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Independence from Spain: Francisco de Miranda's 1806 Invasion of Venezuela

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Independence from Spain: Francisco de Miranda's 1806 Invasion of Venezuela

Francisco de Miranda in Prison in Spain. Painting by Arturo Michelena.

Painting by Arturo Michelena.

Venezuela’s Independence from Spain: the 1806 Miranda Invasion:

In August of 1806, flamboyant Venezuelan exile Francisco de Miranda, at the head of a force of 500 volunteers (mostly British and American), landed in Venezuela and began a fight for independence. The expedition was financed in part by American investors. Although the force was small, it was hoped that Venezuelan patriots would rise up and join the fight. The invasion was a fiasco: after months of logistics and setbacks, Miranda and his men were driven off of the South American mainland after only about two weeks.

Francisco de Miranda, Patriot and Revolutionary:

Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816) was born into Venezuela’s Creole elite. He served in the Spanish military in Africa, Europe and Florida before resigning his commission after a contraband scandal. He then toured Europe, meeting heads of state and making famous friends. He had many adventures, including seducing Catherine the Great of Russia and serving as a General in the French Revolution. Throughout, he had a dream of liberating Latin America from Spanish rule. He tried several times to get support in Britain and France, but was never able to get the funding or manpower he knew he would need.

Help From the Americans:

The Americans seemed likely to be Miranda’s best bet. They had recently overthrown their own colonial masters and were no friends of Spain. Miranda was well-connected in the US, having met dignitaries such as George Washington and Alexander Hamilton on previous visits. In 1805, he set off from his home in London to try and convince the Americans to finance a war of liberation in Spanish America. He met with President Thomas Jefferson, who informed him that while the US government would not finance any such mission, he would not object if private individuals chose to do so. This was a mixed victory for Miranda.

A Private War:

Miranda immediately began looking for private investors sympathetic to his cause. By Christmas of 1805 Samuel Ogden, a wealthy American businessman, agreed to help finance the venture. Colonel William Stephens Smith helped recruit soldiers. Miranda also had money from friends in England. 200 or so volunteers were taken from the streets of New York City, lured with the promise of an easy war in warm, exotic locations where gold was everywhere. Ogden provided three ships: Leander, a warship, and two lightly armed troop transports. The expedition set out from New York on February 2, 1806.

Preparations for Invasion:

Onboard, the men busied themselves training with weapons, organizing themselves into military divisions, and printing propaganda to be given away once they arrived. They also worked on the weapons, which were in sorry shape. The three ships made their way to Jamaica, where new transports, the Bee and the Bacchus, were acquired. Meanwhile, the Spanish were well aware of Miranda and his plans. There had been a diplomatic stink in Washington, and the US and Spain almost went to war. Spanish warships were on the lookout for Miranda, and in Venezuela the authorities had placed a huge reward on his head.

An Inauspicious Start and Help from the British:

In April 1806 the invasion was ready. The men loaded up and on April 27 the Venezuelan coast was in view. But the Spanish navy showed up, drove off the Leander and captured the two troop ships: the 60 men on board were all jailed or executed. The Leander returned to Barbados where Miranda met British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. Cochrane, impressed by Miranda, wrote home to his superiors of the need to assist the expedition. The invading force then moved to Trinidad, where Miranda met Governor Hislop, who agreed to let him have 500 more local volunteers and several boats. He was also “lent” some British officers.

Miranda Invades Venezuela:

On August 1 1806, the invasion finally began. They landed at night near the city of Coro, which they were able to capture without much difficulty, driving the Spanish forces out of the port and the town. That would be the last bit of good fortune Miranda would enjoy on this endeavor. The people were not sympathetic to the cause and provisions and munitions were hard to come by. The British sent no reinforcements and the Spanish began massing an army nearby. Several important members of the expedition, including the captain of the Leander, were captured in an ambush.

Retreat:

It soon became evident that the invasion would not succeed, and Miranda decided to fight another day as opposed to martyr himself. On August 13, the troops packed it in and re-embarked in a raging storm. They headed first to Barbados and then to Trinidad, where Miranda tried unsuccessfully to get more funding, troops and support for his venture. He doggedly kept at it for over a year before deciding that he needed to go in person, and in November of 1807 he returned to London, his invasion a total fiasco.

A Failure? :

Miranda’s invasion was not a total failure, as it turned out. For standing up to the hated Spanish, he was given a very warm reception in England and doors were opened to him in high places. Support for future ventures was promised, although it did not materialize. In America, the press had written positively of him, painting him as a dashing, romantic figure fighting a mighty, faceless Empire. On both sides of the Atlantic, independence for Latin America began to be seen as a very real possibility which might come about sooner rather than later.

Legacy of Miranda’s 1806 Invasion:

Miranda's invasion failed for many reasons. First of all, having been away for some thirty years, Miranda could not know that he had landed his troops in a region known for being devoutly loyal to Spain. Had he picked a city more disgruntled with Spanish rule than Coro, the insurgency may have caught fire like he hoped. It also failed due to insufficient manpower and weapons. The invasion was too little, too early: in the simplest of terms, South America was not ready for independence and for this reason Miranda's expedition was most likely doomed to failure no matter what he did.

In South America, the Spanish had painted him as a ferocious Bogeyman who was in the pay of the English in an effort to stop him once he landed. In the short term, it worked, as Miranda was quickly dislodged from Coro. In the long run, however, the obvious Spanish fear of Miranda made him into an almost mythological figure and within the space of a few years, when discontent over Spanish rule was running high, the people saw him as a potential savior.

As badly as the invasion turned out, it should be remembered that Miranda did achieve one important thing: for a very brief moment, he carved a tiny piece out of the Spanish Empire and made it free. During his two weeks in Coro, Miranda started a government: he even had a flag, a version of which would eventually become the official Venezuelan flag.

In 1810, events in Spain would spur Caracas creoles including Simón Bolívar to declare semi-independence from Spain, establishing what is now known as the First Venezuelan Republic. Miranda, still in London, returned triumphantly. When he arrived in Venezuela, he was hailed as a hero and liberator. Although the First Venezuelan Republic was destined to fail, Venezuela itself would be free by 1823, and a big part of the credit for that must go to Francisco de Miranda, the dashing madman.

Sources:

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

Lynch, John. The Spanish American Revolutions 1808-1826 New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986.

Scheina, Robert L. Latin America's Wars, Volume 1: The Age of the Caudillo 1791-1899 Washington, D.C.: Brassey's Inc., 2003.

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