Rebellion and Nation Building in 19th-Century Colombia
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Libertad y orden ¡El Jeneral José María Obando!!

José María Obando, a general and liberal politician, was an important figure in establishing Colombian democracy. Today, he lives on as a symbol of social justice and progressive liberalism. A man of humble roots, Obando was a controversial and outspoken defender of freedom and equality. He was an early supporter of the abolitionist movement and champion of the working class. He lived during a tumultuous time, serving as a general both in the wars for independence, and in post-independence civil wars and regional rebellions. During his political career, he was a progressive and populist liberal, and thus found himself at odds with elite liberals and centralist conservatives, in the struggles to establish Colombian democracy and political order.

Obando was born on August 8, 1795 in the town of Güengüe near Popayán to an unwed mother, Ana María Crespo. She named him José María Ramón Iragorri Crespo, but as was customary at the time, the church forced Crespo to put her son up for adoption when he turned two, because the church considered single mothers were considered unfit parents.1 He was adopted by Juan Luis Obando del Castillo y Frías and Antonia del Campo y López who raised him as their legitimate son and changed his name to José María Ramón Obando del Campo. As a child he moved to Pasto, his parents' hometown, which remained a loyalist refuge long after other parts of the nation broke ties to Spain.2 Due to his elite criollo (Colombian born Spanish descendants) roots and ties to Pasto, it is hardly surprising that when Simón Bolivar's troops arrived in Colombia, Obando initially joined Loyalist forces to defend the Spanish monarchy in 1819.3 However, after Bolívar conquered Bogotá, his forces arrived in Popayán, threatening to take over Pasto as well. Obando returned to Popayán in 1821 to attend to family business, at which time he met Republican leaders, and decided to join their cause to bring democracy to the Colombian people.4 While he initially sided with Bolívar, he soon became an ally of Francisco de Paula Santander, Bolívar's primary opponent. Like Santander, he opposed centralism and believed in federalism as a means of establishing a representative government. He supported Santander's vision of a constitution that would extend voting rights, abolish slavery, reform the taxation system, and separate church and state.5 Obando had also grown to distrust Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera whom Bolívar had appointed as head of the Popayán regional government.6 Mosquera, a native of Popayán, shared with Obando the ambition to create a strong, independent Colombian state. However, although he held liberal values, unlike Obando, he favored centralism and elite-led politics. He also often changed political loyalties to gain political appointments.7 When Bolívar established a dictatorship in 1828, Obando joined with future president José Hilario López to lead a rebellion in Cauca. Although the rebellion did not topple the government, it forced Bolívar to compromise with Santander supporters and make arrangements to step down as president.8 During this time, Obando also became a champion for both Afro-Colombian and indigenous residents of Cauca, widening his support base and earning him popular appeal as a progressive liberal.9

Obando briefly served as Vice-President between 1831-1832, leaving his mark on the 1832 Colombian constitution that upheld Federalist values and formerly named Santander as President.10 He championed equal rights for all Colombians, including universal access to public education. After stepping down from the Vice-Presidency, Obando returned to the Cauca Valley to reclaim territories taken by pro-Bolívar rebels. Throughout the 1830s, Colombia's new democratic government struggled to establish itself, leading to uneven rule and growing political tensions throughout the country. In 1839, Congress suppressed small monasteries throughout the nation. In Pasto, which remained a fiercely autonomous city, residents took this as a sign of cultural and religious repression, and challenged the government.11 Although Obando was not pro-clergy, he saw it as his duty to participate and support his people. That same year, Obando declared himself the "Supreme Director of War" in Pasto, prompting other regional rebellions throughout the nation led by "Supremes" who opposed the Centralist government. Obando used the opportunity to challenge his adversary Mosquera, who was then Secretary of War. He also used the rebellion to pressure the government to end slavery and instill more representative state institutions.12 Although the War of the Supremes was unsuccessful, it solidified Obando as a symbol of the popular classes' struggle for political inclusion. He became a polarizing figure, as his new enemies saw him as a dangerous radical. In particular, he and Mosquera would continue to feud for over a decade after the end of the War.

After his defeat, Obando went into exile in Peru and then Chile, where he befriended liberal politicians and wrote several prolific books on Colombian politics.13 In 1849, Mosquera, at the time President, pardoned the Supremes, and Obando was able to return to Colombia. Despite his seven-year absence, Obando had maintained a loyal following. When he ran for president in 1853, he won by an impressive majority, despite divisions between radicals and elites in the Liberal Party at the time.14 Obando, a man of law, immediately dedicated himself to reforming the constitution. However, his presidency came to an abrupt end when José María Melo led a successful coup against him in 1854. During the Melo regime, he ended his feud with Mosquera, recognizing the need for greater unity among liberal leaders who opposed the Melo dictatorship and the Conservatives' vision for Colombia's future.15 In 1860, Obando supported Mosquera's rebellion against the Conservative government. He died leading rebel Federalist forces in 1861 in Cauca. Obando's death was a harsh blow to liberals throughout the nation, yet his memory lived on for years an important symbol of liberalism, justice, and independence.

1Francisco U. Zuluaga, José María Obando: De Soldado Realista a Caudillo Republicano (Fondo de Promoción de la Cultura del Banco Popular, 1985).

2David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia : A Nation in Spite of Itself (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).

3Zuluaga, José María Obando.


5Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia.

6Zuluaga, José María Obando.

7Diego Castrillón Arboleda, Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera, Banco del Estado (Popayán, Colombia). Publicación del Banco del Estado. UNAUTHORIZED (Santa Fé de Bogotá, Colombia: Planeta, 1994).

8Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia.

9Zuluaga, José María Obando.

10Juan Jacobo Muñoz Delgado, "Obando, José María," Gran Enciclopedia de Colombia (Bogota, DC; online: Círculo de Lectores; Banco de la República, 1991),

11Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia.

12Muñoz Delgado, "Obando, José María."




Bushnell, David.
The Making of Modern Colombia : A Nation in Spite of Itself. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.
Castrillón Arboleda, Diego.
Tomás Cipriano de Mosquera. Banco del Estado (Popayán, Colombia). Publicación del Banco del Estado. Santa Fé de Bogotá, Colombia: Planeta, 1994.
Muñoz Delgado, Juan Jacobo.
"Obando, José María." Gran Enciclopedia de Colombia. Bogota, DC; online: Círculo de Lectores; Banco de la República, 1991.
Zuluaga, Francisco U.
José María Obando: De Soldado Realista a Caudillo Republicano. Fondo de Promoción de la Cultura del Banco Popular, 1985.