William Duane and his 'Visit to Colombia' of 1823

By David Barnwell



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A striking aspect to Duane’s journey is the relatively comfortable conditions he enjoyed while undertaking it. Generally he followed the Caminos Reales road system that had been developed by the Spaniards centuries earlier. He had prepared well for the trip, and brought with him a large number of letters of introduction to people he was to meet along the route. His record of support for the independence struggle opened many doors and ensured that his venture went off without the major disasters one might have feared in such an arduous undertaking in South America during the 1820s. He encounters no major difficulties until page 240 of the book, and even then it is not a critical problem, merely an uncooperative alcalde (mayor) who had to be coaxed into providing food and shelter for the Duane party. On the matter of food, on no occasion during his trip did Duane go hungry, as he tells it, and very often he was provided with lavish cuisine:

A spacious table was soon covered with a fine damask cloth, and salvers of the most delicious fruit, light wines and a service of chocolate with hot rolls of as good a quality and as well made and baked as we could have had in Philadelphia. Eggs and butter and sweetmeats and a handsome case of liqueurs covered the board [...] our appetites were good, and our host and hostess perfectly delightful, and appeared to enjoy our familiarity without reserve.

Similarly sumptuous preparations were made for the following day’s trek:

We took the opportunity to lay up in some baskets, arepa bread, rice, sweet bananas, some raspadura or cakes of sugar, bottles of fresh milk, a small basket of limes, plenty of young onions, a dozen live fowls, and closing our evening with chocolate and arepas we were in our hammocks before nine o’clock.

In Bogotá Duane met John Devereux, the organiser and rear commander of the Irish Legion that fought with Bolívar. Devereux introduced Duane to one of the monks in Bogotá’s Franciscan monastery. Duane was 'not a little surprised to be accosted in the English language, ornamented with a very genteel brogue.' He met with this 'Irish friar' on a number of occasions; a somewhat unlikely pair. The principal topic of their conversations appears to have been the monk’s lamenting of the bad effects on society and morals of the recent revolution.

In Valencia, Venezuela Duane fell down a staircase and was attended to by an Irish doctor, William Murphy of Sligo, a Surgeon in the Republican Army. In Duane’s words: 'as a Catholic and a man of talents, his own country was the last in which he could expect to prosper. Colombia presented to him a field where his qualifications and virtues promised to place him on equal terms with other men of virtue and worth.' Dr. Murphy is mentioned in the work of Eric Lambert, notwithstanding that he gives his first name as Richard. According to Lambert, Murphy stayed on in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, where he offered his services to the city's poor and had a statue erected in his honour at the Hospital de la Caridad. [4] Incidentally, Murphy was not the only Irish doctor whom Duane encountered; he mentions another Sligo native, Dr. Mullery.

At a place called Serinza Duane came across Colonel Lyster, who, like John Devereux, was from County Wexford:

We had not advanced quite to the town when we recognized some officers in the Colombian uniform, dashing towards us in the desperate style of riding so common in Colombia. It was Colonel Lyster and five other officers of the Irish Legion, on their way to join the army under Urdaneta [...Lyster ] had served in the British Army in Spain, and with the experience of that war had acquired the fluent use of the Castilian language. [...] I was gratified at meeting him in the bosom of the Andes, as if we had both been on the banks of the Barrow.

Duane was not a particularly astute or subtle student of human nature, but there are occasional fine descriptive vignettes, such as his portrait of an old man selling milk in the mountains, or an extended depiction of the tragic figure of a widow whose husband had died in the Revolution. As has been noted in the case of his enjoyment of fine food, Duane was something of a bon viveur. At the time of his journey he was approaching his mid-sixties, yet he maintained an eye for the many good-looking women he encountered along his route. For example at Santa Rosa, a place of 'industry, activity and opulence', he came across a group of young women by a stream:

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. And it would be a miracle if the young ladies did not laugh too on seeing, by the stranger’s significant leer, that their confusion was understood and noted.

There are few records of Duane after his return to the United States, though we know that he was appointed prothonotary (First Officer) of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for the eastern district, an office which he retained until his death in 1835. He remained loyal to the country of his youth and family. In 1827, he was involved in collecting money for a Robert Emmet memorial in New York City and delivered the eulogy of the patriot. It is worth mentioning that his stepson, Richard Bache, also seized the opportunity to write about the trip, publishing his account in 1827 (Bache 1827).



Despite the fact that Irish people travelled and emigrated to the Americas in their millions, travel writing by the Irish in the Western Hemisphere is scanty. Travellers such as Theobald Wolfe Tone and Lord Edward Fitzgerald left some - often acerbic - observations on what they saw, while in the Irish language there is Mici MacGabhann’s Rotha Mór an tSaoil, (The Big Wheel of Life) set in the Western States and the Klondyke. In Hispanic America, Pedro Alonso O'Crowley’s Idea compendiosa del Reyno de Nueva España, published in the 1770s, is a fascinating if fanciful description of Mexico, while one could perhaps list William Bulfin’s Tales of the Pampas as possessing elements of the travel literature genre. There are undoubtedly a number of others, but to this small canon should definitely be added William Duane’s Visit to Colombia.


[1] In addition to Nigel Little's dissertation, see below the standard biography of Duane by Kim Tousley Phillips.

[2] I am grateful to Prof. Kevin Whelan for this information.

[3] See the full title below.

[4] The late Brian McGinn shared my interest in Duane and provided me with these details on Dr. Murphy. Que Descanse en Paz.



- Little, Nigel, Transoceanic Radical: The Many Identities of William Duane. PhD thesis, 2003. Murdoch University, Australia.

- Phillips, Kim Tousley, William Duane, Radical Journalist in the Age of Jefferson (New York: Garland, 1989). See also Tousley's PhD thesis William Duane, Revolutionary Editor, 1968. University of California, Berkeley.

- Rosenfeld, Richard, American Aurora: a democratic-republican returns: the suppressed history of our nation’s beginnings and the heroic newspaper that tried to report it (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).

- O’Conway, Matthias James, Hispano-Anglo grammar, containing the definitions, structure, inflections, reference, arrangement, concord, government and combination of the various classes of words in the Spanish language (Philadelphia: Printed for Thomas Dobson, 1810).

- Duane, William, A Visit to Colombia, in the Years 1822 & 1823, by Laguayra and Caracas, over the Cordillera to Bogota, and Thence by the Magdalena to Cartagena, by Col. Wm. Duane, of Philadelphia, printed by Thomas H. Palmer, for the Author, 1826.

- Bache, Richard, Notes on Colombia (Philadelphia: Carey & Lea, 1827).



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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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