Spanish statesman, diplomat and army officer, known for his enlightened, innovative outlook. Born in Malaga on 6 April 1717, Unzaga hailed from a leading aristocratic family closely involved in State administration. His great-grandfather, father and uncle held high-ranking posts in the service of the court, and his grandfather – Tomás de Unzaga Gardoqui – was the mayor of Bilbao. Unzaga was a cousin of the merchant Diego de Gardoqui.
Unzaga embarked upon his dazzling career at the early age of 13, as an army cadet. Two years later, in 1732, he took part in the recapture of Oran, fighting alongside Alejandro O’Reilly, whom he was later to accompany to Cuba. During the siege of Havana by British troops in 1762, they met the American merchant Oliver Pollock, who helped them get supplies through to the Spanish garrisons. In recognition of his administrative skills, his foresight, and the success of his supply operations, Unzaga was promoted in 1766 to the rank of colonel.
Following the outbreak of tensions in Louisiana and the subsequent dismissal of Governor Antonio de Ulloa during the Creole Revolt of 1768, Spain decided to send O’Reilly to quell the uprising. Unzaga accompanied him on this mission, and in 1770 took over from him as Governor.
As governor of a colony whose inhabitants regarded Spaniards with considerable resentment, Unzaga proved highly effective, introducing a whole range of reforms and decrees which gave a clear idea of his earnest desire to improve local conditions. He did much to promote cordial understanding between settlers of very varied backgrounds. His radical legislative reform, implemented in November 1770 – known as the Unzaga Code – repealed abusive slavery laws, a measure which additionally required meticulous criminal records to be kept.
He also undertook far-reaching town-planning reforms, giving shape to what is now known, paradoxically, as the “French quarter”, and overhauled the agricultural system, granting land and tenure to settlers of varying backgrounds and beliefs with a view to increasing agricultural production. With the backing of the Crown, Unzaga adopted a strategy of friendly cooperation and free trade with Native American nations, granting them rights and agricultural land, and treating the negotiations as formal embassies. As a result of all these measures, the colony rapidly prospered, and New Orleans soon became a major commercial hub.
In 1771, Unzaga established a highly-innovative system of bilingual Spanish-French public schools, and by the following year he had successfully introduced a public health management system which included emergency healthcare, the foundation of pioneering medical services and the creation of specialist pharmacy colleges from which graduating female students were among the first in the world to be granted a degree in the subject. This was the first healthcare and pharmaceutical system to be set up in the North American colonies and in the territory now occupied by the United States. Indeed, in 1770 the Seyeroux de la Roche pharmacy was the first to obtain a license in New Orleans.
In 1775, Unzaga married Elisabeth, eldest daughter of the wealthy landowner Gilbert de Saint Maxent. The marriage was a success in all respects, and his wife became actively involved in government affairs. He also enjoyed close links with his father-in-law, with whom he founded a company that enabled Unzaga to organize an effective spy network in British territory, which kept him abreast of events in Boston. These useful family ties were expanded when Bernardo de Gálvez married Elisabeth’s sister Felicitas, thus making Gálvez and Unzaga brothers-in-law
In 1776, at the request of the Continental Congress, Unzaga agreed to grant safe haven to several ships pursued by British troops. Additionally, in response to pleas for aid from Arthur Lee and Patrick Henry, he sent large shipments of uniforms, blankets, gunpowder and medical supplies for the Continental Army. Gibson and Pollock, with whom he had by then forged a close friendship through their shared experience in supplying troops, acted as intermediaries, helping to move the goods up the Mississippi and thence up the Ohio to Fort Pitt (today Pittsburgh). Unzaga kept the Mississippi under close guard by the militia; he also reorganized and subdivided the territory into smaller administrative units, strengthening strategic positions and reinforcing surveillance by means of a network of forts that guaranteed the safety of free trade and acted as hubs for exchanging information obtained from his network of spies. All these measures helped ensure the success of clandestine shipments to the Continental Army.
Although Unzaga enjoyed the king’s backing, Spain’s official policy was one of neutrality, so support for the Continental Congress had to remain secret. At the same time, Unzaga worked closely with his cousin, Diego de Gardoqui, whose trading company – with agencies in Salem and Boston – provided him with a second channel for aid. Operating under the Spanish flag, Gardoqui was able to send arms and supplies without raising the suspicions of British military surveillance units, which in any case could not greatly disrupt trading activities without causing a diplomatic incident. The size and regularity of these consignments made a big difference to Washington's troops, who were by now beginning to claim their first victories.
Writing to his adjutant-general Joseph Reed in November 1776, Washington mentioned receiving a flattering letter from Unzaga, who “gives me the title of General de los Estados Unidos Americanos”. In the letter, Unzaga informed Washington that, though officially unable to engage in any military action without the permission of the Crown, he would do everything in his power to help him. As Washington remarked, Unzaga’s use of this form of address “is a tolerable step towards declaring himself our ally in positive terms”
In 1777, Unzaga was ordered to take charge of the newly-created Captaincy-General of Venezuela, and was replaced as Governor of Louisiana by Bernardo de Gálvez, who faithfully implemented Unzaga’s policies. Gálvez proved – despite his youth – to be an equally skilled and efficient administrator, and under his rule the colony continued to prosper, in spite of weather-related catastrophes and a war in which Gálvez recorded a number of major military successes.
From Caracas, Unzaga still worked to facilitate the shipment of supplies to the Continental Army; he granted free trading rights to United States boats, and in doing so hampered the supply efforts of British-flagged vessels by restricting their trading activities. As Captain General of Venezuela, Unzaga introduced the same administrative policies, building schools, facilitating free trade and fighting the monopolies that were ruining small producers.
In 1782, he was appointed Captain General of Cuba and moved with Elisabeth to Havana. From this privileged position, at the center of operations in what had become a world-wide war, he was involved in implementing strategies and plans devised by Francisco de Saavedra and later by Gálvez. From 1783 to 1785, at the request of Washington and Morris, he sent further supplies and brokered bills of exchange issued by the bankers Le Couteulx. This flow of funds to the Continental Army prevented a rebellion in the ranks; troops were no longer being paid, and peace in the newborn United States was in jeopardy.
Together with his wife, renowned for her diplomatic skills, he organized the visit of Prince William (later William IV of England) to Havana in April 1783. As the couple’s guest, the prince was entertained on a lavish scale.
After 45 years on the American continent, in 1785 Unzaga retired from his post and moved with Elisabeth to Spain, where he held various administrative posts – notably as Commander General in Malaga, on the coasts of the Kingdom of Granada and in Galicia – until his death in Malaga on 21 July 1793.