in the outskirts of Paris, where he had moved in 1803. It was there where Rocafuerte first met Simón Bolívar (1783-1830), Carlos de Montúfar (1780-1816) and Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), among other major intellectual and political figures of the period. Rocafuerte, banking on this wide network of social connections, was among those invited to the ceremony of coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte in Notre Dame on 2nd December 1804.

In 1807 he returned to his hometown Guayaquil to be appointed local councillor the following year. His early commitment to Latin American emancipation was demonstrated by his involvement in the Quito rebellion on the 2 August 1810, along with his fellow insurgents such as the general Juan de Salinas (1755-1810) and the lawyer Juan de Dios Morales (1767-1810). Due to the failure of their enterprise and the persecution of the Governor Bartolomé Cucalón (1754-1818), Rocafuerte travelled to London in 1812 and got in touch with Andrés Bello and some members of the Lautaro Lodge or Lodge of the Rational Knights, the secret society joined by the defenders of Spanish American freedom in London in the early 1800s. He also travelled extensively through Northern Europe and Russia, becoming acquainted with the Tsar´s family and entourage, following the steps taken by Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) in the late 1780s. Another important political appointment interrupted his travels: in 1814 he was elected by his compatriots in Guayaquil to become diputado in the Spanish Cortes. Rocafuerte upheld mild liberal ideals but was a convinced Republican and his refusal to take an oath of allegiance to king Ferdinad VII (1784-1833) meant that he could never take a seat in Parliament. At any rate, constitutional reached an end later that year when the restored king decided to declare the 1812 Constitution null and void and to close Parliament.

Rocafuerte fled to France to escape the repression campaign launched by the absolutist king and in 1817 returned to Ecuador to manage the family business for three years. In 1820 Rocafuerte found himself in Havana, at the time that the Army stationed at Cadiz ready to be sent to reconquer the rebelling colonies successfully revolted and restored the 1812 Spanish Constitution. In Cuba he mingled with a select group of Creoles who created the secret society Rayos y Soles de Bolívar which plotted for the emancipation of the Antillean isle as it transpired in a failed conspiracy in 1823. Through this experience, Rocafuerte realized that the financial and political support of the neighbouring United States would be essential for the consolidation of the newly acquired independence of the new Latin American Republics. He travelled there to negotiate a loan on behalf of the Gran Colombian government with no success, although he carried on expanding the Creole network which operated internationally for the recognition of the newly created republics.

It was then when he decided to return to England, having been appointed to represent the economic interests of the newly formed Mexican government. He worked for the Mexican Embassy in London first as its Secretary and then as it charge d’affaires from 1824 and 1829. Apart from negotiating the British loans and navigating the damaging effects of the 1825 stock market debt crisis, his main role was to achieve the formal recognition of Mexican independence by the government of His British Majesty. As for his intellectual enterprises, Rocafuerte joined forces with Spanish Liberal exiles to publish the magazine Ocios de los Españoles Emigrados en Londres, mainly devoted to denouncing the excesses of the reactionary and oppressive reign of Ferdinand VII, as well as to support moderate Liberal principles. Rocafuerte not only contributed some articles to Ocios but he also made its publication financially viable through the subscription of two hundred copies by the Mexican diplomatic mission in London. In 1829 he went back to Mexico, but soon after the release of his Ensayo sobre la Tolerancia Religiosa, he faced opposition and even persecution. At the same time, the republic of Gran Colombia was facing its final crisis and Guayaquil would be united to Quito to constitute the Republic of Ecuador in 1830.

In 1833 Rocafuerte returned home where he was immediately proclaimed leader of the National Party opposed to the president Juan José Flores (1800-1864). After some tense negotiation with Flores, Rocafuerte became the second president of Ecuador until 1839. He ruled the country with an iron fist and sign off more than 150 death sentences against political opponents involved in rioting and common criminals alike. Although a staunch defender of religious toleration and critical of the Royal privileges to intervene in the internal organization of the Catholic Church, he continued to exercise them even after introducing some limited religious freedom. On the positive side of his rule, Rocafuerte introduced the Lancastrian system of education under the supervision of the US Quaker Isaac W. Wheelwright (1801-1891) with the view of promoting children enlightenment and economic progress. A deep reform of the tax, commercial, penal and jail systems was also initiated under his government as well as the establishment of the first schools for girls. At the same time, he devoted time and energy to discipline and train the army through the creation of the Colegio Militar and, finally, he also introduced steam navigation to connect Guayaquil with some cocoa producing hubs and thus revitalise the commercial routes in the Pacific. In 1840, in partnership with the businessman and US consul to Guayaquil William Wheelwright (1798-1873), Rocafuerte founded The Pacific Steamship Navigation Company with the even more ambitious goal of linking the Pacific shores of Latin America to the new routes of global trade. In 1842 he married his cousin Baltasara Calderón Garaycoa (1806-1890). He died childless on 16 May 1847 in Lima, where the couple settled down after their marriage. His remains were taken back to Guayaquil in 1884.

Works by Vicente Rocafuerte: Ideas necesarias a todo pueblo americano independiente, que quiera ser libre, Filadelfia, 1821; Bosquejo ligerísimo de la revolución de México desde el grito de Iguala hasta la proclamación imperial de Iturbide, Filadelfia, 1822; Ensayo político: El sistema colombiano, popular, electivo y representativo, es el que más conviene a la América independiente, Nueva York, 1823; Ensayo sobre el nuevo sistema de cárceles, por el ciudadano Vicente Rocafuerte, México, 1830; Consideraciones generales sobre la bondad de un gobierno, aplicadas a las actuales circunstancias de la República de México, México, 1831; Ensayo sobre la tolerancia religiosa, por el ciudadano Vicente Rocafuerte, México, 1831; Colección Rocafuerte, edited by Neptalí Zúñiga, Quito, 1947, 16 vols.; Epistolario, edited by C. Landázuri, Quito, BCE, 1988, 2 vols.

Sources: Gregorio Alonso, “Vicente Rocafuerte (1783-1847) Independencia, república y tolerancia” in Manuel Pérez Ledesma (ed.) Trayectorias transatlánticas (siglo XIX). Personajes y redes entre España y América. Madrid: Polifemo, 45-70; José Antonio Aguilar Rivera, “Vicente Rocafuerte y la invención de la República iberoamericana” in José Antonio Aguilar Rivera and Rafael Rojas (coords.) El republicanismo en Hispanoamérica. Ensayos en historia intelectual y política. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2000, 351-387; Isaac J. Barrera, Rocafuerte: Estudio histórico-biográfico. Quito: Imprenta y Encuadernación Nacionales, 1911; María Helena Cámara Bastos, ‘Public education and Independence in Spanish America and Brazil: Lancasterian experiences in the 19th century”, Revista de Historia de la Educación Latinoamericana, 14/18 (2012): 75-92; Kent B. Mecum, El idealismo práctico de Vicente Rocafuerte: un verdadero americano independiente y libre. Puebla: Cajica, 1975; Karen Racine, ‘“Comercial Christianity’: The British and Foreign Bible Societies’ interest in Latin America, 1805-1830’, Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27/1 (2001): 78-98; Jaime E. Rodríguez, The emergence of Spanish America: Vicente Rocafuerte and Spanish Americanism, 1808-1832. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975.

Author:  Gregorio Alonso

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Thematic categories: 

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