Rum, Recruitment and Revolution:
Alcohol and the British and Irish Legions in
’s War for Independence, 1817-1823

By Karen Racine


Spirits lubricated every social function, from meals in hotel taverns when the lucky recruits were billeted in Colombian towns to the momentous diplomatic summits where the fates of nations were signed with a pen and a toast. In all these ways, alcohol use among the Irish and British recruits in the service of Colombian independence reflected broader trends on both sides of the Atlantic.


Moderation in temper is always a virtue,
But moderation in principle is always a vice.
Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man (1792)


Colombian independence was not borne of moderation. Its battles were not led by modest men with moderate goals. Its constitutions were not drafted by modest minds with moderate visions. Its citizens did not make modest sacrifices for moderate gains. Rather, Colombian independence was a long, passionate night of revolution during which all participants drank deeply of the spirit of the times and awoke to find themselves confused, forgetful and living among strangers. Alcohol was closely entwined with the rhetoric of revolution and was an ever-present feature of daily life for soldiers and citizens alike. High-minded ideals intoxicated South American patriots and their foreign supporters, all of whom viewed themselves as attending a global party, advancing the cause of liberty, freedom and justice on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. After all, the words 'liberty' and 'libertad', as well as 'libation' and 'libación', all derive from the same Latin root liber, meaning 'free'. [1] On a more mundane level, homesick soldiers who suffered the unimaginably difficult conditions in the Colombian Andes and the Venezuelan plains took refuge in the bottle when they needed to dull their pain, strengthen their resolve or take their payment in whatever form they could get it. Rum and recruitment were essential and ever-present features of military life in the early nineteenth century. The Irish and English recruits who fought in the patriot armies for Colombian independence reflected the typical drinking habits of military men of their generation. Rum, recruitment and revolution marched together toward the goal of an independent Colombian nation.

At an etymological level, both the English and Spanish languages reveal a close connection between patriotism, the social compact and altered states of consciousness. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word 'spirits', entered the language as a theological concept related to the Holy Trinity but eventually mutated to include both alchemical and metaphysical descriptions of a higher intangible essence separate from one’s corporeal existence. In this way, the word 'spirit' came to mean any sort of divine animating passion and thus found its way into eighteenth-century Enlightenment discourse about the life-giving nature of the patriotic impulse. In a parallel evolution, by 1610 'spirit' had also come to mean a distilled alcohol, revealing a subconscious linguistic awareness that the altered state of consciousness induced by excessive drinking and that induced by idealised thinking were very similar. By the early nineteenth century, there were dual rhetorical motifs which harnessed the word spirit/espíritu to opposing purposes. Colombian patriots and loyalists alike decried their opponents for being blinded by 'partisan spirit' and lamented 'the sunken spirits' of the weary population. [2] Detractors warned Colombian President Francisco de Paula Santander that he had 'drunk many a bitter draught,' which would cause him to fall victim to 'some party zeal or factious spirit' (O'Leary 1969: 11). Throughout Colombia, rebels suffered from 'restless and turbulent spirits', while great figures like Simón Bolívar remained 'in good spirits'. Each day nameless heroic soldiers pressed onward 'cadaverous, scrawny in body but strong in spirit' (O'Leary 1969: 11). In fact, revolutionaries posited that in some mystical, quasi-religious way, 'the constitutional government excited a national spirit and produced union' (Ducoudray-Holstein 1829: 264).

Similarly, in both English and Spanish, the word 'cordial' also has connotations that are related both to genteel behaviour and to the use of alcohol. Etymologically, the word 'cordial' is related to matters of the heart [cardiac, corazón], and is used to denote respect and sincerity; it also describes a medicalised, comforting beverage that is typically a sweetened aromatic form of alcohol. The term found its way into common parlance and by the early nineteenth century its usage revealed the complex cultural interconnectedness between alcohol and gentlemanly agreement. For example, Spanish royalist general Rafael Sevilla recalled that he was greeted with 'extreme cordiality' by an English veteran at Margarita; another time, an indigenous cacique [chieftain] 'greeted me and showed me cordial affection' during their transactions (Sevilla 1916: 194, 232). Patriot general Manuel Piar was well-liked for 'his cordial attention to everyone' and Bolívar showed his respect by expressing his 'cordial wishes' to his subordinates in his correspondence with them (Ducoudray-Holstein 1829 I: 243-244). When Richard Bache visited a monastery near Tunja, he recorded that its twenty-eight-year-old principal José Antonio Chávez greeted him 'cordially' before offering him a cigar 'and a liquor made from coffee, a cordial which was new to me' (Bache 1823: 219). On both sides of the political gulf and on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, patriotism and partisanship produced a state of mind that was linguistically and sensually related to intoxication.

Alcohol has a deep and meaningful place in human cultures. One scholar notes that it 'has accrued over the millennia a rich and almost infinitely diverse set of symbolic contexts' which can be celebratory, consolatory, medicinal, scholastic, gastronomic and sacramental in nature (Walton 2002: 5). Alcohol and other drugs have been used to achieve higher consciousness, to blunt feelings of despair, to enhance sociability, and to perform important religious rituals. Drinking has been viewed as a communal activity that releases tension and binds people together, and decried as a demon of social corrosion and agent of individual ruin. It is possible that both views are true. The ancient Greeks worshipped Dionysus, the god of wine, and the Romans had their counterpart in the figure of Bacchus, also known as 'Liber'. Both cultures recognised the centrality of alcohol to their daily lives, but did not stigmatise drunkenness as worse or different to excessive indulgence in any other type of luxury (Austin 1985: xvii). With the advent of Christianity, however, a bifurcated attitude toward alcohol started to emerge. On the one hand, the Old Testament clearly holds out wine as a comfort to the sick and Church fathers incorporated it into their central liturgy, the Eucharist; on the other hand, Saint Paul praises voluntary temperance and warns that habitual drunkards would be denied a place in Heaven. [3]

The two attitudes co-existed comfortably over many centuries. Beer and wine were the predominant forms of alcoholic beverages and functioned as important sources of nutrition and medical treatment. By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, distilled liquor with much higher alcohol content had become cheaper and more accessible through improvements in technological capabilities. Cheaper, faster and more frequent states of public inebriation among the common folk caused the more genteel classes to express their concern that spirits led to a breakdown in social order and a threat to personal salvation (Schivelbusch 1992: 153). In England, critics of the seventeenth century gin craze pointed to what one historian has called 'the dangers of plebeian sociability', and considered taverns to be 'nurseries of vice' (Warner 2002: 56). Furthermore, the discourse of the English elite increasingly associated uncouth and disruptive behaviour with both the lower classes and with potentially subversive foreign elements like the Irish (Wilson 1991: 386). [4] Samuel Crumpe made the stereotype explicit in 1795 when he wrote that drunkenness is a vice 'to which the lower Irish are particularly addicted', reducing their industry, and leading to the 'riotous feuds so remarkable among the Irish' (Austin 1985: 371). These ethnic stereotypes followed the Irish Legion to Colombia where they received similar criticism for their insubordination, feuding and riotousness, all of which were code words for drunkenness in that era.

By the time the wars for Colombian independence commenced in the 1810s and 1820s, scientific opinion had started to pathologise alcohol use and eliminate moral implications and the element of free will in chronic alcohol abuse. Physicians such as the American Benjamin Rush and Briton Thomas Trotter clearly described drunkenness as, 'a disease, produced by a remote cause, and giving birth to actions and movements in the living body, that disorder the functions of health' (Trotter 1804: 8). Alcohol use was widespread and beer, wine and spirits were consumed in quantities far exceeding those of the present day. Potable water was scarce, and difficult to transport over long distances. Furthermore, alcohol reflected important gender expectations in Anglo-American culture. Hard-drinking men who could hold their liquor and still function were seen as praiseworthy and masculine, while alcohol itself was feminised as Mother Gin or Madame Geneva and treated as an item to be conquered and consumed. [5] Indeed, one historian highlighted the masculine status conferred by alcohol consumption when he repeated Dr. Johnson’s observation that 'claret is the liquor for boys, port for men, but he who aspires to be a hero [...] must drink brandy' (Kopperman 1996: 460).

Rifles and Bottles

Irish, Scottish and English recruits played a significant role in the independence wars of northern South America, and they fought with a rifle in one hand and a bottle in the other. Living in exile in London, Venezuelan envoy Luis López Méndez and Colombian minister plenipotentiary José María del Real actively recruited soldiers and sailors who were out of service after the conclusion of the Napoleonic wars. [6] Both diplomats served time in the debtors’ prison for contracts undertaken on their countries’ behalf, and both offered promises to starry-eyed young men that their patriot governments were subsequently unable to keep. Nevertheless, recruitment mania was palpable on the streets of London, Edinburgh, Liverpool and Dublin in the years 1817, 1818 and 1819. Thousands of young men set sail for South American shores, hoping to strike a blow against tyranny, and perhaps find their fortune along the way. Based in London in June 1817, Gustavus Hippisley outfitted the First Venezuelan Hussars, Colonel Wilson took the Second Venezuelan Hussars, Lt. Col. James Gilmour headed an artillery brigade, and two regiments of Venezuelan Lancers also signed up with enthusiasm. The following year, several more expeditions departed, followed by General John Devereux’s ten ships filled with the future Irish Legion in 1819. It was common practice at the time to recruit soldiers and sailors in taverns; unscrupulous recruiters often cruelly took advantage of a man’s inebriated state to enlist him or even to force him onboard a soon-to-depart ship. Not surprisingly then, many of the recruits who went to Colombia were as fond of alcohol as they were patriotic. Indeed, Colonel Francis Hall blamed three-quarters of deaths among foreigners in Colombia’s wars of independence to excessive alcohol consumption and the various evils that arose from it (Hall 1827: 99).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 March 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Racine, Karen, '
Rum, Recruitment and Revolution: Alcohol and the British and Irish Legions in Colombia's War for Independence, 1817-1823' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 2006. Available online (, accessed .


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