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European adventurers and Latin America

4 January 2006

A new research project on European adventurers in Colombia and Venezuela between 1810 and 1860 took Dr Matthew Brown to the European University Institute in Florence.

The European University Institute was created in 1972 by the Member States of the founding European Communities.  It occupies a series of magnificent palazzos and villas on the hills overlooking Florence.  Its main objective is to provide advanced academic training to Ph.D students and to promote research at the highest level: to this end there are many full-time professors and a series of post-doctoral and visiting fellowships available named after icons of European identity.

I had a ‘Jean Monnet’ fellowship; others are Max Weber, Marie Curie and Fernand Braudel.  It is rumoured that a Margaret Thatcher fellowship is planned. There are seminars and workshops every day and major international conferences at least once a week. At times this activity and dynamism can be overwhelming, and postgraduate students are advised not to try to attend everything.

The EUI carries out research in a European perspective in history, law, economics, political and social science.  Its full-time teaching staff, fellows and research students are recruited from all countries of the European Union. The Institute holds the European Union archives. It was a real pleasure and benefit for me to discuss my work and research plans with historians from Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, France and Portugal, for example. The German members of the faculty were particularly pleased at my link to Bristol, as the hugely influential cultural and linguistic historian and theorist Reinhart Kosselleck spent two years at Bristol in 1954-56.

Did men and women who adventured in Latin America thinking of themselves as ‘Irish’, ‘German’ or ‘Tuscan’ realise that they actually had a ‘European’ identity?

Immersion in such a self-consciously European atmosphere, at least for a Briton, was a real horizon-broadening experience.  In addition to the long lunches, excellent coffee, pastries and olives, I was alerted to new comparative and theoretical work, formed research links with colleagues working on unexpectedly related areas, and considerably broadened my knowledge of the European dimension of my work. Did men and women who adventured in Latin America in the nineteenth century thinking of themselves as ‘Irish’, ‘German’ or ‘Tuscan’ realise, while they were living and working in Colombia or Venezuela, and observing the difference between themselves and Hispanic Americans, that they actually had a ‘European’ identity? Thus far I do not have a conclusive answer to this question but I am working towards one.

The official language of the Institute is English, which is an ongoing political thorn of course, although all languages are spoken and translated during seminar discussions.  It is a simple fact that most Europeans who adopt a second language learn English – for this reason it is the most practical and pragmatic choice for communication.

The Institute has a relatively low profile in the UK compared to in continental Europe, where there is great competition to join the doctoral and postdoctoral programmes.  Most probably this can be explained by traditional British stuffiness about ‘Europe’ – in contrast Irish students are very well represented.  Perhaps it also reflects a British reluctance to engage with other theoretical and disciplinary paradigms. My experience of the Institute, intellectually and practically, was wholly positive. Furthermore, at the very end of November, I had lunch with some colleagues sat on the terrace outside Institute cafeteria, and enjoyed the view of sunshine flooding over Florence’s medieval spires and famous duomo.  In November.

During six months of reading, discussion and revision, my new research project will study the lives, loves, careers and writings of Europeans who enlisted as mercenaries in the Wars of Independence against Spanish rule after 1810, and who settled in the region when the wars finally ended in 1825.

The project will shed light on the nature of continuing European hegemony in Hispanic America after the independence of the republics from colonial rule

The individuals studied – Italian, Irish, English, German and Scottish – married Colombians and Venezuelans and became fathers, governors of provinces, historians, teachers and Ministers of War.  One became Venezuelan ambassador to the Vatican.  They all died in Latin America.

Research in archives in Italy, Spain, Germany, Ireland, Colombia and Venezuela has yielded some excellent findings so far.  I hope that the completed project will shed light on the nature of continuing European hegemony in Hispanic America – sometimes called ‘informal empire’ – after the independence of the republics from colonial rule in the early nineteenth-century. 

As part of this project I am organising a BIRTHA conference in January 2007, hosted by the department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies with the support of the Centre for the Study of Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, called ‘After informal empire? Commerce and culture outside Britain’s formal empire, 1808-1914’.

The European University Institute might initially seem like a strange place to work on a project ‘about’ Latin America.  But the Department of History and Civilisation is particularly strong on histories of European expansionism, and Europe’s links with the Atlantic and Mediterranean worlds. 

The formal diplomatic and economic relations between Europe and Latin America in 1850 grew out of a complex re-conceptualisation of society across the Atlantic world.  Colonial identities were transformed by Wars of Independence that lasted over a decade, and new republican elites sought to found new ‘national’ identities, and to negotiate themselves a position in the community of nations.  The middle-men linking the new republics with Europe tended to be the same adventurers who had been involved in some way in the process of separation from Spain.  Most graphically, in a brief civil war in Colombia in 1829, at the battle of El Santuario the six principal officers in the command of the official Colombian army were Europeans.

By focusing on the lives and writings of these adventurers, the project will explore the diverse ways in which improvised wartime relationships were formalised, channelled and legitimised.  The project moves on from my monograph on the seven thousand British and Irish mercenaries who served in Simón Bolívar’s armies between 1819-25, the results of which are to be published in English in 2006 by Liverpool University Press, and in Spanish in Militares extranjeros en la independencia de Colombia, Nuevas perspectivas, already published in Bogotá by the National Museum of Colombia.

Dr Matthew Brown/Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies


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