Sunday, 28 June 2009

A Venezuelan improving human rights in Denmark

Francisco de Miranda was a Venezuelan independence revolutionary considered as forerunner of Simón Bolívar. I usually am very wary about praising military "heroes" at all Simón Bolívar is seen as a semi-God in Venezuela and he has been used by politicos since the XIX century in order to polish their own image. Still, I think Miranda deserves some attention. Miranda's life was full of adventures, but those adventures took place in his quest for finding things out and his efforts to improve the life of normal people. He met and became friends with scientists and kings, artists and philanthropists throughout Europe and used those relationships to move around and start designing a plan for freedom of Spanish America. Before getting into the Venezuela revolutionary adventure, Miranda traveled through North America and Europe. He also visited Turkey and fought in Morocco. He kept a fascinating diary where he talked about all societal aspects of the regions he visited, about politics, about arts, economy and more. You can sense his love for humans when you read his diary. There he reported about the life conditions in Greece and Germany, in Spain and in his Venezuela and how he was trying to find concrete ways of improving things.

Every part of his diary is fascinating, but here I want to mention one single thing: his contribution to the improvement of human rights in Denmark, something few people know.

Miranda arrived at the Danish capital in early January of 1788. He came on a trip that had taken him throughout Europe and Asian Turkey. He had been in Sweden and Norway before arriving to Denmark. He stayed there until March. A friend of his, Norwegian businessman and politician Carsten Anker, became his unofficial guide and accompanied him through many places. Miranda asked to be shown the Danish prisons. He described in detail conditions there, he realized how tortured was still practiced even if it had been officially banned some years earlier, how processes took place, how guards behaved. He tried to inform himself about specific prisoners and see how he could help them. He listened to prisoners and guards, to politicians and people on the streets. The situation did not seem to be worse than in many other places back then, but in Denmark he got a little bit luckier with the authorities. For weeks he meet with the authorities, even with the Prince. He tried pulling the right strings, specially with the help of his Norwegian friend Anker, who was a friend of the Danish monarc.

A letter of diplomat Krüdener to the Russian vicechancellor of 12 February 1788 talked about the results of those efforts: "Count Miranda (Miranda was not really a count, but he pretended to be one on occasion), examining here the public institutions with investigative spirit that is so typical of him, has found prisons in a horrible state...He decided to denounce this abuse and it has been thanks to his intervention that the Royal Prince has ordered to examine them, to present a report about them and to improve the state of the prisons".

Miranda was particularly moved by a girl with mental problems sentenced to be beheaded because she had an abortion. He also was shocked by the way some elderly were kept in miserable conditions . In his diary there are references about how he followed up their cases until there was a visible improvement. His efforts, together with those of Anker, made a difference to many people in Denmark.

Miranda had previously fought for Spain to take over Western Florida during the US American revolution (1781), he later fought in the French revolution (his name is engraved in the Arc de Triomphe) and he finally led the way in the South American independence wars. He surrendered in 1812 to avoid a complete massacre of his troops, but then he was betrayed by Simón Bolívar, who delivered him to the Spanish forces in order to run away. Miranda went to a Spanish prison where he died in 1816.

Venezuelans are told to interpret Bolivar's treason differently: Bolivar gave Miranda to the Spaniards because he felt "Miranda had betrayed the revolution". This does not make sense at all: Bolivar got an exit passport from those Spaniards for handing over Miranda. With that passport he could get away. He would later return to Venezuela to lead the independence movement, but that is another story.

You can read a selection of Miranda's diaries (in the Spanish original, with the original orthography) here. You can read a biography in English here. I would also recommend a good German book about him, Francisco de Miranda und die Entdeckung Europas, but I think it is out of print now. A lot of people agree Miranda was ahead of his time, but he also was out of touch with realities in Venezuela. I would say he also had a lot of bad luck at the end. Still, Miranda wrote a lot of things about how societies fail and succeed which, in my opinion, are still very valid and can help us today.

Back then the differences between Denmark and the Spanish colony of Venezuela were meaningful, but not as much as today. For one, the situation of human rights in Denmark has vastly improved. The situation in Venezuela, on the other hand, stagnates. In 2008, 410 prisoners were murdered in prisons in Venezuela, where there is no death penalty. Miranda would feel ashamed. I do.

Here you can read in Danish some part of the diary referring to Miranda's visit to one of the Danish prisons.

A statue of Miranda in London, where he lived for many years and where he had two children with his British wife:


  1. Hi, this is Kolya here. Good post on Miranda. He deserves a good biography from a well known author in order to make him better known. A fascinating figure. I agree that the way Bolivar (or his fans) excuses his inexcusable betrayal of Miranda does not make sense. Poor Miranda.

    About a year or two ago I read some of the stuff Miranda wrote while he lived in Russia. Among other things I found it amusing that he met Suvorov, probably the best general Russia ever had, as an unserious "majadero." It's amusing because although I'm sure that Suvorov behaved in front of Miranda as Miranda described, Suvorov was also a cultivated man, he was well read, spoke several languages, and some of his private letters are show him to be a man of some depth. At the same time, Suvorov was an eccentric who often changed personas (perhaps for his own amusement): in high society he often like to play the complete fool. In any event, Suvorov was a fascinating man and it's amusing that Miranda only saw his "majadero" persona.

    For Suvorov's wikipedia entry (which I just glanced over) go to:

    (By the way, rumors that he was one of Catherine the Great's lovers are only that, rumors, and few historians believe it. First, Catherine the Great was not as promiscous as popular imagination holds (she did have a number of lovers, but not nearly as many) and, second, there is plenty of evidence of who her lovers were (throughout her long reign) and Miranda was not one of them.)

  2. Priviet, Kolya. I am glad you liked it.

    I will check out about Suvorov.
    My impression from what I have read of Miranda in Russia is the same as yours: Catherine liked him a lot and helped him, but that was about it, everything else are silly rumours. He would have written about it anyway, as he was not precisely shy.

    What he did get was clear sympathy from the Russian Empress and some of her top officials, not only while in Russia but later on.

    I have enjoyed every part of his diary I could get my hands to.

    I was recently reading a history of Norway and there I came across C. Anker, the Norwegian friend of Miranda I mentioned in this post. Anker would later be one of the Norwegians to push for independence from Denmark.

    It is funny to read the impressions people left on Miranda: who he admired and who he found silly, superficial.
    I was laughing when I saw he met the Merode family, a French Belgian Nobility family and what he wrote - very shortly - about them.

    Most fascinating are his remarks on how countries develop and prosper, his concrete observations on the countries he visited, his love for people in general and his simple passion for knowledge of all kind.


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