Stories of South America - E. C. Brooks

How an Earthquake Stopped Miranda's Revolution

The Spanish colonists had great cause for hating the mother country. However, Spanish soldiers were always able to crush revolts until the mother country fell under the power of Napoleon Bonaparte. Patriotic leaders in South America who had aided the English colonies in North America to secure their independence waited for the proper moment to strike for freedom. As was mentioned before, the first province in South America to act was Venezuela. It was favorably situated, occupying the northernmost part of the continent and lying on the great highways of the New World. Being near the United States, it was most affected by the War for Independence and by the great arguments for human freedom that were influencing all the nations of the civilized world. The name Venezuela, meaning little Venice, was given to the province because the Spaniards saw in the country along the coast a likeness to beautiful Venice in Italy. Its capital, Caracas, situated in the mountains, is today one of the most picturesque and naturally beautiful cities of the entire world. Venezuela was considered by Spain as her most valuable province next to Peru.

One of the foremost patriots of South America was Francisco Miranda, who was born in Caracas in 1754. He had watched the early struggles of the thirteen English colonies and was electrified by their action in 1776, when they declared themselves independent. He looked upon the Declaration of Independence as the greatest liberty document ever written. He was a student of the political literature of North America and Europe, and he, too, became convinced that all men are created free and equal and that it is their right and duty to fight for freedom whenever it is denied them. Stirred by the heroism of George Washington and the other American patriots, he determined to lend his assistance to the Venezuelan rebels in their fight for freedom.

Miranda was in Paris when Benjamin Franklin persuaded the French to aid the North American colonists. He secured permission to go with the French army to America, and he entered at once on the service, fighting against the English until the independence of the thirteen colonies was won.

The success of the revolution in North America inspired Miranda with a belief that the colonies of South America might likewise win their independence. He remained in the United States in order to plan a great revolution on the southern continent. Spain had aided the English colonies in securing their independence, not because she loved them but because she hated England. In this respect Spain and the colonies of North America were a unit. As a consequence, when Francisco Miranda sought aid in the United States against Spain, the new government would not give him assistance because it might break the recent friendship. Moreover, Spain still held Florida, and any hostile action on the part of the United States against that power would involve the republic in a dangerous war. Miranda became so active that the Spanish government took notice of it, and the United States had to request him to leave the country for fear that he would bring it into serious difficulties with Spain.

From America, Miranda went to France and joined the revolutionists of that country. He was given the command of a brigade and so distinguished himself that he was promoted for bravery. However, in France the revolutionists had not then found a great leader. One party after another rose to power, and Miranda was arrested and tried for treason but acquitted. He finally fled from France to England, where he sought to interest the government in the liberation of Venezuela from the Spanish yoke.

While in London, he gathered around him a group of patriotic young South Americans who had gone to Europe to complete their education. These students read his pamphlets, visited him in England, and became members of his secret organization, the chief purpose of which was to break the power of Spain in the New World.

It was customary for wealthy Spaniards in South America to send their sons to Spain to be educated. `Thither came Simon Bolivar from Caracas, San Martin from the Plata country, and O'Higgins from Chile. These and many other South Americans were attracted to Miranda in England; they visited him and became so fired by him that they never forgot his teachings.

Miranda, however, soon became an unwelcome guest in England, because England needed Spain's assistance in overthrowing Napoleon. He did not dare, of course, to go to Spain; but he visited Austria and Prussia, where his doctrines of liberty were not well received. Finally, he decided to return to Venezuela and make an attempt at insurrection on his own account. In 1805, by the aid of some citizens of the United States who appreciated his Revolutionary War services, he equipped a vessel. With the help of some sailors loaned by an English admiral, Sir A. Cochrane, who was later to play an important part in the South American war for independence, Miranda began his rebellion at Caracas. There he proclaimed a new republic, calling it Colombia in honor of the great discoverer. His opening efforts were crowned with some success; but the English withdrew their men, who returned to fight Napoleon, and Miranda's first attempt failed.

The condition of the Spanish colonies at that time was deplorable. Spain was sinking to ruin but still grasping at her possessions. The viceroys were determined to crush the revolt at any cost. It meant death to a creole to protest in any way against injustice and oppression. The people everywhere were ready to rise against the cruelty of the viceroys, who were seeking to hold the colonies together until Spain could recover from the European wars and reassert her power. Only a spark was needed to fire the powder.

In 1810, when Napoleon's army had about conquered Spain, Miranda again landed in South America and secured a large following. He proclaimed a republic in Venezuela and one also in New Granada or Colombia. It was Miranda's idea for all the South American colonies to form a federal republic in the same manner as the English colonies in North America composed the United States.

This plan was hateful to many who did not wish to unite under one government.It awoke the selfishness of the leaders of the several provinces in the north. They were unable to unite in a common interest as the thirteen English colonies had done, for the leaders in the different colonies were jealous of the power that the head of such a confederacy might secure. Thus South American patriotism was local and narrow.

Declaration of Independence-Venezuela


However, Venezuela received Miranda with enthusiasm and, on July 5, 1811, it declared itself free and independent of Spain. An attempt had been made to reach this decision on July 4, the anniversary of the independence of the United States, but there was a delay of a day.

Miranda was given an ovation by the new government, which appointed him lieutenant-general of the army. He was looked upon as the man of the hour. Appointed with others to draw up a constitution, he took as a basis the Constitution of the United States and devised a plan for the federation of all the colonies of South America in one nation.

As a result of this plan, not only did Spanish sympathizers everywhere rise in opposition but patriotic leaders who were jealous of Miranda's position opposed his plans. Affairs became so critical that he was appointed dictator of the new government. The boldness of his scheme, however, had struck terror to all faithful servants of Spain. That anyone could raise his hand against the Lord's anointed, as the king of Spain was called, shook the superstitious minds of the people; many priests who remained loyal to the king declared that independence was contrary to the will of heaven. However, a number of high officials of the church were true patriots and did not seek to excuse the tyranny of the king or the cruelty of the viceroys.

The cause of the revolutionists prospered for some time. The first year of independence was about to close with good prospects of ultimate success. Then an unexpected calamity upset all the plans of the patriots. The spring of 1812 had opened and the Easter festival was at hand. Men, women, and children were rejoicing in the streets of Caracas in the new age that seemed about to dawn. March 26 was Holy Thursday, and extensive preparations were made for the celebration of the next day, Good Friday, a day that would usher in a happy future for South America.

The churches were thronged with worshipers. In the middle of the afternoon, which was excessively hot, drops of rain began to fall. The atmosphere became oppressive. In the great cathedral, the people, in holiday dress and filled with religious enthusiasm, were assembled. A little before four o'clock, the vesper hour, when the service was to begin, the world suddenly seemed to come to an end. One writer, describing this awful scene, says:

"At seven minutes past four, when the solemn services in the churches were beginning, the earth seemed to reel. There was a fearful crash, followed by a deep sound as of thunder. It came not from the sky, but from the caverns below. The people started up. What was happening? Where? They felt their feet unsteady, and in the tremor buildings were crumbling, melting away as it were. People ran hither and thither calling on Heaven for mercy. The beasts sought the caves. Birds screamed of fright in the air."

Buildings, great pillars, and heavy walls quickly crumbled away; 30,000 people perished. Caracas was not the only sufferer: town after town was destroyed. Some disappeared; the town of San Felipe was totally swallowed up. Its houses, public buildings, and inhabitants were never seen again. The survivors fled to the fields and wandered about, lamenting and praying. No one knew what members of his family or friends were saved. Many families were parted. Husbands never saw wives again; little children, their parents; men and women were swallowed up alive in awful caverns in the earth.

In the church of San Jacinto, the groans of the dying arose on every hand. The priests, in great alarm, told the people that it was the curse of God visited upon them for their sin in revolting against the king. Amidst the ruins of the once magnificent cathedral of Caracas, the people rended the heavens with their lamentations and cries for mercy. Frightened priests called all to repentance for their sin of rebellion, the consequences of which might be visited upon their children and their children's children. On all sides the people hearkened to the invitation of the priests and poured out their curses on the patriot leaders who had led them to this calamity.

Suddenly a young officer rose above the stricken multitude and, standing on a broken pillar, raised his voice loud enough for all to hear. "It is not the wrath of God, but an earthquake!" he shouted. The people gazed at him in astonishment. "This is merely an act of nature," the young officer continued. "The cause of the patriots is just, and if nature opposes herself we will wrestle with her and compel her to obey."

The priests exclaimed that this was sacrilege, and the people applauded the priests. The young officer was Simon Bolivar, who had been serving under Miranda. Finding himself unable to check the influence of the hostile priests, he directed his efforts to relieving the distressed.

Out in the streets whole regiments of Miranda's army had been swallowed up. The patriots were thrown into the wildest confusion. The terrified people, ignorant and superstitious, believed the words of the priests and turned against the leaders of the patriotic army. The royalists took courage at once and made capital of the mob's superstitious fears. The morale of the patriots was completely broken. In battle after battle they were defeated, and four months later Miranda himself was captured. The officials sent him to Spain to be tried for treason. There he was confined in a loathsome dungeon, where he died on July 14, 1816.



The seeds of revolution, however, had been too deeply planted to be destroyed. They were destined later to spring up in new life and break forever the Spanish rule in South America.

The teachings of Francisco Miranda, as was said before, converted three young South Americans who were to lead the continent to freedom by breaking the power of Spain. One was Simon Bolivar of Caracas, destined to carry on in Venezuela the work begun by Miranda. Another was Jose San Martin, a creole of Argentina, who was to become the liberator of the southern provinces; and the third was Bernardo O'Higgins, "The Father of Chile." The first two were to meet on the shores of the Gulf of Guayaquil, where Pizarro landed and planted the Spanish flag. There they were to unite their forces and banish that flag as an emblem of authority on the southern continent.