By Jess Owen
In 1810 Simon Bolivar arrived in London as a delegate from the newly established junta of Caracas. Their base was the house of Francisco de Miranda at 58 Grafton Way. Aware of British naval power, the revolutionary government wished to assure the dominant regional powers that they would not upset the ‘status quo’.
By the time the delegation arrived, de Miranda was a leading publicist for the cause of South American independence, running a newsletter, El Colombiano, modelled on the pioneering efforts of Blanco White and Hippolyto Jose da Costa with their El Espanol and Correio Brasiliense.
Bolivar landed at Portsmouth on 10 July 1810. The senior member of the mission was Luis Lopez Mendez. They went directly to London where a series of meetings were arranged with Government Ministers, and Foreign Office officials. Bolivar and his companions were seeking to urge the British not to intervene in the Caracas Revolution. With the collapse of the Spanish monarchy, the occupants of Caracas had taken the opportunity to throw off Madrid rule and declare autonomy.
The British statesmen they met had several concerns. Above all they wished to pursue the conflict with Napoleon in Spain. But the Spanish were hopelessly dependent on British supplies and money. They promised to recompense the British when they regained access to their gold and silver shipments from South America.
The British had other concerns. Their West India merchants, had an opportunistic eye on the Spanish trade to the South of the continent. A third factor bothered them. In 1791 the slaves of St Domingo had rebelled against their French masters. In 1806 Dessalines declared Haiti an independent republic. The British in the sugar islands of the West Indies were terrified of suffering a similar ‘fate’.
The day after landing Bolivar and Mendez sent a letter to the Foreign Secretary stating that: “Venezuela, as an integral part of the Spanish Empire, is menaced by France and desires to have in support of its security, the maritime protection of England” and requesting “the means which may be necessary for defending the rights of its legitimate Sovereign…against the common enemy”.
And they asked for ‘the Mediation of His Majesty’ in order to preserve their peace and friendship with their brethren of both Hemispheres. Bolivar and his companions travelled to London and took up residence in Duke Street, Marylebone. But much of their time was spent with de Miranda at his house in Grafton Way. From here introductions, mostly with prominent Whigs, were arranged throughout London.
The British thought about their requests, but they had already been considering the possibilities. Notes appended to the document revealed the Foreign Office feared that the insurrection would spread thoughout the Americas.
A memo, roughly dated July 1810, is with the papers of Lord Liverpool. Written by Lord Hanway, it began with the strategic realities of the situation: “The preponderance of our naval power must make an alliance with us most desirable for South America…. all the devices of France cannot exclude our Commerce from the Continent: neither therefore could they exclude that of Spanish America when forming a part of ours.”
Trade was paramount in the minds of the British. Four years earlier the Governor of Grenada had informed William Wyndham that the inhabitants of Caracas were thoroughly sick of Spanish rule. Should they succeed in overthrowing it, he said, it “would extend our commerce in a wonderful manner – The Caracans offer a very rich trade.” The vultures were already hovering over the carcass of the Spanish ‘Empire’. Spanish treasure was vital in the European conflict. Whilst Napoleon had defeated the ‘Third Coalition’ at Austerlitz, his manoeuvres had exhausted his finances.
As Elizabeth Sparrow puts it: “The effect of Bonaparte’s march across Europe was to leave the French economy in ruins, … The crisis lasted from late September 1805 to 27 January 1806. On this date Gabriel Ouvrard agreed to guarantee loans against the gold from the Spanish South American colonies…. The race to gain control of South America was on.”
One key figure in this contest was Bolivar’s host, Miranda. Formerly a French republican general, he had defected to London and was in receipt of a British pension. In 1797 he had conspired with Henry Dundas to ‘liberate’ Venezuela and Colombia. Secret funds were also offered in 1804 for much the same purpose. In 1806 he tried to launch an invasion, again with British help.
Hanway’s memo to Liverpool made explicit the importance of South American gold to the British efforts against Napoleonic France in 1810: “A considerable proportion of the means of continuing the struggle in Europe is now supplied by Spanish America, particularly the means which we cannot supply [gold].” The key, for British strategy, was how far the ‘Colonies’ were prepared to go in their desire for Independence. “If Spanish America gambles its declaration of Independence upon the presumption that the cause of European Spain is desperate , it can no longer consistently contribute directly to the support of that struggle, which must therefore be at an end or assume a different form.”
The delegation from Caracas had anticipated this response. They had been careful to include a declaration of loyalty to the deposed regime in Spain in their missive to the Foreign Office when they referred to their country as “as an integral part of the Spanish Empire.”
Bolivar and his companions had several meetings with British Ministers in 1810. They returned home later that year, empty handed. But British policy had been refined during their visit. As Wellesley later told the Prince Regent: “The principal object is to check the progress of civil discord between Spain and her American possessions, and to unite the whole Spanish Empire in resistance to France. In this attempt it is also… desirable that such a course should be pursued as might dispose Spanish America favourably towards the British Empire whatever may be the fate of Spain.”
The fate of Venezuela, and their neighbours was now, nominally, in their own hands.
This article was originally published 4 December 2012 in the printed edition of Fitzrovia News.