Dictionary of Irish Latin American Biography

English, James Towers (1782-1819), commander of the British Legion in the South American wars of independence, was born near Dublin on 22 February 1782. His father, who died when James was only eleven years old, was a merchant, and his mother the daughter of the local Protestant minister. He received a solid classical education and on reaching adulthood went into business. English supplied horses to the British Army as an independent contractor until his company went bankrupt, and then found employment in the Commissariat as a clerk. It was the connections that he built up during these years (the period of the Napoleonic Wars) that finally led him to raise and command a mercenary force in Venezuela .

On 14 May 1817, the Irishman offered his services to López Méndez, Bolívar's representative in London . He lied about his past and claimed to have been a Lieutenant in the 18th Light Dragoons. He was given a Captaincy in Colonel Gustavus Hippisley's '1st Hussars' and sailed for South America in December 1817. English rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel during the voyage across the Atlantic , a meteoric rise if one considers that he was in the company of many hardened veterans.

The mercenary ship made its way to Grenada ( British West Indies ) but its captain refused to go any further. There was no sign of any Patriot representatives and the presence of Spanish naval forces rendered the approaches to the mainland extremely dangerous. Unable to secure transport to the continent for his entire regiment, Hippisley decided to send English and several others to Angostura in a small schooner, the Liberty , to ask for orders from Bolívar. The Irishman succeeded in reaching the rebel capital after a hazardous journey through the Caribbean and up the Orinoco but could not get any help. Hippisley and his troops eventually reached the Llanos without recourse to any arrangements made by English or the Venezuelans.

From Angostura, English went to the front, where he joined Bolívar. He was attached to the General's personal staff and fought by his side at the battle of Ortiz, 26 March 1818. He distinguished himself and as a reward for his bravery in the field was promoted to the rank of full Colonel and appointed second-in-command of the Guard of Honour led by James Rooke, a unit entirely composed of Britons. During the battle, General Páez was seized by an epileptic fit and brought to safety but nobody dared to approach him. English, who, having arrived recently in the country, did not know of the fearful reputation of the 'Llanero', stepped in and gave him some water. When Páez recovered, he presented the Irishman with his famous lance. The future General English is shown holding this weapon in the official portrait that he later commissioned of himself.

In May 1818, English signed a contract with the Patriot government in which he was promised a General's commission if he succeeded in recruiting and equipping a British force of 1,000 men. He sailed for London in the first week of June and in the following months sent between 1,000 and 2,000 mercenaries to South America in separate detachments of 100-200 soldiers. The mercenaries hired by English were promised very favourable conditions of service: pay would be one third higher than in the British Army and there would be grants of land and money at the end of the war. However, the Irishman knew that the promises he was making would not be honoured because he himself had fought in Venezuela and had personal experience of the true conditions in that country. He deliberately deceived one thousand people and brought them to a tropical hell. Moreover, he did not do this for any Patriotic or ideological reasons. He did it to advance his own career in South America and to obtain the rank of General that Bolívar had promised him.

English left the British Isles on 25 February 1819 and arrived on Margarita Island in mid-April, where he was duly confirmed in his new rank of Brigadier General. Strategically located, this island was the meeting point for most of the volunteers coming from Europe , including the different detachments sent by English in the preceding weeks. English was put in command of all the foreign mercenaries, but he was subordinated to Venezuelan General Rafael Urdaneta, who had been sent to the island from Angostura with instructions to organise an army and lead an expedition against the mainland. Unfortunately, many volunteers perished of illness during their stay at Margarita and never reached the battlefields.

Urdaneta and his army left for the mainland on 15 July 1819 and, after taking the fortress of El Morro by storm, entered Barcelona unopposed. The mercenaries then proceeded to loot the city and consume all the alcohol they could lay their hands on. Urdaneta later said that the section of the town occupied by the British looked like a battlefield after a defeat. The mercenaries' orders were to link up with the army of General Bermudez but this column was nowhere to be seen. Urdaneta waited in Barcelona for fourteen days and, seeing that the idle soldiers of fortune were becoming unmanageable, had no choice but to press on towards Maturín knowing that he might not have enough troops to capture that city.

The mercenaries attempted to storm Maturín on 7 August 1819 but failed after suffering grievous losses. Their assault against Fort Agua Santa, the key to the city's defences, was one of the bloodiest battles fought by British mercenaries during the entire war and they shed a great deal of blood before accepting defeat. That much is beyond dispute but, as in many lost battles, there are different versions that place the blame on different commanders. One of them is that Urdaneta ordered the attack himself against the wishes of General English, who due to cowardice remained at the rear citing an illness which he did not suffer. According to another version, Urdaneta realised that Cumaná's defences were formidable and decided to march into the interior without attacking. General English then warned him that the mercenaries would mutiny if this course of action were followed. Urdaneta authorised the British commander to storm the town, as long as the Irishman assumed complete responsibility and led the operation himself. The mercenary was reluctant to do so but his officers finally forced him to attack. In this account, General English also stayed at the rear (ill or pretending to be ill) and did not fight in the battle. The fact that the mercenary leader died of disease soon after his return to Margarita Island suggests that his health complaint might have been real but does not guarantee it.

The men blamed the already unpopular General English for the disaster and the fact that he had remained at the rear was neither forgotten nor forgiven. It became clear that he was a disgraced man and that the mercenaries would no longer obey him. He was replaced by Colonel Blossett and Urdaneta granted him permission to return to Margarita.

Urdaneta then chose what he thought was the lesser of two evils. Instead of re-embarking his troops and setting sail for Margarita, he decided to march into the interior, towards Maturín. After a 'Death March', the mercenaries reached this destination and later the survivors joined the British Legion which fought with distinction at Carabobo (1821).

Eighty soldiers of fortune were either sick or wounded and embarked with General English for Margarita. The Irishman died of illness soon after his return, on 26 September 1819, on the same day that the Irish Legion under Colonel Aylmer arrived on the island. Some believed that it was not the tropics but the defeat at Cumaná that killed English. According to Hasbrouck, 'the disgrace and shame so weighed on his mind that he is said to have died of remorse'. He had proved an effective recruiter but a disappointing commander. He is buried in the town of Juan Griego , on Margarita Island , where a modest memorial built in his honour still stands.

There can be no doubt that General Urdaneta's operations along the Venezuelan coast were a complete disaster, particularly for the men who took part in them. Cumaná was not taken and Barcelona could not be held for long. The casualty rate was extremely high and the units involved were virtually annihilated. Nevertheless, the key objective of the campaign was to tie up a maximum number of Spanish forces in Venezuela and thus facilitate Bolívar's offensive against central New Granada via the Casanare Llanos. In this, the mercenaries succeeded. Their blood paid for a diversion which contributed significantly to the Patriot victories in Vargas and Boyaca. Hasbrouck concludes that 'the services of the British Legion under Generals English and Urdaneta [...] must be credited with rendering material assistance to Bolívar in his campaign of 1819'. Their blood had not been shed in vain.


Moises Enrique Rodríguez


- Hasbrouck, Alfred. Foreign Legionnaires in the Liberation of Spanish South America (Columbia University Press: New York, 1928).

- Lambert, Eric. Voluntarios Británicos e Irlandeses en la Gesta Bolivariana (Caracas: Ministerio de Defensa, 1980 and 1993), 3 vols.

- Rodríguez, Moises-Enrique. Freedom's Mercenaries: British Volunteers in the Wars of Independence of Latin America (Lanham MD: Hamilton Books, University Press of America, 2006), 2 vols.

Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies

Online published: 15 March 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Rodríguez, Moises Enrique, '
English, James Towers (1782-1819)' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" (


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2005

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