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The saviours of my fatherland

10 August 2007

Recording the remarkable stories of hundreds of British, Irish and other European volunteers in Latin America’s Wars of Independence.

On 24 June 1821, Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) fought the decisive battle that finally freed Venezuela from Spanish rule. As the leader of ‘Bolívar’s War’, he is credited with leading the fight for independence in Gran Colombia, or what we know now as Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela, making him a hero in these countries and throughout much of the rest of Latin America. His role in liberating Gran Colombia is well documented but what is less well known is the remarkable contribution made by hundreds of British, Irish and other European volunteers, described by Bolívar as ‘the saviours of my fatherland’.

Some 7,000 foreign adventurers took part in the wars of independence (c.1810-c.1824) in Gran Colombia. The first of these adventurers, over half of whom were Irish, arrived in Venezuela in 1811 and the last died in Ecuador in 1890. Several thousand died quickly upon arrival, or returned home just as soon. Of those that remained, no more than one in three had any military experience -- the rest were labourers, peasants and artisans, seeking glory and adventure, but also money, security and, in some cases, a new life. Almost 1,000 mercenaries stayed to the end of the wars, then went back home, while others stayed and built a new life for themselves in Gran Colombia. 

Details of over 3,000 of these adventurers feature in an online database, developed as part of Dr Brown’s research for his recent book  Adventuring through Spanish colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations (Liverpool University Press, 2006). The database records the adventurers’ dates of birth and death, nationality, occupation, military service and more, and is an invaluable resource for family historians tracing adventurous ancestors as well as for historians of the wars of independence.

Around 7,000 foreign adventurers took part in the wars of independence in Gran Colombia

Some of the pluckier characters featured on the database are Gregor MacGregor, a Scotsman who liked to refer to himself as ‘Inca of New Granada’ and James Rooke, whose last words as he died at the battle of Pantano de Vargas (1819) were ‘Long live the land which will bury me!’

With funding from the University, the Joint Initiative for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (JISLAC) and the Society for Irish Latin American Studies (SILAS), Dr Brown will spend the summer in Columbia, conducting further research for a new book about the European migrants who stayed and were integrated into Colombian and Venezuelan society after independence, notably two key protagonists  -- Daniel O'Leary and José María Córdoba.

O’Leary (1801-1854) from Cork was a soldier, diplomat and author who, early in life, was inspired by meeting Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, ‘the Great Liberator’, a close friend of his father. Despite having no military experience and never having left Ireland before, he enlisted to fight in Bolívar’s army and sailed from London to Venezuela in December 1817. He quickly moved up through the ranks to become Bolívar’s aide-de-camp. In 1828 he married Soledad Soublette, sister of General Carlos Soublette, with whom he had nine children. By 1828 O’Leary was a general in the Colombian army. In 1831 he went into exile in Jamaica for two years, after which he lived out his years as a diplomat.

Despite having no military experience and never having left Ireland before, O'Leary enlisted to fight in Bolívar’s army

José María Córdoba (1799-1829), a native of Antioquia in New Granada (now Colombia), also rose rapidly through the ranks to serve as a general at the Battle of Ayacucho (1824) aged 25 where he famously declared, ‘Soldiers, forward! Carry your arms and march on like victors!’ Just five years later he was killed rebelling against the Colombian government in 1829 at the hand of Rupert Hand, an Irish mercenary. This tragic death cut short his courtship of Fanny Henderson, daughter of the British Consul in Bogotá, and ensured he would endure in the national memory as a martyr and hero (the airport in the Colombian city of Medellín is named after him), celebrated for his rhetoric, bravery and youthful vigour.

Speaking about how he became interested in the wars of independence, Dr Brown said: “When I left school I worked as a volunteer English teacher in Santiago de Chile. In my year abroad as part of my Spanish degree I worked as a volunteer for Amnesty International in Peru. As a result of these experiences I became interested in Britons who had “volunteered” their services in Latin America before me – Why did they go? What did they gain? What effects did their works have? From these questions it was a short step to looking at the volunteers in the wars of independence.”

Asked what drew him to O’Leary and Córdoba in particular and the work he will be doing in Colombia this summer he replied: “O’Leary and Córdoba reflect the two sides of Colombia’s postcolonial legacy. O’Leary chose to fight for order and stability after the upheavals of the wars of independence. Córdoba in contrast dedicated himself to fighting for the ideals of liberty and equality that had propelled him into military service as a young man. The two men finally clashed at El Santuario in 1829; the struggle between the ideologies they represented continued throughout the nineteenth century and shaped present-day Colombia and its relationship with the rest of the world. This summer in Colombia I will be researching in military and municipal archives in Bogotá and Medellín to try to flesh out the personal and private ties between the men who fought on opposite sides at the battle of El Santuario.”

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


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