English and Irish Naval Officers in
the War for Brazilian Independence


By Brian Vale

View of Rio de Janeiro 1799


In the literal sense they were mercenaries, but that word acquired distasteful associations in the twentieth century and is best avoided. These men simply sought to earn a living. Since the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars had lasted for a generation, there were plenty of people in Europe who knew of no other occupation or had no other expectations.

South American Independence and the Sea

The Napoleonic Wars dealt a devastating blow to the Spanish Empire in the Americas. The arrest of the Spanish Royal Family in 1808 and the French occupation of Spain produced a maelstrom of revolution and led to the appointment of local juntas at home and abroad to rule in the name of the absent king. In the Americas, the juntas acquired a taste for self-government and, led by radicals and military strongmen, successively replaced the Royalist administrations with republican regimes. Argentina was in the vanguard of this movement. By 1814 it had formed an independent republic, and in 1818 Argentine troops crossed the Andes and liberated Chile. Peru was then invaded by sea and, in 1821, became an independent republic. When Simón Bolívar secured the territories to the north, in 1825, Spanish South America was free from Spanish rule.

Territorial armies and land campaigns played a vital role in securing independence, but command of the sea was also crucial. While the Spanish Navy ruled the waves it was impossible to expel the Royalists from the River Plate, capture the coastal fortresses of Chile, launch a successful seaborne attack on Peru, or prevent the arrival of reinforcements from Europe. The creation of local navies by the patriot forces was therefore a priority.

Fortunately the River Plate provinces, Chile and Peru each had access to a naval base – Buenos Aires, Valparaíso and Callao, the port of Lima. While suitable ships and equipment were readily available, manpower was more difficult to come by. In spite of its extensive coastline, South America was a continent of mines, cattle ranches and plantations. There was little in the way of maritime tradition and few people had any knowledge of the sea. The patriot authorities were faced with the dilemma of finding the sailors they needed to man and fight their ships.

The solution was partially to be found in Britain and Ireland. At the close of the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy was effectively demobilised. Within a few years, the number of ships in commission had fallen from 713 to 134 and the number of men from 140,000 to a mere 23,000. Of the navy’s 5,264 commissioned officers, 90% were unemployed and eking out a living on half pay, while at the level below there were legions of former Midshipmen and Masters’ Mates who received no salary whatsoever. Among these thousands it was not difficult to find officers and men eager for the pay and prize money offered by a foreign war.

In 1818, the newly liberated state of Chile sent a special recruiting mission to London in search of men and materials. This proved a successful undertaking, and within two years, the new Chilean Navy could boast fifty officers and 1,600 men, the majority in each category originating from Britain and Ireland.. The commander-in-chief was one of the naval heroes of the age – a Scottish naval officer, Thomas Lord Cochrane. Cochrane was a political radical; a military genius at sea but a quarrelsome nuisance in port. Within two years, Cochrane and his men had swept the Spanish Navy from the Pacific and had helped to secure the independence of both Chile and Peru. Inspired by the Chilean example, when Argentina went to war with Brazil in 1825 over control of the northern bank of the River Plate, the country also toyed with the idea of recruiting officers and men in London. This proved unnecessary as, from the beginning, cheap, available land, high wages and a temperate climate had made the River Plate ideal for European settlement. The Argentine authorities found, as they had during the war of independence, that there were already enough European immigrants with naval experience to man the new navy it had created under the command of the Irish-born William Brown.


The Case of Brazil

Across the Andes in Portuguese Brazil, the impact of the Napoleonic Wars resulted in differing outcomes. In 1807, the timid and corpulent Regent of Portugal, Dom João, had avoided capture by Napoleon by moving his court and government lock, stock and barrel to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro became the capital of the Portuguese Empire and the country boomed as a result. By 1815, Brazil had been raised to the status of a kingdom – equal to Portugal in the Braganza dominions. However as a result of the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, King João VI, as he was now known, had been forced to return to Portugal, leaving his son, the charismatic 23 year-old Prince Pedro, as Regent. As soon as the king had returned to Lisbon, the Portuguese attempted to turn back the clock and reduce Brazil to colonial subservience, provoking anger and widespread resistance throughout the country. A revolt was masterminded by Brazil’s Chief Minister, a tough 58 year-old scientist turned politician called José Bonifácio de Andrada e Silva. It was de Andrada who won the impetuous young Prince over to the cause and led the country down the path of independence. On 7 September 1822, Pedro made his historic declaration of ‘Independence or Death!’ and a fortnight later, he was crowned Emperor of Brazil.

The Brazilian revolt was therefore of quite a different nature from that which had taken place to the southern side of the Andes. In Spanish America, the independence movements had been led by republicans who had swept away the old system and created new institutions run by new men. In Brazil, on the contrary, the independence movement was led by the heir to the House of Braganza and was monarchical from the beginning. The machinery of government therefore remained intact, as did the naval infrastructure, its personnel and its organisations – the Ministry of Marine, the Navy Board, the Hospital, Academy, and the Dockyard. The Brazilian government promptly provided itself with a fighting force by seizing fourteen warships and fourteen schooners of the Portuguese Navy deployed in Rio de Janeiro and the River Plate.

Independence had not yet conclusively been achieved in Brazil. When Pedro made his declaration in 1822, only the central region around Rio de Janeiro was under Brazilian control; the rest of the country continued to be dominated by Portuguese juntas and troops occupying the towns and the coastal capitals. The most significant of these were Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon; São Luís do Maranhão on the northern coast; and Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia and the site of a great naval arsenal and military garrison. Although under siege by a rag-tag Brazilian army, Salvador was seen as the springboard for re-conquest and reinforcements were already en route from Portugal.

In Brazil however, there were two factors in the situation which had a familiar ring. As in the Pacific, maritime dominance was crucial. Only by seizing control of the sea could Brazil cut off the flow of reinforcements from Portugal, blockade and expel the enemy garrisons, and make independence a reality. As in Spanish America, there was a critical shortage of naval manpower. Brazil, like Chile and Peru, was a country with no sea-faring population or maritime tradition. Not only was there a lack of local recruits to man the ships which comprised the new Brazilian Navy, but the officers and men who had worked on the vessels which José Bonifácio’s government had commandeered in Rio de Janeiro were Portuguese by birth and of doubtful loyalty.

The Brazilian solution was the familiar one of looking to Britain and Ireland for the men it needed. The first recruits, found in Rio de Janeiro, were two young English Sub-lieutenants, William Eyre and George Manson; and three senior officers - an American captain called David Jewitt, Captain Mathias Welch of the Royal Portuguese Navy and Lieutenant John Taylor of HMS Blossom who, to the fury of the Admiralty, resigned his commission to become a Brazilian frigate captain. News had also reached Rio de Janeiro that Lord Cochrane’s glorious career in the Pacific had ended in bitter squabbles over pay and prize money, and that the commander was looking for a job. Pedro promptly offered him the post of commander-in-chief of the new Brazilian Navy with the rank of First Admiral. Cochrane accepted, and arrived in Rio in March 1823 accompanied by five officers, all of whom were commissioned into the Brazilian service [1] – an Englishman, John Pascoe Grenfell, a Scot, James Shepherd and two Irishmen - Cochrane’s flag captain Thomas Sackville Crosbie and Commander Bartholomew Hayden. The nationality of the fifth officer, Lieutenant Stephen Clewley, was not recorded.

The major Brazilian recruiting initiative was, however, carried out in the ports of London and Liverpool in the winter of 1822-1823. Urged on by Brazil’s agent in the British capital, General Felisberto Brant, who was receiving alarming reports of the despatch of Portuguese reinforcements, the Government authorised a recruiting campaign and the purchase of huge quantities of arms and naval stores. [2] On 26 December 1822, Brant appointed a compatriot, Antônio Meirelles Sobrinho, as Vice‑Consul in Liverpool, where he hoped to source the bulk of the men. Meirelles was told to offer up to £2.60 a month - a figure which compared favourably with the £1.60 paid to Able Seamen in the Royal Navy - and was ordered to raise 150 sailors in as expeditious and clandestine a manner as possible. In London, Brant employed a former Royal Navy officer, James Thompson, as his agent. Thompson was appointed as a Brazilian frigate captain and authorised to find fifty men and five junior officers. [3]


1 - 2 - 3 - Appendix


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 July 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Vale, Brian, 'English and Irish Naval Officers in
the War for Brazilian Independence
' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" Vol. 4 N° 3 (July 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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