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Adventurers, Emissaries and Settlers: Ireland and Latin America
27-30 June 2007, National University of Ireland, Galway

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Freedom's mercenaries

Moisés Enrique Rodríguez (Vevey)

Between 1817 and 1825, 10'000 "British" mercenaries, many of them veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, left Europe to join the armies and navies of Bolivar, San Martin and other leaders, who were fighting to liberate their countries from the colonial domination of Spain and Portugal . Very few came back. Most died of tropical diseases or perished in battle and the remainder (several hundreds at most) settled in the new states they had helped to create. "Freedom's Mercenaries" tells their story, which is little known on either side of the Atlantic.


At this time, the term "British" was used to refer not only to Englishmen, Scotsmen and Welshmen but also to Irishmen ... and often "English" or ("Inglés") was a blanket term for anyone coming from the British Isles . In fact, the largest group of "British" volunteers consisted of Irishmen. In his PhD thesis, Dr Matthew Brown studied Bolivar's foreign legions and concluded that the majority of the “British” volunteers in the service of Greater Colombia (53%) were Irishmen. In his own words “ Ireland ’s over-representation is consistent with the high percentage of Irishmen serving in the British Army in this period, but is still the most noteworthy finding.” Interestingly, other military historians believe that Wellington ’s army in the Peninsula was also half-Irish and the Iron Duke had, of course, been born in Dublin , in the midst of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ascendancy. 

This paper is based upon the book "Freedom's Mercenaries", published by the author in 2006.  In the words of a reviewer, Professor Karen Racine of the University of Guelph in Canada : "This book is clearly a labour of love. Moises Enrique Rodríguez describes himself as an engineer who has led a ‘double life.’ He spent almost twenty-five years indulging his passion for history by researching the fascinating and diverse experiences of the 10,000 British volunteers who joined the fight for Spanish American independence between 1817 and 1824. These two volumes are the result of his long-standing interest in the stories of the many adventurers who left their country to cast their lot with the fate of unknown people living in a distant, and very different, land (...) Although it is not entirely true, as Rodríguez claims, that the presence and contribution of these British volunteers has been forgotten, he is correct to note that there have been few attempts to draw together the experiences of Britons in both the northern and southern Spanish American theatres of war, not to mention their contribution to Brazilian independence. To this end, the author has done a great service to scholarship by gathering together the stories of these people and making them available to the English-speaking reader in one monograph (...) Freedom's Mercenaries is based on a multitude of contemporary printed participant accounts, and dozens of secondary books and articles".

As a Colombian educated in Britain , Rodriguez believes that he is able to see events with impartiality. He avoids the hero-worship which might tempt the British or Irish historian but also the misplaced nationalism which might lead the Latin American scholar to minimise the foreign contribution to his/her liberation.

Among other subjects, the paper deals with the Irish legion (including its last contingent, who did not serve - or mutiny! - in the Guajira), the Rifles battalion (led by Arthur Sandes' Irish officers), Bolivar's staff officers (two Irishmen - Daniel O'Leary and William Ferguson - and an Englishman - Belford Hinton Wilson) and Argentina 's Admiral William Brown. It also shows how the three "British Legions" (under English, Rooke and Ferrier) were as Irish as they were British ... or even more so.

Online published: 24 April 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

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