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John Dynamite: Marine Mambí

By José Antonio Quintana García



The ship was full to capacity and everything was ready for landfall […]. Guided by Cuban pilots we cautiously approached the chosen spot […] at the mouth of the San Juan river. There was a full moon to illuminate us, with just a few clouds in the sky. Suddenly a cloud blocked the moon. A ray of light managed to filter through and was reflected right onto the spot where we were to land[…]

I spotted a Spanish gunboat making for the river. I informed the leader of the expedition, who ordered Captain O'Brien to turn around and withdraw. I returned to the Observation Post and now saw another gunboat heading towards us. I told Captain Lewis, the ship’s captain, who calmly replied that I was dreaming, at which point the first cannon-ball went off […].

I ran and told Captain O‘Brien to put the ship at full steam in order to evade the gunboats[…], which were now behind us and closing in. At the same time I distributed a rifle and ammunition to each volunteer and told them to take up positions at the stern and fire on the gun boats […].

Once we were ready, O’Brien turned the ship to face one of the gunboats, and when we thought ourselves within range we opened fire. Unfortunately the first shot missed and we had to repeat the operation, all the while losing ground and coming too close to the gunboats. We fired a second shot and the noise produced by this last cannonade shattered all the glass in the windows at the ship’s stern […] But this shot did us a great service, since when the gunboats saw that we were well armed they reduced speed,  allowing us to withdraw calmly (Pertierra Sierra 2000:83). 

The Spaniards suffered a number of casualties in the clash.

What was this floating house like, from which “Dynamite” challenged the maritime power of Spain, well provisioned by the United States? Piotr Streltsov, a Russian internationalist who fought in the Liberation Army at Pinar del Río under Mayor General Antonio Maceo described the Three Friends in his memoirs:

[…] she is a small craft, like a river boat. She can make 18 knots, a speed that allows her to outrun almost all the Spanish cruisers. This, together with the experience of her crew, accounts for the fact that, during the two years of the insurrection, government ships never captured her, indeed a number of them suffered damage at the hands of the 'Three Friends'.

Aside from its engine this ship has no other means of defence, except for the rare cases when she carries a cargo of cannons, which are installed at the prow. Like most American ships, in addition to the upper deck there are several structures which disfigure the original build of the 'Three Friends'. Her hold is not large, hence more than a third of her cargo was stowed on the lower deck, while the expeditionaries remained on the upper deck (Streltsov 1984: 54).

Stalked by Spies

John “Dynamite” O’Brien and the other seafaring Cuban revolutionaries also had to deal with United States spies. A letter published in the newspaper Cuba y Puerto Rico denounced the work of these men:


A United States policeman, now turned to spying, was on board the steamer 'Three Friends', currently at Jacksonville, during its recent voyage supposedly on a filibustering expedition. Today he submitted to the Attorney General the notebook in which he had written down everything that occurred on board during the voyage. This report is believed to offer a good deal of evidence of the ship’s participation in filibustering activity, but the information is not conclusive nor does it offer the proof sought by Spain. It is hard to believe that there should be men so vile and nations which accept espionage as an institution (González Barrios 1990: 216).

José Antonio Quintana García

Dynamite Johnny O'Brien
Pirie Macdonald in Smith, Horace, A Captain Unafraid:
The strange adventures of Dynamite Johnny O'Brien,
New York:, Harper, 1912, p. 11


[1] O'Brien was known as “Dynamite” because during his period as a filibuster he brought a cargo of six tonnes of the explosive to Panama. It was a voyage marked by inclement weather, and by something of a miracle the cargo did not explode. “Mambí” was an anti-Spanish rebel in the nineteenth-century wars of independence of Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic) and Cuba.


- Castellanos García, Gerardo. Tierras y glorias de Oriente (Havana: Editorial Hermes, 1927).

- García del Pino, César. Expediciones de la guerra de independencia, 1895-1898 (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1996).

- González Barrios, René. En el mayor silencio (Havana: Editora Política, 1990).

- Pertierra Serra, Enrique. Italianos por la libertad de Cuba (Havana: Editorial José Martí, 2000).

- Streltsov, Piotr P., Diario de un mambí ruso. Edited by Ángel García and Piotr Mironchuk (Havana: Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, 1984).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Quintana Garcia, Jose Antonio, 'John Dynamite: Marine Mambí' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 221-224. Available online (, accessed .


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