The Daily Journal (Caracas), 7 July
academic sheds light on foreign volunteers
By Russell Maddicks
Journal had an exclusive interview with Dr. Matthew Brown,
to explore the context of his book “Adventuring the Spanish
Colonies”. Brown is a lecturer in Latin American Studies at the
University of Bristol.
On June 24, 1821, Simón Bolívar
and his fellow patriots took to the plains of Carabobo to fight
the decisive battle in their campaign to free Venezuela from
Spanish rule. The battle itself lasted only a few furious hours
but it would seal the legends of the independence heroes Simón
Bolívar and José Antonio Páez, the “Centaur of the Llanos”.
It was also the last battle for
many patriots, including the valiant Pedro Camejo, better known
as Negro Primero.
But it was the bravery under fire of the British Legion under
the command of Colonel Thomas Ilderton Ferriar that is often
Made up of some 600 volunteers
from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, the British Legion
turned the tide of the battle at a crucial moment, charging the
Spanish lines after Páez’ cavalry were pinned down by artillery.
According to one account, the
British Legion lost 10 officers in as many minutes as they drew
fire from the Spanish in order to give Páez’ Bravos de Apure a
chance to recover. After fighting their way uphill to the
Spanish positions, and out of ammunition, those who had survived
fixed their bayonets and gave the fleeing royalists a taste of
But their victory came at a
price. Accounts differ, but of the 200 recorded losses on the
patriots’ side, the British Legion lost 11 officers and 119 men,
including Ferriar who died trying to regain the company’s colors.
Simón Bolívar was so moved by
their sacrifice that he called them the “saviours of my
So who were the foreign volunteers who traveled so far to fight
alongside Bolívar for Venezuelan independence? The Daily Journal
asked Dr. Matthew Brown, a lecturer in Latin American Studies at
the University of Bristol, to shed some light on the men who
risked their lives in the cause of Venezuelan independence.
Were they romantic idealists
seeking adventure or mercenaries after the spoils of war?
Q: Is it true that the vast majority of the foreign troops
fighting for Bolívar were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars
seeking guns and glory?
A: No, that is not the case. I
cross-referenced the military records in Caracas, Bogotá and
Quito with the British Army War Office archive in London and
found that certainly no more than one in three had military
experience. The rest were laborers, peasants and artisans. They
wanted glory and adventure too, but also pay, security and,
sometimes, a new life. Many of them pretended to have military
experience so the Venezuelans would take them seriously.
Q: So how many British and
Irish volunteers fought in South America?
A: In total there were around 7,000 foreign mercenaries in
Venezuela and Colombia, and around 2,000 more in the Southern
Cone. Many of these were sailors, such as Lord Cochrane, who led
the Chilean Navy, but in Venezuela most of the foreign
mercenaries were recruited to fight on land, not on sea.
Q: How crucial a part did they
play in the Battle of Carabobo?
A: Military historians believe that the British and Irish were
indeed crucial to Bolívar’s victory at Carabobo. Their numbers
were small, but they famously charged up a small hill and
defended it against vastly superior forces, even when their
ammunition ran out; in this the veterans later claimed to have
inspired the troops around them to fight on to victory. Reading
the memoirs of those who were there, it does seem that their
actions were courageous and inspirational.
Q: Was their involvement
crucial to Bolívar’s victory over the Spanish and the creation
of Gran Colombia?
A: The overall contribution of British and Irish mercenaries to
the success of the Independence armies was probably pretty
negligible. In the greater scheme of things they were small in
number, expensive, complained a lot, and died rather quickly.
Many of them struggled to learn Spanish and left for home as
soon as they could.
However, the remaining foreign
mercenaries were important as their presence shaped the way
Bolívar and others thought about Gran Colombia, which was
designed as a nation where anybody could be a citizen and a
patriot, no matter where they were born or what their ethnicity,
just as long as they believed fervently in the cause of freedom.
This was down, in no small part, to the presence of foreign
mercenaries in the army.
Q: Once the wars were over,
how many of these adventurers made it back home?
A: About 1,000 mercenaries stayed to the end of the wars, and
then went home. Most of them slipped back into historical
anonymity. A few dozen wrote their memoirs, variously praising
Bolívar for being the greatest hero of the age, or criticizing
him as a power-crazed dictator.
Q: How did you first become
interested in the Independence Wars?
A: I worked in Santiago de Chile as an English teacher, and
everyday I walked along Calle Lord Cochrane. I couldn’t
understand why the road would have such an odd name, so I
started reading up on the Chilean Wars of Independence. Then
something carried me north, and over the next decade or so I
worked in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador before eventually heading to
Colombia and Venezuela to carry out the research for my book
Adventuring through Spanish Colonies.
Q: With iconic figures like
Simón Bolívar and the other revolutionary heroes can you ever
get to the historical truth?
A: Of course you can – the historical truth is always there
waiting for us to peel away the layers of interpretation and
manipulation that get stuck to it. It is a hard job though, and
when you think you have got there you find another layer of
meaning hiding the “facts” you were looking for.
In many ways the exercise of
searching for historical truth about these characters is just as
important than whether or not General Fulano did or did not
utter a particular set of words, or did or did not charge his
enemies from the west or the east.
Dr Brown’s academic study:
“Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign
Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations”, was published last
year by Liverpool University Press.
has links to a searchable database of 3,000 “adventurers” who
came from Europe to fight under Bolívar between 1811 and