Scots fought for independence in more than Scotland
OVERLOOKING the Forth in the small Fife village of Culross – made famous as the filming location for the TV series Outlander – is a bronze bust of a man in the uniform of a 19th century naval officer.
A carved stone names him Admiral Thomas Cochrane, Earl of Dundonald and Marquess of Maranhao in Brazil, an unusual title for a Scot in Britain’s Royal Navy. Cochrane earned it for his pivotal role in commanding the Brazilian Navy in its War of Independence against the Portuguese.
It wasn’t even the first country he helped achieve independence. Cochrane had led the Chilean navy several years earlier in its struggle for independence from the Spanish, and he had also supported Peru’s struggle against Spain.
Cochrane’s story is just one of many times the Scots have played a role in South American history. There was, of course, the Darien Scheme in the 1690s, the notoriously failed Scottish settlement in what is now Panama in Central America, but many Scots went even further south.
The voyages of exploration of Ferdinand Magellan in 1519 and Sebastian Cabot in 1527 both had Scottish sailors among their crews.
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Other Scots settled on the continent as prisoners of war. During the Napoleonic Wars, the British unsuccessfully attacked France’s ally Spain by invading the Rio de la Plata, a region that is now split between Argentina and Paraguay. Many Scottish prisoners captured by the Spanish refused to be repatriated to Britain, choosing to stay in the area and settle there instead.
The first major Scottish settlement on the continent did not come until the 19th century. In the 1820s, newly independent Argentina further encouraged European immigration.
Over 200 Scots sailed to the country, founding a colony at Monte Grande, now part of Buenos Aires. But an Argentine civil war forced the Scots to abandon the site in 1832 and flee to the city.
The community flourished there, founding its own churches and even a Scottish school in 1838. One of its teachers, Alexander Watson Hutton, helped spread football in Argentina by introducing his students to the game. many Scottish immigrants will work as shepherds.
In the 1900s, some Scots-Argentines would become important players in the livestock and transport industries.
Further north, about 200 mountaineers settled in La Guaira near Caracas in Venezuela in 1825, but poor soil quality and conflicts with locals and Venezuelan authorities caused the settlement to quickly collapse. Most of its members left for Canada and the United States.
But of all these Scottish visitors and settlers, Thomas Cochrane had by far the greatest impact on South America.
After a childhood often spent in Culross, he joined the Royal Navy in 1793 at the age of 17. He fought in the Napoleonic Wars, capturing many French and Spanish ships in the Mediterranean.
Cochrane’s successes made him famous in Britain and saw him elected to Parliament, but he was discharged from the Navy in 1814 after being convicted of a stock market hoax.
After serving a short prison sentence and finding himself distraught in his political career, he published an advertisement in a newspaper saying that he was ready to serve any country fighting for its independence, whether in the Americas or elsewhere. At the time, the Spanish and Portuguese empires in the Americas were collapsing, with independence movements springing up from Texas to Argentina.
In May 1817, Cochrane accepted an invitation from the Chilean government to lead his navy against the Spanish. His reputation was such that Spain soon tried to hire Cochrane for its own navy instead.
He arrived in Chile in November 1818 and became the country’s first vice-admiral. With only seven ships, mostly old and in disrepair, Cochrane set about blockading Spanish-held ports and plundering their coastal forts. He managed to take the cliffside forts protecting Valdivia with a loss of only seven men after scaling the rocks under cover of darkness.
Eventually, the Spanish forces were pushed back to the Chiloé Islands off the coast. But the government believed that their independence could not be secured until Peru was also freed from Spanish rule.
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With a force of only 600, Cochrane attacked the coast, eventually leading to the withdrawal of the Spanish authorities to Lima. However, Cochrane feuded with the independence leader Jose de San Martin and left Chilean service in 1822.
This was not the end of the Admiral’s stay in South America. In March 1823, he arrived in Rio de Janeiro, where the new Empire of Brazil named him first admiral in its war of independence against Portugal. Again, Cochrane commanded a small navy of obsolete and poorly maintained ships, but his fame meant he could hire experienced British and American sailors to man them.
He attacked Portuguese-held ports, blockaded their navy, and harassed their ships as they sailed back to Europe. He also tricked the Portuguese garrison of Maranhao into abandoning the city after claiming that a larger Brazilian navy was on the way.
For this ruse, Cochrane was made Marquess of Maranhao by Brazilian Emperor Pedro I. The remaining Portuguese forces quickly left their strongholds. In 1824 Brazil was free of foreign troops.
Cochrane returned to Britain in 1825 and was soon hired by Greece, then struggling for independence from the Ottoman Empire. After the war, he was eventually recommissioned into the Royal Navy, eventually becoming Admiral of the Red, one of the highest ranks in the navy.
In total, Cochrane had helped secure the independence of four countries. At his funeral in 1860, one of his pallbearers was Admiral Grenfell, Consul General of Brazil to Britain. In 1901, a delegation of Brazilian sailors laid a wreath on his tomb at Westminster Abbey. Today, the Chilean Navy still has a frigate named after her, the Almirante Cochrane, and navy personnel lay wreaths at her grave each year.