Biography of Francisco de Miranda

Precursor of Latin American Independence

Statue of Francisco de Miranda
Statue of Francisco de Miranda in Havanna, Cuba. Brent Winebrenner/Getty Images

Sebastian Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) was a Venezuelan patriot, general and traveler considered the "Precursor" to Simon Bolivar's "Liberator." A dashing, romantic figure, Miranda led one of the most fascinating lives in history. A friend of Americans such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, he also served as a General in the French Revolution and was the lover of Catherine the Great of Russia.

Although he did not live to see South America freed from Spanish rule, his contribution to the cause was considerable.

Early Life of Francisco de Miranda

Young Francisco was born into the upper class of Caracas in present-day Venezuela. His father was Spanish and his mother came from a wealthy Creole family. Francisco had everything he could ask for and received a first-rate education. He was a proud, arrogant boy who was more than a little spoiled.

During his youth, he was in an uncomfortable position: because he was born in Venezuela, he was not accepted by the Spaniards and those children born in Spain. Creoles, however, were unkind to him because they envied the great wealth of his family. This snubbing from both sides left an impression on Francisco that would never fade.

In the Spanish Military

In 1772 Miranda joined the Spanish army and was commissioned as an officer. His rudeness and arrogance displeased many of his superiors and comrades, but he soon proved an able commander.

He fought in Morocco, where he distinguished himself by leading a daring raid to spike enemy cannons. Later, he fought against the British in Florida and even helped send assistance to George Washington before the Battle of Yorktown.

Although he proved himself time and again, he made powerful enemies, and in 1783 he narrowly escaped prison time over a trumped-up charge of selling black-market goods.

He decided to go to London and petition the King of Spain from exile.

Adventures in North America, Europe, and Asia

He passed through the United States en route to London and met many US dignitaries such as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Paine. Revolutionary ideas began to take hold in his keen mind, and Spanish agents watched him closely in London. His petitions to the King of Spain went unanswered.

He traveled around Europe, stopping in Prussia, Germany, Austria and many other places before entering Russia. A handsome, charming man, he had torrid affairs everywhere he went, including with Catherine the Great of Russia. Back in London in 1789, he began to try and get British support for an independence movement in South America.

Miranda and the French Revolution

Miranda found a great deal of verbal support for his ideas, but nothing in the way of tangible aid. He crossed to France, seeking to confer with the leaders of the French Revolution about spreading the revolution to Spain. He was in Paris when the Prussians and Austrians invaded in 1792, and suddenly found himself offered the rank of Marshal as well as a noble title to lead French forces against the invaders.

He soon proved himself to be a brilliant general, defeating Austrian forces at the siege of Amberes.

Although he was a superior general, he was nonetheless caught up in the paranoia and fear of "The Terror" of 1793-1794. He was arrested twice, and twice avoided the guillotine through his impassioned defense of his actions. He was one of the very few men to come under suspicion and be exonerated.

Return to England and Big Plans

In 1797 he left France, sneaking out while wearing a disguise, and returned to England, where his plans to liberate South America were once more met with enthusiasm but no concrete support. For all his successes, he had burned many bridges: he was wanted by the government of Spain, his life would be in danger in France and he had alienated his continental and Russian friends by serving in the French Revolution.

Help from Britain was often promised but never came through.

He set himself up in style in London and hosted South American visitors including young Bernardo O'Higgins. He never forgot his plans of liberation and decided to try his luck in the United States.

The 1806 Invasion

He was warmly received by his friends in the United States. He met President Thomas Jefferson, who told him that the US government would not support any invasion of Spanish America, but that private individuals were free to do so. A wealthy businessman, Samuel Ogden, agreed to finance an invasion.

Three ships, the Leander, Ambassador, and Hindustan, were supplied, and 200 volunteers were taken from the streets of New York City for the venture. After some complications in the Caribbean and the addition of some British reinforcements, Miranda landed with some 500 men near Coro, Venezuela on August 1, 1806. They held the town of Coro for barely two weeks before word of the approach of a massive Spanish army caused them to abandon the town.

1810: Return to Venezuela

Although his 1806 invasion had been a fiasco, events had taken a life of their own in northern South America. Creole Patriots, led by Simón Bolívar and other leaders like him, had declared provisional independence from Spain. Their actions were inspired by Napoleon's invasion of Spain and detainment of the Spanish royal family. Miranda was invited to return and given a vote in the national assembly.

In 1811, Miranda and Bolívar convinced their companions to formally declare independence outright, and the new nation even adopted the flag Miranda had used in his previous invasion. A combination of calamities doomed this government, known as the First Venezuelan Republic.

Arrest and Imprisonment

By mid-1812, the young republic was staggering from royalist resistance and a devastating earthquake that had driven many over to the other side. In desperation, Republican leaders named Miranda Generalissimo, with absolute power over military decisions. This made him the first president of a breakaway Spanish republic in Latin America, although his rule did not last long.

As the republic crumbled, Miranda made terms with Spanish commander Domingo Monteverde for an armistice. In the port of La Guaira, Miranda attempted to flee Venezuela before the arrival of royalist forces. Simon Bolivar and others, infuriated at Miranda's actions, arrested him and turned him over to the Spanish. Miranda was sent to a Spanish prison where he remained until his death in 1816.

Legacy of Francisco de Miranda

Francisco de Miranda is a complicated historical figure. He was one of the greatest adventurers of all time, having escapades from Catherine the Great's bedroom to the American Revolution to escaping revolutionary France in a disguise. His life reads like a Hollywood movie script. Throughout his life, he was dedicated to the cause of South American independence and worked very hard to achieve that goal.

Still, it is hard to determine how much he actually did to bring about the independence of his homeland. He left Venezuela at the age of 20 or so and traveled the world, but by the time he wanted to liberate his homeland 30 years later, his provincial countrymen had barely heard of him. His lone attempt at an invasion of liberation failed miserably. When he had the chance to lead his nation, he arranged a truce so repulsive to his fellow rebels that none other than Simon Bolivar himself handed him over to the Spanish.

Miranda's contributions must be measured by another ruler. His extensive networking in Europe and the United States helped pave the way for South American independence. The leaders of these other nations, impressed as they all were by Miranda, occasionally supported South American independence movements or at least did not oppose them. Spain would be on its own if it wanted to keep its colonies.

Most telling, perhaps, is Miranda's place in the hearts of South Americans. He is named "the Precursor" of independence, while Simon Bolivar is "the Liberator." Sort of like a John the Baptist to Bolivar's Jesus, Miranda prepared the world for the delivery and liberation that was to come.

South Americans today have great respect for Miranda: he has an elaborate tomb in the National Pantheon of Venezuela despite the fact that he was buried in a Spanish mass grave and his remains never identified. Even Bolivar, the greatest hero of South American independence, is despised for turning Miranda over to the Spanish.Some consider it the most questionable moral action the Liberator undertook.

Source:

Harvey, Robert. Liberators: Latin America's Struggle for Independence Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 2000.