The 19th century was one of Irishmen fighting in armies outside of Ireland, most often in the service of Britain, as far afield as India and New Zealand, but also in other armies. We will spend more time than we have ever spent in the next while in the New World, and we will begin in South America, a continent wracked with conflicts over the independence of colonies dominated for centuries by Spain.
In the 1810’s, the iconic figure of South American politics and warfare was Simon Bolivar. A “creole” from Venezuela, he had been influenced during some of his early years in Europe by the spirit of the Enlightenment, and took Spain’s difficulties during the Napoleonic Wars as the perfect time to help launch a struggle through the north and east of South America, seeking to transfer authority from Spain to conservative elements within the colonies themselves. His efforts would eventually bear fruit in the form of six new independent nations, though the effort took over 13 years. During this period of warfare, Bolivar’s struggle attracted the attention of numerous outsiders, from Europe and beyond, seeking to be a part of this grand romantically depicted struggle.
And among them were plenty of Irish. Aside from a number of Irish individuals who served as high ranking officers on Bolivar’s staff – the beginnings of an Irish military diaspora in South America that would be surprisingly far reaching – there was also an infamous case of an Irish assembled legion of troops, recruited towards the end of the 1810’s to cross the Atlantic and serve Bolivar’s revolutionary struggle.
This “Irish Legion” was the brainchild of a strange figure called John Devereux. Born in Wexford in 1778, Devereux claimed to have taken part in the 1798 rebellion in a leading role. It is possible he was involved – as a young man in Wexford, he would have had every opportunity to join one of the rebel armies that sprang up that summer – but it is extremely unlikely he ever had command role, that was never commented upon by anybody else in the region. But that didn’t stop Devereux claiming he had, in a long letter addressed to the United Provinces of New Granada, Bolivar’s revolutionary state.
Sent in 1815, Devereux claimed to be a “member of one of the most noble and ancient Catholic families” whose efforts in 1798 were undone by the “treachery” of Protestants. He explained that he had spent the intervening years in the United States as an exile, but was now compelled by feelings of solidarity to offer his services in the cause of New Granada. He suggested that he could be useful in recruiting men from the British Empire to form a foreign legion to fight in South America, that he himself would lead.
Deluded, a con-man, or a genuine military supremo in the making, Devereux’s offer was enticing enough that Bolivar and the other revolutionaries in New Granada were willing to take him up on it. But between agreeing to this arrangement and getting back to Europe, it would be over four years before Devereux was able to make good on his grandiose promises. In 1819, he was able to scrounge up a legion that consisted of roughly 1’700 men from Britain and Ireland. There were many opportunities for finding such men: some had spent literally decades fighting in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, only to now find themselves without a profession in the aftermath of Waterloo. But Devereux had little care in selecting good soldiers, and may have been more motivated by the selling of commissions.
Slowly, on many different hired transports, these men made their way across the Atlantic, with barely any semblance of military training or equipment, recruited as much for the promise of financial reward and adventure as for any enthusiastic zeal for Bolivar’s cause. Devereux, wearing a flashy sword and a grand uniform, stayed at home, continuing to recruit.
Unfortunately for the soldiers, they arrived in South America at a time when the war they had been recruited for was actually entering its endgame, the Spanish armies reduced, cut off from supply lines and increasingly demoralised. Much like the British during the American War of Independence, the Spanish were unable to keep up a consistent challenge to revolutionaries in South America due to the inherent problems of keeping such a challenge supplied across the Atlantic. And, unlike the British, the Spanish also had to deal with the aftermath of a lengthy and devastating war on their own territory at the same time, courtesy of Napoleon.
So, when Devereux’s Irish Legion gradually unloaded onto the isle of Margarita, off the coast of modern day Venezuela, they were no longer as welcome as their commander thought they would be. Bolivar and others had gone off the idea of expensive and questionable foreign mercenaries aiding in a war effort they were doing just fine with.
Conditions on Margarita were poor. Disease, so deadly to European visitors unused to the humidity of the Caribbean, was rampant, a situation exacerbated by the terrible quality of available drinking water. Lack of pay, lack of anything to do for long periods of time, disrespect from those they had come to fight for: soon, desertion was rampant, and when Devereux’s Legion finally was sent into battle, in the Spring of 1820, they numbered little more than 600.
That battle would be Riohacha, a Spanish controlled port that is in present day Columbia, over 800 km’s west of Margarita. The operation, meant as little more than a distraction for the Spanish, was a calamitous affair. The locals fled the port at the first sign of the arriving ships, allowing the Irish to seize Riohacha without any fighting. But, after marching into the interior, the troops turned rebellious themselves, beset by mosquitos, dirty water and guerrilla attacks from the natives. Returning to Riohacha, most took the opportunity to desert on merchant vessels that offered to take them to Jamaica or beyond. Before they left, some rioted, burning a significant portion of the town. Devereux’s Irish Legion melted away.
The entire affair spoke poorly of much vaunted Irish martial courage, with the memory of the Riohacha display living long in the minds of men like Bolivar, despite the continued and often exemplery service by individual Irishmen in the same cause. Back home, the news from New Granada caused embarrassment and consternation, with Devereux soon forced to leave Britain to escape angry creditors.
He himself only arrived after his legion had left Margarita, where he was received with all of the pomp and splendour usually reserved for more successful ambassadors or generals. Remaining in Bolivar’s military for several years up to the end of the war, Devereux later served as a diplomat of sorts for Columbia in northern Europe, before spending time in a Venetian jail. Returning to the United States afterwards, he lived on a Venezuelan pension, and later died back in London, remaining as somewhat of an enigma.
The entire affair is one that has largely remained unknown in Irish history, an embarrassing sideshow in a period when the British Empire was ascendant and Irish military skill was part and parcel of this. Few, on either side of the Atlantic, really wanted to remember the events of Riohacha. But, if we are to look at the story of the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy or the Inniskilling infantry at Waterloo, we must also acknowledge the not so proud moments, when Irishmen were duped into serving in a war they would have been better off ignoring.
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