25 February 2019

Columbus said it was Heaven on Earth
Did Venice give its name to Venezuela?

Gondolas moored at the Doge’s Palace in Venice … but did Venice give its name to Venezuela (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

As the current crisis Venezuela continues to unfold, I have wondered why its name sounds like Venice. After all, why would a former Spanish colony in Latin America acquire a name from the most beautiful city in Italy?

After my visit to Venice three months ago [November 2018], my curiosity deepened.

For the past 20 years, Venezuela has been known officially as the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, since a new constitution was adopted in 1999. Before that, the official names have been Estado de Venezuela (1830-1856), República de Venezuela (1856-1864), Estados Unidos de Venezuela (1864-1953), and again República de Venezuela (1953-1999).

But where does the name Venezuela come from?

During his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus sailed near the Orinoco Delta in 1498, and landed in the Gulf of Paria. Amazed by the great off-shore current of fresh water that deflected his course eastward, Columbus wrote to the Spanish monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand saying he must have reached Heaven on Earth.

A year later, according to the most popular version, an expedition led by Alonso de Ojeda visited the Venezuelan coast in 1499, accompanied by the Italian-born navigator, Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) from Florence.

Vespucci is said to have commented that the houses on stilts in the area of Lake Maracaibo reminded him of Venice, and so he named the region Veneziola, or ‘Little Venice.’ The name Venezuela is said to be the Spanish version of Veneziola.

However, another account attributes the name to Martín Fernández de Enciso, a member of the crew with Vespucci and Ojeda. In his Summa de geografía, he claims the crew found indigenous people who called themselves the Veneciuela.

Two decades later, the territory now known as Venezuela was colonised by Spain in 1522.

In 1811, it became one of the first Spanish-American territories to declare independence, when a national assembly declared Venezuela independent on 5 July 1811. However, this independence was short-lived, and Spanish forces were in control once again a year later.

The area was finally liberated by Simon Bolivar in 1821. But at first, Venezuela was incorporated into a larger, federal republic state known as Gran Colombia, which from 1819 to 1831, Gran Colombia included the territories of present-day Colombia, Ecuador, Panama, Venezuela, and parts of northern Peru, western Guyana and north-west Brazil.

However, as Gran Colombia begin to break up and Venezuela gained full independence in 1830.

It is believed nearly 12% of Venezuelans live abroad with Ireland becoming a popular destination for students.

But there is another curious historical link between Ireland and Venezuela that has been brought to life by research by William FK Marmion. He has unearthed the story of Brigadier-General Michael (Miguel) Marmion (1736-1818), who was born in Dundalk, served as Governor of part what is now Venezuela, and died in Cuidad Bolivar in 1818.

Marmion was an officer in the Spanish Army from 1770 to 1799, and a colonial governor until he retired in 1800. His records in the Spanish Military Archives in Segovia list him as ‘noble’ and ‘distinguished’ birth. He was probably born in 1736, and a very young age he was brought to Spain in 1746 by a ‘noble relative’. He enrolled in the Spanish Military Academy in Barcelona in 1758, and he graduated as a sub-lieutenant of engineers in 1762. He went into the regular Spanish Army given his graduation from the Military Academy primarily for engineers.

After time in different regiments in Spain, including one in Mallorca, he left for the colony of ‘New Granada’ in South America in late 1768 as a captain. Earlier that year, he had married Tomasa Villamayor, the daughter of a Spanish colonel.

The separate Captaincy General or Kingdom of Venezuela was formed in 1777, and Marmion worked from the capital, Santiago de Leon de Caracas, now known as Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. But he spent much of his time in the Spanish colony of Guyana. He was promoted lieutenant-colonel in 1779, colonel in 1789, and served as Governor of the colony from 1785 to 1790.

He then served as the Chief Engineer in all the Spanish colonial areas dependent upon Caracas, travelling to several islands, as well as Florida and Cuba.

He was promoted brigadier-general in 1794 and retired in 1800 at the age of 64. He never returned to Spain or to Ireland, and instead lived on in what is now Venezuela. He died without surviving children in 1817 or 1818; his wife appears to have died before him.

Patrick and Thomas Marmion from Dundalk claimed they were his close relatives and wrote to Spanish officials inquiring about any estate he may have left. But by the time they wrote, Venezuela was no longer under Spanish rule, having become part of Gran Colombia shortly after his death.

Several of Marmion’s signed reports relate to disputes with the British and the Dutch about the boundaries of Guyana, and there is a school named after him in what is now Ciudad Bolivar in Venezuela.

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