William Duane and his 'Visit to Colombia' of 1823

By David Barnwell


The neatness of their silk shoes, and the saucy breeze ascending from the adjacent river displaying more of their silk stockings than they seemed to intend, could not but attract the eye of the traveller sauntering along, and he must be a stoic who could not afford a smile on passing the pleasant disorder of the pretty señoritas.

William Duane (1760 - 1835)
by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, 1802
(National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

A Brief Biography

William Duane was born in 1760. According to his own account, the birth occurred in New York State, though there is evidence that he was in fact born in Newfoundland, a region which was in regular contact with Southeast Ireland during the eighteenth century (Little 2003). [1] Born to Irish Catholic parents, Duane left North America before the Revolution. He was to spend almost three decades outside of North America; first in Ireland, followed by a brief residence in England, and a spell in India. When he returned to the United States, approaching middle age, he faced continual questioning from his political opponents of his right to reside in the country.

Duane’s family returned to Ireland when he was aged about eleven, and settled in Clonmel in County Tipperary. His family appear to have been quite prosperous, but as a young man Duane was disinherited because he married an Anglican woman in Tipperary. Faced with the need to earn a living, he entered the printing trade. Some time later he left Ireland, first for England and thence in 1785 to Calcutta, India. Initially a member of the East India Company’s paramilitary force, he became disenchanted with this employ by the cruelties he witnessed in England’s colonial regime. His opposition to the Raj government led to his deportation back to England. Duane then renounced all ties to the British Empire, and in 1795 returned to the US.

Once in America he quickly became part of the radical political scene in Philadelphia, a setting in which Irishmen were very prominent. Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Ben Franklin, owned the radical newspaper Aurora, the organ of the Democratic Party, and Bache gave Duane his start in newspaper publishing in the US. Bache died in September 1798, in the great yellow fever epidemic which swept the city in that summer, leaving a wife and four children. Duane, whose own wife Catherine Duane had died in the same Philadelphia epidemic, married Bache’s widow. He took full control of the Aurora and was to be associated with the newspaper for decades afterwards (Rosenfeld 1997).

Under Duane’s guidance the Aurora took part in the fierce polemic between Jeffersonians and conservatives that characterised the turn of the eighteenth century. Indeed Thomas Jefferson attributed his election to the presidency in 1800 to Duane’s vigorous support. Duane had been arrested under the Sedition Act for taking part in a violent affray outside Philadelphia’s St. Mary’s Church, but was spared any unpleasant consequences when charges against him were dismissed upon Jefferson’s accession to office. He remained a hate figure to many, and was satirised as a cross between a prototypical Irish-American corrupt politician and an Irish Sancho Panza-type figure, Teague O’Regan, in the serialised novel Modern Chivalry written by Hugh Henry Brackenbridge in the early 1800s. [2] Aside from the newspaper business, Duane derived income from book-selling and publishing. He served for a number of years in the United States Army, attaining promotion to the rank of Adjutant-General during the War of 1812. Afterwards, with the centre of gravity of US politics moving ever more decisively to Washington rather than Philadelphia, and with the decline in the influence of the radical wing of the Democratic party, Duane left the main stage of public life.

Duane and Latin America

Duane spoke what he described as 'rather imperfect Castilian'. It is probable that he was taught by one of the many Latin Americans living in Philadelphia at this time, perhaps by someone like Manuel Torres, who represented the state of Colombia in Philadelphia for many years. An intriguing possibility is that he learnt Spanish from a fellow Irishman, Matthias O’Conway, who was an eminent language teacher in Philadelphia for many years, as well as being Official Interpreter in French and Spanish for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. O’Conway wrote the first Spanish grammar published in the United States (O'Conway 1810) and one of his sons had died fighting for the Republican forces in Venezuela. There is much evidence to suggest that Duane had been acquainted with O’Conway for several decades, therefore it is not entirely speculative to presume that Duane may have sought his help in learning Spanish. It is perhaps worth remarking that Duane, like several Irish-Americans of the time, had an interest in languages, for example in India he had designed different printing types to print the languages of the subcontinent. Apart from Spanish he had a certain command of French, which he utilised to translate documents concerning the Napoleonic Army.

The Aurora had provided unflinching support to the campaigns of South American nations for independence from Spain. As Duane puts it:

Thirty years ago I became acquainted with some of the men of virtue and intellect who were preparing the way for that revolution in South America which is now realized. Those intimacies had, by exciting my sympathies, led me to bestow more earnest attention on the history, geography, and the eventual destiny of those countries.

Duane applied for the position of United States ambassador to the new Colombian republic, but his application was unsuccessful. There is no doubt that radical circles in South America were conscious of the debt they owed to him for his support. Indeed the Congreso General de la Gran Colombia held in 1821 expressed gratitude to William Duane.

The Trip To Colombia

In 1822 Duane closed down the Aurora and embarked on a journey through what is now Colombia and Venezuela. In the company of his daughter Elizabeth and stepson Richard Bache, he set sail from Philadelphia on 2 October 1822 and arrived in Venezuela sixteen days later. He was to remain in South America until late May 1823.

The product of the trip was A Visit to Colombia. [3] The book details Duane’s rather leisurely trip from Caracas to Cartagena de Indias, via Bogotá. It appears that he had been sent to South America to recoup a business debt, 'on behalf of persons in the United States having claims against the government, of which other agents had not procured the liquidation.' He managed to conclude the business successfully, but on his return to Philadelphia those who had employed him 'contrived to cheat me out of my commissions, a transaction of transcendent knavery, meanness and ingratitude.' The business purpose of the trip is never alluded to in the body of Duane’s book, instead A Visit to Colombia concentrates on observations on the places Duane passed through and the people he encountered. The book also contains verbose descriptions of the flora of Colombia, though rarely of the fauna except the mules. Duane provides some interesting observations about contemporary social conditions and politics in Gran Colombia. Comprising a number of extended digressions such as a disquisition on trees, or a quite prolix examination of the Colombian economy and constitution, this quite weighty tome clocks in at some 600 pages in all.

The book does require some editing, at least for the modern taste, but even as it stands it offers a variety of interesting aspects to the patient reader.

By the time of writing, the 1820s, knowledge of Latin America was still quite sketchy among its northern neighbours, and Duane saw one of his tasks as drawing up descriptions and taxonomies of what he had seen. Hence for example a long description of the banana, a fruit hitherto rarely encountered North America:

The banana is a sweet luscious fruit, and when ripe is superior in richness to the fig. It is of the consistency of a soft butter pear, but without acid. The fruit is not produced single like the apple, flowering on detached branches or single stalks, but in bunches, side by side.



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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 March 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Barnwell, David, '
William Duane and his Visit to Colombia of 1823' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 2006. Available online (, accessed .


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