Thursday, May 6, 2010

History: The General On His Deathbed

Then he crossed his arms over his chest and began to listen to the radiant voices of the slaves singing the six o'clock Salve in the mills, and through the window he saw the diamond of Venus in the sky that was dying forever, the eternal snows, the new vine whose yellow bellflowers he would not see bloom on the following Saturday in the house closed in mourning, the final brilliance of life that would never, through all eternity, be repeated.

Above is Antonio Herrera Toro's Death of Bolivar. Beneath that poignant painting is the final sentence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez' brilliant novel about Simon Bolivar's last months on Earth, The General In His Labyrinth. Bolivar, the consumate ladies' man, the original road warrior and arguably the most impressive revolutionary that ever lived (as Garcia Marquez' beautiful prose suggests) died December 17, 1830 in Santa Marta, Columbia at the age of 47.

Simon Jose Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolivar y Palacios was born to a wealthy Creolo family in Venezuela on July 24, 1783. He grew to hate the Spanish overlords of his country and his continent to such a degree that he led a revolution so successful it freed half of South America. Even while he was beating back the Spanish he became the last great military leader to provide privateers with legitimate letters of marque. Until the second decade of the 19th century, Bolivarian commissions allowed men like Renato Beluche and Jean Laffite to raid Spanish shipping legally. Vain, rash, brilliant and in perpetual motion throughout his amazing life, Bolivar is one of my very few heroes.

So, of course, I was intrigued by this article from Yahoo! News sent to me by the first mate. Bolivar has returned to interest politically and historically largely because of Venezuelan Dictator Hugo Chavez' obsession with the Great Liberator. Chavez has dedicated his political "reforms" to the memory of Bolivar and frequently compares himself to the General. One of Chavez' pet theories is that Bolivar did not die of pulmonary tuberculosis, as his autopsy findings indicate, but was poisoned by former friend turned rival Francisco de Santander. And now an American has - to Chavez' mind - shown that the theory is true.

As the article indicates, Paul Auwaerter of Johns Hopkins University proposed at a medical conference last week that the cause of Bolivar's death was arsenic poisoning. According to Auwaerter, the arsenic was ingested either via contaminated water or purposeful dosing to alleviate headaches or hemorrhoids. You can read Chavez' comments on these findings for yourself but Auwaerter is clear in the article that he has concerns about his research being "misconstrued". From the article:

What I said has been taken and used for their own political means.

I have not read Dr. Auwaerter's paper on the subject. In fact I am not sure if such has yet been published. I have, however, read the published lecture of Dr.Hector O. Ventura on the cause of Bolivar's death and it comes to a very different conclusion.

Ventura's lecture was given in 2005. At the time he was Director of Cardiovascular Training at the Ochsner Medical Institutions in Buenos Aires and Professor of Medicine at Tulane University Medical Center, New Orleans. Ventura's findings are based entirely on the pre-death notes and autopsy findings of Bolivar's physician at Santa Marta, the Frenchman Prosperous Alexander Reverend.

Reverend notes on Bolivar's arrival on December 1, 1830 that "Its Excellence" was "very skinny and debilitated [in] body... hoarse voice, a deep cough... and my first impression was that he had damaged lungs..." At the autopsy, performed by Reverend himself, the doctor repeatedly refers to tuberculous deformations, calcifications and wine coloring in and of the lungs. All of these are medical signs of pulmonary tuberculosis. At no point does Reverend refer to he or any of his assistants noticing the tell-tale bitter almond smell connected at autopsy with arsenic poisoning.

I am no clinician, it goes without saying, and I would never say that the above irrefutably confirms Bolivar's cause of death. However, it is worth pointing out certain facts before anyone decides what they believe:

Most historians agree that the level of arsenic contamination in 19th century water was probably no higher, or only slightly higher, than the level of arsenic in U.S. drinking water at the end of the 20th century.

Arsenic poisoning to the point of death is usually accompanied by symptoms of vomiting, seizure and hallucinations, none of which were reported by Reverend.

Bolivar, like so many men who have changed the course of history (Julius Caesar, Martin Luther, Napoleon Bonaparte) suffered from lifelong and intractable constipation. In the 19th century, arsenic was a prescribed antidote for that unfortunate symptom of straining at the stool: hemorrhoids. (Forgive me if that was more than you wanted to know about any of the gentlemen mentioned in that paragraph).

Pulmonary tuberculosis was a widespread and easily recognized disease at the time of Bolivar's death. Reverend is referred to as a shrewd and astute clinician by Ventura. There is no reason to believe that the doctor didn't know what he was looking at.

Tuberculosis tends to run in families. Both of Bolivar's parents died of pulmonary tuberculosis and it is well documented that the Liberator contracted the disease as a boy, probably after his mother became ill.

What's my point? I have several but there's no reason to elongate this post. And so, Brethren, I will leave it up to you. Death by arsenic poisoning? An unfortunate family propensity toward pulmonary disease? Murder? Or a life so full of movement from one battle to another, one goal to another, one woman to another that the body simply gave out? Something to ponder of a Thursday afternoon.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! And glad I was able to provide some fodder for another interesting post. As for me, I'm voting for yours truly... I mean TB... I mean tuberculosis as the most probable cause of Bolivar's death. Oh, and I also vote that Hugo Chavez is a nut-ball, but that probably goes without saying, Pirate Queen.

Undine said...

For what little it's worth, one of my odder historical interests could be called (for lack of a more concise term) Famous People Who Supposedly Died Of Natural Causes But That I Think Were Really Poisoned. In other words, I'm apt to see an arsenic bottle under every bush.

I know relatively little about Bolivar, but from your post and this Yahoo article, I just can't see anything suspicious here. I'd really be curious to know what evidence Auwaerter claims to have that shows otherwise.

Incidentally, whatever the cause of Bolivar's death, it's a pity that nearly 200 years later, it is being used as a particularly nasty political football. He undoubtedly deserved better.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I agree. Chavez is trying to further his own political agenda with the murder theory and the arsenic speculation - which is what it has to be called given that, to my knowlege, Auwaerter has not examined Bolivar's body - only fuels that fire.

Until someone opens Bolivar's sepulchre and takes samples that prove poisoning, I'll stick by TB compounded by a life so well and thoroughly lived that it killed it's own host.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! As so often happens, you have eloquently said in just a few paragraphs what it would take me an entire new post to point out. Thank you, my dear.

And you are correct; Bolivar deserves much, much better.

Undine said...

Well, thanks, Pirate Queen! [Blush] Coming from a writer with your talents, that's a compliment.

Anyhow, I'm back because I forgot to mention that I've gotten quite wary of anything that's said at these academic and medical conferences. I'm not saying that people lie (at least, not always,) but there is a tendency for attendees to present papers that try very hard to be "sexy." They often seem more interested in saying something that will grab headlines than they are with presenting sober, dull truth. (Like that doctor a few years back who suggested that Poe died of rabies...)

I can't say if the good doctor Auwaerter falls into this category, but I have my suspicions.

Pauline said...

Undine, I meant every word of it!

And I hear you on the acadamia issue. Unfortunately, guys like Bolivar (and Poe is an excellent example as well) are all too frequently the targets of such questionable self-promotion by "experts" who could never have known them even in passing.