topic Admiral William Brown and the British Connection
in the early nineteenth-century movement for independence
in Latin America is really about if William Brown, and
all the other British names, and names that were not British
like José de San Martín in Argentina and Simón Bolivar
in Venezuela, were agents of the British crown in the
war between dissident local Creole elites in favor of
independence against royalists loyal to the Spanish crown
and the old colonial order.
the question is: To what extent was Great Britain linked
to this movement for independence?
I include William Brown in the British connection, I am
simply stating a fact since all Irishmen and women were
legally British at the time. And this simple statement
of fact is borne out on the monument to the admiral Brown
in La Recoleta cemetery that states that he was… “English
does not mean that he was not Irish, he was of course,
and in an article I wrote about him in Spanish in April
1998 for El Arca (Nº37) I suggested to the Federation
of Irish Argentine Societies, an umbrella group for the
different associations of Argentines of Irish descent
that are to be found mostly in Buenos Aires City and Province,
that something should be done to clarify the changes that
had taken place in the British-Irish relation between
1777 and 1998.
suggestion was never acted on, so it still stands and
there is a need for it because many historians still refer
to Brown as British, which -- as I have already said --
he was, but he was -- as I have also already said -- Irish
too, and I thought a little plaque with a few historical
facts would do the trick and set the record aright for
historians, with whom the admiral is very popular, and
for tourists, with whom La Recoleta cemetery is very popular.
I would not expect a group of British engineers to be
over familiar with the life of an Irish-born Argentine
patriot, who was of English origin, let me first try to
say who Brown was before I try to say what he was.
give great importance to the phrase “try to say” because
it has to be stated very clearly from the outset that
not too much is known about his personal life and everything
that is being written about him is a rehash of what has
already been written. So no matter what you read, you
are simply getting a new version of an old story.
to this is the fact that he is not only a national hero,
but also a Latin American national hero and there is a
great tendency in Latin America -- perhaps it exists in
other countries too, but as I do not know them I cannot
affirm it -- to endow these people, these national heroes,
with an aura of greatness, which they may very well have
had or which they may very well not have had, but in either
case, it does not help to understand them as real persons
or to understand the lives they really lived.
aura of greatness clouds out historical truth in sanctimoniousness,
service, and self-sacrifice. The object of analysis has
become a God and all conclusions have to remain with the
tenets of that’s God’s doctrine. Anyone who strays outside
that doctrine is a heretic of the worst ilk.
we can say “Brown was by all accounts,” and here I am
quoting from an article I wrote for the Buenos Aires
Herald for St. Patrick’s Day 1998 -- that was my Brown
year-- “an intensely private man even after he had become
a very well known public figure. This was quite an achievement
when it is said that the people of this City loved him
and often waited for him to disembark where his monument
is today -- Leandro N. Alem and Cangallo -- to carry him
shoulder high through the nearby streets to celebrate
have the following to say about his background: William
Brown was born on 22 June 1777 in Foxford, Co. Mayo, 140
miles west of Dublin, in Ireland.
now something curious arises about Brown’s identity and
it arises in Irish-Argentine writings and the fact is
that he may not have been William Brown at all. He may
have been William Someone else!
Santiago Ussher, the well known and highly respected Irish
Argentine ecclesiastical historian, writes in his 1954
book “The Irish Chaplains in the Hiberno-Argentine Collectivity
during the nineteenth century” that an Irish-born priest,
Father Michael Gannon, was related to William Brown. So
far so good but a curious thing is that Ussher consigns
Gannon into oblivion with only six lines. Now, this is
not Ussher’s style. He is a hagiographer in the finest,
truest, purest Roman Catholic fashion. He lays it on thick
when he can and when he has to flee, he flies.
Hudson in his recent book, “Admiral William Brown, Master
of the River Plate,” confirms that Brown had an uncle
a priest, but having a relative a priest is hardly worthy
of note and much less so in the case of the eighteenth
and nineteenth and even twentieth century Irish. It was
so common it even became part of the Percy French song,
‘The Emigrant’s Letter’…“and her brother a priest.”
an Argentine historian -- Maria Teresa Julianello -- threw
some light on the priest when she wrote in an essay titled
“The Scarlet Trinity” that this Fr. Michael Gannon was
none other than the man of God who turned the unfortunate
and pregnant 20-year-old Camila O’Gorman and her 24-year-old
priest lover and father of her unborn child, Ladislao
Gutierrez, over to the police in Corrientes in 1848, the
police handed the lovers over to the feared Mazorca, and
a terrible crime was committed when the lovers and their
unborn child were executed by firing squad. Julianello
simply states the facts. She makes no value judgment.
But then, Julianello is, after all, a historian and they
take no license with words.
the late, well known Argentine writer Enrique Molina in
his 1973 novel “Una Sombra donde sueña Camila O’Gorman”
(for those who don’t understand Spanish that would be
“A Shadow where Camila O’Gorman Dreams”) describes this
Fr. Gannon physically and morally and believe me it is
not a pretty picture. But then Molina is, after all, a
novelist and a poet and they do take license with words.
picture however that Molina paints of Gannon would fit
in with what Mgr. Ussher wrote about this particular man
of god, and I put God in lower case on purpose: Ussher
only says that Gannon: “ministered in Buenos Aires for
aints of Gannon would fit
in with what Mgr. Ussher wrote about this particular man
of god, and I put God in lower case on purpose: Ussher
only says that Gannon: “ministered in Buenos Aires for
two or three years, went to Corrientes and is thought
to have died there.” Ussher’s comments, or his lack of
comments rather, are -- I think -- an example of a Roman
Catholic priest practicing the charity he preaches.
this Brown-Gannon connection had nothing to do with the
admiral’s life until an email appeared in an Irish-Argentine
www.irlandeses.com.ar mail box in April 2003 from
a John Hutton in Australia of all places and it reads
in reference to my Buenos Aires Herald article,
which the website had reproduced:
read the recent article on Admiral Brown's family with
much interest as my wife is descended from the admiral's
younger brother Michael, a Master in the Royal Navy. My
father-in-law spent several years of his retirement attempting
to find details of the admiral's parents and he discovered
that William Brown’s mother was a Brown from Sligo, Ireland,
and his father was a Gannon and that their three sons
took the mother's name.”
corresponded with Hutton and he knew nothing about Julianello
or Molina’s work.
explained the Brown-Gannon connection and although it
does cast doubt on the admiral’s real surname, he may
have been William Gannon and not William Brown, it does
not change the course of events in his life. Nevertheless,
we still know very little, almost nothing about those
events prior to his arriving in Argentina and I think
it is true to say and safe to affirm that when nothing
is made public, it is not that there is nothing to make
public, but that there are things NOT to make public.
official story is that he was a poor peasant’s son, and
then there are the variations.
Mulhall says in his book “The English in South America”
that Brown’s father “was a small farmer;” the well known
English historian, David Rock, says in his book “Argentina
1516-1987” that Brown was “an Irish-born deserter from
the British navy, who arrived in Buenos Aires a penniless
fugitive and immortalized himself during the siege of
Montevideo.” Andrew Graham-Yooll says in his book, “The
Forgotten Colony” that “William Brown was a fortune hunter
who decided to settle in trade in the River Plate and
as Admiral Guillermo Brown became an Argentine national
hero and the star of the Irish community.” Thomas Hudson
says that Brown’s father worked in the local textile factory
in Foxford and when it closed “abject poverty was staring
the family in the face.” John de Courcy Ireland says in
his book “The Admiral from Mayo” that Brown “may have
been the illegitimate son of an aristocrat and was sent
away to sea at an early age to get him out of the way.”
than that we do not know but John de Courcy Ireland stresses
in his book that “Brown never spoke or wrote about his
father or mother in Argentina and never referred to his
early life in Ireland. Why should this be so?,” De Courcy
Ireland asks but does not answer the question.
let me give my opinion:
theory is that there was a skeleton in the Brown cupboard,
a considerably big one, and it was related to the Gannons
and this was why William Brown took his mother’s name.
I also imagine on the basis of the De Courcy Ireland book
that the skeleton was related to illegitimate birth and
that the story is apocryphal of going to Philadelphia
where his father died and left the boy a 10-year-old orphan
to be taken on board a ship as a cabin boy by a kind old
sea captain, “who was,” in Michael Mulhall’s words, “impressed
by the intelligent look of the Irish orphan.”
cannot be at all easy to look intelligent when you are
an abandoned 10-year-old child on a foreign port just
after your father has died and your mother, brothers,
sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends are three
thousands miles away “across the wild and roaring Atlantic,”
which in those days took three to four months to cross.
whether he was Gannon or Brown, a “peasant boy,” “a penniless,
fugitive deserter,” a “fortune hunter,” or an “illegitimate
son” is beside the point and the fact is that “in 1812
he brought his wife and two babies to settle in Buenos
Aires and he never left it. What happened afterwards is,
and I hate to repeat the saying, history. What happened
before is only of anecdotal interest to fill out the gaps
left in his life.
that we do not know who he was, let us what was he?
historians agree that by the time Brown got to Buenos
Aires he was a master mariner, who had learned the art
of war in the best school of all, the Royal Navy, in the
days when Britannia ruled the waves.
have no doubt whatsoever that Brown was a Royal Navy graduate
and I wrote in my 1998 article for the Buenos Aires
Herald that the then president of the Instituto Browniano,
retired Rear Admiral Horacio Rodríguez, told me in an
interview that Brown hoisted a Royal Navy ensign on his
top mast every time he sailed into battle. This revelation
prompted a letter to the newspaper and a denial by the
rear admiral that he had said this in the first place
but the paper never rectified the comment because it was
on tape and it was soon consigned to oblivion.
Brown did or did not fly that flag, and if you speak to
Anglo-Argentines today they will go further and tell you
Brown flew a Union Jack in battle, look at it from Brown’s
point of view as he rode the river and the seas. Wouldn’t
it have been a good idea to fly a Royal Navy ensign or
better still a Union Jack and on the top mast, where it
could be well seen from afar through a telescope. Would
that flag not have deterred all but the strongest opponents?
Was that not the very purpose of a flag?
agree too that Brown founded the Argentine navy, took
part in the wars of independence for Argentina, Chile,
and Peru, sailed the Horn, the Pacific and Atlantic coasts,
and helped himself to whatever he thought he could capture
and carry. To put it bluntly, William Brown was a pirate.
To put it politely, he was a privateer. To put it in between,
he was a freebooter or a buccaneer.
matter how it is put, he was a master mariner by the time
he was thirty and had sailed the seven seas, not for pleasure
but for pillage, plunder, and pounds. That means he was
more at home on the deck of warship than in his own living
room and the thick of battle on the waves was his natural
environment. He could and did take on and acquit himself
against all opponents in many scenarios.
William Brown was a man not to be crossed, unless at your
peril and without giving any spin of romanticism to his
life and deeds, historians agree that he was fearless
to the point of rashness and capable of anything on board
a warship before, in, or after battle.
story is told about him by Thomas Murray in his book “The
Story of the Irish in Argentina” and I quote that “one
day the great Supremo, Juan Manuel de Rosas, the dictator
or the Restorer of the Laws, according to whatever side
of his fence you were on, decided to visit and to inspect
the fleet, which was at anchor in port. The inspection
was made with all pomp and ceremony and once the formalities
were finished, a banquet on the flag ship followed. The
order of precedence was all arranged and the solemn master
of ceremonies stood watchful to see it fulfilled. Admiral
William Brown proceeded sternly in full uniform to the
place of honor, and silently took his seat. The master
of ceremonies and all present, save Don Manuel and the
Admiral, experienced something like a current of severe
electric shock. The official in charge quickly, and with
the grace of such functionaries, sought to correct Brown,
tactfully reminding him that the head of the feast was
the place for the great Supremo. Brown answered coldly
and slowly in his monosyllabic Spanish that “whatever
Don Juan Manuel de Rosas might be on land, he, William
Brown, was master of his vessels and would sit at the
Replica of Brown's home in Barracas.
lived the rest of his life peacefully as a grocer and
a breeder of horses -- Graham Yooll -- and he is said
to have spent many an evening on the porch of his Casa
Amarilla residence in what is La Boca today enjoying the
breeze from the Plate and watching the comings and goings
of vessels whose every creak, cranny, and cannon he knew
question now is why a man like William Brown decided to
come to Buenos Aires in the first place and I think the
answer is in the essay written by the Ulster historian
Peter Pyne and published in 1996 by the University of
Liverpool titled: “The Irish Dimension of the Invasions
of Buenos Aires, 1806 and 1807 .”
says that “the purpose of the first British invasion was
to seize one and a half million dollars in bullion, which
the viceroy had assembled here for shipment to Spain.
The British duly took it and shipped it to Great Britain.
As this treasure was being conveyed from Tilbury through
the streets of London in wagons drawn by 6 horses each
to the Bank of England, the thoroughfares rang with cheers
for British Generals Popham and Beresford, and the people
really believed that the River Plate was the El Dorado
so long sought for by Walter Raleigh.”
commercial implications of so much gold in the River Plate
-- 20 million dollars a year was the calculation -- was
not lost on anyone in power in London and this was what
spurred William Brown, who was then a young and hardy
seadog, to jump the gun and to start trading to the River
Plate from the time of the British invasions.
was coming here from 1807 on and he wasn’t bringing in
British beef and bacon. He was obviously running arms
and munitions to the patriots on both sides of the River
and to Spaniards and the Portuguese and the French and
the Brazilians and to whoever else wanted them and could
pay for them. He was a privateer and he was in the business
to turn a buck.
was so impressed with the River Plate that he moved here
definitively in 1812. At about the same time the British
government had also made up its mind in fits and starts
not to colonize Latin America but to promote its independence
and thus deprive Spain of the resources it received from
the viceroyalty and open it up to British trade, which
needed alternative outlets for the European markets it
was losing through Napoleon’s continental blockade.
movements were soon successfully under way and the amount
of British names that took part in them is incredible.
The British invasions had left at least a 1,000 deserters
or prisoners in different parts of Argentina and it is
to be supposed that most of these joined José de San Martín’s
Army of the Andes because the local male population, according
to Peter Pyle, “seemed to have no pursuit and no visible
means of support other than stealing.”
rest of San Martin’s top men came from abroad and we are
led to believe that they came here by chance. No. I don’t
believe that. They were not only good, they were the best
and you don’t find the best men or women by chance anywhere,
anytime. They are found only by design.
José de San Martín was their leader and he came to Buenos
Aires in March 1812 on a British vessel -- very aptly
named Canning -- to offer his services to the government.
In an extraordinary coincidence he was accepted. Have
you tried offering your services to a government lately?
You usually have to have some very good letters of recommendation,
first to be interviewed and then to be accepted. San Martín
had those recommendations. His story is well known but
his British connection has still to be clarified.
John Thomond O’Brien was one of these men. He was born
in Wicklow, Ireland, in June 1786 and according to the
recently deceased historian, Emilio Manuel Fernandez Gomez,
arrived in Argentina in 1812. He became San Martin’s aide-de-camp
in the Army of the Andes on that memorable trip across
the cordillera, which is comparable in military terms
only to Hannibal’s crossing the Alps. After the war, he
became a very successful businessman and diplomat in….London.
John Thomond O’Brien’s story has still to be told.
William Miller was another such man. He was born in Kent,
England, in December 1795 and he arrived in Argentina
in 1817 to join the Army of the Andes. Miller was an artillery
officer who learned his trade on the killing fields of
Europe in no better school than in Wellington’s army in
the war against Napoleon and on the plains of America
in the war of 1812. He was an artillery man without parallel.
He knew how to calibrate and train guns. He was some man
to find by chance, just exactly when you needed him, and
when San Martín withdrew to return to Europe, Miller remained
to serve under Bolivar. His brilliant career is well told
by Thomas Hudson in his book “The Honorable Warrior.”
Thomas Cochrane was another of these men. He was born
in Scotland in December 1775. He arrived in Latin America
in 1818 to serve in the Chilean and Brazilian navies.
Cochrane was always a controversial figure but nobody
would deny he was an extremely capable and intrepid sailor
in the best British tradition.
were so many of these men from Venezuela -- the immensely
famous Daniel O’Leary who rode the mountains and valleys
alongside the great Bolívar -- through Peru, Brazil, and
Chile to Argentina that it would be impossible to name
them all, but the fact is that they were there when they
were needed and there is no record of them ever coming
point I want to make is that these men did not come here
by chance. They came in the service of the British crown
to take part in the liberation of Latin America.
Brown was the only exception to this.
came here on his own steam, in his own interest, and --
as in the case of San Martín -- I find it hard to believe
that Gervasio Posadas asked him to form a war navy on
the strength of his exploits on the River Plate. I think
Brown was recommended to Posadas from far away by people
who already knew him and who knew that he could fit into
their overall plan. These were the same people who sent
José de San Martín to form, command, and lead an army,
the same people who told William Miller to pack his bags
and go to South America for a little bit of target practice.
was no William Brown in Santiago and so Cochrane had to
be brought in. What did Brown and Cochrane have in common?
A lot. A whole lot: Master mariners, expert sailors, veritable
sea dogs, unflinching men of war, and, and, and freemasons.
Yes, this distinguished band of military and naval officers
were freemasons to a man.
of these men were key players in the Latin American independence
movement. The British did not want to defeat the Spanish
in the 1806 and 1807 invasions but they did want them
defeated ten years later and they knew exactly what they
needed to do it. They knew this from the military intelligence
they acquired from the aforementioned invasions and through
more the formal intelligence channels which would have
been open and working well all along.
please that I said the British wanted the Spanish “defeated.”
That is an important point. The British were clear on
a couple of issues which have marked Latin America ever
since and will continue to mark into the foreseeable future.
They wanted Spain defeated and Latin America divided.
They did not want another United States in South America.
The United States of North America was more than sufficient
thank you very much.
did not want to do the job themselves. So they provided
the military and naval expertise and the financing for
the pincer movement of Bolivar from the north, San Martin
from the south and Brown and Cochrane shelling from the
Pacific. It was a perfect pincer and is, I am told, studied
to this day in military academies. A brilliant piece of
military strategy perfectly planned and perfectly executed
by brilliant military and naval commanders.
was a perfect day’s work and the development of Argentina
over the next 120 years is ample proof that Great Britain
was behind the liberation movement, not for political
but for industrial reasons.
British investment began to pour in to certain pre-selected
Latin American countries and one of them -- Argentina
-- became a British colony in everything but name and
-- in the words of David Parsons -- the second biggest
jewel -- after India -- in the British crown.
lit and fanned the fires of independence in Latin America,
it supplied the men, the munitions, and most importantly
of all, the money to do the job. William Brown was the
only top man Whitehall did not bring in to lead the movement,
it was, as I have already said, not necessary, he was
often wonder what he felt as he looked in his old age
at that river on which he had known victory and defeat
and into which his own daughter had walked to her death?
What thoughts ran through the head of the man who was
always lived beside the sea from the Killala Bay he was
born beside to the River Plate he lived and died beside?
his eulogy at Brown’s funeral, Bartolomé Mitre said: “If
some day, new dangers threaten the shores of our Argentine
fatherland and we should find ourselves obliged to confide
to our floating timbers the banners of May, the conquering
breath of the old admiral will swell our sails, his ghost
will grab our helm in the midst of the tempest and his
warlike figure will be seen to stand on the top deck of
our ships guiding us through the thick of the cannon smoke
and the din of the grappling shouts.”
Mitre’s words did not come true and just as curiously
the occasion when they did not come true was when the
Union Jack sailed the South Atlantic again in 1982. Would
Brown have raised anchor to fight the Royal Navy?
really do not know. After all, he was Irish by birth,
British by origin, and Argentine by adoption. I really
do not know.
I do know and I think you will agree that Admiral William
Brown served his native land or lands and his adopted
land equally well but at the end of the day we can truly
say in answer to the question whose agent was he that
he was very much his own man. There are men, an women,
not many of them though, who map their own course through
life. William Brown was one of them.
Brown served William Brown.