Ireland’s Wars: Mercenaries In Brazil

The sad legacy of European colonialism, throughout the world, has often been additional violence once the colonial occupier withdraws, as internal factions seek control of new nation-states, and neighbours vie for control of a larger region. South America, after centuries of Spanish and Portuguese domination, was no different. In the 1820’s, the newly independent Empire of Brazil and the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata (an early form of what would become Argentina), came to blows over the portion of land between them known as the Cisplatina or “Banda Oriental”, what would one day be the nation of Uruguay. And in 1828, this New World conflict suddenly involved Irish mercenaries, in another infamous incident.

By 1827 the war, which had lasted over two years at that point, was in a state of protracted stalemate, with the Argentinian forces dominant on land but pegged back by Brazilian success at sea. Neither side was able to make major headway, and economic problems, from a war growing ever longer for the Brazilians and an effective blockade on their ports for the Argentinians, was making the entire effort seem pointless.

In an effort to swing things in Brazil’s favour, Emperor Don Pedro I decided to seek support from abroad, utilising the talents of one of his military officers, Irishman William Cotter, one of many seeking military fortune and success in the New World, who had managed to rise far. Cotter eagerly took on the assignment, and returned home to seek volunteers for service in Brazil, while others went to the German states looking for the same thing.

The problem was that military service in Brazil was not the most attractive prospect: dangerous work, low pay, horrible conditions, everything that had so badly affected the efforts of others to get the Irish involved in wars further north on the same continent. So, Cotter decided to lie. Instead of presiding over a recruitment drive for soldiers, he decided to look for farmers.

Offering free passage over the Atlantic and a substantial track of land once they arrived, Cotter sold people on the idea of finding prosperity and peace in Brazil and paying their way through agricultural work for the nascent Empire. No mention was made of fighting in a war against Argentina, only the possibility of being part of a stand-by militia, that would not affect their primary agricultural purpose.

As mentioned before, conditions in Ireland around this time for the poorer class could be trying, and the possibility of finding land and wealth in a new country was tantalising. Cotter soon had a few thousand people signed up for his endeavour, many accompanied by wives and children, who boarded nine ships in Cork harbour and set sail for Brazil in August of 1827. Many sold what little they had to buy farming implements for their new lives.

After arriving in Rio de Janeiro a few months later, the Irish were in for a surprise. Assigned to barracks after disembarking, they were given poor quality food, water and clothing to survive on, and many refused to serve in any military when push came to shove. Those that agreed went through many of the same trials and tribulations that others had before them, dealing with poor leadership, terrible training, inferior weapons and never-ending idleness in which discontent formed rapidly. The war they had been recruited for was rapidly coming to an end by that point: a British and French backed mediation was pushing for a resolution. So, the Irish and German mercenaries stayed in barracks, spending much of their time imbibing large quantities of readily available rum.

On the 9th of June 1828, German mercenaries began a revolt, freeing a comrade undergoing a lashing for a minor indiscretion and attacking hated officers: 200 nearby Irish soon joined them. Seizing weapons and liquor, what was essentially a large scale riot broke out in Rio, as the homes of officers were burned and suburbs were wrecked by rampaging mercenaries. Within a day, the mercenaries could claim to control a significant chunk of the city, insofar as drunk soldiers can have control of anything.

The local forces proved totally inadequate to quell the violence, and soon citizens and slaves were given arms and sent into the fight, some of whom did so willingly due to an undercurrent of racial tension that had accompanied the arrival of the Irish and Germans to Brazil. These new forces, though fighting an extended street brawl rather than a battle, did succeed in pushing the Europeans back into their barracks’, where they shut up shop.

Unable to break through with what they had, the Brazilian authorities turned to British and French marines who were stationed in ships then docked in the harbour: with their help, the barracks’ that had been taken over were either stormed or surrendered. The mercenaries that had survived were either shipped off to frontier provinces to become farmers, as many had always wanted, or were sent back home over the sea, at the expense of the Brazilian government.

The entire incident contributed to the ending of the war: Dom Pedro’s limited army suffered bad enough casualties in suppressing the rebellion that it affected any possibility of forcing a breakthrough in the Cisalpine, leading the Brazilians to be more willing to sign the resulting peace treaty, that recognised Uruguayan independence. While it is extremely unlikely that any such breakthrough could have been achieved in the best of circumstances, the mercenary revolt still played a part in drawing proceedings to a conclusion.

As with John Devereux’s unfortunate legion, the entire affair was another black mark to the martial reputation of the Irish abroad, though at least in this case the Irish had been largely duped into military service, and then behaved as soldiers who had been duped. In terms of New World military endeavours, the combination of lousy leadership and training, poor food and water and missing wages, make the revolt a classic example of military bungling, with a predictable result.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

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3 Responses to Ireland’s Wars: Mercenaries In Brazil

  1. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: Index | Never Felt Better

  2. Pingback: Ireland’s Wars: St Patrick’s Battalion | Never Felt Better

  3. Donald R. Bruce says:

    John Clancy &
    Elizabeth Mary (Ahearn) Clancy.

    On my mother’s side of my own Bruce surname family John Clancy was my 3rd great-grandfather and Elizabeth Mary (Ahearn) Clancy was my 3rd great-grandmother.

    They emigrated from Ireland to Brazil in 1827, and came to America in 1828, but here I am most interested in finding out more about them in Ireland before they left in 1827.

    1. John Clancy, c1800-c1835. Husband.
    2. Elizabeth Mary (Ahearn) Clancy, c1799-c1835. Wife.
    They were likely both born in or near Waterford, Munster, Ireland. They likely married in or near Waterford, Ireland, in c1820.
    3. Nancy (Clancy) Burns, 1822-1917, was born in Waterford, Ireland, on 4 Feb 1822. Daughter.
    4. Her sister, Francis Ellen (Clancy) Matthews, 1825-1909, was also born in Waterford, Ireland, on 3 Feb 1825. Daughter.
    5. There was a son, born ?-died ?
    6. There was another daughter, born ?-died before mid-1830, in addition to Nancy Clancy and Francis Ellen Clancy.
    The son and daughter were also likely born in Waterford, Ireland, but I have no idea of their names, or when, or of their birth order. Newspaper interviews of Nancy (Clancy) Burns helped fill in many of these Clancy family details.

    The Clancy family were six people among the many who were “falsely lured” by one Colonel William Cotter, born?-died?, to move to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This recruiting happened from late 1826 until well into 1827. England’s and Ireland’s newspapers covered all those and more related events and their aftermaths in considerable detail.

    Colonel Cotter promised them all a stipend, food, clothing, shelter, farm land, and even a little bit of militia training.

    Most of those eager emigrants were from northern County Cork, and specifically the towns of Mallow, Carrigeen, Buttevant, and Doneraile, each of which was named in an 1827 newspaper story. How our Waterford Clancy people found out about it I do not know, but assume that the invitation in Brazil was more widely publicized than just in northern County Cork.

    A total of 3,169 Irish undertook the risky voyage, and all ten ships set sail from Cove of Cork between 04 August 1827 and 03 October of 1827. The ships were: 1. Retrieve, 2. Combatant, 3. Elizabeth/Eliza/Elisa, 4. Arcurus, 5. Clarence, 6. Edward, 7. Promise, 8. Charlotte and Maria. 9. Euphrates, and 10. Camden, as per several newspaper articles.

    The Clancy brother, 5., would die of yellow fever off the African coast, and the Eliza or Elisa, Captain/Master Searchwell, would wreck on the African coast.

    The Clancy family were among those who shipwrecked in route, and most likely aboard the Charlotte and Mary aka Charlotte and Maria, aka Charlotte Maria aka Charlotte? Captain/Master Bancroft, and sometime in November of 1827. After being cared for by natives near Cape Frio, Brazil, the survivors were eventually rescued likely arrived in Rio in December of 1827 or in January of 1828.

    It was only the two shipwrecked vessels, Eliza and Charlotte and Maria, whose passenger lists would survive and to this day in the Brazilian archives. See newspapers and the wikipedia shipwreck list for November 1827. See especially the Ex-Combatentes Irlandeses em Taperoa book.

    There was a “Clancy, John, [#]245” on the Charlotte and Maria passenger list, and I think that was our John Clancy, and his family. On arrival in Rio John Clancy “had” to join the Brazilian army. All of the Irish and the German mercenaries were badly treated by the Brazilians and that lead to much unrest and major trouble.

    A few of the Irish mercenaries, along with most of the German mercenaries, revolted in Rio from 9 through 13 June, 1828, and after the revolt was crushed, almost all the Irish were kicked out of Brazil by Emperor Dom Pedro I. They were sent back to Ireland and/or to England, and at Brazil’s expense. Numerous books and other varied sources detail the events leading up to the bloody uprising, the short-lived revolt itself, and its tragic aftermath. The older books can be found at The Internet Archive online at Look especially for The History of Brazil by John Armitage vol 1 of 2 and Notices of Brazil in 1828 and 1829 by Robert Walsh.

    Our Clancy family came instead to Portland, Cumberland county, Maine, USA, and arrived there late in 1828, most likely.

    John Clancy apparently had two brothers already in Maine, as recorded on a John Clancy ancestry sheet. I did find a David Clancy in Dresden, Lincoln county, Maine, and another David Clancy in Richmond, Sagadahoc county, Maine, in the 1830 US census for Maine, but I am not sure one way or the other as to their being related to our John Clancy.

    A “John Clancey” did appear in the June, or sometime thereafter, US Federal Census of 1830 for Portland, Cumberland, Maine. Note the extra “e” in Clancey.
    1. Male [age range] 0-5, 1 [Michael Albert Clancy, son.]
    2. Male [age range] 20-29, 1 [John Clancey, husband.]
    3. Female [age range] 5-9, 1 [Nancy Clancy, daughter.]
    4. Female [age range] 5-9, 1 [Francis Ellen Clancy, daughter.]
    5. Female [age range] 30-39, 1 [Elizabeth Mary (Ahearn) Clancy, wife.]
    Yes, Elizabeth Mary (Ahearn) Clancy was older than her husband John Clancy, according to the census. It would be both parents first and only US census.

    The third sister, 6., died after they reached Portland, but before the 1830 census was begun, I presume.

    John Clancy appeared again and in the November 1830 Portland, Cumberland, Maine, city directory as: “Clancy, John, laborer, King street.” And that was his entire entry of just five words.

    I think that both the 1830 US census and the 1830 city directory entries were/are our very own John Clancy and his family. Early on in the USA Clancy was not a common surname. That would change after the Great Famine, 1845 to 1849/1850/1851.

    I deliberately stop with their Clancy story soon after their arrival in Maine, that is in 1830, as I am most interested at this time in finding them in Ireland before they departed for Brazil in 1827.

    Any and all help with their years in Ireland from about 1799 and into 1827 will be most appreciated.

    Don Bruce

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