Francisco de Miranda
Francisco de Miranda epitomized the international importance of the American Revolution, yet few Americans would recognize his name. He served with the Spanish forces fighting the British in the Caribbean and Florida during the war, and in this way, helped the United States to win the Revolution. His life demonstrated how the Revolution was not just a war for American independence, but a crisis for the whole British Empire, and a beacon of hope for those seeking freedom around the world.
Francisco was born Sebastian Francisco de Miranda on March 28, 1750, in Caracas, Venezuela. His father, Don Sebastián de Miranda y Ravelo, was a native of the Canary Islands, a Spanish colony off the North African coast. Don Sebastián became a wealthy linen merchant and planter in Caracas, and a good friend of Josef Solano, the Spanish colonial governor of Venezuela. Francisco, however, never enjoyed complete social acceptance among the sons of the colonial elites. His experiences at the University of Caracas alienated him from colonial society, and he sailed for Spain in 1771 to complete his education in Europe. Unknown to his father, however, Francisco actually planned to join the army, and in 1772, purchased a commission as captain for 8,000 pesos in a Spanish regiment.
Francisco served in Africa in 1773, and saw action in Morocco and Algiers against Moslems in 1774-1775. New opportunities arose for him after 1777 when an American army defeated and forced the surrender of a British army at the Battle of Saratoga, New York. The American victory convinced France’s King Louis XVI to sign a treaty of alliance with the United States in 1778. Spain’s King Carlos III subsequently signed a treaty of alliance with France against Great Britain. After Spain’s entry into the war, Francisco sailed for the Spanish colony of Cuba as an officer in the Regiment of Aragón, and soon became the aide-de-camp to the governor of Cuba, General Juan Manuel de Cagigal.
After his arrival in Cuba, Francisco joined the Spanish forces laying siege to Fort George at Pensacola, Florida, the principle British outpost on the Gulf of Mexico. General Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish colonial governor of Louisiana, had captured Fort Charlotte at Mobile on March 12, 1780, and had begun the siege of Fort George on March 18, 1781. On April 19, Francisco arrived from Cuba with additional Spanish and French troops. Francisco reported that Gálvez’s army numbered 3,701, “including militia and negroes . . . but they were able to count on only 2,000.” The British garrison also numbered 2,000, including 1,000 Creek Indians, thus producing a stand-off. Francisco believed the Spanish troops from Cuba, with the “1,504 troops of our navy, and 725 French,” tipped the balance. Gálvez’s army had increased to 7,803, and Fort George subsequently came under a withering cannonade. By early May 1781, the Spanish had used up most of their ammunition, and began shelling Fort George with spent British cannonballs. Fortunately for Gálvez, Francisco “heard from the [Spanish] camp a great explosion” in the British lines on May 8. A grenade from a Spanish howitzer had landed in a British redoubt, killing “108 of their best troops.” The loss of over one-hundred
regulars proved too much for the British, and on May 10, 1781, they surrendered Fort George to General Gálvez. The loss of Pensicola brought all of British West Florida under Spanish control.
After the siege, Francisco returned to Havana. In the summer of 1781, Generals George Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau, commander of all French forces in North America, planned to capture the British army under General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia. To secure the victory, the allies needed help from the French fleet under Admiral Comte de Grasse to prevent Cornwallis’s rescue by the British fleet under Rear-Admiral Graves. Admiral de Grasse agreed to the plan, but needed funds to resupply his fleet for the voyage to the Chesapeake. The admiral called first at the French colony of San Domingo [Haiti], but was unable to secure any funds. He then went to Havana, where Francisco coaxed the Spanish commissary to provide the needed supplies. Thanks to Francisco’s efforts, the French fleet arrived in time to defeat the British fleet off the Virginia Capes on September 5, 1781. Without naval support, Lord Cornwallis surrendered his army at the Battle of Yorktown in October 1781. This was the last major battle of the American Revolution.
On August 23, 1781, Francisco was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and sent to the British colony of Jamaica to negotiate a prisoner exchange. He was provided with 30,000 pesos to pay for the prisoners’ transport, and concluded the exchange in November 1781. Francisco used the remainder of the money to buy contraband goods for resale in Cuba. There is no reason to believe that Francisco intended to sell the goods for personal gain, but his political enemies in Cuba accused him of this. On March 18, 1782, King Carlos III ordered Francisco’s arrest, and sent a Mexican judge to Havana to investigate. Before the warrant arrived, however, Francisco left Cuba with a combined Spanish, French and American force to attack New Providence, the British colonial capital of the Bahamas. On May 8, 1782, Francisco accepted the British surrender of the Bahamas to Spanish control.
Spanish authorities arrested Francisco upon his return to Havana, but paroled him to the custody of General Cagigal. The Mexican judge stripped Francisco of his commission, levied a heavy fine, and sentenced him to ten years in prison. After learning of the sentence, Francisco boarded the appropriately named American whaling vessel Prudent, and fled Cuba for the United States on June 1, 1783. He planned to make a personal appeal to King Carlos III, but once in the United States, his intentions quickly changed. The democratic spirit of the country impressed him greatly. On June 17, 1783, he attended a barbecue in New Bern, North Carolina, celebrating the provisional peace treaty with Great Britain. He commented that “it is impossible to imagine, without seeing it, a more purely democratic gathering.” He traveled throughout the United States, and met with General Henry Knox, Alexander Hamilton, the Reverend Ezra Stiles of Yale University, and many other patriots. He discussed liberty and republicanism, and displayed a genuine regard for the American achievement. He soon began dreaming of the day when his native Venezuela might shake off the colonial yoke of Spain. By the time he reached New York in 1784, he had formed “a project for the liberty and independence of the entire Spanish-American Continent.” He spoke with many Americans about his plans, and began to see himself as a colonial rebel like those he met.
Francisco left the United States for London in 1784. When the French Revolution began in 1789, however, he travelled to France to join the republic’s army. He rose quickly to the rank of lieutenant general, and laid a successful siege against the city of Antwerp in Holland. Francisco nearly lost his head during the Reign of Terror in the early 1790s, but managed to escape to Russia. He cultivated an amorous friendship with Empress Catherine the Great, who gave him letters of introduction to all the courts of Europe. In 1798, Francisco returned to Great Britain to renew his efforts to free Venezuela from Spain. By 1800, he had become a legend in his own time. According to the Duchesse d’Abrantès, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte said of Francisco that he “is like a Don Quixote, without being mad.” Francisco’s later life proved just as romantic and tragic as the fictional Spanish hero’s.
In London, Francisco met with British Prime Minister William Pitt (the Younger) to ask for British support in liberating Venezuela from Spanish colonial rule. Pitt proved unsympathetic to financing a Venezuelan Revolution, and Francisco then travelled to Boston in search of financial support. He found Boston’s elites more inclined to his plans, and secured sufficient money for an expedition in 1806. Unfortunately, this first invasion failed, and Francisco again returned to London. Francisco’s luck turned in 1810, when the Venezuelan people revolted against Spanish rule. Returning to his native country, Francisco became the new republic’s Vice-President. By legislative action, he was made its military leader in 1811. He issued Venezuela’s Declaration of Independence from Spain, and tried to establish a constitution similar to that of the United States. Without foreign assistance, however, his government soon fell to Spanish forces in 1812. He spent the rest of his life in prison in Spain. He died on July 14, 1816 at the age of sixty-six, believing that his quest had failed.
Despite Francisco’s death, his legacy, and that of the American Revolution, lived on. Francisco’s efforts helped to inspire Simon de Bolivar and others to continue the struggle for South American liberation. In 1819, Colombia won its independence from Spain, followed by Venezuela in 1821, and Ecuador in 1822. The former Spanish colonies united as the Great Colombia Republic, and the yellow, red and blue standard that Francisco designed for his 1806 campaign became the new nation’s flag. Venezuela and Ecuador seceded from the Great Colombia Republic in 1830, but Francisco’s tricolor standard remained the basis for the flags of the independent republics of Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia.
Primary Source Documents: Francisco de Miranda
The following passages are taken from Francisco de Miranda, “Miranda’s Diary of the Siege of Pensacola, 1781,” translated by Donald Worcester, The Florida Historical Quarterly. 29 (Jan., 1951), 163-196.
Miranda recalls the Siege and Surrender of Pensacola, Florida.
April 7, 1781. On this day at 7:30 p.m. the governor of the plaza [Havana] . . . called a council and it was resolved to send out all of our squadron which might be ready under the orders of the chief of squadron, Josef Solano, and a detachment of 1600 men under Field Marshall Don Juan Manual do Cagigal. The idea was to seek the enemy on the coasts of Pensacola [Florida], where it appears . . . the place was under attack by Field Marshal Don Bernardo de Gálvez.
April 22, 1781. General Gálvez received us with many expressions of pleasure and friendship toward our General Cagigal. All the [Spanish] army welcomed us with infinite joy . . . [Gálvez’s] army numbered, including militia and negroes, 3,701 men . . . [but] they were able to count on only 2,000 . . . for the attack. The [British] garrison numbered 800 regular troops, 200 se[a]men, and 1,000 savage Indians . . . With the consolidation of our [Spanish troops] . . . and 725 French [soldiers], [Gálvez’s enlarged] army amounted to 7,803 [men].
Tuesday, May 8, 1781 . . . At 9:30 in the morning we heard from the camp a great explosion which alarmed us generally without our being able to ascertain the danger. The major-general went immediately to the section of the trench from which the noise was heard, and we saw a great column of smoke rising . . . later we found out that the explosion had been inside the circular [British redoubt], which battery was all in flames, and was cause[d] by a grenade from our howitzers.
May 8, 1781. At 3 p.m. the enemy in Fort George raised the white flag and some officers advanced to confer over capitulation. General Gálvez attended personally and the conference lasted until 11 at night. We later found out that 108 of their best troops and two marines were blown up in the redoubt. Thursday, May 10, 1781. On this day the generals and their aides-de-camp remained housed in the city. At 3 in the afternoon General Gálvez and 6 companies came to take possession of the fort. The guards came out, and in forming at a distance of 150 meters from the fort, gave up their flags and arms to our troops which were formed in front of them. The guards were relieved consecutively of the surrendered forts, lowering the British flag and raising that of Spain, and thus was concluded this military scene, with no little embarrassment to the defeated ones . . .
The following passages are taken from Francisco de Miranda, The New Democracy in America: Travels of Francisco de Miranda in the United States. 1783-84 translated by Justin Wood, edited by John Ezell, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).
Francisco left Havana, Cuba on June 1, 1783 for Charleston. S.C., but was diverted to New Bern, N. C. Thus, he had to travel through Beaufort, N.C., Wilmington, N.C., and Georgetown, S.C. before reaching Charleston. From Charleston, he went to Philadelphia. Below are his initial impressions of America.
June 1, 1783, Havana, Cuba. At nine o’clock in the morning I sailed on the American sloop Prudent . . . A fresh wind continuing to blow from the west, on the fifth we crossed the latitude of Charleston, where I intended to go ashore, but the good Captain Wilson . . . proceeded immediately to North Carolina in spite of our agreement . . . to take me to Charleston. Apparently he is not fastidious in these matters . . .
June 17 [1783, New Bern, North Carolina]. Today, to the sound of drums and a volley from four small campaign pieces . . . the cessation of hostilities and the preliminary treaties with England were announced in the field. By way of celebration for this event, starting at one o’clock there was a barbecue (a roast pig) and a barrel of rum, from which the leading officials and citizens of the region promiscuously ate and drank with the meanest and lowest kind of people, holding hands and drinking from the sane cup. It is impossible to imagine, without seeing it, a more purely democratic gathering . . .
November 22 . Two miles past the small town of Gloucester is Philadelphia, where we arrived at ten o’clock in the morning, tying up at the wharves amidst the multitude of ships of all nations which frequent this beautiful, free, and commercial city . . . Philadelphia is located at the confluence of the Delaware and Schuykill rivers . . The houses are comfortable, clean, and in good taste . . . The cleanliness, evenness, and length of the streets, their illumination at nighttime, and the vigilance of the guards, posted at each corner to maintain security and good order, make Philadelphia one of the most pleasant and well-ordered cities in the world . . .
Franscisco frequently commented on female acquaintances in his journal, usually finding the young, single women very favorable. In Philadelphia, he berated Mrs. Morris, Mrs. Powell, and Mrs. Penn, but greatly admired Miss Vining, Miss Chew, and Miss Shippen.
November 22 [1783, Philadelphia] . . . Mrs. Robert Morris, called Queen Morris for her vain, haughty, and somewhat affected character . . . Mrs. [Samuel] Powell, a rival of the former . . . [with] a magisterial tone and pedantic affectation . . Mrs. [John] Penn . . . possessing a conspicuous moderation, a middling education, and polished manners, together with, being the wife of the Big Chief of the region, she is wont to receive the principal attentions at public gatherings.
Miss Polly Vining, an outstanding education, sharp intellect, and fluent, elegant locution render her manner and conversation extremely pleasant and sought after by foreigners and men of taste . . . Miss Peggy Chew, a gracious, pleasing girl . . . Miss Sally Shippen, a clear understanding, very good education, elegant manner, and a disposition constantly festive . . . together the most beautiful combination I have known . . .
In January 1784, Francisco travelled through New Jersey to New York. After visiting New York, he passed through the New England states before returning to Europe in December 1784. In Boston he met Samuel Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette, and unlike most other people, found the former superior in character to the latter.
February 1784 [King’s Ferry, N.Y.] . . . I will not forget to record an anecdote which took place here, worthy of immortality. A farmer, owner of the land near Crown Point on which the French had their encampment, made his application to them for the rent. The officers paid no attention to the pretension and did not even give a satisfactory answer; seeing this, the republican rustic withdrew from the scene and went in search of the sheriff. And see you here these two poor peasants coming without a single weapon in their hands, but rather with the palladium and authority of the law, determined with heroic firmness to arrest the French General M. de Rochambeau in front of his entire army for the damages and rent. The General was effectively detained by the sheriff and instantly paid the amount owed to the poor rustic (some ten or fifteen pesos was the entire sum), with which the proceeding ended. How is it possible that under similar protections the most arid and barren countries would not flourish? And that the most pusillanimous and abject men would not within a short time be honest, just, industrious, wise, and brave?
[September] 16, [1784, Boston] . . . I had the pleasure of communicating with the famous republican and very prominent actor in the recent revolution, Mr. Samuel Adams. He is a man of talents and extensive accomplishments in legislation. We had some drawn-out conversations regarding the constitution of this Republic . . . He gave me much interesting information on the origin, beginnings, and occurrences of the past revolution . . . Le Marquis de Lafayette arrived while I was here. I had occasion to talk to him, and he seems to me a mediocre character, invested with that activity and perpetual motion of Frenchman . . . This trip of the Marquis seems to me one of those . . . ridiculous political farces. These simple people . . . have made excessive and absurd demonstrations as “The Hero” passes from one town to another . . .
For Further Reading:
Joseph F. Thorning, Miranda: World Citizen (1952).
Light T. Cummins, Spanish Observers and the American Revolution 1775-1783 (1991).
Thomas Chavez, Spain and the Independence of the United States (2003).