The South American soldier and statesman Joséde San Martín (1778-1850) played an important role in winning the independence of several South American countries from Spain.
José de San Martín was born at Yapeyú, a village on the northern frontier of Argentina, where his father was an official of the Spanish colonial government. At the age of 7, San Martín returned to Spain with his parents. He entered the Royal Academy as a cadet and was educated there with sons of the nobility of Spain. As a member of the Spanish army, he fought in some of the campaigns against French forces in the Peninsular War and by 1811 had acquired the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Hearing of the revolt against Spain in his native Argentina, San Martín resigned from the Spanish army in 1812 and sailed for Buenos Aires to join the patriot forces. He took a prominent part in organizing Argentine troops and soon became military governor of the north to organize defense against Spanish troops in Upper Peru. In 1814 he secured the governorship of the province of Cuyo at the foot of the Andes. Here for 3 years he recruited and trained his Army of the Andes, since he believed that Argentina could not be safely independent unless Spanish forces were dislodged from Chile, Peru, and Bolivia.
In January 1817 San Martín led his army of Argentines and fugitives from Chile over the Andes and surprised the Spanish army in Chile. After having captured and occupied Santiago on February 15, San Martín was offered the supreme dictatorship of Chile but declined in favor of his friend and colleague Bernardo O'Higgins. He made Chile completely free of Spanish troops by May 15, 1818, and began planning for an invasion of Peru.
San Martín was 2 years assembling a fleet which, under the able command of Lord Cochrane, swept Spanish shipping from the west coast of South America. In August 1820 the army of San Martín was transported toward Peru, convoyed by warships under Lord Cochrane. Within a year San Martín was able to occupy the capital, and on July 28, 1821, he proclaimed the independence of Peru from Spain. On August 3 he accepted the position of supreme protector of Peru.
However, considerable fighting was still needed before Peruvian independence was assured, since the bulk of the Spanish army had merely withdrawn into the mountains and was still a viable fighting force and a threat. San Martín considered that he did not have enough force to meet the Spaniards and would need the aid of the armies of Simón Bolívar, who had just liberated the areas of Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. For that purpose, San Martín and Bolívar met at Guayaquil; that conference is one of the most disputed points in South American history.
Possibly they disputed over Guayaquil, which Bolívar had just occupied and which San Martín wanted to be a part of Peru. Possibly they disagreed on the type of government to be instituted in South America. San Martín did not believe that the South Americans were ready for democracy, and he probably preferred a constitutional monarchy, whereas Bolívar believed, at that time, in complete democracy. Possibly they disagreed on the terms by which the armies of Bolívar would be brought into Peru. At any rate, San Martín left the conference in a precipitous manner, returned immediately to Peru, resigned his power and positions to the Congress, and left Bolívar in undisputed leadership.
San Martín made his way to Argentina and then to Europe, where he spent the rest of his life. He died on Aug. 17, 1850, at Boulogne-sur-Mer.
Further Reading on José de San Martín
The standard biography of San Martín is Bartolome Mitre, The Emancipation of South America (trans. 1893; new introduction, 1969), a good starting place for understanding the liberation of Chile and Peru. A popular short biography by an Englishman is John C. J. Metford, San Martín: The Liberator (1950). Other biographies include Anna Schoellkopf, Don José de San Martín, 1778-1850: A Study of His Career (1924); Margaret H. Harrison, Captain of the Andes (1943); and Ricardo Rojas, San Martín: Knight of the Andes (trans. 1945).
Additional Biography Sources
The Liberator General San Martín: a bicentennial tribute, 1778-February 25-197, Washington: General Secretariat, Organization of American States, 1978?.
San Martín, José de, The San Martín papers, Washington, D.C.: Full Life: San Martín Society, 1988.