South America - A Popular History - H. Butterworth

The Knight Errant of Liberty—
the Dream of Miranda

Human events are often preceded by visions. It is possible that Columbus, as he watched the stars on the quays of Genoa, saw America in a vision. Certain it is that he had more faith in his intuitions than in his scientific studies. "God," he said, "made me the messenger of the new heavens and the new earth, and told me where to find them. Maps, charts, and mathematical knowledge had nothing to do with the case."

The emancipation of South America began in the youthful visions of Francisco Miranda (1756-1816), a young cadet of noble family, born at Caracas, in the Maritime Andes. He was a splendid dreamer, but he had not the sublime creative faith of a Columbus. He could see in his mind what he was incapable of carrying into execution; he had the prevision of liberty in South America, but was able only to show by failure what might be wrought by a mind that was practical. The patriot's character has been severely handled by the soldier and the critic; but the victories of the vanquished count for much in the ultimate values of human history. Miranda failed, and seldom has a high heart had a disappointment more pathetic. Miranda, however, did not dream his young dream of the liberty of the South in vain. Though a visionary, he led the way to the independence of his country.

He rose to the rank of captain in the army, when his mind became thrilled with the cause of the patriots in North America struggling for independence. He was also inspired by the conduct of the French republicans. He came to North America, and served in the French contingent of the Continental Army from 1779 to 1781. At this time he was twenty-three years of age. As he witnessed the splendid achievements of Lafayette, and as the English power in America went down at Yorktown, he thought of his native land. He aspired to be the Washington of Venezuela, the emancipator of the slaves of the Spanish viceroys, the hero whose sword should lead armies under the fiery arch of the equator, and make free the populations of the meridional world. He went to Cuba and to Europe. He traveled through England, Germany, Turkey and Russia, dreaming always the dream of South American emancipation. The French Revolution fired his heart. He went to Paris, entered the army of the patriots, and rose to the rank of major-general. His name adorns the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, in the list of the heroes of the Revolution. In 1797 he incurred the displeasure of the French Directory, and fled to England, where he mingled in official society. He told his dream of South American liberty to William Pitt, and asked his aid in a scheme to proclaim liberty in the Andes. In Russia he won the favor of the Empress Catherine.

What was the true character of this lonely man who was passing from country to country, and who was filled with these dazzling visions?

In "The History of Don Francisco de Miranda's Attempt to Effect a Revolution in South America," by James Briggs, who was an officer under Miranda, we find a description of the hero: "He [Miranda] is a great moralist or moralizer. Vice and meanness in every degree or shape are, according to his own declarations, entirely against his taste and judgment. If you take his word for it, he is a lover of virtue even to enthusiasm. To use his own language, he 'abominates tyranny, hates fools, abhors flatterers, detests pride and laments the corruption of modern days.' He loves freedom, admires candor, esteems wise men, respects humility and delights in that noble and beautiful integrity and good faith which distinguished the golden times of antiquity." Briggs further says of him: "He would renovate the perverted minds of mankind and restore the ancient beatitudes, when every excellence and virtue prevailed among men, for the happiness of the present race, and the perpetual prosperity of future generations." This is a qualified but not wholly unpleasing picture of one who might indeed have been a follower of Cincinnatus and Washington.

A letter from Miranda to President Thomas Jefferson, who had predicted South American liberty, dated "New York, January 22, 1806," confirms the view of Officer Briggs. Miranda says: "If the happy prediction which you have pronounced on the future destiny of our dear Colombia is to be accomplished in our day, may Providence grant that it may be under your auspices and by the generous efforts of her own children. We shall then in some sort behold the arrival of that age the return of which the Roman bard invoked in favor of the human race:

"'The last great age, foretold by sacred rhymes,

Renews its finished course: Saturnian times

Roll round again, and mighty years, begun

From this first orb, in radiant circles run.'"

A mind whose dreams of life thus sought the sublime interpretation of the Fourth Eclogue of Vergil was one of no common order, and must ever command admiration.

Officer Briggs brings his volume of letters to a close with these criticisms: "After all, this man of renown, I fear, must be considered as having more learning than wisdom, more theoretical knowledge than practical talent. He is too sanguine and opinionated to distinguish between the vigor of enterprise and the hardness of infatuation."

A man may have good morals and every polite accomplishment, and yet fail in a noble cause, if self-seeking be not eliminated from his purpose. The critics of Miranda have said that the hero sought to advance his own interests more than those of his country, and was more willing to imitate the achievements of Washington than to be a Washington. Men must be judged largely by their ideals, which are their true selves, and we must place ourselves among those who would give credit to the high purpose for the welfare of mankind that everywhere led the young steps of Francisco Miranda. Miranda suggested to the world the cause and method of South American independence. Wendell Phillips used to say that there were two kinds of men in the world—one who went forth and accomplished something, and the other who showed how the accomplishment should have been done in some other way. Miranda belonged to those that plan but do not successfully execute.

Miranda was rich, but his property was sacrificed to the cause. He lived in London as one in another world; for he thought of nothing, talked of nothing, sought for nothing, but South American independence. Failing to secure aid for his cause in England, he came to New York, organized an expedition of ardent and adventurous spirits, and sailed for Venezuela to proclaim a republic. He met with disaster at sea, and the Venezuelans at the port where he landed were not prepared to respond to his call. Disappointed, but not disheartened, he returned to England. His effort seemed to have been fruitless, but it was powerful in suggestion. The very discussion of it stimulated the cause of Venezuelan independence.

In 1814 there appeared at Albany, New York, a book entitled "History of the Adventures and Sufferings of Moses Smith during Five Years of his Life, from the Beginning of the Year 1806, when He was Betrayed into the Miranda Expedition." The book is not friendly to General Miranda, for Smith was led by false representations of a recruiting-officer named Fink to join the patriotic expedition. The narrative is graphic. It furnishes a picture of the ideals and methods of Miranda, and of the first attempt for South American liberation. We quote from this narrative: "On the 15th of February we arrived at Jaquemel in St. Domingo. There our tricolored flag was displayed, and our printing-press was set to work on board the Leander. Proclamations were struck off, addressed to the people of South America by Don Francisco Miranda, commander-in-chief of the Colombian Army of South America. In them were set forth the griefs of the people, their wrongs and hardships, and the intention of the general to emancipate them. The officers, who were constituted before by brevet, now received their commissions from the general, by virtue of the power vested in him. It was announced that the Cleopatra, Captain Wright, was to join us at this port, and there was a constant lookout for her. It was also expected that we should be joined by another American merchant ship, called the Emperor, commanded by Captain Lewis. To effect this junction, Captain Lewis and Major Smith went to Port au Prince, but returned without success. Two unarmed American schooners, one called the Bee  and the other the Bacchus, were, however, chartered, and various modes of recruiting resorted to in order to increase the army, which, after all, did not amount to more than two hundred men, seamen included. An oath was administered to the officers to be true and faithful to the free people of South America independent of Spain, to serve them honestly against all their enemies, and to obey the orders of the supreme government of that country, and the officers by them appointed. The officers, on receiving their commissions, signed a promise to be governed by the articles of war of the United States, with such formal alterations only as might suit them to the different government under which they then were or might be. From this time the discipline, which had been strict before, became rigorous."

It was Moses Smith's lot to be put, with those enrolled by Mr. Fink, on board the Bee, and anchored close to the Leander. The alarm and discontent of these sailors were great, but their murmurs were silenced by the terrors of the articles of war. They concerted plans of escape, and once rose to effect their deliverance; but their officers hailed the Leander, which sent an armed force to subdue them. They were unarmed, and easily overcome. Some were wounded, others punished summarily by imprisonment or put into irons. They still, however, held to the determination to effect their escape on the first favorable occasion, or to sell their lives dearly.

"After being ten days at sea," the narrative continues, "instead of making the place of our destination, which was the small island of I30nair, on the coast of the Spanish Main, we were, by some mistake of the pilot, or by other mischance, deeply engulfed in the bay of Venezuela, seventy miles to leeward, with current and trade wind against us. We therefore directed our course for the island of Aruba, which we reached on the 4th of April.

"We were joined at Aruba by an English schooner called the Echo, Captain Philips, a smuggler, to whom it was said the general gave sealed orders, but who left us after a few days, and never appeared again. We beat up toward Bonair, and on the 24th of April had the mainland and the islands of Little Caracas and Bonair in sight. An officer, Major Donahue, was ordered to go in the Bacchus  to Bonair, to see whether any English frigates or other vessels of war were there, as we expected to be joined by such. There were no English vessels in the port, nor did Major Donahue bring intelligence of any. On the following day, the 25th, a proclamation was issued, offering to the sailors who should enlist as soldiers, to serve under the Colombian standard on shore, thirty dollars per month, a bounty of fifty at the close of the campaign to each one who should distinguish himself, a bounty to the non-commissioned officers, and to all who, having distinguished themselves, wished to return to their families, a gratuity proportioned to their courage and fidelity. With these promises, and much haranguing and persuasion, many were prevailed on to agree.

"Many of these men had been forced into this expedition against their will. They had not yet shed blood nor taken any active part in warfare. The laws of their native country were not intentionally violated by them, and they had not incurred the vengeance of any other. They determined to escape. Two undertook to sound the others. They were Benjamin Davis and Henry Sperry. Every one of the men engaged by John Fink agreed cordially to cooperate, and some of the s promised to join; but before the time arrived for executing their plot it was discovered. Their plan was to mutiny, take command of the schooner, and steer for the nearest port where they could escape; but the ships were discovered by two Spanish guardacostas, one a brig of twenty guns, the other a schooner of eighteen. They were hailed by the captain of the Leander, and ordered to prepare for action. After some broadsides exchanged between the armed vessels on both sides, they were ordered to board the enemy on the lee side, while the Leander  was to attack and board the ship on the weather side. They obeyed their orders, but before they could accomplish them, to their inexpressible astonishment, they saw the Leander, with Miranda on board, haul down her colors and make off. The remaining ships were boarded and taken by the Spaniards. The men were plundered, stripped, and rifled; and so impatient were the conquerors for the booty that before they took the time to pull the clothes off they first cut the pockets to make sure of the contents. So expert were they in this inglorious kind of warfare that they seldom failed to clear away the pocket with a single stroke. The prisoners were next pinioned and secured, tied back to back, and in that humiliating posture conveyed to Port Cabello. There they were disembarked, and driven into the castle of St. Philip, chained two and two, and loaded with irons. They were divided into two parties of about thirty each, the whole number taken in the two schooners amounting to about sixty. They were then thrown into two separate dungeons, and suffered indescribable privations.

"Their trial took place toward the end of June. It was not till the 10th of July that their doom was announced to them. On that day their prison doors were thrown open, and they were told by an interpreter that they must come out to be hanged. The names of ten of the prisoners, all officers in Miranda's army, were first called, and the interpreter read this sentence from a paper he held: 'In the morning of to-morrow, at six o'clock, you, and each of you, are sentenced to be hanged by the neck until you are dead; after which your heads are to be severed from your bodies, placed upon poles, and distributed in the most public parts of the country.' The remainder, being nineteen in number, were sentenced to eight years' imprisonment in the castle of Boca Chica, near Cartagena, which sentences were all executed."

The conduct of Miranda in this case has been severely criticized. It would seem that it was not only the sailors who had been deceived, but that he himself had been. Had he not escaped, he must have found himself either a prisoner of the enemy or have been deserted by his own men. So ended his first vision of the emancipation of his country.