Crusaders for Liberty or Vile Mercenaries?
The Irish Legion in Colombia

By Matthew Brown


The perceived cowardice and dishonourable behaviour of Irishmen on the Colombian Caribbean coast, widely chastised by Colombians at the time and since, caused considerable discomfort for Irishmen who had stayed at home. The Irish rebellion in Colombia undermined comfortable notions of an Irish identity that was supposedly characterised by a natural love of liberty.


Riohacha, Colombia
(Alcaidía de Riohacha)

An under-studied footnote to both Irish and Colombian history, John Devereux's Irish Legion was recruited in Dublin, Cork and Belfast between 1819 and 1821. Several thousand Irish adventurers crossed the Atlantic to join Simón Bolívar's armies in the struggle for independence from Spanish colonial rule. It is unknown exactly how many there were because the 1819 Foreign Enlistment Act made the mercenaries illegal in Britain, and so surviving records are rare. The fate of most of these individuals was early death, disease or desertion, and therefore they left little documentary record of their activities. Some survived and settled in Colombia, on occasion reaching positions of prestige and influence. [1]

This article provides a brief overview of the events and the people involved in the Irish Legion, reproducing and analysing Devereux's first contact with the Colombian rebels. The reception back in Dublin of the Irish Legion's most infamous action - the Riohacha rebellion in 1820 - will be examined. The perceived cowardice and dishonourable behaviour of Irishmen on the Colombian Caribbean coast, widely chastised by Colombians at the time and since, caused considerable discomfort for Irishmen who had stayed at home. The Irish rebellion in Colombia undermined comfortable notions of an Irish identity that was supposedly characterised by a natural love of liberty. [2]


John Devereux was born in Wexford in 1778. [3] He may have been involved in the rebellion of the United Irishmen in 1798. There is no convincing surviving evidence to support his own claims that he had played a part in the rebellion, claims which were frequently cast in doubt by contemporaries. [4] By 1815 he had developed trading relations with family members in Baltimore, Maryland and was therefore well positioned within the Atlantic world to take advantage of the political turmoil in Spanish America. In early 1815 Devereux wrote to the New Granadan government, at that time in the midst of a struggle against the reconquista led by the Spanish general Pablo Morillo, to offer his services: [5]


To the Honourable citizen Crisanto Valenzuela, Secretary of State of the United Provinces of 
New Granada.

A son of Ireland addresses himself to Your Excellency with the utmost respect to make the following request, in order that Your Excellency can then bring it to the knowledge of the General Government.

A member of one of the most noble and ancient Catholic families of the British empire, he was named as their representative by the vote of sixty thousand of his armed countrymen, to serve them as Leader in defence of their liberty and to procure the emancipation of Catholics oppressed by the despotism of Protestants. However, principally because of the perfidy and treachery of the Protestant influence, the generous and magnanimous efforts of the Irish Catholics were frustrated, and ended in ruin.

In consequence of that result the undersigned was forced to seek refuge in North America from the religious persecution that he suffered in his native land. Keeping in mind, nevertheless, the glorious part that he was to play in that most noble of causes, and thinking also of the asylum that by their humanity and magnanimity the South Americans provide to the oppressed and persecuted of the United Provinces of New Granada, the undersigned was, from the commencement of the present battle of the patriots against the bloodthirsty and odious Spanish Government, unable to avoid casting all of his feelings and his reason on the side of American patriotism, against the impious and degrading despotism that sought to reduce this noble country from planetary significance to the low condition of a provincial satellite of old Spain. He is filled with horror at seeing the monster of Spanish despotism, like an immense snake stained with the butchery committed in the New World and trying to satiate its ferocity and quench its thirst with the same entrails and the blood of these people; a people who should have risen once and for all to rank among the highest nations of the Earth, eliciting admiration and envy as did North America.

The feelings of hatred and hostility evoked in the undersigned by a project so perfidious and abominable led him to immediately adopt the best possible plan so that his efforts and services would be most effective and beneficial to the cause of the 'patria'. His heart, wounded by the offences inflicted on a brave and generous people, led the undersigned with the most lively enthusiasm to channel the sacred fervour which animates the South Americans into vindicating and defending their civil rights.

Guided by these sympathies, the undersigned offers his services in convincing the English government and the English people to provide aid for the glorious cause in which such distinguished patriots have nobly and heroically dedicated their fortunes and their lives to their native country; and by the same methods, he hopes to give such proofs of his commitment to, and veneration of, the cause that under the auspices of the government, working in the name of the people, he will be granted the honourable privilege of being admitted into the military service of the United Provinces, in circumstances which will not serve as a lack of consideration to the worthiness of his previous rank.

In consequence of this plan the undersigned has already written to various distinguished people in England, among the Lords and the Commons, with the purpose of eliciting their cordial and fervent sympathies for the patriots of these United Provinces; and because of his special capabilities, the undersigned offers his services in negotiating an alliance with Great Britain, which would aid and assist in removing the relentless oppression of Spain from these colonies, at a great advantage to British interests.

At the same time the undersigned offers his services in putting into effect the above-mentioned project, trusting as he does that great benefits will result for the sacred cause over which Your Excellency presides; and trusting equally in his ability to achieve this. Far from evading the responsibility of leading the said project to realisation, the undersigned offers to execute it in the most effective manner possible; it is necessary to explicitly add that he does not desire any more remuneration than the honour and the glory of participating and of assisting the Granadan Provinces in the divine task of overthrowing the most oppressive and calamitous despotism that has ever afflicted humanity.

Yet even though the undersigned expressly renounces any concept of private gain, truth and good will oblige him to suggest to Your Excellency the advisability of making some arrangement to provide adequate resources to offset the costs which will necessarily be occasioned by the execution of the said plan.

There is no doubt but that this measure requires Your Excellency's trust; but to justify said trust and to give a guarantee of the loyal conduct of the undersigned in terms and conditions which the said trust demands, the undersigned, without hesitation, appeals to his reputation for honour and integrity; more relevant is the just and severe conduct for which, for all of the years gone by from his virility until the present time, he has won the respect and friendship of many among the most distinguished and illustrious members of the English nation. And so that Your Excellency has the same understanding of such conduct, the undersigned refers Your Excellency to His Excellency Governor Juan de Dios Amador, who has in his power recommendations and proofs that will satisfy Your Excellency as to the competence of the undersigned and his qualifications for the execution of said project.

I have the honour to remain, with the deepest respect, Your Excellency's obedient and humble servant.

General of the Irish Army



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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 March 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Brown, Matthew, '
Crusaders for Liberty or Vile Mercenaries?: The Irish Legion in Colombia' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 2006. Available online (, accessed .


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