Rum, Recruitment and Revolution


As Spanish Ambassador to the Court of King James, the Duke of San Carlos vigorously protested against the active recruitment that was proceeding openly and unchecked while Great Britain and Spain purported to be allies. In November 1817, he succeeded in convincing the Prince Regent to issue a proclamation that banned British subjects from joining the Spanish American patriots; anyone who contravened the order would be divested of his rank and pension. The order was widely and publicly ignored however, and two years later, Parliament finally passed a more stringent Foreign Enlistment Act that again prohibited British soldiers from accepting commissions in a foreign service; before the bill took effect in September, thousands of recruits rushed to depart from Liverpool, Dublin, and other ports (Hasbrouck 1969: 56, 111). In Colombia, Simón Bolívar strategised with Luis Brión, sharing bottles of wine and awaiting their foreign recruits before undertaking any major new offensives. The Irish Legion participated in battles at Pantano de Vargas, Boyacá, and Ayacucho, among many others (Echeverri 1972: 32). Although they fought valiantly on most occasions, their reputation remained forever stained by the behaviour of a few dozen angry, hungry, bored and unpaid Irish soldiers who rampaged in frustration at Riohacha in 1820. The Legion was disbanded and absorbed into other units around at the same time, but the charges of dissipation, depredation and disobedience took longer to overcome. [7]

The Irish Legion’s involvement in South American independence was commemorated, fittingly enough, with a toast at a Dublin hotel in 1819. At a meeting to celebrate the cause of South American freedom, Charles Phillips raised his glass to praise his countrymen’s efforts on behalf of their Colombian brothers. Fully sated after a sumptuous dinner and drunk on porter, wine and lofty ideals, Phillips praised John Devereux’s and the Irish troops’ commitment to the noble cause:

To unmanacle the slave, to erect an altar on the Inquisition’s grave, to raise a people to the attitude of freedom, to found the temples of science and commerce to create a constitution, beneath whose ample arch every human creature, no matter what his sect, his colour, or his clime, may stand sublime in the dignity of manhood.

He railed against the tyranny of Ferdinand VII who kept an entire continent in chains, denying them their freedoms and perverting their Catholic faith with brutal inquisitorial techniques. Phillips turned to Devereux, and closed his speech with a dramatic flourish, saying 'Go, then, soldier of Ireland, Go where glory awaits thee'. [8] Devereux’s critics, however, interpreted that same glory as a dangerous revolutionary tendency that threatened monarchy not just in South America, but also at home in Great Britain. An Irishman named George Flinter who fought against Devereux on the royalist side in Gran Colombia, mentioned a rumour that the mercenary general could be linked to the 1798 Irish rebellion and proclaimed that

by suppressing the spark of rebellion in the Spanish colonies, I was indirectly rendering an important service to my King and country [...] I foresaw that these unauthorised military associations, headed by a certain class of men, would be a prelude to something of a serious nature in Ireland (Flinter 1829: 9).

Irish partisans fought for (and against) Colombian independence on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

Alcohol pervaded all aspects of the soldiers’ lives. They drank while they were being recruited. They drank while they waited at port for their ship to be ready. They drank while the departure was delayed and they drank while they sailed. Contemporary memoirs are filled with anecdotes of duels, pranks and drinking games on board the ships that sailed for Colombia. Dr Thomas Trotter counted over 200 gin shops lining the harbour front at Plymouth Dock alone which he believed was 'destroying the very vitals of our naval service' (Trotter 1804: 48). Crossing the Tropic of Cancer on his journey to America, Captain Adam mentioned the tradition of 'levying contributions of grog in favour of the sailors'. Another officer was appalled to discover that the crew of his ship was always too intoxicated to carry out their duties properly (Adam 1824: 35-36).

A soldier’s provisions typically included generous rations of alcohol. The ship Two Friends, for example, was delayed until a sufficient cargo of wine could be loaded. Each soldier-passenger paid £40 for his passage, which included one pint of wine, half a pint of spirits and one bottle of porter per day. [9] They stopped at Madeira to replenish their supplies; six officers purchased 180 gallons of spirits for themselves, and then 'in order to reduce it, they were daily, nay, hourly, drinking'. On board the Emerald in 1817, £41 bought the recruit his passage and a pint of wine at dinner, a gill of spirits at supper, and a bottle of porter per day (Hippisley 1819: 40-41). Once on land and in the service of the Colombian army, recruits continued to drink regularly as part of their rations. One officer recalled that their meals consisted of 'dried beef, plantain, biscuits, wine and London bottled porter, of which last Bolívar is remarkably fond, and had a good store with him' (Recollections 1828 II: 5).

At the same time, officers were nervous about the toll that heavy drinking was taking on the regular troops and more than once issued orders to curtail its worst excesses. Gustavus Hippisley spoke contemptuously of the grog provided to enlisted men, saying 'the rum I could not drink, that is the ration rum; and I would willingly have debarred my companions from the use of it, as it was killing them all' (Hippisley 1819: 276). [10] In May 1818 he issued a regimental order than barred the Venezuelan Hussars from going to grog-shops or becoming intoxicated at the risk of the most severe punishments that could be meted out; he reminded his men that Bolívar had an abhorrence to drunken soldiers who gave a bad name to the patriot cause, rendered themselves unfit for duty and drew shame and opprobrium upon the entire nation. This attitude was becoming increasingly common among the British officer corps during the Napoleonic period who wanted to prevent unsanctioned and possibly adulterated liquor from poisoning their men; their policies were given additional weight by a growing body of medical opinion that charged that one of the greatest evils of modern warfare was the 'vast consumption of spirituous liquors'. [11]

It was not uncommon for great leaders of the era to be heavy drinkers. Lord Cochrane, the British founder of the Chilean navy, once commented contemptuously that the Argentine patriot leader José de San Martín was 'ambitious beyond all bounds' but 'his physical prowess [was] prostrated by opium and brandy, to which he was a slave whilst his mental faculties day by day became more torpid from the same debilitating influence' (Dundonald 1859 I: 222). Patriot general José Francisco Bermúdez reputedly 'drinks hard', while Irish Colonel Aylmer could be found 'in a permanent state of drunkenness'. [12] According to his Irish aide-de-camp and close friend Daniel Florencio O’Leary, Simón Bolívar was 'sober. The wines he liked best were grave and champaign [sic]. When he drank most, which was in [18]22 and [18]23, he never took at dinner a pint of the former or more than two glasses of the latter' (O'Leary 1969: 30). An anonymous British soldier who served in the Colombian campaigns also noted that the Liberator was 'uninfluenced by wine, which he used sparingly' (Recollections 1828 II: 31). Even Bolívar’s harsh critic Louis Perú de Lacroix agreed that the Liberator 'never used Aguardiente or other strong liquors. He never drank wine with lunch, nor did he put it on his dinner table except for special occasions' (Peru de la Croix 1935: 336).

Other patriot generals were less restrained and often traded insults that centred on each other’s masculinity and sobriety. For example, Gustavus Hippisley complained that his patriot rival Mariano Montilla was neat and tidy in appearance, but was 'so addicted to drinking, that he is scarcely known to go to his hammock sober at night and too frequently commences his potations soon after mid-day' (Hippisley 1819: 249). For his part, Montilla regularly wrote to his superiors complaining that the Irish recruits under his command were drunken, disorderly, and behaved in a manner contrary to all military discipline; despite his clear orders, they pillaged and sacked the very same villages that they were supposed to be liberating. [13] Alcohol use became an observable component of leadership abilities and therefore a signifier not only of a one’s class status, but the degree to which one exhibited self-control, patriotism and dedication to the greater cause.

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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