Friday, 15 February 2013

Q&A Matthew Brown with Mihir Chandraker

Mihir Chandraker, a student at the Perse School in Cambridge, is researching the subject of the history of the British influence in the Latin American Wars of Independence for a Higher Project Qualification. We conducted an interview via email, which I post here with Mihir's permission as it may be of interest to others.

MC: Why were so many British soldiers attracted to the prospect of adventures in Latin America?

MB: The first thing to remember is that only about a third of the adventurers had actually been soldiers or sailors before they travelled to Colombia. The vast majority were artisans, labourers, aristocrats – a real cross-section of society, seduced by dreams of the gold and land and freedom that they expected to find in South America. Of those who did have some military experience (around 2,000 of the 7,000 foreign adventurers in total) there were a lot of Irish Catholics who thought they had a better chance of promotion in the Colombian service than in the British Army, and lots who saw that military opportunities had dried up at home after the demobilisation that came after the end of the Napoleonic Wars from 1815. It is a combination of push factors and pull factors, giving people a reason to leave Britain and Ireland, as well as giving them a reason to go to South America.

MC: What sort of background were these soldiers from?

MB: 319 adventurers recorded their previous profession, trade or occupation in a document preserved in the Archivo Histórico de Guayas in Guayaquil, Ecuador. 148 described themselves as labourers. The next most popular occupation was ‘Weaver’ (twenty-six). In descending order, eleven volunteers said that they were shoemakers, and another eleven were tailors. Seven were bakers, seven were mariners and six were musicians. There were five carpenters, and four each of book-binders, breeches-makers, and painters. There were three respondents each for bricklayer, butcher, hatter, miner, servant and watch-maker. There were two respondents each for accountant, chandler, clerk, cloth-cutter, cordwainer, craftsman, farrier, gardener, glass blower/stainer, glazier, hairdresser, potter, printer, silk-maker and water-man. There was one apothecary, a basket-maker, a blacksmith, a boat-maker, a cabinet-maker, a cooper, a cotton spinner, a courier, a draper, a founder, a gunsmith, a ham-beater, a horseman, a lawyer, a lightman, a machinist, a mason, a merchant, a miller, a papermaker, a poulterer, a roller, a rope-maker, a saddler, a sawyer, a shearer, a slater, a soapmaker, a stocking-maker, a stone-cutter, a tanner, a tin-man, a varnish-maker, a wood-cutter, a wood Merchant and a woollen draper.[1]

All this material is included in my online database of the soldiers. Some of the officers, of course, came from rather grander backgrounds. There were a couple of lords in there, the sons of aristocratic families. Many of the officers, however, exagerated their social standing back home in order to gain a higher rank in the Colombian army – this was a source of much tension, conflict and amusement once the campaigns got going. It also meant that there were quite a few high-ranking officers who didn’t have the faintest idea how to command soldiers or win battles.

MC: How were relations between Britain and Spain at the time?

MB: Britain was neutral in the conflict between Spain and its American colonies. This was because it had needed the Spanish alliance against Napoleon’s France but also because it didn’t want to support the idea of other powers piling into colonial conflicts on the side of rebels – this had happened in the United States’ War of Independence in the late eighteenth century, and Britain had enough of its own problems in the rest of its empire without worrying if any rebels would get support from Spain, France, Prussia or Russia, for example. So Britain had a public policy of neutrality. Nevertheless, lots of the British public were in favour of Spanish American independence because it chimed with their ideas about liberty, freedom, down with tyranny, and so on. Also, many British merchants and their friends in parliament and government were keen to have access to these new markets in Spanish America, which had hitherto been very difficult to get into because of the trade barriers erected by the Spanish colonial regime. The enlistment of adventurers, in London, to fight in Colombia, kicked a great hole in the middle of this delicate balancing act. Spanish officials in London were incandescent that ships moored on the River Thames could be so bare-faced about recruiting men. That’s why the ‘Foreign Enlistment Act’ was brought in in 1819, and after that the recruitment of adventurers did rather dry up. The British policy of neutrality survived, independence was eventually achieved, and the merchants did indeed get access to the new markets. So, everyone won (except for the Spanish, who had lost all their American colonies by 1826, apart from Cuba and Puerto Rico).

MC: What were the differences in armoury between the British and the Royalist fighters?

MB: That is a good question. Military historians have rooted round in archives trying to answer this question, and archaeologists have unearthed surviving weapons from the period. Broadly speaking the weapons being used on either side were quite similar. Bayonets, rifles and lances were the principal weapons. Obviously each new expedition, either from Britain or Spain, brought new weapons with it. Many of the British officers spent a lot of time teaching recruits how to use them, for example the rifles, but the vast majority of battles were fought using weapons like swords, daggers, knives and lances. The battle of Junín, in Peru in 1824, was famously silent, with no gunfire at all, given the topographical difficulties in dragging cannons up and down the Andean mountain ranges, and without getting the gunpowder wet.

MC: Did the British soldiers respect the leadership of Bolivar and Sucre?

MB: I think on the whole the answer here was yes, but not always. Bolívar had a certain charisma which appealed to his British soldiers, and they played a crucial part in transmitting his revolutionary image across the Atlantic. Sucre got on well with most of the British and Irish officers. Francisco Burdett O’Connor, an Irish adventurer, has a lovely anecdote in his memoirs, published in Spanish as Independencia americana, about he and Sucre tossing a coin in order to decide which should of them should be allowed to court a particular woman. Clearly there was a lot of mutual respect there. Of course not all leadership was respected: British and Irish soldiers deserted all the time (rates of 10% per year were not unknown) and the Irish Legions staged a famous rebellion at the Caribbean port of Riohacha in 1820. (I have an article on the Rebellion at Riohacha in 1820 and its consequences). They made a real mess of the town, caused a load of havoc and got themselves a really bad reputation.

MC: And I was wondering if it was possible for you to give a couple of other reasons, non-military, how the British influenced the independence of the nations which temporarily became Colombia.

MB: Crikey: that’s a big question. I suggest you read The Role of Great Britain in the Independence of Colombia, the volume edited by Malcolm Deas, published by the Colombian Embassy in London.  All in all, you have the military assistance, the diplomatic neutrality, the arms sales, the public support and solidarity as well as the provision of a cultural and political model (as argued by the historian Karen Racine in her article ‘This England, This Now’: British Cultural Independence in the Spanish American Independence-Era’, Hispanic American Historical Review (2010). That’s quite a lot of British influence, but independence was still, clearly, primarily the work of Colombians, Venezuelans and Ecuadorians, who fought, wrote, died, thought, argued, saved and battled for their independence – with a little help from their friends.

[1] This paragraph is taken from my book, Matthew Brown, Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006), 28.