Newspapers, Sedition, and the Power of Public Opinion in Late-Colonial Venezuela

This post is a part of a series entitled “(In)forming Revolution: Information Networks in the Age of Revolutions.”

By Cristina Soriano

One night in June 1794, a British captain named William Gisborne went to the house of the Captain-General of Venezuela, Don Pedro Carbonell, to report that upon his arrival in La Guaira, the most important port of Venezuela, an official had visited his ship and asked whether he was carrying any European newspapers. The Captain provided the inspector with an English gazette, which the official arbitrarily confiscated. After hearing Gisborne’s story, Carbonell decided to inquire into the destiny of the gazette, and ordered the commander of La Guaira to find out who had confiscated it. Days later, Carbonell learned that the official in question was Juan Joseph Mendiri, a Royal Guard of the port, who returned the gazette claiming that he innocently took it out of curiosity. Three years later, in July 1797, a republican conspiracy led by a group of white locals and mixed-race pardos was uncovered in the port-city of La Guaira. Mendiri was among the group of people who had collaborated with this movement for “liberty and equality,” the “Rights of Man,” and the abolition of slavery. Indeed, Mendiri, the person tasked with controlling the entry of dangerous papers, stood accused of creating an archive of newspapers and seditious materials that he circulated among the population.[1]

Venezuela did not possess the technology for printing newspapers until 1808; in fact, it remained one of the last provinces in Spanish America without a printing press until the beginning of the nineteenth century. Prior to this date, all printed materials circulating in the region came from Europe, North America, or other Spanish-American provinces. The lack of a printing press, however, did not prevent the Venezuelan public from exchanging and sharing ideas during the age of the Atlantic Revolutions. The strategically located, frequently visited, and poorly controlled ports of Venezuela, where numerous ships loaded with both goods and information stopped daily, allowed many individuals to collect foreign newspapers and seditious broadsides, and to share these papers orally or through handwritten copies among circles of readers and listeners. By the end of the eighteenth-century, Venezuelans of all social backgrounds actively participated in networks of information-sharing that connected this region with both the Antilles and Europe, creating a vigorous and defiant political environment.[2]

According to Andrew Pettegree, in the eighteenth century a new generation of newspapers and political journals extended the range of political commentary and reflection in Europe and North America: “For the first time, newspapers played a vital role not only in recording but in shaping political events.”[3] During this period, many European countries saw the development and expansion of a commercial news market, which played a crucial role in shaping popular opinion in these regions. This explosion of new media not only transformed the reading public and the ways they consumed news, but also changed their patterns of political participation.[4]

King Charles III of Spain favored the spread of newspapers in all his territories, as he saw these were important vehicles for the rational thinking that Spanish reformism promoted. For many Spanish writers, editors, and publishers it was clear that newspapers, gazettes, and journals offered multiple benefits for the expansion of knowledge: they were inexpensive, they were produced rapidly and regularly, and their subjects were presented succinctly.[5] However, aware of the danger of  “excessive Enlightenment,” the Spanish Crown also encouraged the Council of Castile to monitor the content of periodicals printed in Spain; newspapers and journals could easily promote anti-monarchical or blasphemous ideas, instilling confusion and even disobedience on innocent readers.[6]

Newspapers and periodical publications favored the development of more flexible and extensive circuits of communication between Europe and America. Travelers to Spanish-American cities and ports frequently carried several European newspapers in their baggage. A close look at Venezuela’s inventories of private libraries and travelers’ baggage reveals an important presence of periodical publications in late-colonial Venezuela. Approximately 18% of the post-mortem inventories in Caracas (1770-1810) mentioned newspapers, journals, and periodical publications. In most of these cases, library owners had amassed entire collections of periodical publications, which had often been bound together and archived in their libraries.[7]

Readers in different cities of Venezuela had access to a diverse array of newspapers and journals printed in Spain, England, Mexico, the United States, and France. These newspapers contained European court gossip, military and diplomatic reports, political and moral essays, scientific findings, poetry, and lists of new printed editions.[8] Many of these newspapers provided Venezuelan readers with detailed information about international politics during the Age of Revolutions that Venezuelans consumed avidly and circulated through handwritten papers.

One of the most popular newspapers read in Venezuela and other regions of the Spanish Caribbean was the Gaceta de Madrid. Like many other European journals, the Gaceta could not avoid recounting the events of the Atlantic Revolutions. In several issues, for example, the Gaceta reported on the American Revolution and the political climate of the young republic. Perhaps because Spain had aided U.S. independence, the newspaper presented these changes in a positive light. For example, one issue included a summary of George Washington’s address to the citizens of Philadelphia on December 9, 1790, which discussed the economy of the fledgling republic and emphasized the need to achieve economic independence and political stability.[9] The publishers of La Gaceta de Madrid may have thought that a favorable depiction of the United States aligned well with the basic precepts of Bourbon reformism in Spain, which emphasized agricultural development and liberal commercial policies. From the perspective of Spanish-American readers, however, these reports might have had a different meaning: the political happiness and the economic progress of the United States could easily have been understood as the direct result of the American achievement of full independence from the British. The political message contained in Spanish periodicals, then, could be interpreted in different ways, depending on readers’ geopolitical standing. 

After the events of 1789 in France, the Spanish Crown prohibited the importation of any newspapers, written texts, and even objects into Spanish territories that alluded to the revolutionary events. These regulations not only affected the importation of texts from France and other European nations but also restricted the use of information from or about France in Spanish periodicals. In June 1793, at the height of the war between Spain and France, the Crown prohibited the printing of any news about revolutionary France. These restrictions, however, were not uniformly respected in the Spanish territories, where many newspapers continued reporting on the Atlantic revolutions. Printers and publishers knew that news of the revolutions sold well, and official bans only served to increase the interest of the public and the sales of newspapers. While most of these periodicals adopted a negative view of the revolutions in France and Saint-Domingue, they nonetheless provided precise information and detailed descriptions about the main political debates, the protagonists, and the development of revolutionary events.   

In the years following the French Revolution and St. Domingue’s rebellions, Venezuela’s officials repeatedly reported on the presence of “gazettes, dailies, and supplements from or about France and St. Domingue” in Venezuelan towns.[10] According to these authorities, the “evil designs” of these texts represented a palpable danger to the population who not only consumed and circulated these foreign newspapers and journals, but also transcribed them in letters, spread rumors brought by foreign visitors, and produced manuscripts containing poems, songs, and shorts stories easy to learn and to memorize. It was the existence of original media and effective social networks, and not a printing press, that allowed the emergence of an incipient public sphere in Venezuela—one that allowed people to engage in political debates that questioned slavery, monarchical authority, socio-racial privileges and shook the very pillars of Colonial rule.[11]

Cristina Soriano, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Latin American History at Villanova University. Her first book Tides of Revolution: Information, Insurgencies, and The Crisis of Colonial Rule in Venezuela is forthcoming with the University of New Mexico Press, Diálogos Series in 2018. You can reach her at cristina.soriano@villanova.edu or follow her on Twitter @csorianogomez.

Endnotes:

[1] “Expediente formado con las disposiciones referentes a evitar la introduccion en esta Provincia de papeles procedentes de la Francia, que contengan señales alucivas a la libertad,” Archivo General de la Nacion, Venezuela, Diversos, LXVI, 290-293.

[2] For an interesting analysis on the multiple media through which revolutionary ideas circulated in the Atlantic World, see the recent study by Janet Polasky, Revolutions without Borders, The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

[3] Andrew Pettegree, The Invention of News, How the World Came to Know About Itself. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014) chapter 16, 326. See also, Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics and Public Opinion in Late Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998) and Brendan Dooley ed., The Dissemination of News and the Emergence of Contemporaneity on Early Modern Europe (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010).

[4] Robert Darnton and Daniel Roche eds. Revolution in Print: The Press in France, 1775-1800 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1989) and Jeremy Popkin, Revolutionary News: The Press in France, 1789-1799 (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990).

[5] Julián de Velasco, Efemérides de la Ilustración de España (Madrid: Imprenta de Manuel Caballero, no.1, 1/1/1804), 2.

[6] See Antonio Calvo Maturana, “Is it useful to deceive the people? The Debate of Public Information in Spain at the End of the Ancien Régime (1780-1808)” The Journal of Modern History 86, no. 1 (2014): 1-46.

[7] “Informe de la Real Audiencia sobre lectura de libros y papeles sediciosos relacionados con la sublevacion de la Guaira, 1797,” AGI, Caracas, 432, 434 and 436; AGN, Testamentarías 1770-1810.

[8] Inmaculada Urzainqui, “Un nuevo instrumento cultural: la prensa periódica,” in La república de las letras en la España del siglo XVIII, eds. Joaquín Alvárez, François López and Inmaculada Urzainqui, 125-214 (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1995).

[9] Gaceta de Madrid, no. 13, February 15 1790, 103 and Gaceta de Madrid, no. 61, August 2nd 1791, 533.

[10] “Expediente de la Intendencia relativo a asuntos de Francia,” AGN, Diversos, LXVI, 290-295.

[11] For public sphere in Latin America see Pablo Piccato, “Public Sphere in Latin America: a Map of the Historiography” Social History 32, no. 2 (2010): 165-192, Víctor Uribe-Urán, “The Birth of a Public Sphere in Latin America During the Age of Revolution,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, XLII, 2 (2000): 425-457; José Elías Palti, “Recent studies on the emergence of a Public sphere in Latin America” Latin America Research Review 36, no. 2 (2001): 255-66.

3 thoughts on “Newspapers, Sedition, and the Power of Public Opinion in Late-Colonial Venezuela

  1. This was super interesting! One aspect I would like to know more about is reception. While it is true that newspapers circulated widely in Latin America it is also true that a very low percentage of the population could read. Thus my question is how did networks of information operate in Venezuela? Who had access to these news? Thank you!

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    1. Hi Silvia! Thank you for your question. As you probably know this is a semi-literate society where only a few have access to literacy. Nevertheless, there were people reading outloud in public spaces and semi-public spaces such as barbershops and taverns. As I briefly mentioned in the post, there’s also people copying newspapers and transcribing them, even producing short stories that were told orally in these spaces. There is also an increasing number of people who belonged to the popular groups learning to read and write in informal schools. So the literate world was much more complex than we imagine, and the lines between orality and the written much more blurry.

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