Francisco de Miranda (March 28, 1750, Caracas, Venezuela—July 14, 1816, La Carraca, Spain) was a Spanish American revolutionary who after a career in the Spanish Army from 1783 devoted his life to the cause of Spanish American independence. The various designs of Miranda in the 1780s–1800s were founded upon the idea of a military liberation expedition to Spanish America led by him and organized with the support of a power (Great Britain, United States, France) in conflict with Spain that would then foment existing discontent and lead to a wide-scale revolt and independence. Though these plans failed, as did his attempt to organize an expedition from New York without the support of any power (1805–1807), in 1810 the revolution in Spanish America started without his participation as a consequence of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. Miranda was called to Caracas and eventually led the short-lived First Venezuelan Republic in 1812. After its defeat he spent the last years of his life in Spanish jails. Miranda’s failure influenced the South American revolutionaries who adopted the tactics of unconditional warfare against the Spanish troops from 1813.
A shrewd and sophisticated expert in world affairs and political intrigues and an acclaimed military commander, Miranda was persistently trying to use the conflicts between great powers to achieve his goal though he knew that these powers’ leaders were eager to use him as a trump card against the Spanish Empire in their geopolitical games. His contacts ranged from US Founding Fathers, British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger and Viscount Melville to the Prussian king Friedrich II and the Russian empress Catherine II. He was a respected peer in the high society of the European “republic of letters” in the Age of Enlightenment. In the United States his friends belonged to the Federalist Party, which represents an interesting phenomenon since Federalists are usually viewed as being generally skeptical toward foreign revolutions. In Spanish America Miranda’s ideas received no support until 1810–1812, as his failed expedition clearly shows—this is an excellent example of the interplay between “evental history” (histoire évenémentielle) and the longue durée, demonstrating how fast and unpredictable radical historical change may be. In spite of this long political solitude, Miranda entered the Spanish American symbolic pantheon as the precursor of independence.
In December 1801, First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte sent a massive expedition to the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today: Haiti). His goal was to restore direct French rule and overthrow Toussaint Louverture, a former slave who, as governor general of Saint-Domingue, had been suspected of plotting independence. Bonaparte’s secondary goal may have been to reinstate slavery, which France had abolished in 1793–1794.
Bonaparte’s brother-in-law, General Victoire Leclerc, headed the expedition. After landing in Saint-Domingue in February 1802 with 20,000 troops, he managed, with great difficulty, to defeat Louverture’s army. He then deported Louverture to France, where he died in exile. In August 1802, however, resistance intensified as plantation laborers became convinced that the French intended to restore slavery. Leclerc, who lost much of his army to yellow fever, embraced increasingly murderous tactics against the black population until he died in November 1802.
For one year, Leclerc’s successor, General Donatien de Rochambeau, battled Louverture’s successor, General Jean-Jacques Dessalines, in a brutal conflict with genocidal overtones. The bravery of Dessalines’s troops, lack of support from France, epidemic disease, and the renewal of Britain’s war with France eventually doomed the French effort. After the departure of the last remnants of the Leclerc expedition, Dessalines declared the independence of Saint-Domingue, now known as Haiti, on January 1, 1804, and then put to death most of the remaining French planters.