Thursday, July 26, 2007

Venezuelan Independence Wars 1: British Legion

I'd always assumed the British Legion that fought so bravely at the battle of Carabobo on 24 June 1821 was made up of battle-hardened members of Wellington's army, bored by civilian life after the Napoleonic Wars and seeking adventure in the New World.
However, research by Dr Matthew Brown, a Bristol University professor of Latin American Studies, has shed new light on the men and women who went to fight in the Americas, and why they would take such a risk and embark for a far off land with little idea of what awaited them or whether they would ever return.
Dr Brown has also built up a searchable database of some 3,000 of the 7,000 foreign fighters who sailed to South America to join the Independence Wars and it was good to see Irishmen like John Russell among them.
Next time I'm in Caracas I plan to visit the National Pantheon, where Simon Bolivar is buried, to take photographs of the tombs of the foreign fighters buried there such as Daniel Florence O'Leary.

British academic sheds light on foreign volunteers

By Russell Maddicks

This is an interview I had with Dr. Matthew Brown about his book “Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simon Bolivar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations” and the tremendous contribution the Irish and British volunteers made at the Battle of Carabobo.

On June 24, 1821, Simón Bolívar and his fellow patriots took to the plains of Carabobo to fight the decisive battle in their campaign to free Venezuela from Spanish rule. The battle itself lasted only a few furious hours but it would seal the legends of the independence heroes Simón Bolívar and José Antonio Páez, the “Centaur of the Llanos”.
It was also the last battle for many patriots, including the valiant Pedro Camejo, better known as Negro Primero.
But it was the bravery under fire of the British Legion under the command of Colonel Thomas Ilderton Ferriar that is often overlooked.
Made up of some 600 volunteers from Ireland, Wales, Scotland and England, the British Legion turned the tide of the battle at a crucial moment, charging the Spanish lines after Páez’ cavalry were pinned down by artillery.
According to one account, the British Legion lost 10 officers in as many minutes as they drew fire from the Spanish in order to give Páez’ Bravos de Apure a chance to recover. After fighting their way uphill to the Spanish positions, and out of ammunition, those who had survived fixed their bayonets and gave the fleeing royalists a taste of cold steel.
But their victory came at a price. Accounts differ, but of the 200 recorded losses on the patriots’ side, the British Legion lost 11 officers and 119 men, including Ferriar who died trying to regain the company’s colors.
Simón Bolívar was so moved by their sacrifice that he called them the “saviours of my fatherland”.
So who were the foreign volunteers who traveled so far to fight alongside Bolívar for Venezuelan independence? I asked Dr. Matthew Brown, a lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Bristol, to shed some light on the men who risked their lives in the cause of Venezuelan independence.
Were they romantic idealists seeking adventure or mercenaries after the spoils of war?
Q: Is it true that the vast majority of the foreign troops fighting for Bolívar were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars seeking guns and glory?
A: No, that is not the case. I cross-referenced the military records in Caracas, Bogotá and Quito with the British Army War Office archive in London and found that certainly no more than one in three had military experience. The rest were laborers, peasants and artisans. They wanted glory and adventure too, but also pay, security and, sometimes, a new life. Many of them pretended to have military experience so the Venezuelans would take them seriously.
Q: So how many British and Irish volunteers fought in South America?
A: In total there were around 7,000 foreign mercenaries in Venezuela and Colombia, and around 2,000 more in the Southern Cone. Many of these were sailors, such as Lord Cochrane, who led the Chilean Navy, but in Venezuela most of the foreign mercenaries were recruited to fight on land, not on sea.
Q: How crucial a part did they play in the Battle of Carabobo?
A: Military historians believe that the British and Irish were indeed crucial to Bolívar’s victory at Carabobo. Their numbers were small, but they famously charged up a small hill and defended it against vastly superior forces, even when their ammunition ran out; in this the veterans later claimed to have inspired the troops around them to fight on to victory. Reading the memoirs of those who were there, it does seem that their actions were courageous and inspirational.
Q: Was their involvement crucial to Bolívar’s victory over the Spanish and the creation of Gran Colombia?
A: The overall contribution of British and Irish mercenaries to the success of the Independence armies was probably pretty negligible. In the greater scheme of things they were small in number, expensive, complained a lot, and died rather quickly. Many of them struggled to learn Spanish and left for home as soon as they could.
However, the remaining foreign mercenaries were important as their presence shaped the way Bolívar and others thought about Gran Colombia, which was designed as a nation where anybody could be a citizen and a patriot, no matter where they were born or what their ethnicity, just as long as they believed fervently in the cause of freedom. This was down, in no small part, to the presence of foreign mercenaries in the army.
Q: Once the wars were over, how many of these adventurers made it back home?
A: About 1,000 mercenaries stayed to the end of the wars, and then went home. Most of them slipped back into historical anonymity. A few dozen wrote their memoirs, variously praising Bolívar for being the greatest hero of the age, or criticizing him as a power-crazed dictator.
Q: How did you first become interested in the Independence Wars?
A: I worked in Santiago de Chile as an English teacher, and everyday I walked along Calle Lord Cochrane. I couldn’t understand why the road would have such an odd name, so I started reading up on the Chilean Wars of Independence. Then something carried me north, and over the next decade or so I worked in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador before eventually heading to Colombia and Venezuela to carry out the research for my book Adventuring through Spanish Colonies.
Q: With iconic figures like Simón Bolívar and the other revolutionary heroes can you ever get to the historical truth?
A: Of course you can – the historical truth is always there waiting for us to peel away the layers of interpretation and manipulation that get stuck to it. It is a hard job though, and when you think you have got there you find another layer of meaning hiding the “facts” you were looking for.
In many ways the exercise of searching for historical truth about these characters is just as important than whether or not General Fulano did or did not utter a particular set of words, or did or did not charge his enemies from the west or the east.

Dr Brown’s academic study: "Adventuring Through Spanish Colonies: Simon Bolivar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations", was published last year by Liverpool University Press.

His website: has links to a searchable database of 3,000 “adventurers” who came from Europe to fight under Bolívar between 1811 and 1830, and is a useful tool for those tracing their family tree.


Anonymous said...

Hi Russ, I especially liked the gauarapita saludo, very funny, and got me cranking to go to Choroni myself. I think your blog idea is great, BTW, and I have some probably obnoxious ideas on how you might capture a wider audience....

Michel En La Red said...

Un saludo Bolivariano desde Venezuela

Luigi said...

Hi Russ, I am a direct descendent of one of these brave men that sailed to Venezuela back in 1817 to fight in the wars for South America Independence. My great great grant parent, Henry Weir, died as a General under the commands of Simon Bolivar itself and was also amongst the very few British Officers granted the title of “Liberators” (if you can read Spanish the following link is a biography of Henry written in old Spanish
The reason am writing in this post is because I am currently living in the UK and am eager to find out more about the origins and family of my British ancestors. So far I know that Henry Weir was around the twenties when he sailed to Venezuela therefore he was probably born around somewhere in the late seventeen hundreds. He was the son of John Weir who lived somewhere around Glasgow (I believe in a town called Lanark) and it also seems John was also in the militia.
Any help you may provide will be much appreciated
Luis Weir

Anonymous said...

Hi Luis,
This is all I have so far:

Colonel Henry Weir, who served 35 years, was a
native of England and only 17 years of age when he
was attached as lieutenant to the Qeneral's staff, June 15th 1817.
Two years later he was made captain of the Albion Rifles, in which capacity he served under Gen. Paez on the Apure.
He was transferred to the Anglo-Irish Legion in 1820, and served as Major in this gallant body all through the campaign, including the decisive victory of Carabobo (1821), the siege of Puerto Cabello, and other engagements.
He was promoted as Lieut-Colonel in May 1828, and held the post of Military Governor of Maracaibo during two years.
He commanded the Zulia artillery in 1831, when Venezuela separated from New Granada, and Col. Weir remaining in Venezuela was made Chief of Staff of the 1st Division.
He was appointed in 1852 Comandante General of Panama, and the same year rewarded by the Congress of Bogota with a life pension of colonel's half-pay, being still in robust health and surrounded by his family.
He was decorated with the medal of Carabobo and also with that given to the "liberators of Venezuela."

Russell Maddicks said...

The text is taken from the 1878 book by Michael G. Mulhall: "The English in South America" (Buenos Aires).


There are now hardly a dozen survivors of the military and naval heroes of fifty years ago. Many
of those who braved the sword of the enemy and
the swamps of the Orinoco, where "Death rides in
every passing breeze and lurks in every flower,"
were suffered to drag out their declining days in
poverty. But, as the years rolled on, a sense of gratitude or justice towards their English benefactors grew up among the emancipated nations of South America, and in most cases public honors and rewards were freely poured upon those who still remained as living witnesses of the triumphs- of Boyaca, Carabobo, Junin and Ayacucho.

Col. Smith, who married a native lady, became
Finance Minister of Venezuela. Colonels Woodbury,
Richards and Uzlar also married natives and settled
down for life near Caracas.
Col. Stopford became editor of a paper called the Columbiano, in Spanish and English.

Colonels Henry Weir, Thomas Murray and Edward Brand were awarded pensions by the Government of New Grenada in 1850.

Gen. Wright rose to the highest rank in the army of Ecuador, and was still living at Quito a few years ago.

Luigi said...

That's amazing Rusell thanks!.

Would you know how I can here in the UK find out about Henry's parents and other relevant information (such as when and where he was born, whether he has siblings, etc). I would like to trace back my roots here in the UK but not sure where to begin!

Another question, you mentioned in this blog that you managed to correlate who of the British that sailed to South America were legitimately enrolled in the British militia. Is Henry Weir by any chance one of these?

Thanks, regards


Russell Maddicks said...

Well Luis,

If your relative Henry weir was 17 years old in 1817 then he was born around 1799/1800.

If you have a location for him it might be easier and any idea of siblings...

There is a John Weir born in 1760 from Lanark and an online search found hundreds of Weir's in Lanarkshire so it could be the place to search Scottish birth records or Parish records:

Scottish Record Society, 1903

The following are entries for people who lived in Lesmahagow Parish, Lanarkshire, in the eighteenth century.

Weir: George Weir, in Coultershogell, Les. 14 Dec. 1713
Weir: Sir George Weir, of Blackwood, baronet, Les. 6 Feb. 1718
Weir: George Weir, son to John W. in Kirkfield-burn Les. 8 Jan. 1734
Weir: George Weir, of Kerse, Les. 14 Nov. 1751
Weir: Major James Weir, of Kirkfield, Les. 2 Feb and 3 Mar, 1702 and 12 Jan. 1709
Weir: James Weir, in Priestholme, Les. 4 Jan. 1716 and 9 Nov. 1728
Weir: James Weir, of Kerse, Les. 11 Sept. 1721
Weir: Captain John Weir, sometime in Tounhead of Hardrig, par. of Douglas, thereafter in Blackwood, Les. 2 Nov. 1724
Weir: John Weir, late of Kerse, Les. 23 Jan. 1787
Weir: Thomas Weir, portioner of Auchlochen, Les. 3 Nov. 1706
Weir: Thomas Weir, sometime in Greenrig, thereafter merchant in Lanark, 25 Feb 1723
Weir: William Weir, younger, of Birkwood, 10 Aug, 1705 and 11 Mar. 1712
Weir: William Weir, elder, of Birkwood, 2 Mar. 1716
Weir: Sir William Weir, of Blackwood, Baronet, Les. 28 May 1722 and 23 Apr. 1723
Weir: William Weir, of Birkwood, Les. 22 Oct. 1785, 9 Jan. 1787, and 25 Aug. 1794

Russell Maddicks said...

There's also a forum for Scottish genealogy hunters:

You could register here and post a query about John Weir/Henry Weir...

It would be a good start.

Luigi said...

This is great Russell this is very useful info!
I’ll do as you say. I’ll let you know what the outcome of my research is!