Pedro Camejo, 200 years in the heart of the town

Pedro Camejo is one of the most vivid and exciting legends of Carabobo. Due to his nobility and courage, he achieved the great honor of being considered a hero of the country, but he is not a hero of the mold. Black, enslaved, rebellious, superstitious and joker, he is a figure with a biography full of lights and shadows that underlies a flesh and blood man bathed in glory by the most seasoned historical chronicler: the people.

Antithesis of the idols that fill the history books, his legacy not only speaks of him as an individual figure but as a symbol. Although the titan of independence, he arrived just six years ago at the National Pantheon. But the honor that the elites had denied him in insisting on maintaining an atavistic prejudice had been granted long before by the people, who transfigured admiration in faith and received him on the altars of Venezuelan popular spirituality.

Two hundred years after his fall in combat, victim of the first minutes of fire in the battle that sealed independence, to recall his feat is to bring to the present the feat of all the barefoot people who fought in the Bolivarian ranks seeking social justice. However, it is also fair to recognize him in his uniqueness, as Páez's courageous lieutenant, as an effective comrade in arms, as a scathing conversationalist and as a great witness and protagonist of history.

To seek fortune

Pedro Felipe Camejo, who would be immortalized as “El Negro Primero”, was born in San Juan de Payara, Apure state, according to most history books in 1790. He came into the world as a slave. Like millions before him, logic indicated that his destiny as a servant and supplier of brute force was signed and sealed, but with determination, rebellion and courage this African descendant twisted that design one hundred percent.

Little or nothing is known about his childhood and youth, only that he had a brother who was physically his opposite: he was blond. Called José Paz and jokingly nicknamed "the world" because of his easy verb, he also opted for the arms race alongside the patriot side and died in the Andes, accompanying Bolívar.

Returning to Camejo, his first foray as a combatant did not take place alongside the cause of independence but on the royalist side, within the framework of the War to the Death, in 1813, when he was about 23 years old. He joined the war fueled by José Tomás Boves instructed by his "owner", who gave him up to combat to get rid of the discomfort of his rebellion.

Or at least that is how Páez insinuates it in his autobiography, who when introducing the story of Camejo says: “He had been a slave of the neighboring owner of Apure, Don Vicente Alfonzo, who had put him at the service of the king, because the character of the black man, overly jealous of his dignity, he inspired some fears ”.

However, years later Camejo confessed to Bolívar that his foray into the royalist camp had not been against his will and that he had come to these ranks to satisfy a feeling of material need and — surely — also of redress. It is good to remember that the troops recruited by Boves had been mostly slaves and peasants covered by an overwhelming feeling of indignation against the powerful.

“Sir, greed. I had noticed that everyone went to war without a shirt and without a penny and came back later dressed in a very nice uniform and with money in their pockets. So I also wanted to go find my fortune, ”Camejo told the Liberator, as Páez continues to refer in his memoirs.

Camejo fought for a few months with the Spanish, but left their ranks disappointed and after the Battle of Araure he fled. He was disappointed to only be assigned to minor duties, for example, as a gravedigger for the fallen in combat, which he particularly disliked because he had a great dislike of cemeteries.

He would not allow himself to be a slave again, so he preferred to stay hidden and live the rigors of that condition, stealing cows and food to support himself, until 1816, when he learned of Páez's passage through Achaguas, after coming triumphant from the Battle of Yagual.

Bravo de Apure

At that moment he decided to introduce himself and ask for his enrollment. He spoke with Páez and managed to convince him to accept it. To enter, Camejo asked for only one condition: not to be assigned to the tasks of corpse management or to be forced to enter cemeteries. Páez, "the butler", as they called him then, accepted the prerogative, assigning him a spear and a horse from the start.

It didn't take him long to get a job. In battle he was fierce and determined, but among his fellow men he was talkative, cheerful, charismatic and the owner of great popular wisdom.

El Negro Primero in the oil painting «Vuelvan faces» by Arturo Michelena, 1890.

Páez made him his lieutenant and the traits of his upright and candid personality reached the ears of Bolívar, who after meeting him in 1818 enjoyed in each meeting long conversations with this singular soldier who, although illiterate, presented his ideas and projects as a scholar.

“Admitting him to my ranks and always by my side was a precious acquisition for me. He gave such tests of courage in all the close encounters we had with the enemy, that his own companions gave him the title of El Negro Primero. They say that the title was due to the fact that Camejo always pointed out: In front of me only the head of my horse ”, wrote Páez.

In fact, questioned by Bolívar himself about the feelings that moved him to move to the Republican side, Camejo told him on one occasion: “the butler came to Apure and taught us what the homeland was and that devilcracy it wasn't a bad thing. Since then I have been serving the patriots ”.

With the particular term of devilcracy he was referring to the way the royalists pejoratively called a possible government headed by revolutionaries.

Camejo fought alongside Páez and the Bravos de Apure for five years. He was a hero in the Queseras del Medio, on April 2, 1819, where due to his courage he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He also fought in actions such as those of the Sacra Familia, La Cruz and Carabobo, where his heroic title became a fatal omen, when he was reached by death in the initial minutes of the fight. He was 31 years old.

“On the day of the battle, at the first shots, he was mortally wounded, and this news later caused deep pain throughout the army. Bolívar, when he found out, considered it a disgrace and regretted that it had not been possible for him to present in Caracas that man who called unequaled in simplicity, and, above all, admirable in the peculiar style in which he expressed his ideas " , left reflected Páez.

The farewell to its leader is one of the most remembered and mythologized episodes not only of the Battle of Carabobo but of the entire history of the War of Independence. Eduardo Blanco recounts it with great drama in Venezuela Heroica. That cry of "My general, I come to say goodbye because I am dead", accompanies the people of Venezuela from the first letters.

Pedro Camejo lies dying in the fresco of the battle of Martín Tovar y Tovar in the Capitol.

Páez never forgot that soldier from a hurry. In fact, in 1846, 25 years after Carabobo, he granted a life pension to the widow, Juana Andrea Solórzano, so that she could benefit from a pension. In the certificate, Páez wrote, according to the General Archive of the Nation:

“I certify: that Citizen Pedro Camejo joined and took service in the Army under my command in this province in 1816, and that he continued until 1821, when he died in the Carabobo field from a wound he received from firearm, at the time of combat; and that due to his outstanding value he deserved the promotion of Lieutenant of Cavalry, having principalized his career as a private soldier ”, in a letter signed in Borales del Frío, Apure state.

Beyond the hero

Several historical and testimonial books leave accounts of Camejo's life journey and anecdotes that speak not only of his military qualities but also of being human. For example, his superstitions and his aversion to the "Black Shadow" that according to him haunted him in dreams since the royalists forced him to disturb the sleep of the dead in cemeteries.

Another anecdote related by Aristides Rojas tells how Camejo claimed his companions one day for hunting in the savannah for fun. “That is bad, gentlemen, killing God's animal, unnecessarily. These animals are necessary for breeding ”, claimed the Negro Primero, at which the soldiers scoffed, reminding him of his impassiveness to kill royalists. Camejo replied: “I don't attack anyone, just for fun. I don't kill them. They kill themselves. They come upon me and I receive them on my spear and they are skewered ”.

Another episode written by the same author tells of a fight between Camejo and his brother on a night out, when some joropo singers dared to make fun of the difference in skin color between them.

It also highlights the day that, in 1819, Páez requested his company for a high-level meeting with royalist leaders in the framework of Bolívar's armistice he was negotiating with Morillo. The general dressed the Negro Primero with the finery that the occasion required, but in the middle of the meeting Camejo could not bear the discomfort of wearing shoes against his custom, so without any shame he took off his boots in front of the guests.

“Wanting to show off the waste that those objects of high civilization inspired in him, he had to take them off, and taking them in one of his hands, he crossed from one end of the room to the other where lunch was taking place. That scene, as grotesque as it was unexpected, caused prolonged hilarity, from which Páez knew how to take advantage of to entertain his guest about the customs of the llanero ”.

Rojas also refers to the time that Bolívar asked Camejo what he wanted as a reward for his bravery after one of so many battles, to which the Negro Primero asked for a very scarce good in the patriot battalions but abundant in the royalist camps: tobacco.

Bolívar, solicitous, sent a soldier to request in peace some tobacco in the enemy camp, which he succeeded in doing.

“Black I was satisfied with so much attention, and boasted, among his comrades in arms, of having received the award he had requested. If the Mayordomo (Páez) said, he loves me, I will give my life for him; Of course I can accompany Uncle (Bolívar) to Las Cocuizas, but in Caracas he will never see me, ”Rojas wrote. That last sentence was another of his prophecies.

In the Pantheon, art and altars

Pedro Camejo did not enter the National Pantheon until June 24, 2015. On that day a container with his symbolic remains was deposited on this altar of the homeland, which rests at the right hand of Páez.

Another of the official tributes that have been made to Camejo is to integrate his face into the national monetary cone since the monetary reconversion of 2008.

In terms of popular recognition, Negro Primero has long been an inspiration for national art. It was painted by Arturo Michelena on his canvas on dedicated to the Queseras del Medio entitled Come Back Faces, painted in XNUMX. He also appears, dying, in the fresco of the Battle of Carabobo that adorns the interior of the dome of the Legislative Palace. His anonymous portrait is also well known and today it has been reinterpreted in murals, statues and conceptual art, to symbolize the heroism of the Afro-Venezuelan people.

In particular, graffiti has taken his stamp as inspiration and several contemporary artists have reinterpreted his face with features, accessories and imagery of today. One of them, for example, is the recently inaugurated work in Fine Arts by the muralist brigade of the Francisco de Miranda Front.

Mural of the muralist brigade of the Francisco de Miranda Front, on Mexico Avenue in Bellas Artes, Caracas.

With regard to popular religiosity, Camejo is a recurring figure in the spiritual expressions that surround the cult of María Lionza, although it should not be confused with the Negro Felipe, another entity of greater rank, which, although very similar refers to a very previous character, in fact, born in Africa and trafficked to Venezuela.

El Negro Primero is a historical figure who, like few others, is present in the national imagination. On this bicentennial of the Battle of Carabobo, it is fair to bring it to the present in its most human dimension and to remember that our heroic deeds have always had the face of a people.

Download here the book "Pedro Camejo, the man who symbolized a people", from the National History Center

The Negro and the Catire

Not only painting and literature have brought the history of Negro Primero to the new generations. So has music. One of the pieces that reminds him is El Negro y el Catireby Gualberto Ibarreto.

The two met

By the sides of Payara

One raised his voice

And the other did not say anything

They started to fight

There was no other choice

Mucuritas, the Yagual and the Queseras del Medio

They grabbed spear in hand

They spread blood and scream

The catire commanding

And the black first

But the catire cried

Because with that open chest

The black said goodbye, goodbye

Because i was dead

The black and the catire by Gualberto Ibarreto:

 

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