The Irish in Latin America

So it’s time for a well deserved break from the history of great cities……fascinating and all as they are….and take a look at some of the stories of Irish people who got themselves involved in the independence struggles of Central and South American countries. There were quite a few, and their names are still revered in places such as Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico and others. For this and upcoming posts, I am indebted to Tim Fanning’s excellent Paisanos (2016)…..well worth a read if you’re interested.

From the awesomely named Bernardo O’Higgins and Daniel Florence O’Leary, to the more prosaically titled William Brown and Maria O’Gorman, men and women either Irish born or of Irish descent have played an influential role in the (relatively recent) history of Latin America, particularly the independence struggles of the nineteenth century (1810-25). Obviously the story of Irish immigration into the United States and Canada is much more well known on this side of the world, while we are less familiar with those who chose to seek adventure, to work and to settle further south.

Firstly, we must take a quick look at the history of European settlement in the region in order to understand how and why many Irish ended up in Latin America. From 1492, when Christopher Columbus “discovered America” on behalf of Catholic Spain…….though he landed in the Caribbean and never set foot in the modern USA……the Spanish Empire would eventually incorporate much of South America, all of Central America, and a sizeable portion of North America. An influx of Spanish explorers and opportunists followed Columbus, with many believing they would make a fortune through the acquisition of land and gold. As usual, nobody gave a shite about the people who were already there and did not want to be “civilised”.

Spanish colonization of the Americas - Wikipedia
Spanish Empire at its greatest extent (1790) [4500×2234] : MapPorn
Spanish Empire in North and South America

The sprawling Aztec and Inca Empires were eventually defeated by the Spanish, as much by the smallpox they brought with them to the New World as by warfare. By 1600 they were in control of vast areas renamed as New Granada and New Spain, with most of the indigenous people treated as little more than slaves to work their lands or in silver and gold mines, whilst at the same time seeing their sacred traditions and temples destroyed, usually by missionaries who also taught them how tolerant and merciful Christianity was. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries a rigid class system prevailed, with the Spanish-born at the top, then those of mixed race, and finally the enslaved natives and Africans at the bottom.

The Irish became part of this system mainly because so many of their families had emigrated to Spain after having been driven out of Ireland by British colonisers in the late 1600s and 1700s. Many of them and their descendants would enlist in Spanish armies and fight in European wars, some of them became successful business people in Spain, and a number ended up in the New World as administrators of the Spanish Empire. Like their counterparts in North America, many remained engaged with their Irish heritage and culture.

Irish emigration due to the great potato famine, aka Starch Trek! - Meme on  Imgur

There is only one family we can start with. One of the most celebrated Irish surnames in South America today is that of O’Higgins, due to the contributions of both Ambrose and his son Bernardo. Ambrose O’Higgins was born in Sligo in 1720, and moved to the Iberian Peninsula in his thirties. He travelled to South America for the first time in 1756 for business reasons, and returned again in 1763 as a military surveyor. On both occasions, O’Higgins exhibited his resilience and determination when he travelled from Buenos Aires to Santiago ON FOOT……a trip that involved walking across the Andes mountain range!!! He’d have been a great man to carry to the bog. Due to this determination and his close links with the Spanish Crown, he rose rapidly through the ranks of the colonial forces in South America. In 1796, O’Higgins became Viceroy of Peru, the highest royal official in South America. He died in 1801.

Bernardo O’Higgins (People Magazine Sexiest Man Alive & Sideburns of the Year 1817)

It was Ambrose’s son, however, who became the real star of the family. Born Bernardo Riquelme in 1778, he was the result of a brief fling between Ambrose O’Higgins and Isabel Riquelme, the teenage daughter of a local landowner. In order to prevent a scandal, his father had the young Bernardo placed with foster parents, and it seems that he never met his biological father. He spent much of his young life in Lima and then London, before returning to Chile following his father’s death in 1801. Around this time, along with his vast inheritance, Bernardo also decided to reclaim the famous and influential O’Higgins name

Historia - Universidad Bernardo O'Higgins
Bernardo O’Higgins University in Santiago, Chile

Today Bernardo O’Higgins is celebrated as the father of the Chilean Republic. This is primarily due to his role as a revolutionary leader who was the voice of a radical minority calling for a complete break with Spain in the early years of the 19th century. After defeat to royalist forces, O’Higgins and the patriot army marched into exile in Argentina. In January 1817, the patriot army, led by General Jose de San Martin with Brigadier O’Higgins in charge of the 2nd Division, marched into Chile and defeated the royalists. O’Higgins’ reward was to be appointed Supreme Director of Chile. Among his many achievements following independence, Bernardo O’Higgins founded the Chilean Navy and also oversaw improvements in public works, education and farming. He later alienated the church and powerful ruling elite however, and spent the remainder of his life in exile in Peru, where he died in 1842. Probably muttering about what a bunch of ungrateful bastards his countrymen and women were at the same time.

In my next blog post (which hopefully won’t be as long in the making as this one) we’ll move beyond Chile and the O’Higgins clan and examine some other exceptional individuals who played their part in the history of Latin America. Hasta luego!!

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