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.