English and Irish Naval Officers in the War for Brazilian Independence

Brian Vale


The Emperor Pedro I of Brazil

Recruitment in London and Liverpool presented few problems. There were a sufficient number of hardy souls willing to exchange the chilling fogs of the European winter for service in the sun, good pay and prize money. The salary scales of the Brazilian Navy may have been generous for seamen, but for officers they were less so. £8 a month for lieutenants and £5 for sub‑lieutenants were only two‑thirds of the rates paid in the Royal Navy, but the comparison meant little to men who had long since abandoned all hope of ever serving again under the British flag. Furthermore, the contracts offered by the Brazilian Agent were attractive. Each officer was to sign on for five years - if at the end of that time he remained in the service he would receive an extra 50 per cent in addition to his normal salary; if he returned to Britain he would receive Brazilian half‑pay for the rest of his life. Free passages were provided and pay was to commence from the date of embarkation. [4] All the officers recruited by Thompson had previously served in the Royal Navy. Vincent Crofton, Samuel Chester, Francis Clare and Richard Phibbs had been midshipmen but had passed the examination for lieutenant and were appointed as such. The fifth, Benjamin Kelmare, had served with Cochrane in Chile where he had been wounded in the attack on the Esmeralda. He was commissioned as a commander. [5]

The first recruiting exercise was a complete success and was conducted in strict secrecy to escape the attentions of the British authorities and the Portuguese consuls. To avoid detection under the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819, Brant maintained the fiction that the recruits were settlers emigrating to Brazil, and carefully described the seamen in official documents as 'farm labourers' and the officers as 'overseers'. The authorities must however have colluded in this deception since in dress, language and gait, seamen were such a distinctive group that they could not have been mistaken!

At the end of January 1823, the first party of 125 men and six officers left Liverpool on the Lindsays to be followed three days later by a second group of forty-five seamen who left London on the Lapwing. [6] On arrival in Rio, the officers were distributed among the most powerful ships in the squadron [7] while the seamen were signed on and allowed ashore for the first time in six weeks. Within a few hours of exposure to all the pleasures of a foreign port, the majority were gloriously drunk. When some officers complained to the Empress, it is reported that she laughed and said 'Oh, 'tis the custom of the north where brave men come from. The sailors are under my protection; I spread my mantle over them!’[8] Lieutenant Phibbs was found to be medically unfit, but the vacancy was easily filled by the recruitment of John Nicol and William Parker, Mates respectively of the Lapwing and the Lindsays. [9]

Brant reported on the success of his efforts with undisguised satisfaction. The cost of recruitment in London had been reasonable and the men had accepted monthly pay of just £2. In Liverpool on the other hand, the 'perfidious' Meirelles had ignored his instructions and had not only offered £5.50 a month but, disregarding the need for secrecy, had 'criminally and unnecessarily' signed a contract to that effect. Brant reported hotly that on being reprimanded on the excessive offer of pay, the Vice‑Consul had merely retorted that when the men were in Rio and the government could pay what it liked. [10]

The entrance to the Bay of Guanabara showing the Sugar Loaf
(Naval Chronical, 1808)

Nevertheless, news of Portuguese reinforcements continued to arrive and when in March, officers of the HMS Conway, recently returned from Brazil, reported that the navy was still hampered by a lack of men, Brant determined to launch a second recruiting campaign. [11] He and Meirelles went into action, and within six weeks had found 265 seamen and fourteen officers, all of whom had previously served in the Royal Navy. This time the officers were engaged through the agency of Captain James Norton, a 34-year-old English officer with aristocratic connections who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars with the Royal Navy and had then served with the East India Company. Norton was commissioned as a frigate captain, while five of his companions ‑ John Rogers Gleddon, George Clarence, Charles Mosselyn, Samuel Gillett and Raphael Wright ‑ became lieutenants. The more junior recruits ‑ Duncan Macreights, George Broom, George Cowan, Ambrose Challes, Charles Watson, William George Inglis, and James Watson ‑ were appointed as sub‑lieutenants. [12] Together with officers and seamen, the party also included petty officers and boatswains as well as thirty-one young men who signed on as Master’s Mates or Volunteers in the hope of eventually gaining promotion to the quarter deck. They were not disappointed; within a year, almost all had been appointed as sub‑lieutenants. [13]

Having staffed and fitted out his ships, in April 1823 Cochrane led the Brazilian Navy out of Rio de Janeiro on a cruise of astonishing audacity and success. In a campaign of only six months he blockaded and expelled a Portuguese army and a greatly superior naval squadron from its base in Bahia, then harried it out of Brazilian waters and across the Atlantic. He then tricked the Portuguese garrisons into evacuating Maranhão and Belém, leaving the northern provinces free to pledge allegiance to the Empire. By the end of the year, the country had rid itself of all Portuguese troops and was, to all intents and purposes, independent. If 1823 was the year of victory for the Brazilian Navy, 1824 was the year of consolidation. Cochrane’s men first deployed themselves in preventing any Portuguese counter-invasion, then co-operated with the army in defeating a dangerous north-eastern rebellion known as the Confederation of the Equator. [14]

The War of Independence had also seen a dramatic increase in the size of the Brazilian navy. In 1823, it had comprised just twenty-eight warships and schooners carrying a total of 382 guns. A year later as a result of captures and further purchases it had grown to forty-eight vessels with 620 guns. The expansion was spectacular, but it meant that once again the government was short of junior officers and men. The experience of foreign recruitment in 1823 had however been highly satisfactory. Desertions had been minimal; of the fifty-eight British officers or aspiring officers recruited in England and locally, only thirteen had deserted their posts. Crosbie had left with Cochrane to seek their fortunes in Greece; James Watson and Samuel Gillett had deserted; Joseph Sewell, Thomas Poynton and John Rogers Molloy had been dismissed; Commander Benjamin Kelmare and Sub-lieutenants Blakely and Macreights had quietly left the service; and Lieutenants Chester, Challes and Mosselyn had died or become invalids, a relatively small proportion in view of the diseases prevalent on overcrowded ships in the tropics.

The Coronation of Pedro I in 1822
(J.B. Debrett)

Encouraged by its initial success, the Brazilian Government mounted a second recruiting campaign in 1825. General Brant in London was ordered to find eight hundred seamen and eighteen officers below the rank of commander and to buy two frigates and two armed steamships. [15] This time, in spite of pay increases for both officers and men, the task was more difficult. Brant and his new colleague Gameiro managed to find eleven officers, but this time only two ‑ Lieutenant Thomas Haydon and Midshipman Louis Brown, cousin of the Irish-Austrian General Gustavo Brown who had transferred to the Brazilian service ‑ were British, the rest were French or Scandinavian. [16] Seamen were easier to find, and by the end of 1825, about four hundred were on their way – just in time for Brazil’s war with Buenos Aires. [17]

The war between Brazil and the United Provinces of the River Plate was fought out by small squadrons in the channels and mud‑flats of the river and by individual warships engaging the Argentine privateers who were unleashed along the Brazilian coast. One of the curiosities of the war – in which British trade was a major victim – was that the navies of both sides were substantially commanded and manned by men from England, Ireland and Scotland. On the Brazilian side Commodore Norton, who lost his arm in the process, commanded the inshore squadron in the river and led it to minor victories, backed by ships commanded by Bartholomew Hayden, Francis Clare and William James Inglis. John Pascoe Grenfell, Thomas Craig and George Broom all distinguished themselves as commanders in single ship actions. Not all survived; Lieutenant John Rogers Gleddon and Sub-lieutenant Charles Yell were killed at sea, while Captain James Shepherd died leading a disastrous attack in Patagonia. The navy quietly dispensed with the services of four more, Sub‑lieutenant Gore Whitlock Oudesley and Lieutenant David Carter for being drunk during the capture of their corvette in 1827; Lieutenant Vincent Crofton, graphically described by his commanding officer as 'a madman and a drunkard'; and Commander Alexander Reid for sheer incompetence. In 1827, Sub‑lieutenant Robert Mackintosh seized control of the schooner he commanded with the help of Argentine prisoners and sailed it to Buenos Aires. There he sold it to the government and pocketed the proceeds.

The war inevitably served as a powerful stimulant to the growth of the Brazilian Navy By 1828, it was the biggest in the Americas and had grown to one ship-of-the-line, nine frigates, sixty-six smaller warships and two armed steamships carrying 875 guns. The personnel consisted of about 8,400 officers and men, of whom no less than 1,200 were natives of Britain and Ireland. [18] The advantages of this arrangement were clear, yet so too were the problems. There had been, for example, instances of groups of captured seamen changing sides rather than face unpaid imprisonment. A minor revolution in 1831 and the abdication of Emperor Pedro brought a government to power in Brazil which believed in economies and retrenchment. The navy which was cut to one-fifth of its former size and was firmly recast in the role it was to play for the rest of the century, that of regional policeman and coastguard. When it eventually went to war, first against the Argentine dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, and then against Paraguay as part of the Triple Alliance with Argentina and Uruguay in 1865, its field of glory lay not on the ocean but in seizing control of the great internal rivers of South America.

Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 July 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Vale, Brian, 'English and Irish Naval Officers in
the War for Brazilian Independence
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" Vol. 4 N° 3 (July 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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