English and Irish Naval Officers in the War for Brazilian Independence

Brian Vale


Lord Cochrane, First Admiral of Brazil
(From the mezzotint by Meyer showing him in his prime in 1810)

The abrupt change in the navy's role dealt a blow to its personnel. Promotion was frozen and foreign officers who had not fought actively in the War of Independence were discharged. Nevertheless, the Navy List of 1835 still contained the names of twenty-two English, Scottish and Irish veterans, a number of whom stayed on in Brazil to attain the highest ranks in the service. [19] Of the remaining thirty-nine who had been recruited during 1823-5, seventeen had resigned or returned home at the end of their five-year contracts, nine had died or been killed in action, two had become invalids, five had deserted and six had been dismissed for incompetence, frequently the result of excessive drinking. A further twelve junior lieutenants had been recruited specifically for the Argentine war and were discharged immediately afterwards. Their fates are unknown.

Economies may have been made but the navy was still necessary. The simmering regionalism of Brazil and growing economic hardship resulted in a spate of colourfully named rebellions: the 'Cabanos' in Pernambuco 1832‑1835 and in Pará 1835‑1836; the 'Sabinada' in Bahia in 1837‑1838; the 'Balaiada' in Maranhão in 1839‑1840; and the 'Farrapos' in Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina which dragged on for a decade from 1835. These crises caused a partial mobilisation of forces. In 1836, the number of ships in commission was increased to thirty, but a rapid expansion in manpower proved as difficult to achieve as it had been in 1823. This time, the government mounted a recruiting campaign in the Orkneys and Shetland Islands.

The Brazilian Navy was prominent in the suppression of all of these outbreaks, as were its remaining British officers. Captain William James Inglis and Lieutenant Richard Norbert Murphy were killed during the bloody 'Cabanos' rebellion in Pará. Commodore John Taylor led the force which restored order, assisted by Captains William Eyre, George Manson and Bartholomew Hayden. In the south, it was Commodore John Pascoe Grenfell who suppressed the 'Farrapos' rebellion, with Captains William Parker, Richard Hayden and George Broom under his command.


How can one analyse the contributions of these officers who fought for the Independence of Brazil? In the literal sense they were mercenaries, but that word acquired distasteful associations in the twentieth century and is best avoided. These men simply sought to earn a living. Since the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had lasted for a generation, there were plenty of people in Europe who knew of no other occupation or had no other expectations.

As individuals they were certainly a mixed group. Some successfully completed their five-year contracts and returned to Europe. Others died in action or of the diseases that were endemic on overcrowded ships in the tropics, and never saw their homelands again. Some were heroes whose achievements are remembered to this day. Others - to quote Brazilian Admiral Tamandaré's reflections in old age - 'were immensely brave but not very bright.' Some had dubious careers due to drink or incompetence and were quietly retired, while others, though relatively few, were dazzlingly successful as leaders, married locally and stayed on in Brazil to reach the highest ranks in the Imperial Navy. Some officers merged into Brazilian society, but the majority did not come as long-term migrants but as short-term employees with professional skills to sell. This was quite unlike the navy of Buenos Aires, for example, whose officers were immigrants who happened to have naval experience.

Cochrane's Flag Captain, Thomas Sackville Crosbie,
in Brazilian Uniform.

Another point which also emerges is that whereas the revolutionary squadrons of Chile and Argentina attracted officers from a number of national backgrounds, notably North American, the Brazilian Navy was dominated by officers of English, Scottish and Irish origins. A possible reason for this is that whereas subjects of King George may have been at ease with the monarchical trappings of Brazil and were happy to become subjects of the Emperor Pedro, Americans preferred to serve in the more familiar atmosphere of republican regimes.

What is also clear is that victory at sea was vital in securing Brazilian independence and that the reliability, leadership and technical skills of officers recruited by the navy from England, Scotland and Ireland were crucial to that success. The decisive effect of Lord Cochrane's incomparable military talents is obvious, yet the presence of the officers who supported him was no less significant, bringing with them professionalism, an aggressive approach and a confidence in victory born of years of unquestioned supremacy at sea. They may not have had the social impact on Brazil of large groups of immigrants, but in qualitative terms their contribution to the country’s independence and survival was immense.

From documents scattered in the Brazilian archives, it is possible to piece together the careers of those of British and Irish origin among these men in South America. A great deal is known about the seven who achieved the rank of commodore or admiral, including their births, marriages and deaths. However, there are few records in Brazil about the origins, nationalities or pre-independence careers of the bulk of the others. Likewise, while it is possible to find some records showing previous service in the Royal Navy, the Admiralty only kept central records for Lieutenants and superior ranks, rendering it impossible to trace the legions of Midshipmen and Master’s Mates whose names are scattered in the muster rolls of a thousand ships. Neither is O’Byrne’s usually invaluable 1849 Biographical Dictionary of all living officers of the Royal Navy helpful. Entries were written by the individual concerned who, unless they had aristocratic or fashionable connections, tended to say nothing of their origins, apart, of course, for the most flamboyant or self confident. Captain Donat Henchy O’Brien’s extensive entry, for example, begins with ‘descended from one of the ancient monarchs of Ireland,…’ while that of Thomas Sackville Crosbie says nothing of his family or place of origin. It is only Maria Graham’s description of him as ‘a young, gentleman-like Irishman’ that provides a clue.

Bartholomew Hayden in old age wearing the uniform of a
Brazilian Commodore.

Neither is anecdotal evidence of nationality easily found in South America. Generally speaking, South Americans did not distinguish between Englishmen, Scotsmen and Irishmen, classifying them all as ‘ingleses’. Indeed the men themselves also seemed uninterested in these distinctions and seemed happy to refer to themselves as both ‘inglés’ and ‘Englishman.’ When discussing the impact of his campaigns on trade with officers of the Royal Navy, the Scotsman Cochrane frequently reminded them that ‘he was conscious of his duty as an Englishman’. [20] It is no surprise that Woodbine Parish, His Majesty’s Consul-General and an Englishman, should remark as he surveyed the diverse Brazilian squadron in the River Plate, that ‘it appears so formidable to the Buenos Aireans because it is largely commanded and manned by Englishmen.’ [21] It was a Scotsman, Robert Gordon, who wrote a furious dispatch from the British Embassy in Rio complaining that the Brazilian-Argentine War, rather then being a conflict between the nationals of two foreign states, was actually ‘a War Betwixt Englishmen.’ [22] What he meant was a war between English, Irish and Scottish subjects of King George. His colleague in Buenos Aires, the Irish peer Lord Ponsonby, was a little more accurate, portentously ending a dispatch by describing the glorious engagement of Brown’s Argentine flotilla by Norton’s Brazilian squadron at the Battle of Monte Santiago with the words ‘You will observe that all these splendid displays of courage have been made by Britons!’ [23]


Brian Vale



[1] Decree of 21 March 1823, reproduced in Theotonio Meirelles da Silva, Apontamentos para a Historia da Marina de Guerra Brazileira (Rio de Janeiro, 1882) Vol. 2, 67.

[2] Brant’s dispatches reproduced in Publicações do Archivo Nacional, Rio, Vol. VII, 1907.

[3] Brant to José Bonifácio, 4 January 1823, Publicações.

[4] Brant to José Bonifácio, 12 January 1823, with appendices, Publicações. Also Francis Clare’s contract in the Dundonald (Cochrane) Papers in the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), GD 233/34/244.

[5] Decree of 23 August 1823, reproduced in Meirelles da Silva, Apontamentos, 69.

[6] Diario do Governo, Rio, Maritime Notices, 24 March 1823.

[7] Reports of the Real Junta da Fazenda, 10 and 26 April 1823, Archivo Nacional (AN) Rio, XM80.

[8] Maria Graham, Journal of a Voyage to Brazil and Residence there during part of the Years 1821, 1822 and 1823, (London, 1824), 221.

[9] Reports of the Real Junta da Fazenda, AN XM80.

[10] Brant to José Bonifácio, 11 February 1823, Publicações.

[11] Brant to José Bonifácio, 25 March 1823, Publicações. Inevitably, the Brazilian Government refused to pay the amounts promised by Meirelles, with the result that after the campaign of independence the seamen began to desert in droves.

[12] Decree of 23 August 1823, reproduced in Meirelles da Silva, Apontamentos, 69.

[13] At the beginning of 1825, of the 174 officers in the Brazilian Navy List, 49 were British – one Admiral, five Captains, nine Commanders and 34 Lieutenants and Sub-lieutenants - all of whom were serving at sea.

[14] For the story of the campaigns see, Brian Vale, Independence or Death! British Sailors and Brazilian Independence 1822-5, (London, 1996).

[15] Brant and Gameiro to Carvalho e Mello, 5 November 1824, reproduced in Archivo Diplomatico da Independencia, (Rio, 1922), Vol. 2. Only one frigate was purchased in London – a converted East Indiaman called the Surat Castle – but two armed steamships were purchased in Liverpool. Originally called Britannia and Hibernia, they were renamed Correio Brasileiro and Correio Imperial and reached Brazil in 1826. In what is probably the first recorded action between sail and steam, the first found herself in action against the Argentine privateer Congreso off Rio de Janeiro in September 1827 and was disabled by a shot in her paddle wheels.

[16] Gameiro to Vilella Barbosa, 7 May, 27 June, 9 July, 19 December 1815, reproduced in Archivo Diplomatico.

[17] For an analysis of the war see, Vale, 'A War Betwixt Englishmen’, Brazil versus Argentina in the River Plate 1825-30, (London, 2000).

[18] Relatório da Repartição dos Negócios da Marinha. (Rio, 1828), Bibliotéca

Nacional, Rio.

[19] See Almanack da Marinha 1835, Bibliotéca da Marinha, Rio.

[20] Captain Hickey to Commodore Bowles, 24 May 1819, Public Records Office (PRO), Kew, Ad 1/1563.

[21] Parish to Canning, 20 July 1825, PRO Kew, FO 6/9.

[22] Gordon to Dudley, 1 October 1827, PRO Kew, FO 13/39.

[23] Ponsonby to Canning, 20 April 1827, PRO Kew, FO 6/17



- Archivo Diplomático da Independência. (Rio de Janeiro: Ministério de Relações Exteriores, 1922). Vol. 2, Correspondence with Brazilian mission in London.

- Boiteux, Lucas, 'A Armada Brasileira Contraposta a Confederação do Equador' in Subsídios para a História Maritima do Brasil, Vol. 13 (Rio de Janeiro, 1957).

- Cavaliero, Roderick, The Independence of Brazil (London, 1993).

- Graham, Mrs Maria, Journal of a Voyage to Brazil and Residence there during part of the years 1821, 1822 and 1823 (London, 1824).

- História Naval Brasileira, Vol. 3, Issue 1, 1821-1828 (Rio de Janeiro: Serviço de Documentação da Marinha, 2002).

- Manchester, Alan K, British Preeminence in Brazil. Its Rise and Decline (Durham, NC, 1933).

- Meirelles da Silva, Apontamentos para a História da Marinha de Guerra Brazileira (Rio de Janeiro, 1882), Vol. II.

- Navigator, 'A Marinha nas Lutas da Independência' (Rio de Janeiro: Serviço de Documentação da Marinha, December 1971).

- Publicações do Archívo Publico Nacional (Rio de Janeiro, 1907), Vol. 7.  Dispatches of Felisberto Brant Pontes from London 1822‑1823.

- Vale, Brian, Independence or Death! British Sailors and Brazilian Independence   1822-25, (London 1996).

- Vale, Brian, The Audacious Admiral Cochrane (London, 2005).

- Vale, Brian, 'A War Betwixt Englishmen’, Brazil versus Argentina in the River Plate, 1825-30 (London, 2000). Translated into Spanish as Una Guerra Entre Ingleses (Instituto de Publicaciones Navales, Buenos Aires, 2005).

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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