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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Life of Miranda

William Spence Robertson

The University of North Carolina Press

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 2

Vol. I
Chapter I

Ancestry and Early Life

Francisco de Miranda lived during an age of political transformations. The years that span his career include an era which for revolutionary changes is unique in world history. The Spanish-American Government that he helped to found thus epitomized his achievements: — "He took part in three great political movements of his age: the struggle for the independence of the United States, the French Revolution, and the emancipation of South America." As Miranda dedicated his mature life to the liberation of America from Spanish rule, we shall begin by sketching conditions in Venezuela. Not only was this domain the environment of his early life, but it was also the object of his mature aspiration and the scene of his most dramatic activities.

At the time when our story begins, King Charles III of Spain held title to almost one‑half of the territory in the New World. By a series of royal decrees that huge Empire had been carved into administrative divisions. The most important of these were the viceroyalties and the captaincies general. In 1750 the Captaincy General of Venezuela extended along the northern coast of South America from the Essequibo River to the Gulf of Maracaibo. This region was bounded on the west and south by the Viceroyalty of New Granada and by Dutch and Portuguese Guiana. It was administered by a captain general who managed the civil and military affairs of the Captaincy General and who also served as governor of the important province of Caracas. The inhabitants of Venezuela numbered about seven hundred thousand. Despite a prejudice against intermarriage there was considerable mingling of Indian, Negro, and white blood. The white people were grouped into two classes or castes: persons of Spanish lineage born in America who were styled creoles, and those persons who had been born in Old Spain. As peninsular Spaniards enjoyed a monopoly of important public offices, the creoles  p2 viewed them with much jealousy.

Lying in a beautiful valley located a short distance from the southern shores of the Caribbean Sea was the city of Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Besides being the seat of an archbishop, this city was also the capital of the province of Caracas and the metropolis of the Captaincy General. In 1750 this capital enjoyed a social distinction which was enhanced by the fact that it was a favorite residence of wealthy landowners. The city had been laid out according to the chessboard plan; its streets intersected at right angles. Facing the northwest corner of the main plaza or alameda rose the stately cathedral. A short distance westward of the alameda and within the parish pertaining to the cathedral stood a handsome house.

[image ALT: A photograph of a house on an urban street corner. Most it consists only of a ground floor, although that story is about 6 meters tall: a monumental stone door with an elaborately carved pediment, and two windows about 3 meters high, also pedimented, protected by bars. Down the street to the viewer's right, the same height resolves into a ground floor and an upper story, each with its own similarly protected windows though with no pediments. The corner has been cut across to make a small windowless wall facing the viewer, on which a plaque has been placed about 3 meters off the ground: it bears a four-line inscription transcribed in my caption to this image. The tile roof of the house is barely visible: it slopes very slightly. The scene is marred by electric and telephone poles and their wires. About a dozen men are standing around on the sidewalk. It is the childhood home of Francisco Miranda in Caracas, Venezuela, as photographed in the 1920s.]

House of Sebastian de Miranda in Caracas, Venezuela. From a recent photograph. Reproduced by courtesy of Señor Vicente Dávila.

[Thayer's Note] The plaque reads:

En esta casa

nació en 1750

el Generalísimo

Francisco de Miranda

The master of this mansion was Sebastián de Miranda y Ravelo who, on April 24, 1749, had married Francisca Antonia Rodríguez Espinosa.1 On March 28, 1750, she gave birth to a son. Eight days later this infant was baptised, as a certificate subscribed by Juan de Rada bears proof:

"In the cathedral of the city of Caracas, on April 5, 1750, I, the undersigned curate, have solemnly baptised, anointed, and blessed Sebastián Francisco, an infant that was born on March 28. This babe is a legitimate son of Don Sebastián de Miranda and Francisca Antonia Rodríguez. The child's godfather was Friar Tomás Baptista de Melo to whom there pertains its spiritual parenthood and obligation. In testimony whereof I sign this on the first-mentioned date."2

As will be amply demonstrated in this biography, the child thus christened Sebastián Francisco was the Venezuelan who became famous in two hemispheres as Francisco de Miranda, — the knight-errant of Spanish-American liberty. During the  p3 decade following the birth of our hero there sprang from his parents three daughters: Ana Antonia, Rosa, and Micaela. It seems that a son was also born who was christened Javier. More important for our story is the indisputable fact that another son was born to the Mirandas on June 9, 1756, and was baptised twelve days later as Francisco Antonio Gabriel. The godfather of this child was a friend of the family named Francisco Antonio Arrieta.3

On their mother's side these children sprang from a family that had been domiciled in Caracas for several generations. Its origin and history are at present obscure. On the paternal branch the Mirandas descended from a Spaniard who had recently emigrated to South America from the Canary Islands.4 Sebastián de Miranda was a native of Orotava in the island of Teneriffe. He was a descendant of one Francisco de Miranda who in the middle of the seventeenth century resided at Villa Nuebaº de la Serena in Spain. The ancestral home of the Mirandas was in the Kingdom of Oviedo.5

A Castilian antiquarian informs us that in the fourteenth century the chief seat of "the Mirandas of immemorial nobility" was at Soria in Old Castile. As illustrations of their valor, this writer tells us that Diego de Miranda perished in a campaign against the Catalonians, that Andrés de Miranda won renown in the Italian wars, and that Juan de Miranda was slain in his galley at the battle of Lepanto.6 In the words of an eighteenth-century chronicler, from the Miranda family there had sprung persons of "the greatest merit and loyalty to their King, men who had frequently distinguished themselves among their contemporaries. * * * The story of the different branches and members of this family would fill an extensive volume." That chronicler thus described the heraldic bearings of the Miranda family:

 p4  "Its coat of arms was composed of a shield that depicted upon a red ground the busts of five unclothed damsels. Each damsel bore a golden shell. This device was adopted by Melendo Analso de Miranda because he had liberated five maidens in a bloody conflict with Moslems who were carrying them as slaves to Córdoba. The shield was encircled by the original arms of the family, — two winged serpents whose tails touched their necks."7

At an unknown date a member of this adventurous family settled in the Canary Islands. In the town of Orotava one Gabriel de Miranda espoused María Francisca Ravelo. A fruit of this marriage was Sebastián de Miranda who at an early age emigrated to Venezuela and settled in the city of Caracas. There he became a merchant who dealt in linens. As he was not a creole, he could scarcely have stood high in the esteem of the colonial aristocracy.

Yet it appears that in 1749 by the side of prominent creoles Sebastián de Miranda supported the armed protest of those colonists who objected to the transactions of the Company of Guipúzcoa to which the Spanish Government had granted a monopoly of Venezuelan commerce.8 His affairs evidently prospered, for in 1762 he paid the heirs of Fernando Mejías five thousand pesos for the house that had been serving him as a residence.9 At the proposal of Colonel Castro, an inspector in the Spanish army, on December 17, 1764, Captain General Solano appointed Miranda captain of a new militia company that was to be composed of natives of the Canary Islands who were engaged in mercantile pursuits in Caracas. Captain Miranda had evidently served under the Spanish flag; for Solano described him as a person of "quality, valor, and military experience."10

Meantime the junior Sebastián was being educated. His  p5 parents doubtless taught him the rudiments of arts and letters. A Latin grammar was soon placed in his hands. He learned to recite the rosary and became acquainted with the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church. Strange though it may seem, not until he had passed his twentieth birthday did the lad receive the sacrament of confirmation in the metropolitan cathedral.11 Meantime he had been sent to the Academy of Santa Rosa in his native city. Inedited records of this academy indicate that in January, 1762, Sebastián Francisco de Miranda was enrolled in one of its preparatory classes under Dr. Monteserrate.12

From this academy the creole boy passed to the cloisters of the Royal and Pontifical University of Caracas, an institution superimposed by royal decree upon the Academy of Santa Rosa. During the last half of the eighteenth century the chief subjects of study at that university were theology, law, Latin, music, rhetoric, and moral philosophy. The scanty records of the University of Caracas show that in September, 1764, two sons of Sebastián de Miranda, namely Sebastián Francisco and Francisco Antonio Gabriel, matriculated there and enrolled in a course in art under a teacher named Francisco Urbina. Those records further show that in July, 1766, those brothers were in another course under Urbina, but that by May, 1767, they had evidently discontinued their studies.13 In the halls of the Venezuelan university the Mirandas presumably became acquainted with the scions of such aristocratic families as de Rojas, de Ponte, Seijas, and Aristéguieta.

In a memoir which the subject of this biography later addressed to Charles III, he stated that he had received a classical education at "the Academy and Royal University of Santa Rosa." Among specific subjects of his study at the university he mentioned only philosophy and law.14 Though Miranda seems later to have declared that he received the  p6 bachelor's degree at the University of Caracas in 1767, yet his name is absent from the published roll of its graduates.15 His appreciation for its teachings, however, is shown by a clause in his last testament that reads as follows: "To the University of Caracas there should be sent in my name the Greek classics in my library as a token of my gratitude and respect for the wise principles of literature and Christian morality with which it nourished my youth. These sound teachings have enabled me to overcome happily the grave risks and perils with which fate has encompassed me."16

Miranda once asserted that he also studied law at the University of Mexico.17 This assertion seems improbable, however, not only because it is inconsistent with statements found in his memorabilia but also because no evidence of his matriculation at that institution can be found in the Mexican archives. In any case, it is scarcely to be supposed that university training awoke in him a spirit of discontent with the existing régime. Shortly after Sebastián Francisco left the cloisters of the University of Caracas, however, events transpired that might well have provoked his dissatisfaction with colonial society.

On April 22, 1769, Captain General Solano granted Sebastián de Miranda an honorable release from his captaincy and stated that he had served the Spanish Government faithfully in different posts for twenty years. Solano's decision that Captain Miranda should retain the privileges of his rank displeased some noble militiamen who believed that such distinctions should be restricted to creoles. The shopkeeper soon provoked the ire of those colonists by wearing the uniform and baton of a militia captain. During the intrigues that followed aspersions were cast upon Miranda's lineage and social standing.

Dominated by members of the haughty creole aristocracy,  p7 the cabildo or council of the capital city soon protested against his conduct and threatened to cast him into prison. However, on June 5, 1769, Solano declared that the retired officer was legitimately entitled to wear a captain's uniform and warned all persons to desist from molesting him. The ex‑captain then presented to the Captain General a memorial concerning his ancestry and conduct. To paraphrase the ironic words ascribed to his advocate, what the memorialist desired to prove was neither the pure lineage nor the nobility of the people of Caracas but the nobility and pure lineage of his ancestors. In response the Captain General declared that in all the duties and exercises of his company Sebastián de Miranda had displayed much zeal and love for the royal service.18

This altercation was brought to the attention of the Spanish Government. Hence on September 12, 1770, Charles III addressed a decree to the cabildo of Caracas in which he grouped natives of the Canaries with citizens of Spain. The King declared that Peninsular Spaniards domiciled in Caracas were as much entitled to hold public offices as creoles; that the right to make military appointments pertained not to the cabildo of Caracas but to the Captain General; and that it had no authority to direct that a judge should try Miranda for wearing a military uniform. The King also announced that he had conceded to "Don Sebastián de Miranda the retirement that he voluntarily solicited with the enjoyment of all the distinctions, exemptions, privileges, and military prerogatives of his rank as well as the permission to carry a baton and to wear the uniform of a retired captain of the new battalion of militia of this province. As there is no cause for complaint concerning him," continued the King, "I command that perpetual silence shall be observed with respect to the inquiry concerning his quality and origin. Further, I threaten with dismissal and other severe penalties any soldier or any member of the cabildo of Caracas who censures Miranda either by voice or pen or who does not treat him in the same  p8 respectful manner as that which he was formerly accorded."19

Petty though this dispute was in its origins, yet it illustrates the domineering attitude of the council of Caracas toward persons who were not members of the creole aristocracy. It demonstrates that Sebastián's first-born son witnessed the bitter effects of jealousy and bickering between creoles and Spaniards. Further, it signifies that at an early age his eyes were inevitably directed toward the King's house.

Scarcely had Sebastián Francisco attained the stature of a man when he decided to enter the service of Spain. On January 3, 1771, he addressed a request to Captain General Solano. This petition is the first available bit of composition signed by the man who was destined to become a framer of constitutions for Spanish America. The plea ran in these words:

"Don Sebastián Francisco de Miranda, a native of this city and a legitimate son of the militia captain, Don Sebastián de Miranda and Doña Francisca Antonia Rodríguez Espinosa, as has been legally shown before you, appears and declares: — 'That I wish to serve His Majesty in the kingdoms of Spain according to my inclination and talents. Hence I have made clear in writing the pure blood of my ancestors and the nature of my conduct. I beseech that you consider the information which I present and that you direct that the witnesses whom I produce should attest that they know that I am the legitimate son of the lawful wedlock of Don Sebastián de Miranda and Doña Francisca Antonia Rodríguez Espinosa, born and considered as such. I also desire that they testify that I have been instructed by my parents in the rudiments of arts and letters. I further request that they swear that I have lived in a Christian manner and have partaken of the sacraments of our Holy Mother Church. Lastly, I ask that, if it be your pleasure, you shall direct that the original of this petition with the accompanying testimonials should be returned to me.' "20

 p9  With this petition Miranda submitted papers that attested the purity of his family's lineage, demonstrated his father's valuable services, and illustrated his own humble career. Among these documents were the sworn testimonies of five respectable citizens of Caracas which reënforced the statements made in his petition. In addition, these deponents said that the young creole had been a diligent and zealous student in the University of Caracas where he had shown signs of genius. The youth asked that there might also be adjoined to his plea the royal order of September 12, 1770, concerning his father's lineage and service.21

At the same time Miranda presented a memorial to the vicar of the birthplace of Caracas. In that document he explained his desire immediately to leave South America. The occasion was the arrival at La Guaira of vessels transporting Spanish soldiers to Venezuela. In one of these frigates the young man proposed soon to voyage to Spain. He represented himself as being neither married nor betrothed and as free of any impediment that might prevent him from leaving his native province. He further avowed that he had lived under the eyes of his parents with due respect and that in regard to political affairs his conduct had left nothing to be desired. This plea was accompanied by the testimony of two rectors of the cathedral of Caracas who declared that Sebastián Francisco de Miranda was a communicant of their church and a bachelor who was not engaged to be married. They avowed that he was a youth who had never been reprehended for any misconduct. They further declared that he had always lived under the authority of his parents pursuing a regular life, without having given the slightest cause for complaint about his behavior.22 Two fiscal officers of the colony named Manuel de Salas and Juan Vicente de Bolívar also made statements about the youth's conduct" the father of Bolívar the Liberator signed a  p10 certificate which declared "that Don Sebastián Francisco de Miranda, a resident of this city" is in no way indebted to the royal treasury. The two officials further testified "that in all matters of the royal service in which it has been his duty to assist, he has coöperated with zeal and propriety."23

The license that, in accordance with the policy of the Spanish Government, the young creole had to secure before he might leave America for the land of his forebears was readily obtained. Among Miranda's manuscripts there is preserved an account of his voyage from La Guaira to Cadiz in a Swedish frigate named the Prince Frederick. The first entry in this diary reads as follows: "January 25 to 26, 1771. At twelve o'clock we made sail accompanied by a Swedish packet boat." The Venezuelan noted in his journal that on the frigate there were only a few other passengers: a surgeon, a Biscayan chaplain with his small son, and an engineer in the Spanish army. According to this account, the Prince Frederick reached Puerto Rico on January 30.24 The voyagers caught a glimpse of the Spanish coast near Cape St. Vincent on February 28. Early that afternoon Miranda saw many land birds hovering around the ship. At eleven o'clock on the morning of March 1, 1771, the frigate cast anchor in the harbor of Cadiz. Soon afterwards Miranda set foot in Spain.

The ambitious creole had left his native land for the purpose of entering the royal service. It was Sebastián de Miranda's prosperous condition that enabled his eldest son to voyage to Cadiz with the intention of securing a commission under the Spanish flag. So far as can be discerned from contemporary evidence, at this juncture the youth was loyal to the government which his father had served with so much fidelity. Yet in 1795 the French artist Quatremère de Quincy, who had become intimately acquainted with the Venezuelan while they were incarcerated in a Parisian dungeon, avowed that even before he left his homeland a love of liberty was shining in Miranda's soul.

The Author's Notes:

1 A. C., libros de matrimonios de blancos, vol. 8.

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2 Miranda, Diary of Francisco de Miranda, p. xii. It was long believed that the subject of this biography was born on June 9, 1756. However, this was the birthday of his brother, Francisco Antonio Gabriel, whose baptismal certificate was printed by Austria, Bosquejo de la historia militar de Venezuela, I, 149, note. The curious mistake in dates was presumably in part due to the alteration in the order of his baptismal names made by "Francisco de Miranda" in 1772, see infra, p14.

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3 A. C., libros de bautizos de blancos, vol. 13.

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4 Rojas, Historia patria, I, apéndice, pp175‑76.

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5 Zazo y Ortega, "Informe de hidalguía," Nov. 28, 1772, Mir. MSS., vol. 1.

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6 Artigas, "Nobiliario de Soria," in Boletín de la real academia de la historia, LXXX, 515‑16.

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7 Zazo y Ortega, "Informe," loc. cit., Mir. MSS., vol. 1. See further Piferer, Nobiliario de los reinos y señoríos de España, II, 110‑12.

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8 Rojas, op. cit., I, 254, 278.

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9 Landaeta Rosales, "La casa donde nacio en Caracas el generalísimo Francisco de Miranda," in La Nación, Oct. 28, 1910.

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10 Rojas, op. cit., I, 285.

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11 Boletín de la academia nacional de la historia, XI, 22.

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12 A. U., libros de matrículas, vol. 2.

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13 Ibid.

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14 April 10, 1785, A. G. S., estado, legajo 8141. Cf. Grisanti, Miranda y la Emperatriz Catalina la Grande, p79.

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15 Stiles' MS., Anales de la universidad central de Venezuela, I, 669‑70.

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16 Robertson, "Miranda's Testamentary Dispositions, in Hispanic American Historical Review, VII, 291.

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17 Stiles, Literary Diary, III, 130‑31.

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18 Rojas, op. cit., pp292‑96.

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19 Rojas, op. cit., p178.

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20 Mir. MSS., vol. 1.

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21 Certificates of A. J. Muños,º D. Velásquez, B. López Méndez, J. de la Sierra, and J. Montero Bolero, Jan., 1771, ibid.

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22 J. Blas Herns and B. A. de Vargas, Jan. 5, 1771, ibid.

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23 January 4, 1771, Mir. MSS., vol. 1.

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24 "Fragmentos de un Diario * * *," ibid.

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