20 de julio: Colombian Independence Day

¡Felíz día de Independencia!

July 20th is Colombian Independence Day.  A day in Colombia to get off work, drink some Aguila beer or some aguardiente, and to appreciate the history of Colombia.

July seems to have a disproportionate number of national holidays celebrating an independence day.  There is of course the U.S. American Fourth of July, as well as France’s Bastille Day (and in turn Algeria’s 1962 declaration from France), Belarus’ liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944, Argentina’s independence on July 9, even the Bahamas 1973 separation from Britain.  Twenty-five countries in all.  Maybe something about the heat of summer to get one’s blood boiling and declare revolution.

In the United States, we celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  In Colombia, they celebrate what is essentially the story of a broken flower vase.

Colombia’s independence certainly did not come about in one day – in fact the city of Cartagena and other parts of what was then known as New Granada had already declared themselves independent by early 1810.  But Bogotá, as one of the most important cities in New Granada and seat of the Spanish Viceroy, was still under the power of the Spanish.

On July 20, 1810, Bogotanos who wanted to be independent from Spain’s rule (at that time Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule) hatched a plan that is now part myth and part history.  They needed a way to organize the unhappy populace around a cause and turn out in mass protest against Spanish rule.

Their plan: to ask a well-known Spanish sympathizer named Joaquín Llorente (who was also well-known for having a temper) to loan a vase to use at a dinner to honor well-known independence sympathizer Antonio Villavicencio.  Llorente’s refusal, they hoped, would incite the anger of the pueblo.  What happened exactly happened in the expensive home of Llorente has been lost to history.

By some accounts Llorente was polite and the revolutionaries had to work at finally provoking him.  By other accounts, Llorente was rude from the get-go and perpetrated an unforgivable act of treason by (gasp!) trying to smash the vase in anger and punching the revolutionaries in the face.

That was it.  Revolution had come to Colombia.

Fighting over the Vase
Llorente gives the revolutionaries a good punch in the face…marking the first Colombian Independence Day.

Whichever version of the story it true, either way, the revolutionaries ran through the streets, rounding up crowds to protest the Spanish rule.  (Outside the vase incident, it should also be noted that the second part of their two-pronged attack was to ask for an open town meeting on independence, which was also, predictably, denied.)

The riot reached the viceroy’s office and he had no choice but to agree to a town meeting that would a local governing council – paving the path for full independence (achieved nine years later by Simon Bolívar’s victory at the Battle of Boyacá; a story for another day).

The long fight for independence was a bloody one, and one that would be marred in conflict for years to come.  Even today, as anyone who watches the news knows, conflict continues to be tragic player in Colombia’s continuing history.

Yet 203 years ago in Bogotá, revolutionaries didn’t need machine guns, car bombs, or drug money to start their revolution.  A delicate flower vase did the trick nicely.

That a vase helped Colombia become independent is just one of few surprising facts about Colombia.  I encourage you to peruse the site and my upcoming book on Colombia to learn more.

If you travel to Colombia and plan to visit Bogotá, swing by the Museo de 20 de Julio, where the confrontation between the revolutionaries and Llorente took place, and today is also know as La Casa del Florero, the House of the Vase.  A vase that helped Colombia become independent.

Casa del florero bogotá
La Casa del Florero, or Vase House in Bogotá. Now the Museo de 20 de julio, or the Museum of Independence.
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