Francisco de Miranda

Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) was a Latin American patriot who advocated independence of the Spanish colonies, and although he did not see the fulfillment of his dreams, he was willing to pay the price these efforts demanded.

Francisco de Miranda was born in Caracas on March 28, 1750, the son of a Spaniard from the Canary Islands. Early in life he entered the Spanish army and went to Madrid supplied with ample funds and letters of introduction. He bought a captaincy and began to keep the diary which in time became the nucleus of an immense archive. His military career was not fortunate. Accused of neglect of duty, he was eventually cleared and was sent to Cuba, where he again fell out with the authorities. In 1783 he left the Spanish service and fled to the United States.

Henceforth, Miranda was in open rebellion against the Spanish crown. Spurred by the example of the 13 colonies that had achieved independence from England, he aspired to set up an independent empire in Hispanic America. Among his friends in the United States were such men as Washington, Hamilton, and Thomas Paine. Constantly hounded by Spanish agents, he visited England, Prussia, Austria, Italy, Turkey, and Russia. Catherine the Great took a liking to him and allowed him to wear the Russian uniform and use a Russian passport.

In 1790 Spain and England disputed the rights to Nootka Sound, and Miranda hoped to convince the younger William Pitt that the time had come to set up an independent empire in Hispanic America where England might enjoy a trade monopoly. He was unsuccessful, but not discouraged, and offered his services to France. He fought in its wars, and his name was later inscribed at the Arch of Triumph, but France had as little use for his schemes as England. He survived imprisonment and the Terror and, in 1797, fled to England, where he found more encouragement for his projects. In 1806 he attempted to invade Venezuela, but the authorities had been forewarned and he was repulsed. Defeated but undaunted, he awaited his hour in London.

Two years later, rebellion in the Spanish Empire seemed to improve Miranda's chances. In 1810 he met the envoy of revolutionary Venezuela, Simón Bolívar, who had gone to Great Britain in an effort to win support for the colonies. Bolívar induced Miranda to return to his native country, and after 40 years of absence, the aging conspirator again set foot in his homeland. In the turmoil that swept Venezuela he was appointed commander in chief, but the challenge to lead a country in revolt and to organize an army from untrained civilians proved too much for him. Rather than plunge Venezuela into civil war, he concluded an armistice with the Spanish counterrevolutionary Monteverde. His officers suspected his motives and threw him into prison. The victorious Monteverde sent him to Spain, where in 1816 he died in Cadiz in the fortress of the Four Towers.

Miranda had both extraordinary gifts and great weaknesses in his private as well as in his public life. But his failures cannot obscure the fact that he was one of the first to raise the banner of liberty in Hispanic America, and though he did not reach his goal, he pointed the way. It is for this reason that he is called "El Precursor."

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Further Reading on Francisco de Miranda

Two biographies of Miranda are William S. Robertson, The Life of Miranda (2 vols., 1929; repr. 1969), and Joseph F. Thorning, Miranda: World Citizen (1952). Miranda's role in the South American independence movement of the early 1800s is treated in Irene Nicholson, The Liberators: A Study of Independence Movements in Spanish America (1969).