Crusaders for Liberty or Vile Mercenaries?


Devereux portrayed himself as an Irish general fleeing religious persecution in Britain and seeking honour and glory fighting against tyranny in the Spanish world. In the opening paragraph of the letter he describes the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798 in overtly sectarian terms, emphasising political divisions between Protestants and Catholics. Then he explains his exile in North America by referring to the religious persecution that he had been subject to. He decided to cast 'all of his feelings and his reason' on the side of '[South] American patriotism' against Spain's 'impious and degrading despotism'. Justifying this decision he described himself as a natural lover of liberty who could not stand idly by while a 'brave and generous people' were exploited and oppressed. Turning to practical matters, Devereux offered himself as a mediator between the United Provinces of New Granada and the 'English government and English people'. In return he wished for a 'worthy' rank in the New Granadan military service. After that Devereux explains the motivation behind his offer. He wanted to serve the 'sacred cause' of Independence; he wanted 'honour and glory' rather than payment. Nevertheless he qualified this noble claim with the acknowledgement that he would require 'adequate resources' for the venture. In conclusion, Devereux reminds Valenzuela of his 'reputation for honour and integrity', and claims to have 'won the respect and friendship of many amongst the most distinguished and illustrious members of the English nation'.

In this letter Devereux exaggerates his role in the Irish rebellion of 1798 and his importance in British empire circles in London. At the same time as stressing his Irish love of liberty, he claims to have influence in the British government and on public opinion, and frequently uses the vague term 'inglés' - literally Englishman, but often used in Spanish America to refer to any foreigner - rather than 'irlandés'. The New Granadan government reacted cautiously to Devereux's offers and asked Devereux to come back to them with proof of his experience and a carefully drawn up plan of action.

The emphasis on love of liberty, honour, and the religious undertones of Devereux's 1815 letter remained potent when, in 1819, Devereux began the formal recruitment of the Irish Legion in Dublin. He produced all the paraphernalia of a patriotic recruiting drive. He ordered a ceremonial engraved sword (now held in the Museo Bolivariano in Caracas, Venezuela), a ceremonial Irish Legion Seal (now held in the Museo Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia), and printed up recruiting forms in Spanish.


Riohacha, capital city of Guajira
(Microsoft MapPoint, © 2006 Microsoft Corp.)

Over 1,700 Irishmen enlisted in the Irish Legion during the ensuing eighteen months, crossing the Atlantic in two dozen specially contracted ships. [6] These adventurers arrived in Spanish America at the wrong time and in the wrong place. By 1819 the tide of war seemed to be turning in Bolívar's favour, with the Spanish army increasingly demoralised and cut off from reinforcements from Europe. [7] Simón Bolívar and other rebel leaders had already begun to question the wisdom of recruiting large numbers of foreign mercenaries who needed barracks, provisions and payment. There were many who doubted the usefulness of the Irish, arriving as they did over four years after Devereux's original letter was sent.

Upon arrival most soldiers of the Irish Legion were held on the island of Margarita off the Venezuelan coast. There, disease and a lack of drinking water combined to cause the death and desertion of many of the adventurers. Only six hundred survived to join the long planned expedition, in March 1820, to attack the Spanish-controlled port of Riohacha on the New Granadan coast.

The attack on Riohacha did briefly serve, as Bolívar had hoped it would, to distract some Spanish and Royalist forces. In all other respects it was a spectacular failure. Planning, discipline and strategy fell apart in Riohacha. On sight of the expedition's ships massing outside the port, Riohacha's residents fled for the hills. The Irish Legion therefore was able to occupy the port without difficulty, and was then overwhelmed by disciplinary problems on a march into the New Granadan interior. Fear of being ambushed by local indigenous peoples combined with lack of food and drink to create a rebellious atmosphere amongst the men. This erupted upon their return to Riohacha, where some waiting merchant vessels from the British-ruled island of Jamaica offered to transport disgruntled adventurers away from Colombia. After rioting and setting fire to many of the town's buildings, the vast majority of the Irish Legion embarked and left Mariano Montilla, Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander to rue their ultimately costly and demoralising decision to recruit Irishmen to their cause.

Aftermath - Back Home

Some Irishmen remained faithful to the cause of South American Independence after Riohacha. Francisco Burdett O'Connor led the remaining loyal troops, and eventually settled in Bolivia. [8] Daniel Florence O'Leary, Arthur Sandes and John Johnston, all Irishmen, were among Bolívar's most faithful officers during the political and military upheavals of the 1820s in Colombia.

However, back in Ireland these success stories were completely overshadowed by the bad news that trickled home during 1820. Newspapers such as the Dublin Evening Post and Carrick's Morning Post were full of returning adventurers' testimonies complaining of the terrible conditions to which they had been subjected. Many blamed Spanish American leaders, particularly Luis Brion and Mariano Montilla, for causing the Irish Legion's indiscipline by leaving it 'disarmed, betrayed and plundered'. Others blamed the Irish officers for their poor personnel management. The Dublin Evening Post, one of the most strident supports of the Irish Legion, was able to find succour in reports of the loyalty and bravery of the common Irish soldier, whose only wish was an opportunity to serve nobly in return for fair remuneration. [9]

At issue was the reputation of Irishmen as brave defenders of liberty. Colonel Sampson described the Irish Legion as 'a glorious crusade in the cause of liberty, with the liveliest hopes', inspired by 'the noble spirit of the Irish youth'. [10] In 1819 the Irish Legion was sent on its way to liberate 'the innocent children of the Sun'. [11] By deserting the flag of freedom at Riohacha, the Irish had put their masculine honour and nascent national identity in question. In 1820, a Public Inquiry was set up in Dublin to investigate accusations of 'unmanly and dishonourable' behaviour against John Devereux and his associates. Some of the deserting adventurers were accused of being 'too fond of good living, with no stomach for the fight'. [12]


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 March 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Brown, Matthew, '
Crusaders for Liberty or Vile Mercenaries?: The Irish Legion in Colombia' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 2006. Available online (, accessed .


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