A Hidden Caribbean Revolution? Race and Revolution in Venezuela, 1789-1817

This post is a part of the “Race and Revolution” Series.

By Frédéric Spillemaeker 

The wave of revolutionary sentiment from the 1790s to Independence questioned the social and racial inequalities that divided colonial Venezuela. The majority of the Venezuelan population was Pardo, a mixed-race people of African and European descent who were considered legally inferior to Europeans and Creoles. While pardos could bear arms and organize in militias, they only ascended to the grade of captain. Hence, most pardo militias remained under command of Mantuanos – white colonels and members of the landed ruling class. When colonial order was challenged by Amerindians seeking to recover their lands and slaves pursuing freedom, a large mass of armed pardos mobilized in demand of equality. The 1790s revolutions in the Greater Caribbean, and later, the Latin American Independence Wars beginning in 1810, scrambled the existing socio-racial structure of domination in Venezuela, at least in the domain of the army, with pardo leaders like Jean-Baptiste Bideau and Manuel Piar.

In August 1793, the Revolution led by Toussaint Louverture, enabled the abolition of slavery in Saint Domingue.[1] A few months later, on 16 Pluviôse An II (February 4, 1794), the French Convention extended the abolition decree to all French colonies. By June 1794, when Victor Hugues took over Guadeloupe, former slaves had become soldiers in defense of revolutionary values. This was the beginning of a cycle of victories for the alliance between France, free people of color, and emancipated slaves.[2] In the island of Trinidad, formerly part of Venezuela, a battle confronted the alliance of French and Afro-Antilleans against the English on May 8-9, 1796. Among the French officers was Jean-Baptiste Bideau, a “mulâtre” from Sainte-Lucie.[3] In spite of the defeat and the English seizure of the island in February 1797, slave uprisings erupted throughout Venezuela. Armed slaves mobilized in Carupano and in Rio Caribe in 1798,[4] and a suspected pardo plot was unveiled in Barcelona in 1801.[5] Back in Saint Domingue, now named Haiti, the revolution resisted Napoleon’s slavery restoration attempt and ultimately declared its Independence in 1804.

In 1810-1811, a new revolutionary era began, as wars for political independence erupted throughout Spanish America. Venezuela and New Granada were the first colonies in Spanish America to write republican constitutions that granted citizenship to Amerindians and Pardos. On the basis of republican values, these Spanish colonies minted a universal and inclusive vision of citizenship, one of the most advanced in the Atlantic world, as demonstrated by Clément Thibaud.[6] But this citizenship was not extended to the slaves.  Afro-Antilleans who once struggled for freedom and equality, such as the aforementioned Jean-Baptiste Bideau and Manuel Piar, joined patriot armies. Their participation in the War for Independence help us understand some fundamental contradictions of the process, because at this stage the slaves remained excluded and most of the generals were creoles and not pardos. Bideau had previously been a corsair of Victor Hugues, and as such he had taken part of an emancipatory war in 1794-1796 that had temporarily abolished slavery.  In 1813, he was among the organizers of a patriot offensive in eastern Venezuela, in favor of Independence but not abolitionist in its purpose, launched from the recently British island of Trinidad.[7] Despite his preeminence, Bideau had to serve under the leadership of Santiago Mariño, a Venezuelan mantuano and slave-owner. Together, they formed an expedition for recruiting Afro-Antillean militias in a time when free colored people remained struggling for social rights in Trinidad.[8] It is yet to be proved whether Bideau, at this stage, argued in favor of a new abolition.

The British criminalized Bideau in 1813 for recruiting fugitive slaves from Trinidad, but Bideau denied the charge. In a letter to the British, he asserted his intention of returning every fugitive slave to his owner.[9] In reality, Bideau embraced the political game of an age of revolutions. While revolutionaries needed British support, they also needed troops, and fugitive slaves could be useful. As Carriacolo Parra-Perez suggests, Bideau may have emancipated the slaves of Güiria at the moment royalists forced him to flee the city in 1815.[10] This alleged emancipation could have been a revolutionary measure in principle, but could well have been an opportunist action for upsetting royalists. After fleeing Güiria, Jean-Baptiste Bideau faced exile in Haiti with the main patriot leader Simon Bolívar and other crucial figures of the independence movement. In Haiti, the heart of the Caribbean revolutions, President Alexandre Pétion encouraged Bolívar to advance the emancipation of slaves willing to bear arms for the cause of independence.

In 1816, Bideau became widely famous for saving Bolívar’s life in Ocumare.  Fulfilling a heroic trajectory, Bideau died in combat a year later. His historical legacy has often celebrated his figure as a loyal patriot. In contrast, the aftermath of independence dismissed Manuel Piar as a “traitor”. Compared to Bideau, Piar, a pardo general, was strongly arguing for real equality and access to power for pardos, but not necessarily for slaves’ emancipation. Once the caudillo of Guayana, he faced the death penalty in 1817. In condemning him, Bolívar argued that Piar was planning a war of extermination against creoles by the pardos and slaves . But Bolivar may have only wanted to execute a powerful political rival.[11] Indeed, Piar had proved to hold strong leadership on several occasions, such as during the attack of Maturin in 1813, when he replaced Bernardo Bermudez as the commanding officer by proclamation of his soldiers,[12] and was in capacity to challenge Bolivar’s leadership.

In spite of their different attitudes regarding slaves’ emancipation and pardos’ power, Bideau and Piar had a lot in common. Both were Afro-Antilleans and had been officers and leaders through their active participation in revolutionary wars. Both became radical figures for their times, Bideau for the English and Piar for Bolívar. In different and even conflicting ways, they were nonetheless both actors of a hidden Caribbean Revolution for Independence, a deep transformation in which both envisioned the possibility of challenging the existent socio-racial order.

Frédéric Spillemaeker is a researcher at the Casa de Velázquez (École des Hautes Études Hispaniques et ibériques, EHEHI) and a PhD candidate at the École des Hautes des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS). His primary research are in the Independence of Colombia and Venezuela, political history of Latin America and the Caribbean and the French Revolution. He is working on a PhD dissertation about the birth of the caudillos in South America during the Age of Revolutions.

Title imageManuel Carlos Piar. Obra de Pablo W. Hernández.

Further Reading:

Alejandro Gómez, Le spectre de la révolution noire : l’impact de la révolution haïtienne dans le monde atlantique 1790-1886 (Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013).

Aline Helg, Liberty and Equality in Caribbean Colombia 1770-1835 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

Cristina Soriano, Rumor of Change, Repercussions of Caribbean Turmoil and Social Conflict in Venezuela (New-York University, PhD Dissertation, 2011).

Tomás Straka, “Venezuela en la revolución atlántica. Algunos problemas y posibilidades”, in Oscar Álvarez Gila. Alberto Angulo Morales, Alejandro Cardozo Uzcátegui (ed.), El Carrusel Atlántico. Memorias y sensibilidades (1500-1950) (Caracas and Vitoria-Gasteiz: Editorial Nuevos Aires-Universidad del País Vasco, 2014).

Clément Thibaud, Libérer le Nouveau Monde. La fondation des premières républiques du monde hispanique (Colombie et Venezuela, 1780-1820) (Rennes: Les Perséides, 2017).

Michael Zeuske, “The French Revolution in Spanish America”, in Alan Forrest, Matthias  Middel (ed.), The Routledge Companion to the French Revolution in World History (London and New-York: Routledge, 2016, pp.77-96).


[1] Carolyn E. Fick, The Making of Haiti – The Saint-Domingue Revolution from Below (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1990); Laurent Dubois, Avengers of the New World, The Story of the Haitian Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004); C.L.R James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint l’Ouverture and the Santo Domingo Revolution (New-York, The Dial Press, 1938).

[2] David Barry Gaspar et David Geggus, A Turbulent Time. The French Revolution and the Greater Caribbean (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997).

[3] Archivo General de Indias (AGI), Estado, Caracas, 66, Correspondance of Trinidad Governor, José Maria Chacon.

[4] Federico Brito Figueroa: Las insurrecciones de los esclavos negros en la sociedad colonial de Venezuela (Caracas: Editoral Cantaclare, 1961).

[5] Archivo General Militar de Madrid (AGMM), Ultramar, 2.1.20 Venezuela, 5678.1, Correspodance of Capitán General of Venezuela, Manuel de Guevara Vasconcelos.

[6] Clément Thibaud: Libérer le Nouveau Monde. La fondation des premières républiques du monde hispanique (Colombie et Venezuela, 1780-1820) (Rennes: Les Perséides, 2017).

[7] Francisco Alejandro Vargas, Capitán de navío Juan Bautista Bideau, el Salvador del Libertador (Caracas: Editorial Venegráfica, 1970); Paul Verna, Monsieur Bideau, el mulato francés que fue secundo organizador de la Expedición de Chachacare (Caracas: Fundación Boulton, 1968).

[8] Kit Candlin, The Last Caribbean Frontier, 1795-1815, (Basingstoke et New-York: Palgrave Mc Millan, Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies, 2012).

[9] The National Archives (NA), Colonial Office (CO), 295. 29 Correspondance of Trinidad Governor, Letter from Bideau to Woodford, Gov. of Trinidad, 17th of June 1813.

[10] Caracciolo Parra-Pérez, Mariño y la Independencia de Venezuela, 1. El Libertador de Oriente (Madrid : Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1954).

[11] Clément Thibaud, Républiques en armes, Les armées de Bolivar dans les guerres d’Indépendance du Venezuela et de la Colombie (Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2006).

[12] AGI, Caracas, 437A, n°9, testimony about the loss of Maturin by Formosa to Level de Goda, 16th of october 1813.

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