Antonio Nariño

views updated May 21 2018

Antonio Nariño

Antonio Nariño (1765-1823) was a Colombian patriot and champion of human rights in Latin America. Colombia named one of its provinces in his honor.

Born in Bogotá on April 9, 1765, of a well-to-do family, Antonio Nariño was educated at a renowned school where he studied philosophy and law. During these years Bogotá, then capital of the viceroyalty of New Granada, was strongly influenced by European culture, especially in the fields of natural science, literature, and political thought. Nariño, an avid reader, gathered around him a group of congenial friends who shared his ideas. He occupied several positions of public trust and engaged in the exportation of cacao, tobacco, and quinine, a lucrative trade which furnished him a comfortable living.

The outbreak of the French Revolution set Nariño's mind on fire. He translated the Declaration of the Rights of Man and had the document printed in his own house (1794). He might as well have handled dynamite. He was accused of sedition, convicted by the highest court of the land, and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment in Africa, permanent exile, and the confiscation of his property (1795).

Nariño escaped his captors in Cadiz and fled to Paris, where he began to study the new laws of Revolutionary France. Converted to a belief in centralized government, he went to England in the hope that he might interest the British in the liberation of his native country. He was unsuccessful and finally made his way back to Bogotá. He was permitted to reside in the country and to administer his personal holdings.

The outbreak of the Latin American revolution led once more to Nariño's arrest (1809-1810). He was held in the notorious prison of Cartagena and treated as a common criminal. Freed during the progress of the revolution, he stepped into the forefront of the fight that was shaking New Granada to its foundations. At least three "sovereign states" had emerged, and one of them chose Nariño as its president.

Civil war soon erupted between the various factions, the strife centering on the question of federalism versus centralism, a characteristic problem of South America. Nariño, a staunch centralist, failed in his attempt to subju-gate the rebellious southern provinces by force. He met with the opposition of the federalists and also the resistance of the royalists, who had remained faithful to Spain. In 1814 he was again a prisoner in Cadiz, held in solitary confinement for 4 years.

Nariño's incarceration may have been a blessing in disguise. In Bogotá he would probably have been shot by the Spaniards when they reconquered the city in 1816. The revolt against Ferdinand VII in 1820 afforded Nariño his freedom, and in 1821 he returned home. This was the year of Simón Bolívar's attempt to create a republic of the Andes, to be called Colombia. It was also the year when a constituent assembly met in Cúcuta to draft a constitution for the new state. Nariño joined the deputies and was elected interim vice president but soon renounced his office for reasons of health. His enemies were determined that he not be elected senator from his native province of Cundinamarca and accused him of malfeasance of public funds, cowardice, and even treason. He made a brilliant defense, but the accumulation of ingratitude proved the deathblow to an already weakened constitution. He died in Leiva on Dec. 13, 1823.

Like so many others of his generation, Nariño was a twilight figure, standing between sunshine and shadow. And like many another, he was made to suffer what Bolivar called the "thanklessness of things American."

Further Reading

A study of Nariño in English is Thomas Blossom, Nariño: Hero of Colombian Independence (1967). Nariño is discussed in E. Taylor Parks, Colombia and the United States, 1765-1934 (1935), and Salvador de Madariaga, Fall of the Spanish Empire (1948). □