A Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution: Juan de Miralles and the Relationship between Spain and the United States (Part 1 – Early Life)

Juan de Miralles, the first Spanish minister to the newly declared United States of America, is virtually unknown in United States today, despite his numerous and considerable contributions, his personal sacrifices and his close relationship with its founding fathers, including George Washington.  His involvement with the founding fathers led to a high point in Spanish-American affairs that quickly evaporated following his death and that was never achieved again.  It is possible that he is nearly unheard of because his nationality, mostly unwelcomed in the English world, have kept his name from the pantheon of other foreign heroes of the American Revolution, like Lafayette, Kosciusko and Von Steuben.  Another reason he may be forgotten is that he met with an abrupt and unfortunate death before his work came to fruition.  Had Miralles lived, his close relationships with the founding fathers of the United States may very well have changed the course of history between the two nations. For this reason, Miralles, a man whom Washington considered a close friend, deserves to be listed among those heroes, as well as for his diplomatic work in bringing together two polar cultures like Spain and America in a mutually beneficial way for nearly the only time in their long and troubled history.

Juan de Miralles was born in Petrel (or Petrer), a municipality of Valencia in the province of Alicante in the southeast of Spain, on July 23, 1713.  His father, also Juan de Miralles (or Mirailles) was a native of the village of Monein, located in the southwest of France, near the Spanish border.  He was an infantry captain in the army of Felipe V of Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession.  His wife, Gracia Trailhon (or Trayllon), was a native of Arbus, also in the southwest of France.  The son of French parents living in Spain, Miralles would have command of both languages.

Little is known of the early life of Miralles.  It is fairly certain that he entered into merchant society, though his name is not found among the merchants or settlers of Alicante or Cádiz or in the French municipalities.  However, by 1732, at the age of 19, it is certain that he was in Spain.[1]  What exactly occurred in his life over the next eight years, though, is largely unknown.  Miralles worked at the business firm of Aguirre, Aristegui and Company of Cadiz, which traded with the British and Spanish colonies in the Americas, and which allowed Miralles to learn the English language.  It is likely that Miralles traveled the Atlantic Ocean for the company during this time.[2]  Using the knowledge he acquired while working with the firm, Miralles established his own business in Havana, Cuba, in 1740.  Here, Miralles dedicated himself to legitimate operations, as well as smuggling.  Despite trade prohibitions between Spanish, French and British possessions in the New and Old Worlds, the illicit trade was a lucrative business.  Far from the negativity associated with smuggling in today’s world, in the time of Miralles there was little shame or scandal brought upon those involved in this illegal trade.  In fact, smuggling during this period was seen as a form of protest, liberty and independence.  During these early years of Miralles’s enterprise, he trafficked in a variety of commercial items, including slaves.[3]

In 1740, when Miralles arrived in Cuba, he had 8500 pesos to his name.  The sum, of unknown origin, was extraordinary for the time, and some historians have claimed that it must have come from the slave trade, as Miralles’s name did not appear amongst the successful merchants of Spain, and his family’s landholdings would not have produced such a sum.[4]  Regardless of where his wealth originated, it allowed him to connect with the elite of Cuban society, and in 1744, he married into the influential Eligio de la Puente family.  He married Doña Maria Josefa Eligio de la Puente y González-Cabello in La Iglesia del Espiritu Santo in Havana, Cuba, and moved into a house on Aguiar Street, near the port.  The couple would go on to have eight children.[5]  The prominence and connections of his wife’s family, as well as the small amount of riches she brought to the marriage, allowed Miralles to grow his trade and prosper significantly.

By many accounts, Miralles played a substantial role in the illegal slave trade between Havana and the Thirteen British Colonies of North America.[6]  In the 1740s and 1750s, Miralles was involved in trading with Florida,[7] Charleston, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.  The beginning of the Seven Years’ War in 1756 did not immediately affect Miralles’s commercial success, though it would do so before its conclusion.  The conflict, truly a world war,[8] ensnared Miralles and ended his peaceful existence.  Miralles, who had been working double duty as a businessman and spy (using the former as cover), prepared to move his operations to the island of Jamaica.  In 1762, en route to uncover British plans, Miralles met with the British fleet, which was on an expedition to Cuba.  He was captured at sea by the British advanced ships, and proceeded to watch from the rear as the British wrested control of the island from the Spanish.  Once back on land, however, Miralles was given the freedom to resume his normal activities.  There were some who, afterwards, questioned his loyalty, but it appears that these accusations were most likely furnished by envious competitors.  His detractors pointed to the detail that he did not act against the English, and in fact continued to prosper under their rule. In reality, however, it would not have benefited Miralles’s work as a commissioned Spanish spy (or businessman) to draw the ire of the British.  As further proof of his innocence of the traitorous charges, the Spanish government, once restored in Cuba, never initiated proceedings against Miralles, as it did with other suspected collaborators.  Still, the rumors persisted about him for some time.[9]

After the war ended, in 1763, the Treaty of Paris returned Cuba to Spain, but the Floridas fell under British control.  Under the circumstances, it was probable that the two nations would soon be at war again, for control not only of the Gulf or Caribbean islands, but also of the Mississippi River.  Thus, the beginning of the American Revolutionary War provided a pretext by which Spain could regain the Floridas from the British, and protect her colonies; and Juan de Miralles became a key player in making that happen.

Part 2 of Series

 

[1] Ribes, Vicente. Presencia valenciana en los Estados Unidos (ss. XVI-XIX). Valencia, Spain: Biblioteca Valenciana, 2001, 14.
[2] Portell-Vilá, Herminio. Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 1978, 25.
[3] Ibid., 26.
[4] Ribes, 14.
[5] Ibid., 15.
[6] Portell-Vilá and Ribes both make this claim, while other historians have mentioned or alluded to it.
[7] Florida was originally settled by both the French and Spanish.  The French settled Fort Caroline (in present-day Jacksonville) in 1754, while the Spanish established a settlement at St. Augustine the following year.  After the Seven Years’ War, the British gained control of the territory via a provision in the Treaty of Paris (1763).  They divided the territory in to East Florida and West Florida, which were jointly known as the Floridas, a distinction which remained until the territory became part of the U.S. in 1819.
[8] The Seven Years’ War was a world-wide conflict involving the major powers of Europe.  Among the major combatants, Spain and France were opposed to Great Britain.  Eventually the British proved victorious, winning large concessions from the defeated nations.
[9] Los Otros Extranjeros en la Revolucion Norteamericana, 27; Ribes, 16; and Portell-Vilá, Herminio. Juan de Miralles, un Habanero Amigo de Jorge Washington. Havana: Sociedad Colombista Panamaricana, 1947, 8.
Image credit: New York Public Library

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