Miranda, Francisco de (1750–1816)

Sebastián Francisco de Miranda y Rodríguez de Espinoza (28 March 1750 – 14 July 1816) played a key role in encouraging the rise of the Hispanic-Anglosphere. A native of Caracas, he was a military and revolutionary leader, the Plenipotentiary Dictator and Supreme Chief (dictador plenipotenciario y jefe supremo) of Venezuela, Commander in Chief and the Generalissimus of the Venezuelan Army (April-July 1812) known as the Precursor of Spanish American independence. Miranda’s various plans from the 1780s to the early 1800s were founded on the idea of a military liberation expedition to Spanish America led by him and organized with the support of a power (Great Britain, United States, France) in conflict with the Spanish Monarchy which would in its turn foment existing discontent and lead to a wide-scale revolution.

Before the Scottish-born U.S. historian William Spence Robertson (1872–1955) found Miranda’s birth certificate and published his biography in the 1920s, all studies stated Miranda’s  year of birth as 1756, confusing him with his brother Francisco Antonio Gabriel. Curiously, in 1785 Miranda himself indicated 1754 as his birth year (he said that he was eighteen in 1772). A son of the prosperous merchant Sebastián de Miranda Ravelo (1721–1791) who arrived to Venezuela poor from his native Tenerife (Canary Islands) and grew rich from the Spanish textile trade from those islands to the Americas, Miranda decided to follow a military career early in his life. In January of 1771, he applied to the captain general of Venezuela, José de Solano (1726–1806), soliciting to enter the Spanish military service. Within months, he arrived in Cádiz and spent a year travelling around Spain, studying French, English, Italian, mathematics, and geography and collecting a library. On December 7, 1772, after buying a patent he entered the Spanish service as captain in the infantry regiment (Regimiento de Infantería de la Princesa). Miranda first served in Spanish North Africa and defended Melilla from the Moroccan sultan Mohammed III (1757–1790) in the war of December 1774–March 1775. In late 1775–early 1776, Miranda visited Gibraltar where he probably (they definitely knew each other by 1777) met the English merchant John Turnbull (d.1816) who would later provide him financial support until the very end of his life in a Spanish jail.  In late April of 1780 he was destined to Cuba to participate in the war against Great Britain. Since 1779 Spain had became an ally of the North American revolutionaries in their struggle against the British crown. Soon Miranda became aid-de-camp of the Cuban Captain General Juan Manuel Cagigal (Cajigal) y Monserrat (1739–1811). In April-May of 1781, he successfully fought in the Siege of Pensacola (there he also enhanced his library with English books and bought four slaves whom he planned to sell profitably in Havana). In August of 1781 Cagigal entrusted him with an important and delicate mission: to go to Jamaica to exchange Spanish and British prisoners of war and to secretly purchase two British ships. On his successful return to Cuba, he brought back more than one hundred liberated Spanish war captives and allowed one Jamaican merchant to bring English textiles to Havana—reportedly in exchange for valuable information. Much later, Miranda would claim that the U.S. War of Independence awakened in his mind the idea of Spanish American independence but there is no contemporary evidence to this statement. Eventually the intrigues of the Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Galvez (1746–1786) led to the Miranda’s escape to the newly independent United States where he arrived on 10 June 1783. From that time on Miranda devoted his life to the cause of Spanish American independence trying to use the conflicts between great powers to achieve his goal. His contacts ranged from U.S. Founding Fathers, Pitt the Younger and Viscount Melville to Friedrich II and Catherine II.

Miranda spent many years of his life in London (January – August 1785, June 1789 – March 1792, January 1798 – October 1800, April 1801 – September 1805, January 1808 – October 1810), fluently spoke and wrote in English, highly valued the British constitution and had extensive contacts in British political and military circles. Miranda’s only wife and a mother of his only known children bearing his surname (from ca. 1802; the marriage was not formally registered) was a Catholic native of Yorkshire, a shoemaker’s daughter Sarah Andrews (1774–1848). In late 1791 he received 500 pounds sterling from the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (1759–1806) for his exertions in the Nootka Sound Crisis. Throughout 1800s Miranda was receiving a pension of 500 pounds sterling a year from the British government and 200 pounds sterling privately from Sir Nicholas Vansittart (Archivo del General Miranda, vol. XV, pp. 129–140, vol. XVI, p. 341–342; vol. XXIII, p. 91–92; vol. XVII, p. 222).

It was also in London where Miranda published the first edition of the Peruvian Jesuit Juan Pablo Viscardo y Guzmán’s (1748–1798) first public appeal in history to the Spanish American independence (Lettre aux Espagnols américains. Par un de leurs compatriotes, Philadelphie (sic!), 1799), and then two works by his adherent, a certain William Burke whose identity is still a matter of dispute, South American Independence: Or The Emancipation of South America, the Glory and Interest of England (J. Ridgway, 1807), Additional reasons for our immediately emancipating Spanish America… (J. Ridgway, 1808), an apologetic account of his own revolutionary activities written by José Maria Antepara (1770–1821), South American Emancipation. Documents, Historical and Explanatory, shewing the designs which have been in progress, and exertions made by General Miranda, for the South American Emancipation, during the last twenty-five years (R. Juigné, 1810), and the newspaper El Colombiano intended for a Spanish American readership (March-May 1810).

Miranda’s close British circle of supporters included the former Royal Governor of Massachusetts Thomas Pownall (1722–1805, since 1789), the members of various London cabinets including Sir Nicholas Vansittart (1766–1851, since 1791) and Sir Evan Nepean (1752–1822, since 1799), the London merchant John Turnbull (since June 1777 or possibly December 1775). Turnbull financed Miranda throughout his life in exile and Vansittart as it was mentioned above provided him regular payments in the early 1800s. In his attempt to organize a revolution in Spanish America (1806–1807), he received support from the British Naval officers Captain Home Riggs Popham (1762–1820) and the Commander of the Leeward Islands Station, Rear Admiral Alexander Inglis Cochrane (1758–1832) as well as from the Governor of Trinidad Thomas Hislop (1764–1843) and the Lieutenant Governor of Grenada Frederick Maitland (1763–1848). Later Miranda would recruit to his side the economist, philosopher and historian James Mill (1773–1836, since 1808).

Miranda stayed in contact with the leaders of Great Britain such as William Pitt the Younger, Lord Melville (1742–1811) and later Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington (1769–1852) and Viscount Castlereagh (1769–1822) who were eager to use him as a trump card in the great power politics of the time. All of the three surviving constitutional projects for Spanish America drafted by Miranda were addressed to the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger (in 1797, 1801, 1808). The first of them drew inspiration from the British mixed system to advance the idea of establishing a hereditary executive authority in the shape of a monarchical Ynca (sic, for Inca), a Senate appointed for life and an elected House of Commons.

In the period 1802–1810, Miranda lived in a rented London house in the aristocratic neighborhood of Fitzrovia (at a cost of 70 pounds sterling per year) where his widow, as well as his secretary Thomas Molini (1776/1777–1834) remained till their respective deaths. In 1810 this house became a rallying point for Spanish American revolutionaries. In 1978, Miranda’s house with the adjacent buildings were bought by the Venezuelan Embassy. The Georgian period house was refurbished and remodeled by architect Boyd Auger with advice from the Victoria and Albert Museum during the early 1980s and since 1983 serves as a museum (58 Grafton Way, formerly 27 Grafton Street).

Miranda first arrived in London on 31 January 1785 where he established a close friendship with a scion of the New York merchant family William Stephens Smith (1755–1816) who eventually became the son-in-law of the future U.S. President John Adams (1735–1826). On 9 August 1785, Miranda and Smith left London in order to undertake a large European tour which led Miranda from the Netherlands to Turkey and Russia. On 18 June 1789 Miranda returned to London where he tried to use the Nootka Sound Crisis (1790–1791) which brought London and Madrid to the brink of war for his goal of getting Britain to support a revolutionary expedition to Spanish America. It was during that period that Miranda established first relation with the British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger.

After the peaceful resolution of the Nootka Sound Crisis Miranda moved to the revolutionary France eventually becoming General of the French Army and surviving two trials against him (March 23, 1792 – January 3, 1798). In Paris, Miranda frequented the salon of the English poet Helen Maria Williams (1761–1827) which united the British, North Americans and some prominent Girondists. There he also met the British-born legendary republican Thomas Paine (1737–1809) who in the end was to turn against him. The experience of the French revolution strengthened his respect towards the Anglo approach in constitutional matters. For example, in July 1795 Miranda addressed the French public calling them to learn from both the British and the US experience of rational government (Opinion du général Miranda sur la situation actuelle de la France et sur les remèdes convenables à ses maux, Paris: Impr. de la rue de Vaugirard, [1795]).

Towards the end of 1797 Miranda composed the plan of Spanish American independence which had to be achieved with the aid of Anglo-American allies (the so-called Acta de Paris). In exchange for military support, Great Britain was offered the islands of Trinidad (occupied by the British troops from February 18, 1797) and Margarita, and access to the Isthmus of Panama as well as commercial privileges and 30 million pounds sterling of compensation. Miranda also included the cession of Trinidad and Margarita to Great Britain in a constitutional plan for independent Spanish America drafted in the same year.

Miranda left France on 3 January 1798 to arrive in Dover on 12 January and to London three days later. He met Prime Minister Pitt the Younger on 16 January 1798 representing himself as, in French, ‘agent principal des Colonies hispanoaméricaines’ (principal agent of the Spanish American colonies). Plans of a joint Anglo-American expedition appealed to the U.S. Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), but they were never considered a real option neither by the British cabinet nor the U.S. administration. On 26 March 1798, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Lord William Grenville (1759–1834) informed the US envoy Rufus King that Great Britain had indicated to the Spanish authorities that London would not support a revolution in Spanish America for as long as Spain would counteract any potential French encroachments against the British and Portuguese possessions in the New World.

The British cabinet did not back Miranda, but started to pay him a pension sufficient to live in “an easy & comfortable manner” (18 September 1799, Archivo del General Miranda, vol. XV, p. 377). Meanwhile, the Franco-American convention (30 September 1800), the Peace of Amiens brought by the treaty between Great Britain, France, Spain, and the Batavian Republic (25 March 1802), and the sale of Louisiana to the United States (30 April / 2 May 1803) rendered Miranda’s plans useless. Finally understanding the futility of his attempts to achieve official support in Britain, Miranda left London on 2 September 1805 with the idea to persuade U.S. leaders to help him organize a revolutionary expedition or – in case of failure – to undertake an expedition with the help of his old North American friends. With the aid of William Stephens Smith, he recruited volunteers in New York and received the merchant vessel Leander owned by one Samuel Gouverneur Ogden (1779–1860) which was outfitted for war. The expedition sailed from New York on 3 February 1806.

During this expedition Miranda managed to establish good relations with the British naval officers and colonial administrators who apparently hoped that in the case of the Venezuelan’s victory and subsequent independence of Spanish America Great Britain would achieve large commercial and geopolitical benefits. He also appointed as his second-in-command a Scottish merchant turned into militia officer John Downie (1777-1826).  On 12 February 1806 the Leander met the HMS Cleopatra: the ship was searched and 39 sailors impressed but then Miranda persuaded the British captain to release them; in the captain’s words, Miranda ‘fully appeared to me to be a person in the confidence of the Ministry’. The first attempt of landing was disastrous: Miranda lost two schooners chartered on Haiti and remained with the Leander only. On 26 May 1806, the HMS Lily encountered Leander and eventually convoyed it to Grenada where the British Lieutenant Governor General Frederick Maitland helped the expedition to get provisions (28 May). On 6 June 1806, the Leander under the Lily convoy arrived to Barbados where on 9 June Miranda met Rear Admiral Alexander Cochrane who commanded the HMS Navy Leeward Station. On his own risk, Cochrane allowed Miranda to recruit new volunteers on Barbados and Trinidad and provided him with a naval convoy. When in mid-July of 1806 the British cabinet learnt about the Cochrane’s support to Miranda he was instructed to stop it (Historical Manuscripts Commission, vol. VIII, p. 236). On 18 June 1806, Miranda left to Trinidad where he managed to recruit ca. 250 new volunteers and secure the naval convoy. Just as Cochrane, the Governor of Trinidad Thomas Hislop was eager to support Miranda without consulting his authorities in London. Miranda left Trinidad on 25 July and on 3 August landed near the Venezuelan town Vela de Coro. The Venezuelan Captain Governor Manuel de Guevara Vasconcelos (1739–1807) successfully persuaded the local population that Miranda was a British agent. Receiving no support from the town dwellers and facing deadly encounters with the approaching Spanish troops, Miranda left the Spanish Main on 13 August 1806. He sailed to Aruba, then to Grenada and on 8 November 1806 returned to Trinidad. The relations with Governor Hislop were cordial and Miranda even consulted him on learning the Spanish language. It was Miranda who recommended the first British Governor of Trinidad Thomas Picton (1758–1815) to Arthur Wellesley, future Duke of Wellington; Picton fought under Wellesley’s command in the Peninsular Campaign in 1807–1808 and remained with him till his death at the Battle of Waterloo. The Miranda’s year on Trinidad became a subject of chapters in the V.S. Naipaul’s documentary narrative The Loss of El Dorado (1969) and in his novel A Way in the World (1994).

Miranda left Trinidad on 24 October 1807 and reached Portsmouth on 31 December 1807. In 1808–1809 the letters of Miranda to Venezuela were transmitted through Hislop and Cochrane (Archivo del General Miranda, vol. XXII, p. 229–231). The supporters of Miranda in New York William Stephens Smith and Samuel Gouverneur Ogden were tried for equipping the expedition against a friendly power on the U.S. territory but were acquitted. One of their defenders was Thomas Eddis (Addis) Emmet (1764–1827), a brother of the Irish revolutionary Robert Emmet and himself a member of the anti-British United Irishmen organization who arrived to the United States in 1804 on political reasons.

In 1808 Jeremiah Bentham (1748–1832) introduced to Miranda to his follower James Mill (1773–1836) now better known as the father of John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). In 1809 in the influential Edinburgh Review (№ XXVI, XXVIII) Mill published two articles advocating Spanish American independence and arguing that this should be achieved with the military and political aid of Britain, thus backing Miranda’s plan.

In spite of all of Miranda’s efforts, revolution in Spanish America only started amid the crisis instigated by Napoleon’s kidnapping of the Bourbons at Bayonne (May 1808) which led to the dislocation of the Spanish Monarchy. On 14 July 1810 a new generation of Spanish American revolutionaries – Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), Luis López Méndez (1758–1841) and Andrés Bello (1781–1865) – arrived to London to seek the British support. They were all hospitably received by Miranda. He left London on 10 October 1810 and arrived to Venezuela on 13 December 1810 eventually becoming the head of the First Venezuelan Republic.

Miranda was unable to stop the deepening social and political crisis in newly independent Venezuela and after a series of military defeats signed an instrument of surrender on 25 July 1812. On the night of 30/31 July 1812, just before his planned escape to London, Miranda was arrested by young revolutionaries (including Simón Bolívar) who suspected him of treason and transferred to the Spanish authorities. He was soon moved to Spain and spent the rest of his life in the prison in La Carraca near Cadiz. His voluminous and meticulously arranged archive (over 32 thousand folios in 63 volumes) had been already put on the 18-gun sloop HMS Sapphire to be returned back to London. Curiously, that was the same vessel which had brought Bolívar from England to Venezuela in the autumn of 1810. Eventually the captain of the HMS Sapphire passed the archive to the British Governor of Curaçao (controlled by the British in 1807–1815) John Hodgson (1757–1846) who sent it to the British Foreign Office. In 1814, the archive was transferred to the Secretary of War and Colonies Lord Henry Bathurst (1762–1834). After his retirement in 1827, Lord Bathurst took the Miranda archive to his Gloucestershire manor in Cirencester Park. The archive was considered lost and was only rediscovered in the summer of 1922 by the historian William Spence Robertson. In 1926 another Miranda scholar, the chargé d’affaires of Venezuela in Switzerland Carraciolo Parra-Perez (1888–1964) negotiated with the current Lord Bathurst the sale of the archive to his home country for three thousand pounds sterling. Since then the archive is kept at the National Academy of History of Venezuela in Caracas.


Sources: Archivo del general Miranda, ed. V. Davila. Caracas: Parra León Hermanos, 23 vols, 1929-1950 (available online at the Biblioteca Digital Hispánica); Iserov, Andrey. “Francisco de Miranda.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Latin American History. 28 Aug. 2019; https://oxfordre.com/latinamericanhistory/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199366439.001.0001/acrefore-9780199366439-e-745. accessed 21 Feb. 2020; G. Iglesias-Rogers, British Liberators in the Age of Napoleon: Volunteering under the Spanish Flag in the Peninsular War (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 36-37; I progetti costituzionali di Francisco de Miranda (1798–1808). Testi e index verborum / A cura di P. Mariani Biagini, L. Parenti, L. Reverso. Introd. di P. Catalano. Roma – Firenze: ITTIG/CNR, Società Bolivariana di Roma, 2012; “Miranda and the British Admiralty, 1804–1806”, American Historical Review, vol. 6, No. 3 (Apr. 1901); Carlos Pi Sunyer, Patriotas americanos en Londres: Miranda, Bello y otras figuras. Caracas: Monte Ávila, 1978; W. S. Robertson, “Francisco de Miranda and the Revolutionizing of Spanish America”, American Historical Association. Annual Report for 1907. Wash., D.C., 1909. Vol I, pp. 189–540; W. S. Robertson, The Life of Miranda, 2 vols. (Chapel Hill, N.C. University of North Carolina Press, 1929); C. Parra-Pérez, Miranda et la révolution française, 2 vols. (P.: Librarie Pierre Roger, 1925); L. García, S.J., Francisco de Miranda y el antiguo regimen español (Caracas: Academia Nacional de la Historia, 1961); M. Zeuske, Franсisco de Miranda und die Entdeckung Europas: Eine Biographie (Münster–Hamburg: LIT, 1995); T. Polanco Alcántara, Francisco de Miranda. ¿Don Juan o Don Quijote? (Caracas: Melvin, 1997); G. Henríquez [Uzcátegui], Historia de un archivo Francisco de Miranda. Reconstitución de la memoria (Caracas: Fundación para la Cultura Urbana, 2001 (2008); K. Racine, Francisco de Miranda, a Transatlantic Life in the Age of Revolution (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003); C. Bohórquez [Morán], Francisco de Miranda: Precursor de las independencias de la América Latina. 3a. ed. (Caracas: El Perro y La Rana, 2006 (original edition: Paris: L’Harmattan, 1998); M. Hernández González, Francisco de Miranda y su ruptura con España (Caracas: Idea, 2006); I. Quintero [Montiel], El hijo de la panadera. Francisco de Miranda (Caracas: Alfa, 2014); M. Alperovich, Francisco de Miranda y Rusia (Moscú: Progreso, 1989); M. Blanco-Fombona de Hood, El Enigma de Sarah Andrews, Esposa de Francisco de Miranda (Caracas: Banco Mercantil y Agrícola, 1981); R. Pineda, Iconografía de Francisco de Miranda: retratos, estatuas y medallas: algunos lugares, personas, hechos y cosas relacionados con su memoria (Caracas: Banco Industrial de Venezuela, 2001).

Author: Andrey Iserov

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Thematic categories: 

Politics ; War and the Military ; Press, Journalism and the Media; Exile and Migration