The Last Days of José de San Martin

By Tony Darrington —

Written for the History Series of the Peruvian Times on the occasion of the anniversary of San Martín’s death, August 17, 1850. It follows a visit to the Casa San Martín in Boulogne, France on July 27, 2017, the house-museum busily preparing for the bicentennial anniversary of Peru’s Declaration of Independence proclaimed by San Martín on July 28, 1821. 

The iconic figure of San Martín

When the history of the Peruvian communities in Europe comes to be written, the opening chapter should refer to the role of San Martín. His extra quarter-century of life compared to Bolívar, who died from tuberculosis at 47, enabled San Martín to enjoy almost a second career, to establish himself as an “inter-revolutionary émigré proper” and hence become an early foundational figure amongst Peruvian, Chilean and Argentine émigrés. When Bolívar died he too had been destined for exile in Europe.

Following his pre-1822 martial achievements, San Martín’s later experience (including the posthumous and retrospective!) has been the transformation into one of the prime iconic “figures of heritage identity” in France — alongside Flora Tristán, Cesar Vallejo and a few other notable figures. Neither San Martín nor Tristán were exactly Peruvian in terms of birth or long residence in Peru but both rendered service to the country (Flora was, however, related to the eminent Tristán/Moscoso family from Arequipa, and later was “adopted” as a patron saint of the Peruvian feminist movement).


  José Francisco de San Martín y Matorras (1778 – 1850). Portrait from the 1820s. Triumphs included his contribution to defeating Napoleon in Spain, consolidating independence in Argentina, and liberating Chile and Peru. Historically justified transpatriotism.


It is 167 years ago today, Aug. 17th, since the death of Liberator José Francisco de San Martín y Matorras (25 February 1778 – 17 August 1850) in Boulogne-sur-Mer on the north coast of France. In spite of numerous monuments and intense coverage of his campaigns for the independence of Chile and Peru, little has been written about the final years of the General’s life in the way that, for example, Gabriel García Márquez in “The General in his Labyrinth” —a masterpiece of history with a wrapping of fiction— dealt with the last days of Simon Bolivar.

John Lynch has written two fine books devoted to the lives of José de San Martín and Simón Bolívar, respectively. Quem di diligunt, adolescens moritur. Whom the gods love die young (only the good die young). Bolívar at 47, while San Martín died at 72.

García Márquez’ novel, meanwhile, provides a wonderfully accessible account of Simon Bolívar’s last months. He was eight years old when José de San Martín (the ‘co-libertador’ of Hispanic South America) was born. He was later in active correspondence with the then reformist President of Peru, Ramon Castilla. And although he died young, he lived long enough to see Peru begin to emerge (only just, as of say 1845) from the long period of post-colonial chaos and Caudillo wars.

In older age – the portrait above is from 1848 — San Martin sought refuge from the Argentine civil war in London and then in Brussels. From there, the 1830 rebellion and conflict with the Netherlands drove him to Paris, and then the 1848 revolution there saw him seek asylum again in Britain but ill health prevented it.

That same year he made it as far as Boulogne on the coast of France. His daughter and son-in-law were at his side when he died 17 August, 1850.

The beginning of San Martín’s “second career”? A famous image, above, of the infamous meeting between both liberators at Guayaquil, now in Ecuador.  At the time, the city of Guayaquil was  waiting indecisively to be allocated either to Colombia (Bolívar) or Peru (San Martín). The meeting — actually in an office, not in the open air  — took place behind closed doors and went unwitnessed and unrecorded.

One of France’s tributes to Don José, symbolic particularly of the Chilean and Peruvian campaigns, is the equestrian statue of him in the Parc Montsouris, South Paris, opposite the Cité Universitaire, a focal point for commemorating the 1821 Declaration of Independence.  It is a copy of the statue in Santiago.

Arrival of San Martín and Carlos María de Alvear (later Supreme Director, 1815) off Buenos Aires, aboard the frigate significantly and coincidentally called “George Canning”.

San Martín’s contact with the French and the British goes back to well before 1821. Notably it was the British Navy that facilitated his arrival back in Argentina.

A recent visit to the house, now museum, where Don José died, the acquisition of the book “El General San Martín: Última etapa Boulogne-sur-Mer” (in French and Spanish only) by Pierre Camusat, the taking of a few photos of the General’s equestrian statue by the Boulogne waterside and, above all, a long conversation with Nestor Martín, the current Argentinian conservator of the museum, provoked questions such as “Why the flight from conflict?”, “Why Brussels?”, “Why London?”, “The extent of San Martín’s labyrinth?”, “Why Boulogne?”

The quarter-century flight from conflict and the last days of San Martín.

Perhaps as emigrés  we are interested in San Martín’s later role as the (unwitting) community icon which both stresses the past links in this case between Peru, France, Spain and England.

Every year around this time of the Fiestas Patrias, airtime is spent on detailing aspects of the General’s life and campaigns but perhaps not so much is known about his “quarter-century flight from conflict.”

1921 — The first centenary of the Independence

There is no doubting the importance of  General José Francisco de San Martín in Peru’s path to Republican Government.

As the opening project for the Peruvian Republic’s centenary celebrations of 1921, a rail terminus station was pulled down and two smaller “plazuelas” realigned in order to make way for central Lima’s new Square: the Plaza San Martín. It was named in honor of the General who had, with Chilean and Argentine troops (mainly), “introduced” liberation to seemingly reluctant Limeños. On 28 July 1821 he had declared Peru free from the colonial power of Spain. At that stage it was only Lima (other than a few cities like Trujillo) that had been evacuated by the viceregal forces of La Serna.

It was in 1826 that the last Spanish troops were finally withdrawn following battles at Junín and Ayacucho in 1824, a last ditch campaign in Upper Peru in 1825 and, from Spain’s point to view, the final tragic siege and surrender at the Royal Fortress of San Felipe in Callao. Peru commemorated both the 1921 and 1924 centenary.

The grain of the photo and the winter “garúa, llovizna, neblina” combine to create one of the most atmospheric of the Centenary’s images. A moment prior to the unveiling of the new statue of General José de San Martín is caught in this photo in the West Coast Leader (previous incarnation of Lima’s Peruvian Times) of 27/28 July, 1921 — the opening days of the Centenary celebrations. Veiled, “enshrouded”,  the vast “ghost” of times past, an overweening, deific figure is ready to burst forth to reinforce the fibre of President Leguía’s Patria Nueva (New Fatherland).

The statue unveiled on the new plaza — parts of the unfinished perimeter buildings around the plaza were disguised by hoardings. In this photo the oversize advertisement for W. Grace and Co. – the name synonymous with US influence in the Peruvian economy

The fact that it was a statue of San Martín, and not of Simón Bolívar, which had been proposed as the centerpiece for the Plaza, led to a serious dispute with Venezuela (Bolivariano por excelencia), which boycotted the celebrations. The President of the time, Augusto Bernardino Leguía, attempted to defuse the situation by naming a (really the) new “grand” hotel in honor of Bolívar. It was built on the north-west side of the square especially to receive the distinguished international guests invited to the centenary celebration. The  hotel after many years of decline is still there (see note Furnished). Venezuela, however, was not impressed: too much of an afterthought which additionally failed to be completed on time. The honored guests were distributed around Lima in the homes of the aristocracy.

The Gran Hotel Bolivar on the new Plaza San Martin opened in 1924, boasting 100 apartments, 200 bathrooms, and furnishings by the English furniture firm of Waring & Gillow

Despite Bolivar, the date 28 July 1821 remains intimately associated with San Martín, for it was he who declared independence (somewhat prematurely) from the famous balconies in Huaura and Lima.

This obelisk – another monument to San Martín – stood in front of Lima’s second station: that of the Chorrillos line on the Paseo Colón, also demolished. This line, in part followed the ancient indigenous route to the sea. It was, in turn, replaced by a system of tramways and then an expressway with central carriageways reserved for public transport.

 By 1921 only the statue and its portentous plinth were in place. Parts of the unfinished perimeter buildings around the plaza were disguised by boardings. Noticeable in one photo is the oversize advertisement for W.Grace and Co. — the name synonymous with US influence in the Peruvian economy — and contrasts with the intensely symbolic and hispanic figure of San Martín riding high: higher than most of the many other equestrian statues/monuments to San Martín in the world – and there are many.

In France there are two. In the south of Paris, the Peruvian Embassy joins with the Peruvian Cultural Center at the base of José de San Martín’s statue on July 28  to celebrate his life, and in the north of France a substantial “maison bourgeoise” at number 113 Grande Rue, Boulogne remains a shrine to, and indeed a museum of, the revered General.  He occupied the top (fourth Peru, third UK) floor of the building for the last two years of his life, 1848 to 1850.

But that’s not all: the French equestrian monument (the first – 1909 – of the two) to San Martín is to be found at the bottom of the steep incline of the Grand Rue which connects the Lower Town to the Old Inner Citadel of Boulogne.

Locally the statue is considered to have almost magical properties (it is said) as it was the only entity in the neighborhood to survive the intense bombardments during the Second World War of the port quarter of Boulogne.

The statue of San Martin unscathed in Boulogne-sur-mer, surrounded by buildings damaged by bombardments in World War II.

He had left Peru in 1823 and taken a ship from Buenos Aires to France but on arrival at Le Havre the authorities refused him permission to land, fearing his reputation as a “revolutionary.” He continued to England with his daughter and thereafter to Brussels, where he remained until 1830. Those leading the rebellions in Belgium that year were requesting San Martín to lead them. His “dislike of conflict” caused him to “flee” to France.

The interior of San Martín’s last residence at 113 Grande Rue, Boulogne

The rooms, in the flesh, demonstrate the economy and order of a military lifestyle. The floorboards under the death-bed of the General had been removed at some point and transported to Argentina.

Below, the Casa San Martín at No. 113 (photo taken from 117) Grande Rue, Boulogne. In 1848 this was one of the most fashionable houses in the city’s most prestigious street. The French “tricolore” flag flies alongside that of Argentina. The house is considered as if on Argentine soil, as part of the cultural section of the Embassy.

A home fit for a hero, Paris: The Casa Grand Bourg where San Martín held “low budget” court from 1831 to 1848, has appeared on Argentine banknotes.

The monument on Peru’s south coast at Paracas, from “The Nation to General San Martin and the Liberation Expedition.”


Figures of heritage identity. Especially in the case of France, the Peruvians and Latin Americans have formed a long-established and successful cultural community. See Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars  6 Feb 2018 by Michele Greet. The Lights of Home: A Century of Latin American Writers in Paris by Jason Weiss (2002-10-13)  . Also Goulder P A Review of previous in Annexe***

Inter-revolutionary émigré proper. Emigré would seem to be appropriate in the historical context — rather than migrant, asylum-seeker etc. And San Martín would only stay until the next revolution.

Little has been written on San Martin (comparative to the coverage of his military exploits). The Guayaquil conference inspired a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, Guayaquil, in which he explores the possible psychological relationship between San Martín and Bolívar. Also: Lecuna, Vincente (1951). “Bolívar and San Martín at Guayaquil”. The Hispanic American Historical Review. 31 (3): 369–393. JSTOR 2509398. doi:10.2307/2509398. Masur, Gehard (1951). “The Conference of Guayaquil”. The Hispanic American Historical Review. 31 (2): 189–229. JSTOR 2509029. doi:10.2307/2509029.


  • Documentos para la historia del Libertador General San Martín [Documents for the history of Liberator General San Martín] (in Spanish). Buenos Aires: Instituto Nacional Sanmartiniano and Museo Histórico Nacional. 1953.
  • Crow, John (17 January 1992). The Epic of Latin America. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-07723-2.
  • Dellepiane, Carlos (1965). Historia militar del Perú [Military history of Peru] (in Spanish). Buenos Aires: Círculo Militar.
  • Espíndola, Adolfo (1962). San Martín en el Ejército Español en la península [San Martín in the Spanish Army in the peninsula] (in Spanish). Buenos Aires: Comisión Nacional Ejecutiva del 150 Aniversario de la Revolución de Mayo.
  • Harvey, Robert (2000). Liberators: Latin America’s Struggle For Independence. New York: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers. ISBN 978-1-58567-072-7.
  • Higgins, James (2014). The Emancipation of Peru: British Eyewitness Accounts. Online at
  • Levene, Ricardo (1936). Historia de la Nación Argentina [History of the Argentine Nation] (in Spanish). Buenos Aires: Editorial El Ateneo.
  • Montes i Bradley, Ricardo Ernesto (1952). El agricultor José de San Martín [The farmer José de San Martín] (in Spanish). Mexico: Editorial Persp

San Martin: Argentine Soldier, American Hero  by John Lynch — José de San Martín (1778–1850) was an enigmatic figure—a revolutionary and a conservative, a professional soldier and an intellectual, a taciturn man who nevertheless was able to inspire the peoples of South America to follow his armies and accept his battle strategies. One of the great leaders in the wars for independence, he was a pivotal force in the liberation of Chile and Peru from Spanish rule.

In the first full English-language biography of San Martín in more than half a century, John Lynch shines new light on San Martín and on the story of Spanish America’s revolutionary wars. Lynch offers a series of dramatic set pieces: the Peninsular War, in which San Martín fought the French and learned his military skills; the crossing of the Andes, when his army battled the forces of nature as well as enemy fire; the confrontation with imperial Spain in Peru; and the standoff with Bolívar which led to San Martín’s resignation and exile in Europe. Based on the latest documentation, San Martín enhances our understanding of the modern history of Latin America and one of its most brilliant leaders.

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