How Venezuela’s independence from Spanish colonialism 184 years ago was won by the Irish!

Let’s get it right, right from the start!

The BRITISH Legion honored at each year’s Anniversary of the Battle of Carabobo (June 24, 1821) was mostly IRISH! — it had started out in 1812 – 1815 as the IRISH LEGION, under the command of The Liberator, Simon Bolivar.

The unruly assortment of volunteers from Ireland, who had joined Bolivar’s War of Independence against the colonial Spanish, quickly found that their capacity for alcohol, their incapacity for discipline and a single common denominator of language placed them collectively (and very loosely) in a “British” Legion with straggling English, Welsh and Scottish mercenaries of war.

  • The truth remains that the overwhelming proportion of the Anglophones were IRISH. Britain’s then colonial connection with the Emerald Isle has unfortunately perpetuated the “British” misnomer, and dogged historical fact.

Throughout Venezuela’s and South America’s liberation history you’ll find more records of the Irish than the Brits. One thousand men of the (clearly defined) IRISH LEGION landed on Margarita Island in August 1819. And two thousand one hundred more Irish soldiers reached Venezuela in organized Irish regiments during the next years. Twelve thousand were to follow in their footsteps to secure liberty for South America from brutal Spanish colonialism.

It’s clear Bolivar was glad to have the fighting Irish on his side; fresh from the bloody battlefields of Europe, survivors of the Napoleonic Wars. Bolivar appointed a Dr. Thomas Foley (from County Kerry) as Inspector General of his Military Hospitals. Another Kerry-man, Arthur Sandes, rose to the rank of Brigadier-General under Bolivar and became a military legend remembered well in Quito, Ecuador. Bolivar, in fact, may have owed his life to an Irish Lieutenant Colonel, William Ferguson, who died defending The Liberator from his political enemies. Ferguson died during a murder attempt against Bolivar (September 25, 1828) but the Liberator had already left the San Carlos Palace by the time the brave Irishman showed up. Not knowing that Bolivar had already managed to flee, Ferguson bravely decided to attack the rebels and was shot to death.

Daniel Florence O’Leary, from County Cork (his mother was from Belfast) gained Simon Bolivar’s highest esteem, was appointed Bolivar’s personal Aide-de-Camp and as Bolivar’s military and political strategist, also rose to Brigadier General. O’Leary’s memoirs are an extraordinary compilation of eyewitness accounts, personal correspondence and documents which provide the best historical insight into Venezuela’s and South America’s Independence period … O’Leary’s writings, published in Caracas by his son, fill 34 volumes!

The significance of the Irish Scholar-cum-Political and Military Strategist to Bolivar is seen in the fact that in 1882, twenty-eight years after O’Leary’s death in Bogota, Colombia, of a cerebral hemorrhage, the Venezuelan government removed O’Leary’s mortal remains to Caracas, where they now lie in honor with the sacred remains of The Liberator, himself, in the National Pantheon.

The independence struggle in faraway Venezuela had already touched traditional chords in Ireland, which had always sent its sons to serve and fight in foreign wars. The Irish Friends of South American Independence threw a fund-raising banquet on July 19, 1819 and eager young Irish men volunteered by the hundreds to join the Irish Legion for faraway adventure.

But, many of the Irish to reach Venezuelan shores, scarcely made it off the ships that carried them on the 4,5OO miles voyage to South America. Bolivar had only $1,OOO in his treasury and could not pay for their food or uniforms, much less to arm them for the battles in which almost all of them would subsequently lose their lives.

Clothing and medical supplies were almost non-existent and many of the fair-skinned Irish succumbed to the harsh tropical sun, starvation or unknown disease. They lived in flea-invested shacks on the shores of Margarita Island and dysentery, typhus and yellow fever took their toll. Irish Captain W. J. Adam in his “Journal of Voyages” (Dublin, 1824) dramatically describes the crisis lived in Juan Griego during September, 1819: “Two of our Officers (Davis and Jones) died, and were buried with military honors in the sands: many others were lying a prey to wretchedness and want, without beds, proper nourishment, medicine or care.

Ten to twenty Irishmen per day were being buried in the sands of Margarita’s Juan Griego and at Playa El Agua, many of the bodies simply crammed into wooden barrels. In seven months, five hundred and fifty (550) Irish soldiers died … and that was before any battle had begun!

Later they were to be used as an amphibious raiding force, baiting Spanish royalist garrisons along the Venezuelan and Colombian coasts, drawing their attention away from Bolivar’s inland campaign. In one assault, on Riocacha, the royalists were right royally routed and the Irish Legion flew its flag — bearing an Irish Harp — high over Riocacha’s fortress and the Irish-occupied town. Under the leadership of General Mariano Montilla the Irish Legion was force-marched across the Guajira Peninsula towards Maracaibo but were all but wiped out in an attack by Guajira Indians, armed by the Spaniards, who lay in ambush. The Spanish cruelly stood and watched Irish soldiers burn to death after torching their rearguard Headquarters, some Indian huts.

The Irish Lancers, under the command of Colonel Francis Burdett O’Connor (from County Cork), brought up last-minute assistance with two field guns and a company of sharp-shooters. O’Connor himself led a charge against an enemy force estimated at 1,7OO and sent the Spaniards fleeing. The feat was itself remarkable since the supposedly light cavalry didn’t have so much as a horse among them….

According to different accounts General Montilla spoke and understood English fluently. Captain Charles Brown in his “Narrative of the Expedition to South America” (London, 1819) says “he is a man of considerable talent, speaks remarkably good French and English, but is false and intriguing, and very little respected.”

Finding their valor and fighting prowess generally unappreciated by General Montilla many of the surviving Irish soldiers demanded to be returned home to Ireland. When Montilla tried to starve them into submission, the soldiers ransacked towns and villages, looting valuables and drinking all the alcohol they could find. Fires were started and Riocacha’s fort was blown up, the town virtually razed to the ground.

“The soldiers,” Montillo wrote, “have combined dishonor with barbarity, for they have requited friendship and kindness of the people of Riocacha by setting fire to the town.”

Was it a last laugh or a cruel cynicism of the times? General Mariano Montillo got in touch with the British Colonial government in Jamaica and sold 3OO mutineers into the virtual slavery of the British Army. The deal was cast on June 4, 182O, and General Montillo, himself, pocketed the proceeds!

Back in Dublin Daniel O’Connell, the Irish lawyer and fervent orator on behalf of Irish Independence from Britain, wrote to Bolivar in 182O that he saw Bolivar’s war with Spain as paralleling the Ireland’s own struggle with England. He roused moral and financial support for Bolivar and sent his 15 years old son, Morgan, to fight for South America’s liberation and Bolivar’s grand vision for the continent. Captain Morgan O’Connell arrived in Venezuela on June 12, 182O and became the Irish Legion’s youngest officer.

Morgan O’Connell reached Margarita just eight days after the Irish mutineers had been packed off to Jamaica. Bolivar didn’t mention the fact to his good friend’s son but afforded him all the privileges of his rank and at each successive reception to welcome the new arrival, toasts were raised to “Daniel O’Connell, the most enlightened man in Europe.” Morgan soon found that he was being “kept out of harm’s way” out of respect for his father and, after a year bored with partying, he left South America intending to return home.

O’Connell quickly found “adventure” on the return voyage: he survived tropical fever and was shipwrecked twice. He ended up stranded in Cuba and was rescued by an Irish schooner captain, who turned out to be a long-lost Irish cousin, although several times removed. After his new-found cousin was killed during a fight with his boatswain, Morgan switched ships to a Danish vessel under the command of an Irishman from Cork. He finally got back to Ireland aboard a British warship in January 1822. O’Connell’s return to Ireland marked the end of the Irish Legion as an independent unit of Bolivar’s Liberation Armies.

Irish soldiers, however, went on to distinguish themselves in The Liberator’s service : Colonel Francis Burdett O’Connor’s Irish Lancers, reformed after the mutiny at Riocacha and the sale of the mutineers to Jamaica, were finally given horses and rod e to successfully beseige the ports of Cartagena and Santa Marta, leaving 69O Spanish royalists dead. O’Connor personally accepted the surrender of the city. He went south with his surviving Lancers to fight the Peruvian campaign with General Antonio José de Sucre. As the latter’s Chief of Staff, he set the military strategy for the decisive Battle of Ayacucho.

By 1824, the Irish Lancers had been so decimated by death and disease that there was only one survivor, a trumpet-boy called Patrick, who was stricken with a fever in Recuay in Peru and died there on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. O’Connor went on with Sucre to liberate Upper Peru and help establish Bolivia as a new and separate nation. He was promoted to General, became a Bolivian citizen and living out his life as a farmer with a Bolivian wife and family.

Just three years previously, 1821, had seen the decisive battle on the plains of Carabobo where many Irish lives were slaughtered for Venezuela’s liberation. The misnomered “British” Battalion took the initiative to rout the royalists (who had pinned down Bolivar’s cavalry), themselves with tremendously bloody losses.

In supreme sacrifice for Venezuela, the Legion lost all of its officers before, led by an Irish Sergeant Farrier, they could enter Carabobo with the patriot forces. Honoring the dead and wounded, Simon Bolivar re-named the Legion “The Carabobo Battalion” and conceded the exclusive and perpetual privilege to parade with mounted bayonets.

Roy S. Carson

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