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.
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