It seems a shame to make this comparison, but the fact is that while many Americans have heard of Simon Bolivar, the hero of the independence of most of northern South America (from Colombia down to Peru), few have heard of his southern equivalent, Jose de San Martin. In fact, until researching my trip to Buenos Aires, I, too, had never heard of the man simply referred to here as “the liberator.” But here in Buenos Aires, San Martin is every bit as celebrated as Bolivar is in other places, and his legacy is worth experiencing.
A visit to Buenos Aires’ Cabildo, a colonial building sitting across the Plaza de Mayo from the Casa Rosada (the presidential palace) tells the story of San Martin and Argentine independence, although it is entirely in Spanish. So I’ll summarize it here.
Argentina’s struggle for independence began in 1810, when the southern portion of the continent (what is now Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Chile in addition to Argentina) rose up against the colonial Spanish authorities. Buenos Aires was the seat of the resistance, the capital of the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, as opposed to the official Spanish Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, which had its main royalist stronghold in Montevideo. Jose de San Martin arrived in Buenos Aires in 1812. A veteran of the Spanish army, he was given a command in the independence movement, though his early results were mainly middling efforts, such as the Battle of San Lorenzo, during which the soon-to-be general was nearly killed.
San Martin believed that the best way to achieve victory was two-fold. First, it was to preemptively, before winning on the battlefield, declare independence to arouse popular support locally. Second, he knew the Spanish had to be defeated in Peru, their strongest colony in South America. The first goal was met on July 9, 1816, when at the Congress of Tucuman, the official United Provinces was declared. Jose de San Martin was there, one of the leaders of the effort.
Defeating Peru was a different matter entirely. San Martin proposed a new strategy, crossing the Andes into Chile, and attacking Peru from the south. At the end of 1816, San Martin took control of the Army of the Andes, several thousand men and even more horses and mules strong. On February 12, after a grueling crossing of the mountains that saw more than half of the army’s animals die, San Martin’s forces launched an attack on Santiago, capturing the city with only twelve deaths. On April 5 of 1818, after a year of fighting, the army achieved Chile’s independence after victory at the Battle of Maipu.
From here, Jose de San Martin and his army launched their attack from the south into Peru, despite being outnumbered more than 5–1 by Spanish royalist forces. As those of the independence movement locally rallied around him, San Martin was declared Protector of Peru, de facto head of the local independent government. By 1822, most royalist forces had been defeated by San Martin, along with Bolivar’s army attacking from the north, and the two met, with Simon Bolivar ultimately taking control of the remainder of the fighting, and San Martin retiring to Europe.
Jose de San Martin died in France in 1850, but in 1880, his remains were returned to Argentina, to the country he helped to found and liberate. Today, his tomb sits in a side chapel in the city’s main cathedral on the Plaza de Mayo. A ceremonial guard stands at attention at the entrance to the tomb, a beautiful, but understated, monument in a domed chamber.
Outside the cathedral, an eternal flame burns for the country’s hero.
Statues of Jose de San Martin are ever-present in Buenos Aires, from one in Plaza de Mayo to a huge monument in Plaza de San Martin near the city’s main Retiro train station.
Streets, neighborhoods, and more are named for him, as are cities all over the region. My apartment even sits on Avenida del Libertador, Liberator Avenue.
It is hard to know what Argentina would be today, or even if there would be an Argentina today, if not for the actions of Jose de San Martin. He was an inspiration for the country’s independence movement and delegate to the conference declaring it, and one of the most important military commanders of the war that made independence a true on-the-ground reality, despite doing most of his fighting outside of what is now Argentina’s territory. He is every bit as important to what shaped modern South America as the better-known Simon Bolivar, and someone we should all know, especially before coming here.
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