In June 1806, British troops disembarked from a small squadron of ships moored in the River Plate and made ready to attack Buenos Aires. The commanding naval officer of the flotilla was Commodore Sir Home Riggs Popham (1762-1820), a man from an Anglo-Irish family. Heading the land forces, and destined to be the first British Governor in South America if the attempt succeeded, was Brigadier General William Carr Beresford (1768-1854), an illegitimate son of the first marquess of Waterford in the Irish peerage. A high proportion of the soldiers onshore were also Irishmen. Historians have described the British invasion of 1806-1807 as forming the first stage of Argentinean-British relations and also of establishing the first tentative elements of an Irish community in Argentina. In this article, Thomas Byrne examines the events that highlight the substantial Irish involvement in the 1806 invasion, and explains the significance of this period in the context of Irish relations with South America.
On 21 September 1806, eight wagons trundled into London under military escort. Cheering crowds watched from the streets while some brave souls watched from windows overhead. Blue silk banners emblazoned with ‘Buenos Aires, Popham, Beresford, Victory’ in gold thread were presented to the column in St James Square. On the front of each wagon was painted the word ‘Treasure’. Later that day over a million dollars in Spanish gold and silver was deposited in the vaults of the Bank of England. Many aspects of the history of British attempts to capture Buenos Aires in 1806-1807 seem more resonant of historical fiction than historical fact, perhaps none more so than this victory procession. A cavalcade of treasure-laden wagons passing through packed London streets evokes a scene from the novels of C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower or Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe novels. Far from being fictional, however, this latter-day Roman triumph of captured booty really occurred and was documented in the sober Times of London newspaper. Unfortunately, however, a faraway disaster had already overtaken this triumph and ruined the reputation of the man largely responsible for initiating the entire enterprise, Anglo-Irishman Commodore Home Riggs Popham (1762-1820).
Popham came from a family established in Bandon, County Cork, Ireland. Confusion has attended descriptions of the exact place of his birth – some sources cited Gibraltar or Morocco, but his obituary in The Gentleman’s Magazine identified Ireland. Hugh Popham’s biography gives his ancestor’s birthplace as Gibraltar, explaining that while Joseph Popham, Home’s father, was British consul in Tetuan, Morocco, his wife and family was based in Gibraltar at the time of the boy’s birth. Home Popham joined the Royal Navy in February 1778 – his career was marked by innovation, celebrity and not a little controversy. Popham carried out a number of well received hydrographical surveys in the East Indies and invented a naval signalling system which involved the use of flags. Less rarefied aspects to his character came to the fore when he was accused of smuggling contraband from India. He also became very skilled in planning and carrying out amphibious operations with British land forces against Napoleon’s French armies and continental allies.
An operation in 1801 saw the by-now Captain Popham transport a British army commanded by Scotsman General David Baird (1759-1829) from Jeddah on the Arabian coast across the Red Sea to Egypt. Baird made the two-week journey aboard Popham’s flagship Romney, during which the two men established a close rapport – a fact which is of central importance in explaining later actions and decisions by both men. Once landed, Baird’s army was part of the epic march across the Egyptian desert to Cairo. Colonel William Carr Beresford (1768-1854), another Anglo-Irishman, and Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Auchmuty (1758-1822), an American loyalist, also featured prominently in this expedition and both would also be involved in the later attempt on Buenos Aires.
Napoleon’s strategy to sever Britain’s lines of communication with India, which was described by the British consul as ‘the masterkey to all the trading nations of the earth,’ was scuppered by British victories on land and at sea. In Europe, however, France was becoming increasingly dominant. Napoleon’s series of battlefield victories seemed unstoppable. Spain’s formal declaration of war against Britain in 1805 increased the pressure still further. However it also offered a promising new avenue of attack. Spain’s huge South American empire was viewed as a source of immense wealth, if free trade could be established and South American markets opened up. Equally, it was suggested that much of the £20 million of exports from South America each year passed into French hands. A military blow against Spanish America would thus also be a blow to France economically. This would be a vulnerability that Britain could and - some voices suggested forcefully - should exploit.
One of the most prominent voices promoting British intervention in South America was Francisco de Miranda (1750-1816). Born in Venezuela, originally an officer in the Spanish army, later accused of treason, he renounced his Spanish allegiance and travelled widely to promote his ideas for a South American empire independent of Spain. Having unsuccessfully sought financial and military support in the United States and France, he spent a number of similarly unprofitable years in London trying to persuade the British government of the righteousness and utility of his schemes. In 1803, he met Home Popham and discovered in him what seemed to be a kindred spirit. This comparison may not be wholly positive; a recent historian sums the situation up well by describing Miranda as ‘a shallow unscrupulous adventurer, not wholly innocent of knavery’, and goes on to state that ‘Popham’s character at bottom perhaps differed not very greatly from Miranda.’ The two would-be liberators worked on a series of memoranda advocating the philosophical, political and practical reasons in favour of independence for South America. Popham’s connections among the merchant and political communities in London and the changed geopolitical situation ensured a more receptive hearing of Miranda’s scheme. Helpful too was the fact that William Pitt the Younger was back in power as Prime Minister of a Tory administration with Henry Dundas (1742-1811), Lord Melville, as one of his most influential cabinet members. Dundas had long been a supporter of intervention in Spanish America but had been counterbalanced previously by the scepticism of William Wyndham Grenville (1759-1834), Lord Grenville, Pitt’s cousin and close advisor. Grenville was now in opposition in 1804, largely due to his support for political rights for Catholics in Ireland, and Melville thus had renewed hopes of persuading Pitt to support a South American expedition.
By 1804, despite another brush with the naval authorities and the law, due to ‘enormous and unnecessary expenditure while in India’, Popham had become a Tory MP for the Isle of Wight. He had been in contact with William Huskisson (1784-1844), Joint Secretary to the Treasury in Pitt’s 1804 government, since the latter had been Under-Secretary of the Navy in the 1790s. Popham had also been cultivated by Melville (and most likely vice versa) and Nicholas Vansittart (1766-1851), one of Miranda’s closest friends in England. Melville, Huskisson and Vansittart had constituted a South American lobby since the late 1790s – even drawing up a secret memorandum proposing a British expedition to the continent in 1796, and recommending the seizure of Buenos Aires ‘because little resistance was likely, it was fertile green and healthy, likely to seek British protection and [....] would form one of the most productive and improvable colonies in the world.’ Popham, an experienced naval officer who was held in high esteem by the army, politically reliable and commercially minded, seemed the ideal man to lead the enterprise.
Pitt met Melville, Miranda and Popham in October 1804 to discuss the possibility of sending an expedition to South America. The trio disclaimed any interest in conquest – emphasising that ‘the sole objective would be to secure independence for the Latin Americans’ and commercial opportunities for Britain. Pitt also received other representations to undertake a South American strategy from merchant and traveller William Jacob (1761/2-1851) and Captain Charles Herbert, who urged that the French be forestalled and a death blow be struck to Spanish American power (Gallo 2001: 30-31). Pitt was not moved enough by all the entreaties to sanction immediate action, citing Russian hopes to detach Spain from France diplomatically and the need to await the outcome of more conventional military challenges to Napoleon. Popham however, took this to mean that Pitt and the government would be in favour of an attack on South America once these – perhaps temporary - obstacles had been resolved.
Meanwhile, a more immediate French threat was evident in Africa. With the Batavian Republic now allied with France, the Dutch Cape of Good Hope colony presented a very real danger to British communications with India. Pitt’s government decided to send Sir David Baird and a 6,654-man force to seize the territory; Commodore Home Riggs Popham was selected to command the fleet. It is not known whether it occurred to anyone in government that Buenos Aires and the River Plate Viceroyalty might present a too-tempting target to the Irishman, but Popham saw the opportunity very clearly. Having helped to take the Cape Colony with little difficulty, and receiving the recent news of Napoleon’s decisive victories at Ulm and Austerlitz, Popham set about convincing Baird that an expedition to Buenos Aires without delay would be what Pitt would want in these changed circumstances. As described earlier, Baird and Popham had developed a close relationship since their time aboard ship in the Egyptian campaign of 1801. Now he explained to his old colleague that intervention in the River Plate would ‘add lustre to his Majesty’s arms, distress our enemies and open a most beneficial trade for Britain.’ He also claimed to have information from Buenos Aires ‘on the defenceless state of the River Plate’ from an American merchant ship’s captain, Thomas Waine; other sources allege that another motive may have spurred Popham on – information from the same merchant that a large consignment of bullion and specie was at Buenos Aires awaiting shipment to Spain. Popham was in dire straits financially at this point in his career, burdened by debts relating to an unsuccessful trading venture; he may also have owed money to William White, another American merchant resident in Buenos Aires. The Morning Star newspaper later claimed that Baird was apparently promised two-thirds of the prize money in return for supplying the troops for the expedition.
In any event, Popham was able to persuade Baird that an expedition was possible, even permissible, and to give him 1,400 soldiers in total, some 844 from the 71st Regiment; he had threatened to mount the expedition without them in any case. Again harking back to the Egyptian campaign, fellow Irishman Brigadier General William Carr Beresford was given command of the troops, having ‘particularly requested the appointment.’ His second-in-command was Lieutenant Colonel Denis Pack (1772-1823), yet another Irishman. Peter Pyne also argues convincingly that although the 71st Regiment was notionally a Scottish unit, the rank-and-file had become largely Irish after many years garrisoned in the west of Ireland. Indeed, the entire enterprise might be termed the Anglo-Irish invasion of Buenos Aires with some justification.
The small fleet of four ships, one gun brig and four transports, set off on the voyage west on the 14 April 1806. After Popham had again worked his persuasive talents on the British governor of the St Helena and added another 200 troops, the squadron arrived off Buenos Aires on 25 June. The Spanish governor in Buenos Aires, Rafael de Sobremonte (1745-1827), had few troops at his disposal and those that were available were largely untrained and badly-equipped, despite the governor’s many and repeated pleas to Spain for assistance. To add to Sobremonte’s woes, summer weather had dried the coastal marshes that usually acted as a natural defensive barrier blocking passage inland from the shore. Beresford’s British troops made rapid progress, dispersing the meagre Spanish forces available. Sobremonte retreated into the interior of the province, taking the royal treasury with him. Though the Governor was just following regulations that had been laid down him in case of invasion, the populace of Buenos Aires quickly condemned him as a coward and he thereafter languished as a rather irrelevant figure. On the 27 June 1806, Buenos Aires, with its population of 40,000, surrendered to Beresford’s British force of 1,600 soldiers, many of whom were Irish. Historian Ian Fletcher calls this a remarkable achievement considering the numbers involved, however the porteños’ (residents of Buenos Aires) pride had been wounded and any complacency on the part of victorious army was ill-advised.
Popham ordered that a squad be sent inland immediately in pursuit of the governor and the royal treasury. Thirteen days later it was brought back to Buenos Aires, and on 16 July Beresford wrote to London informing the government that 1,086,208 dollars were being dispatched back to England. An already-shocked citizenry was decidedly unimpressed by the sight of their money being shipped abroad – Ian Fletcher has gone so far as to describe this as an ‘act of almost Elizabethan piracy.’ The humiliation was exacerbated further when Beresford refused to clarify what exactly were the British intentions. To a large degree this was because he operating without any clear orders. Having captured the city, it seemed neither Popham nor Beresford had a clear idea of what to do next. Would the city, and ultimately the viceroyalty, be assisted in declaring its independence? Did the British intend to place the area under their protection as the newest of King George’s imperial possessions?
The maverick and improvisational nature of the enterprise now rebounded to the detriment of the British commanders and troops. Resentment and hostility grew amongst all sections of Buenos Aires society. Even those disposed to favour a break with Spain (in the main creoles – those born in South America but of Spanish heritage; in an interesting comparison, Popham and Beresford could also perhaps be considered as creoles themselves, born in Ireland or to Irish-based families but with English heritage) grew restive as they wondered whether the British would long remain in the colony. What would the future hold for anyone who supported the British if and when Spanish control was re-established? Popham seemed to have lost interest in affairs onshore by this stage and in the absence of clear and definite information from Beresford, pragmatism and patriotism became motivations operating hand-in-hand.
Dithering, prevarication and admonishments to be patient while waiting for a response from London achieved nothing – soon the British soldiers were being viewed as a force of occupation. In an eerie precursor of recent events in Iraq, an expedition which set out proclaiming an interest in ‘liberation’ now found itself the target of increasingly patriotic resistance. Verbal assaults soon gave way to physical attacks in the city. Shadowy groups began to plan more elaborate measures, including exploding barrels of gunpowder in the cellar beneath the main British quarters. The remnants of the regular Spanish forces also began to revitalise around the leadership of Santiago de Liniers (1753-1810), a French émigré and Spanish naval officer. Martín de Pueyrredón (1776-1850), whose mother was of Irish descent, organised an irregular force of horsemen on the outskirts of Buenos Aires. Beresford repulsed an attack by this group but noted that the situation was deteriorating rapidly; he and his opponents both realised that 1,600 soldiers could not hold the city in the face of a hostile populace. Beresford intended to evacuate his force on 10 August but heavy rain prevented the plan being put into action. Two days later, Liniers’ main army joined with rebels from within the city. Facing a combined opposing force of 10,000 men, Beresford surrendered at noon on 12 August 1806.
The original conditions of surrender specified that the captured British troops would be allowed to re-embark and sail home. However voices within the Buenos Aires cabildo (municipal council) feared that British reinforcements were on their way. Indeed they were; General John Whitelocke and 6,000 men eventually assaulted Buenos Aires again in July 1807. This second expedition proved to be an almost complete fiasco, with newly-raised and better-trained local militia units resoundingly defeating the British force, which again included hundreds of Irishmen in the 87th and 88th regiments. Whitelocke was later courtmartialled and expelled from the army. It was argued that the captured soldiers should be held as prisoners of war. To prevent escape they were moved inland and dispersed throughout the provinces.
For officers this was a comfortable existence – riding, hunting and cricket all featured in the daily prison routine. Other ranks also found the lifestyle and possibilities attractive. Peter Pyne has demonstrated that between desertions, defections and those prisoners who opted to remain behind after British prisoners had been formally repatriated in 1808, some hundreds of soldiers from the original expedition settled in Argentina; he estimates that of this group, some 250-300 were Irishmen. Pyne also argues that although a distinctively Irish community did not form at this time, partly because of the absence of Irish women, some members of this group of Irish ex-soldiers from the 1806 expedition who integrated into the social, economic and political fabric of the newly independent Argentina did manage to re-establish meaningful links with their relatives in Ireland. In one case study, Patrick McKenna’s MA thesis highlights the fact that one of these men, John Murray, had strong connections with Streamstown in County Westmeath, in the midlands of Ireland. A largely agricultural county with a surfeit of population and an extreme shortage of land, it is not difficult to see the appeal created by firsthand descriptions of a local man who had done well in a country with excess land and too few people to work it. The evidence does not allow a definitive statement that this link was a central motivation for later emigration from Westmeath; however up to 40 % of Irish migrants to Argentina did originate in Westmeath. It seems reasonable to believe that firsthand information on the opportunities available from ex-soldiers who had settled in Argentina contributed to the extent of this migratory pattern. As Peter Pyne puts it, the small number of Irish troops who remained behind in what was to become Argentina ‘laid the foundations for an emergent Irish colony on the River Plate by attracting other migrants from Ireland.’
One of the outcomes, then, of the British (and Irish) invasions of Buenos Aires in 1806 was the inchoate foundation of what eventually became a very significant Irish presence in Argentina. The major immediate result, however, was Argentinean independence itself, which was declared in 1816. In concrete terms, the citizens’ militia units that were formed, armed and trained to resist the British forces in 1806 became the foundation of the military forces that in time won independence from Spain. Having taken on the strongest military power in the world and won ‘proved an inspiration and springboard to independence.’ However the British too rebounded from the disastrous intervention in the longer term (the defeat itself has been excised from the national memory) and achieved their economic objectives through more peaceful means. Despite not being incorporated formally as a colony, Argentina and much of South America became part of Britain’s informal empire. Commercially, if not politically, the area remained very much under British influence. Klaus Gallo sums up this outcome by declaring that Home Popham’s rash enterprise had the unexpected result of opening up the first stage of Anglo-Argentinean relations. Despite the buccaneering aspect of the operation, Popham, Beresford and many hundreds of other Irishmen’s endeavours might well be judged to have also made a significant contribution to the establishment of Argentine-Irish relations. Perhaps the silk banners emblazoned in gold thread with ‘Buenos Aires, Popham, Beresford, Victory’ were deserved after all, if for very different reasons than anyone in the crowd could have foreseen.
1 . Fletcher, Waters of Oblivion, p. 42. The sum was roughly equivalent to £300,000 in 1806 sterling currency, or £18 million in today’s value.
2 . The 95th Rifles, the regiment in which the fictitious Richard Sharpe served, actually did see action in Buenos Aires in 1807. Popham and the Anglo-Irish invasions of Buenos Aires also figure in several novels including the novel entitled Happy Return (1937) in C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, and Patrick O’Brian’s The Ionian Mission (1981) which comprises part of his Aubrey and Maturin novels.
3 . The Times, 19 & 22 Sept 1806.
4 . Klaus Gallo identifies Popham as Scottish, but Ian Fletcher calls him English. Gallo, Great Britain and Argentina, p.33; Fletcher, Waters of Oblivion, p.2. Popham and his colleagues William Carr Beresford and Denis Pack share the perennial fate of those born in Ireland, or to Irish families, in belonging to a variety of Irishness that traces its origins back to Protestant families of English or Scottish descent. The ‘hyphenated people’ of the Anglo-Irish tradition typically, and often unwillingly, have been perceived as ‘halfway here, halfway there.” See Jackson, “J C Beckett,” pp.129-150.
5 . Anon., Notes on the Viceroyalty of La Plata in South America, p.255; Popham obituary, Gentlemen’s Magazine (1820), p.274; Popham, A Damned Cunning Fellow, p.146.
6 . Annual Biography and Obituary for the year 1822, p.291. Popham’s elder brother Stephen (1742-1795) served as Solicitor General to the East India Company in Madras (present-day Chennai). He was also involved in many projects aimed at the improvement of sanitation and policing.
7 . Hook, Life of the Right Honourable Sir David Baird, pp. 312, 319, 334, 352.
8 . Mackesy, British Victory in Egypt, p.5.
9 . Vane, ed. Correspondence ....of Castlereagh, p. 270; Fletcher, Waters of Oblivion, p.3.
10 . Fletcher, Waters of Oblivion, p. 4.
11 . Gallo, Great Britain and Argentina, p.21. Gallo traces interest in mounting a serious challenge to the Spanish Empire in Spanish America back to Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. He attributes the first modern plan to Governor Pulleine of Bermuda in 1711, followed by other schemes in the 1740s, 1760s and 1780s – not coincidentally all were periods of intense conflict between Britain and France.
12 . Gallo, Great Britain and Argentina, p.29.
13 . Pyne, Invasion of Buenos Aires, p.7.
14 . Popham, Damned Cunning Fellow, pp.144-5; Pyne, Invasions of Buenos Aires, p.7.
15 . Gallo, Great Britain and Argentina, p.37.
16 . Hook, Life of the Right Honourable Sir David Baird, p.138.
17 . Pyne, Invasions of Buenos Aires, p.15.
18 . Fletcher, Waters of Oblivion, p.17; Gallo, Great Britain and Argentina, p.75.
19 . Fletcher, Waters of Oblivion, pp. 4,18.
20 . Pyne, Invasions of Buenos Aires, pp.13-14.
21 . Soldiers near the outskirts of the city witnessed a new tactic in action. Horsemen wielding ropes lassoed them and dragged them away as prisoners. This is the first recorded use of the word lasso in English.
22 . Pyne, Invasions of Buenos Aires, p.26.
23 . Pyne, Invasions of Buenos Aires, pp.70-71.
24 . McKenna, “Nineteenth Century Irish Immigration to, and Settlement in, Argentina,” pp.139, 313.
25 . Pyne, Invasions of Buenos Aires, p.2.
26 . Fletcher, Waters of Oblivion, p.129.
27 . Gallo, Great Britain and Argentina, p.161.
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