Oil painting showing the birth of the USA flag, with Washington seated on the left. Inset, Luis de Unzaga.
The Malaga man who gave the United States of America its name

The Malaga man who gave the United States of America its name

George Washington adopted the name after Luis de Unzaga, a military officer from Malaga, used it in a letter. This governor of Louisiana, a promoter of free trade and the dollar as a currency, retired to Malaga and was responsible for the construction of La Alameda


Saturday, 3 July 2021, 08:13


Local history is full of names who have brought fame to Malaga city elsewhere in the world and whose successes remain in the collective memory no matter how much time has passed: top level politicians, famous artists, visionary traders, industrial entrepreneurs who we adopted as if they were one of our own, great philanthropists... but none of those can boast of having 'baptised' the most powerful country on the planet.

That credit corresponds to Luis de Unzaga y Amézaga (Malaga, 6 April 1717-Malaga, 21 June 1793), a soldier of Basque descent who was born beside the cathedral and who was also to go down in history as one of the great champions of American independence. And also, for giving the country its name.

This surprising discovery was made by Malaga professors Frank Cazorla, Rosa García Baena and José David Polo Rubio, authors of the biography 'El gobernador Luis de Unzaga. Precursor en el nacimiento de los EE. UU y en el liberalismo', an extensive piece of research into this military man whose career, little publicised, revealed this brilliant detail.

To place him on the map where his military career took place, Unzaga joined the army when he was just 13 and a decade later he set off for America during the War of Jenkins' Ear, which was principally fought between the British fleet and the Spanish Empire in the waters of the Caribbean between 1739 and 1748. During this conflict and in later years he rose through the ranks to become a commander and, later, governor of the Louisiana provinces, where he had a brilliant career.

Respected for his merits and, above all, very well-connected, Unzaga had a direct line to both sides of the Atlantic with the highest members of the Spanish Court and the American government. He corresponded with King Carlos III and King Carlos IV and their ministers and, on the other side, maintained a close contact with President George Washington. And it was in this correspondence between Unzaga and Washington (who he addressed as George) that the name United States came into being.

This was discovered by the researchers in Malaga, when they found a note which George Washington wrote to his right-hand man, Joseph Reed, to tell him about a "very flattering" letter he had just received from Unzaga: "He gives me the title of 'General de los Estados Unidos Americanos', which is a tolerable step towards declaring himself our ally in positive terms". That formula pleased the president so much that from then on, the name of 'the 13 states' or 'the 13 united states' - as the USA was described in the Declaration of Independence - became the United States of America, thanks to Unzaga.

His contribution on the other side of the Atlantic, however, went beyond that detail. Thanks to his effective network of contacts everywhere in the country, the military man from Malaga came to be considered the precursor of the CIA (the American Intelligence Agency), according to the website of this secret service. That privilege enabled him to collaborate definitively in the independence of the United States because a network of spies was set up and coordinated by Unzaga himself in collaboration with George Washington.

He was also a pioneer of free trade on the Mississippi river, something which enabled him to supply the colonists with tonnes of gunpowder, medication and flour, which were fundamental for these early American victories. In that context, he was also a determining factor in the implantation of the dollar as a cross-border trading currency before it officially became the currency of the USA.

Those gestures and his diplomatic skills earned him the nickname of 'The Conciliator' and thanks to his marriage with Isabel de Saint-Maxent La Roche, the daughter of a wealthy trader and soldier of French origin, the doors of high society, the diplomatic service and philanthropy were opened to him. As a result, for example, he set up the first bilingual public education system in the world, in New Orleans. Through curiosities of birth, career and genealogy, Unzaga became the brother-in-law of another of the great military men and governors who were born in Malaga and became famous in the USA, Bernardo de Gálvez (Macharaviaya, 1746- Mexico, 1786), who married Isabel's sister Felicidad. In fact, it was De Gálvez who took over from Unzaga as the governor of Louisiana.

The in-laws

The links between the two families became even closer when they returned to Spain, Luis and Isabel to retire to Malaga and Felicidad, by then Bernardo's widow, to start a new life in Madrid. She become the hostess of literary and political gatherings which were frowned upon because of their liberal and intellectual nature. In fact, when Felicidad was suspected of promoting the ideals of the French Revolution, the authorities banished her to Valladolid and her sister Isabel had to take charge of the education of her children.

Luis de Unzaga and his wife went on to carry out major projects in Malaga, even though he was nearly 70 when he returned to the city of his birth. His wife fascinated Malaga high society and was the first woman to appear in the official documents of the ecclesiastical registers of the Diocese of Malaga as 'Excelentísima señora doña', a true sign of respect indeed.

Her husband was one of the most important backers of the construction of La Alameda, the main road which was a major step forward in the planning of a city which until then had not developed beyond the medieval wall. In fact, the Unzaga-Saint-Maxent family approached the Court of Carlos III to get the plans for this fabulous avenue approved. Unzaga, who at that time was president of the Works Board of Malaga port and governor of the General Coastal Command of the Kingdom of Granada, coordinated the works to build the first line of houses on both sides of La Alameda and ordered trees to be brought from the Montes de Malaga and through the port to be planted in the new area. Of course, the couple themselves lived in one of the most impressive houses, on a corner with Puerta del Mar. To embellish the surroundings even more, Unzaga ordered the iconic Fuente de Génova fountain to be placed on a dodecagonal plinth close to his residence, which he was to occupy until he died, on 21 June 1793.

Very recently, then, it was exactly 228 years since the death of this illustrious military man from Malaga, who shone in and away from the city of his birth, but especially in the United States of America and the way in which it is known today throughout the world.

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