Crusaders for Liberty or Vile Mercenaries?


Aftermath - in Colombia

Cathedral of Riohacha

The dream of Irish courage contributing to the liberation of Spanish America lived on in the hearts of some of the surviving adventurers. In September 1822 Arthur Sandes wrote to Daniel O'Connell, informing the leader of the struggle for Catholic Emancipation of the death of his nephew Maurice O'Connell. Maurice died of a fever in the Ecuadorian highlands after more than two years' service in the Colombian army. Sandes emphasised that Maurice had been 'brave, generous, sincere, and [had] possess[ed] qualities which raise the esteem and talents which arrest the attention of mankind'. His character was thus 'truly Irish, uniting in it all those virtues for which the sons of our country are so justly celebrated, being always worthy of his ancient and honourable name and of that love of liberty which had engaged him in the defence of an oppressed people'. [13]

Yet during the early 1820s Irishness had become a dirty word in Colombia. The rebellion at Riohacha meant that those Irishmen who did not leave Colombia during this period had to struggle to re-imagine and re-affirm their own identities. Being Irish had become synonymous with mutiny and indiscipline. As part of his submission to the Colombian government in 1823, Colonel John Johnston claimed that 'being from a country like Ireland, that has always been struggling to be free, I acquired at birth the most liberal sentiments that could possibly fill a man's heart […] so that when […] I heard favourable talk of a Heroic Bolivar and his glorious struggle […] against the tyranny and despotism of Spain […] at that moment my heart inflamed with the ardent desire to join such a noble cause'. [14]


The attempt to forge an Irish national identity through adventure in Spanish America was thwarted in 1820 by the practical difficulties of a military campaign in an unknown environment, by the Irish adventurers' constant fear of being attacked by indigenous people, and by the logistical obstacles to keeping them fed and watered to their satisfaction. The Irish rebellion at Riohacha in 1820 occurred in a year when leaders like Bolívar were looking for a convenient scapegoat against which to affirm the virtues of 'true' Colombians, as the threat from Spain diminished after the Santa Ana armistice in November 1820. The timing and the manner of the Irish Legion's rebellion and disintegration meant that for several years Irishness was an unattractive identity for the Irish adventurers who remained in Colombia - they described themselves as ingleses or colombianos instead. The Irish Legion became fixed in Colombian historia patria as the very epitome of the 'vile mercenaries' whose depredations Bolívar lamented as the bane of his struggle for independence.

The person who originally dreamed up the idea of an Irish crusade for liberty in Catholic Spanish America, John Devereux, did indeed profit considerably from the expeditions. This was despite the rebellion at Riohacha at which Devereux was not present, since he was still leading the recruitment drive in Europe, and the ridicule to which he was subjected in Colombia throughout the early 1820s. Devereux returned to Bogotá in 1840 after an absence of almost two decades and, perhaps surprisingly, was welcomed with open arms by other veterans of the Wars of Independence. [15]


Matthew Brown
Lecturer in Latin American Studies
Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies (University of Bristol, UK)


This article draws on research financed by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, the Graduate School of University College London, and a Jean Monnet Fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.

Note of the Editor

Matthew Brown's Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations in Gran Colombia will be published by Liverpool University Press later this year. In 2005 the Museo Nacional de Colombia published Militares extranjeros en la independencia de Colombia: Nuevas perspectivas, co-edited with Martín Alonso Roa Celis.

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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