Rum, Recruitment and Revolution


Dinners and balls were common among the elite and urban residents throughout Gran Colombia during the wars for independence and were an important vehicle for expressing one’s patriotic sentiments and national allegiances. When Gustavus Hippisley dined with General Bermúdez at Angostura in 1818, both men drank to the health of the King of England and success to the South American patriots (Hippisley 1819: 248). Visiting Colombia in November 1822, Richard Bache recorded a dinner given in his honour at which he was served twelve or fourteen courses of food, exquisite wines, and had to sit through long toasts or 'short patriotic speeches most in vogue'. Everywhere he went during his journey, however, he was pleased to note that Colombians exhibited an impressively sober character that was in marked contrast to that of his fellow citizens back home:

The wines were excellent, rich cordials, Madeira, muscadel, and the inspiring champaign [sic] flowed in abundance, yet our English vice of excess on these occasions is never indulged in by the Colombians (Bache 1823: 52).

If Colombians were considered to be a sober people, British observers considered caraqueños [residents of Caracas] to be more riotous and prone to violent outbreaks. Similarly, the Irish and the English were understood to be habitual drunks. Mariano Montilla reported to the Governor of Jamaica that the Irish soldiers had united dishonour with barbarism at Riohacha and complained to anyone who would listen about their rebellion, insolence and insubordination. [14] Significantly, these are identical to the terms that English critics applied to Irish rebels and Catholic agitators in their domestic rhetoric.

Although there were regular and severe shortages of most consumer goods and foodstuffs, it seems that alcohol continued to flow freely. Colonel Adam fondly remembered a dance at Angostura where he enjoyed fruits, sweetmeats, fine wines and plenty of sangaree [sangría], with the town’s patriotic young ladies (Adam 1824: 130). Gustavus Hippisley dined with the Governor of St. Bartholomew and enjoyed meat, preserves, fruits, confections and 'every sort of European wines, porter, cyder [sic] and perry' (Hippisley 1819: 125). These elaborate meals, however, were a dramatic exception to the life of privation faced by average recruits. Soldiers regularly complained about their constant hunger and recounted the horror of being reduced to eating cats, rats and dogs. Alcohol was an important source of nutrition and calories for the recruits, and helped to distract them from the miseries of their current condition. Daniel Florencio O’Leary noted that Colonel Gregor MacGregor 'considered his loss and his fatigue and dangers to be rewarded by the capture of the tobacco and rum found at Chaguaramas' in 1816 (O'Leary 1969: 44). Captain Adam faced heavy rains on his trek to Angostura in December 1819 'aided by a glass or two of rum' and found that liberal use of spirits distracted him from the bad food and biting insects (Adam 1824: 57, 94).

When the battles died down and former enemies sat down to negotiate their peace treaties, alcohol figured prominently at the events. Sometimes the drinking was joyful and celebratory; other times, excessive indulgence resulted in insults being added to injuries. For example, when Spanish royalist general Rafael Sevilla agreed to capitulate to British and Irish generals at Margarita Island in 1820, he was already disgusted by the liberal Riego revolt back in Spain that had ended support for his regiment in America, but he became even more offended by the pressure to toast his victorious hosts with rum and beer into the early hours of the morning. At another meeting with the British generals, Sevilla recalled the exuberant toasts 'repeated an infinite number of times, [with] the best Spanish wines, until we had emptied many, many bottles [...] until we were all drunk, we [Spaniards] more than the English' (Sevilla 1916: 194, 257). That same year, Simón Bolívar recognised the great contribution that foreign recruits had made to his Colombian campaign by frequently making toasts to the health and continued success of the sons of 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland' (Recollections 1828 I: 246). He wrote to Francisco de Paula Santander that his summit meeting with Spanish General Pablo Morillo had gone well and had been punctuated by 'many courteous and clever toasts.[...] Indeed it would take a volume to record the toasts that were offered.' [15]

Rum, recruitment and revolution flowed in tandem during the wars for Colombian independence. A soldier’s life was hard and often short, and he took meaning wherever he found it, whether it was the lofty rhetoric of liberty and patriotism, or the dizzying depths of a glass of grog. In differing circumstances, alcohol could be used to motivate the troops, or to keep them sedated; it could be used to fire them up for battle or to diffuse their energies after it was over. 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. Class status, masculine identity and leadership qualities increasingly came to be identified with a man’s approach to liquor. Similarly, drunkenness and sobriety were behavioural traits that became associated with particular nationalities or ethnicities. Colombians condemned the lawless and dissolute Venezuelans much in the same way that English politicians and pundits targeted the rowdy and rebellious Irish. Thomas Paine, known to be a heavy drinker himself, was widely read throughout Spanish America during the independence era, and correctly gauged that those were, indeed, times that tried men’s souls. Liquor, like liberty, could not be consumed in moderation.


Karen Racine
University of Guelph, Canada



The author wishes to thank her undergraduate research assistant John Dickieson for his contribution to this essay.

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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