Miranda’s follies

Jeremy Taylor on Trinidad through the Eyes of Francisco de Miranda’s Correspondence, ed. Gilberto James Correa

Francisco de Miranda

Trinidad through the Eyes of Francisco de Miranda’s Correspondence, ed. Gilberto Jaimes Correa (self-published, ISBN 980-12-1053-2, 244 pp)

 

Trinidad, 1806. It is only nine years since the English grabbed the island from Spain. The white plantation owners want it to be a slave colony; London wants an island of free settlers, to placate the abolitionists, and a base for commercial penetration of South America. Governor Thomas Hislop, three years into his assignment, is desperate to leave. He is terrified of slave revolts, Spanish attack, French republicans, and much else besides. He has just put down what he thought was a slave uprising; there have been brutalities, hangings, mutilations. Trinidad, as usual, is barely manageable.

 

A few miles to the south and west is the coast of Venezuela, the edge of the Spanish empire to which Trinidad so recently belonged. There has been sparring across the Gulf of Paria and along the “Spanish Main”: Caracas hints that Trinidad will be retaken; the British spread revolutionary leaflets in Venezuela inciting revolt against Spain. In just four years, Simón Bolívar will begin the liberation of Venezuela; already Trinidad has been implicated. It is such a convenient springboard, still partly Spanish-speaking, only a few miles from the mainland: the first hopeful liberators, Manuel Gual and José María España, had worked from Trinidad.

 

Into this turmoil strides General Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan soldier who has not seen his country for 35 years. He is already 56; he has served with the Spanish in Gibraltar and at the siege of Pensacola, and with the army of the French revolution. He has spent many years in America and Europe; he has met Washington and Jefferson, he has been befriended by William Pitt in London and Catherine the Great in Russia. Like Bolívar, he has a grand vision: a single free continent called Colombia, stretching from the Mississippi to Cape Horn.

 

For years he has been begging Britain and America to mount an invasion of South America; interest in London has waxed and waned with shifting European alliances, but nothing has happened. Miranda himself has just led a disastrous attempt to establish a foothold at Puerto Cabello, a hundred miles west of Caracas, but this fiasco has done nothing to dull his enthusiasm. When the revolution starts, he wants to lead it.

 

Miranda arrives in Trinidad in June 1806, and enjoys the patronage of Governor Hislop. He is sure the English in Trinidad and Barbados will back him, and he feels he has tacit American endorsement as well. He puts together a motley crew of about a hundred men, with a handful of ships led by his flagship Leander. Hislop eggs him on. If Britain is to become the trading gateway to South America, the Venezuelan coast at least needs to be free.

 

In July, Miranda sallies forth with his little fleet and makes a successful landing at La Vela de Coro, further along the coast towards Maracaibo. He has some initial success. But no English naval support materialises. The local uprising he has been led to expect doesn’t happen. His force is too weak to move inland on its own. Local officials seem to be expecting him; enemy forces gather and cut him off from his water supply. Miranda suffers casualties, dithers for several days offshore, then retreats to Aruba, and on to Trinidad, where he licks his wounds for almost a year before returning to London to continue lobbying for English backing.

 

Even after these defeats, Miranda does not let go of his vision. In 1810, with the start of Bolívar’s revolution, he returns to Venezuela, but falls out with Bolívar and is handed over to the Spanish. He dies in 1816, in a dungeon in Cadiz.

 

V.S. Naipaul documented this story brilliantly in his history The Loss of El Dorado (1969), and explored it further in A Way in the World (1994). This “British-sponsored attempt” to start a revolution in the Spanish empire, he wrote, was one of two moments in which Trinidad was “touched by ‘history’”.

 

Leaving aside the issue of what “history” is, the question arises: what on earth did Miranda think he was doing? Already well into middle age, with an inadequate task force and inaccurate intelligence, misreading British motives, assuming that South America was waiting for him with open arms — what was he thinking? And what were the British up to?

 

His papers and letters suggest a partial answer. Decades of lobbying had separated vision from reality in Miranda’s mind. He knew his forces were inadequate —?he estimated that he needed five hundred to a thousand men, but he left Port of Spain with barely a hundred. His agent in Trinidad had told him that eight thousand supporters were waiting for him in Venezuela. Even so, the recklessness of the enterprise is astonishing.

 

This book’s foreword claims: “one can’t say [the project] was a failure”. And in Venezuela, Miranda is still regarded as the heroic precursor of Bolívar. But Naipaul calls him “something of a confidence man”. In A Way in the World he documents some of the items which Miranda probably did not share with Governor Hislop: the early arrests for insubordination, the theft of regimental funds, the smuggling scam in Cuba that led to his arrest and flight to America to avoid hard labour in Oran, his dismissal and arrest for incompetence by the French, his discovery that people would swallow anything he told them (he was a count, he was a respected law graduate of Mexico University), his years of sponging off the rich and gullible, his brutal command style.

 

As for the British, their commander in Barbados, Rear-Admiral Cochrane, was unfailingly friendly and courteous to Miranda, but always had excuses for his inability to assist. Perhaps a successful expedition would have attracted tangible support, but an unsuccessful one — my dear fellow, “I wish I could send you five or six Reg[iments]”. Four weeks after Miranda decided to retreat to Aruba, Cochrane is telling Governor Hislop in Trinidad that “powerful naval assistance” has been sent to secure the success of the operation “so brilliantly commenced” at Coro. At the same time he is writing to Miranda and wringing his hands at being ordered by London to “limit assistance”; he is sending a schooner to pick up Miranda’s dispatches and take them directly to London so that ministers can decide what to do.

 

Gilberto Jaimes Correa is a Venezuelan diplomat who has served in Chile and Trinidad and Tobago. He is a Miranda enthusiast, and has done a good deal of legwork for this book, digging in the archives in London, Caracas, Bridgetown, and Port of Spain. Perhaps because Naipaul has already told Miranda’s story so well (and clearly used many of these same papers as sources in The Loss of El Dorado), Jaimes Correa presents the material as a portrait of Trinidad “through the eyes of Francisco de Miranda’s correspondence”. This is misleading: the focus is almost entirely on Miranda’s own obsession.

 

The selection starts in 1797 with Spanish documents considering the reconquest of Trinidad, then skips to Miranda in London in 1803–4, as he tries to get his project off the ground. British and American press accounts of the 1806 expedition show how seriously the affair was taken in London and New York. There are letters from Miranda’s impoverished year in Trinidad in 1806–7, and a mopping-up selection from his final period in London between 1808 and 1810.

 

Useful as this edition of archive documents is, there is a very serious problem with it: the quality of editing and proof-reading is a disaster. At the very least, the book needs an index, editorial annotation, adequate captions, and a less eccentric bibliography. Worse, the text is riddled with errors of grammar, punctuation, typography, spelling, and idiom. There are garbled names, dates, and sentences. Factual discrepancies are not addressed. There is not even agreement about such basics as when Miranda was in Trinidad, the fate of his flagship, the Leander, or the spelling of the author’s name (with or without a hyphen?). This means that the texts are not sufficiently reliable for any serious academic purpose. The book is a classic instance of the hazards of self-publishing, especially across a language barrier; the best course would be to withdraw it for correction and reissue.

 

That would also allow the compiler to retitle it. There are indeed interesting glimpses of Miranda’s interaction with Hislop and others. Miranda happens to see the first Chinese labourers coming ashore; he takes a trip to south Trinidad and the Pitch Lake — this is described by one of his travel companions, John Downie. As the party merrily tours the young thriving estates, you would never guess that anything was amiss in the world. But Miranda has only one real interest, and that is himself and his destiny, not Trinidad.

 

As for Governor Hislop, he did not escape from his chains until 1811. The saddest thing in the book is his letter to Miranda fishing for a job in the event of a successful Venezuelan incursion — anything, so long as he could keep the rank of at least Major-General. He was even optimistically learning Castilian Spanish.

 

Reproduced with permission from the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB), August 2005. Copyright Media & Editorial Projects Ltd (MEP) and the CRB.