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The Daily Journal (Caracas), 7 July 2007

British academic sheds light on foreign volunteers

By Russell Maddicks

The Daily 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 overlooked.

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 cold steel.

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 fatherland”.
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.

His website: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/hispanic/latin/research.html has links to a searchable database of 3,000 “adventurers” who came from Europe to fight under Bolívar between 1811 and 1830.    


Russell Maddicks


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