Dictionary of Irish Latin American Biography

Johnston, John (d.1832), Irish soldier in the South American wars of independence. Nothing is known about his early years apart from the fact that he was very probably an Irishman. After service in the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars, in 1817 Johnston joined Colonel Skeene 's '2nd Regiment of Hussars of Venezuela ', a unit of 150-200 mercenaries hired by Luis López Méndez, Simón Bolívar's representative in London .

The Hussars set sail for South America on board the Indian (Captain Davidson) but never made it to the battlefields of the New World . On 8 December 1817, a gale threw the ship against the cliffs off Ushant in northern France and destroyed it. According to Hasbrouck and other sources, only five men survived. According to Lambert , everybody drowned and the fortunate survivors were men who for a variety of reasons had missed the ship and had been left behind in Britain . Among them was John Johnston.

After the disaster, Johnston enlisted in the '2nd Hussars' under Captain James Farrar , one of the contingents recruited by Colonel George Elsom , and finally made it to Venezuela in early 1819. He took part in the war in the Llanos and , as a member of the British Legion under Colonel James Rooke, in the battle of Pantano de Vargas where his unit was awarded the 'Order of the Liberators', one of the rare occasions during the war when this decoration was bestowed upon an entire unit. He next fought at Boyacá, where he was seriously wounded. Although he was incapacitated for several months after this feat of arms, he recovered in time to serve with distinction in the campaigns of southern Colombia and Ecuador .

In late 1819, the survivors of the British Legion became the backbone of the ' Albion ' battalion, a mixed Anglo-Colombian unit commanded by British officers. It was led by Colonel John Mackintosh and had Lieutenant-Colonel Johnston as second-in-command. In 1820-1822, the Irishman and his comrades fought in the battles of La Plata , Pitayó, Puente de Mayo, Juanambú /Jenoy, Yaguachi, Huachi, Riobamba and Pichincha.

Johnston commanded the 'Albions' for several months in 1821, when Mackintosh and three other officers left to train the new ' Santander ' battalion. With Johnston in charge of the 'Albion' and Mackintosh at the head of the ' Santander ', General Antonio José de Sucre defeated the Spaniards at Yaguachi. Unfortunately, the pendulum swung and the Patriots suffered a major defeat at Huachi soon afterwards. Sucre 's forces were virtually annihilated and both Mackintosh and Johnston were wounded and captured. The former managed to escape but the latter only recovered his freedom after an exchange of prisoners.

After the disaster at Huachi, the ' Santander ' disappeared as a coherent unit and Mackintosh returned to a reconstituted ' Albion ', with Johnson again as his deputy. It was in this capacity that the Irishman fought in the battles of Riobamba and Pichincha where his battalion, carrying the ammunition, arrived in the nick of time and turned defeat into victory.

Pichincha sealed the liberation of Ecuador and was Johnston 's (and the Albion 's) last battle. Most officers took leave of absence in 1822 and the unit was disbanded in early 1823. It did not take part in the war in Peru , the last campaign of the Wars of Independence.

Nothing is known concerning Johnston 's whereabouts in the next few years. He might have returned to Europe on leave, as many of his fellow officers did, and then decided to go back to South America after finding no prospects at home. We next encounter him in 1831, when he was put in command of a new 'Rifles' battalion (the original unit of that name had been disbanded in Venezuela in 1830). Unfortunately, he only retained this appointment until the end of the year. In 1832, he was removed from the army list because of his Bolivarian sympathies and his support for the dictatorship of General Urdaneta and had to leave the country. He died in Panama , en route to England .

As far as decorations are concerned, Johnston was awarded the Boyacá and Pichincha crosses. As a member of the British Legion at Vargas, he was also decorated with the Order of the Liberators when this medal was bestowed upon his entire unit.

The following anecdote gives an indication of his character. In the early days in the Llanos , the British volunteers found that a great deal of their clothing and equipment was unsuitable for the tropics and saw it fall apart in a matter of weeks. Much of what remained had to be sold to the local Patriots in exchange for food and other essentials, as a result of which the mercenaries often went naked and barefoot. At some stage, Johnston was the only Briton who still had a pair of boots. Embarrassed, he threw them into a river in order to share the hardships of his comrades. Lambert says that this happened during the march across the Llanos in 1819 and that the river was the Arauca , though the incident is told differently in other sources and the officer concerned is not always mentioned by name.


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, '
Johnston, John (d.1832)' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" (


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2005

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