Irish officer in
Dom Pedro's army of imperial Brazil.
ambit of the Brazilian scheme to encourage European immigration,
mercenaries and colonists were recruited in the 1820s in Germany
and Ireland. In 1823 the German governments banned emigration to
Brazil to thwart the enterprises of Gregor von Schäffer, a
colonel in Brazil who had enlisted as many as 2,000 soldiers and
5,000 colonists from the northern and western German regions.
Dom Pedro then turned to Ireland, with equally poor results.
Cotter, an Irish-born colonel in the service of the Brazilian
army, proved as unscrupulous as Schäffer. He was sent to Ireland
in October 1826 and on arrival in Cork he hired between 2,400
and 2,800 Irish farmers with no military experience of any kind.
The number of immigrants who sailed from Cork to Brazil (Rio,
Espírito Santo, and São Paulo) in ten ships totalled 3,169
passengers, comprising 2,450 men, 335 women, 123 young men and
women, and 230 children. Most were army recruits who enlisted
because the contract promised them pay and allowances equal to
one shilling per day plus victuals, as well as a grant of fifty
acres of land after five years of service in the army.
in Rio de Janeiro between December 1827 and January 1828.
Learning that the men would be press-ganged into the Imperial
army and realising that Cotter's promises were a bunch of lies,
they complained to the British ambassador, Robert Gordon, who
lodged a strongly-worded protest but to no avail. Fortunately
the diplomat did not give up and continued to apply pressure on
the Brazilian government on the Irishmen's behalf. This resulted
in minor improvements in their situation and allowed most to
refuse enlistment. Eventually, less than four hundred of them
joined the Imperial army and any plans for creating an Irish
Legion had to be abandoned. Too few to become a separate unit,
the Irishmen were integrated into the Third (German) Battalion
of Grenadiers. They were thus integrated with a band of men who
were equally unhappy with their lot.
Argentina over the 'Banda Oriental' (present-day Uruguay) had
broken out in 1826 but the Irishmen never made it to the front.
In 1827 Argentina and the rebellious province of Banda Oriental
defeated the Brazilian forces. The British mediated the
conclusion of the conflict, and the province became the
independent state of Uruguay. The Irish remained in Rio de
Janeiro on garrison duty, but living conditions were precarious
and many died of diseases. Applications for medicines directed
to the Brazilian officials fell on deaf ears. Doctors Dixon and
Coates of the British Legation provided medicines for the sick,
largely at their own expense.
Africans, - called moleques - who formed the majority of
the population of the Imperial capital, profoundly disliked the
German and Irish mercenaries. As they were themselves the
poorest class of people in Brazil, they took a fiendish delight
in tormenting the Irish at every opportunity, calling them
‘escravos brancos (white slaves)’. There were constant
scuffles and brawls in the streets. The Irish were unarmed, and
when they were attacked by the slaves they had only sticks and
their fists with which to defend themselves.
On 15 March
1828, men, women, and children, 101 families in all of the Cork
emigrants, left Rio on the
for Salvador, a town on the Atlantic coast. They arrived on 28
March and on 3 August settled as farm labourers in Taperoa, near
Valença. For those who remained in Rio, the sorry saga came to
an end when in June 1828 seventy or eighty Irishmen serving in
the Third Grenadier Battalion mutinied. The mutineers took to
the streets, where many Irish civilians swelled their ranks.
Alcohol was flowing freely in a matter of minutes and there was
an orgy of destruction in the centre of Rio, where enslaved
Africans took advantage of the chaos to settle scores with the
hated foreigners. In desperation, the authorities issued arms to
the civilian population, including the slaves. Ferocious street
combat followed and lasted for a whole day and a night.
Eventually, the mutineers withdrew to their barracks. Brazilian
troops were rushed to the capital and the authorities asked the
British and French naval commanders to land sailors and marines
to help them. On 12 and 13 June the rebel barracks were put
under siege. The episode ended in carnage, with as many as 150
soldiers of fortune, both German and Irish, killed during the
Many of the
military and civilian Irish recruited by William Cotter were
repatriated in July 1828 and at least 1,400 of them returned to
Britain and Ireland. The voyage home was organised at the
insistence of Robert Gordon and was paid for by the Brazilian
government. Perhaps as many as four hundred others remained in
Brazil as farmers and eventually settled in the southern
provinces of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul. This leaves
some six hundred Irish immigrants unaccounted for, most of whom
probably met their death in South America.
Dom Pedro blamed the entire incident on the minister for war,
Barbozo, whom he accused of inciting the mutiny and doing
nothing to suppress it. Barbozo was dismissed from office. There
were no further accounts of Colonel William Cotter.
Fernando L.B. Ex-combatientes irlandeses em Taperoa (Rio
de Janeiro, 1971).
Moises Enrique, Freedom's Mercenaries: British Volunteers in
the Wars of Independence of Latin America, unpublished (Vevey,
Eillen A. 'Irish Mercenaries in Nineteenth-Century
Brazil' in Links Between Brazil and Ireland, Available
online (http://gogobrazil.com), cited 28 March 2005.
Allendorfer, Frederic, 'An Irish Regiment
1826-1828' in The Irish Sword Vol. 3
(1957-1958), pp. 28-31.