He was impressed into the Royal Navy
William Brown was born in Foxford in 1777, and at the age of nine he crossed the Atlantic to America, with his parents, who sought gainful employment and a new life. Unfortunately, his father contracted yellow fever, and died shortly after arrival. Young William Brown secured a position as a cabin boy aboard an American merchant ship. For ten years he sailed in similar ships, becoming a sailor and in due course, he obtained a Master’s ticket. He was impressed into the Royal Navy, and served in their Atlantic Division for a period of twelve years. His ship was captured by a French Man of War and he was imprisoned in Metz, from where he escaped, however, he was recaptured and jailed once more in Verdun, from where he also escaped to Germany and eventually travelled to England. On reaching England he went to sea again employed by the Merchant Navy, where he befriended a man called Walter Chitty, whose sister he married in 1809, in Bromley, Middlesex, England.
Emigration to Argentina
The couple sailed to Buenos Aires the following year in a ship belonging to Brown. Although this ship was lost to a privateer, Brown secured the finance to purchase another, and commenced trading on the River Plate. In 1812, he purchased land in Buenos Aires, and built a Quinta, called “Casa Amarilla”, a replica still stands there today and serves as a museum to Brown’s life. The War of Independence had been underway for some time, and the weak, small, patriot navy had been decimated by the royalist fleet on the plate. In 1814, Brown accepted the offer to command the navy, organise, and rebuild the fleet and engage the Spanish naval forces. This he did with great energy and leadership, and was raised to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and incorporated his flag which consisted of a blue Saint Andrews cross upon a white background (in fact this was an old Russian flag from its previous registration) on his flagship the Hercules.
The first naval engagement
In early March of 1814, Brown sailed out to Buenos Aires harbour with his small and somewhat improvised fleet to engage the Spaniards in battle at the heart of Spanish power on the island of Martin Garcia. This was a key position which dominated the upper River Plate, and the Parana, and Uruguay Rivers, that flowed into it. The Patriots under Brown arrived at the Island on the 10th of March and without delay engaged the opposing Spanish fleet which comprised of nine ships, armed with 18 and 24 pounders which were sheltering under the batteries of the fortress on the island. When they were within range, a furious barrage commenced. The tide was dropping and although the flotilla consisted in the main of small agile shallow draught vessels, Brown’s ship received a terrible pounding and in excess of a quarter of her gallant crew were killed in the line of duty. O
ther ships also received a battering and Brown’s comrade Captain Seaver was shot aboard the Julieta. The Chief Surgeon, Bernard Campbell a native of Scotland, struggled to cope with the large number of the wounded and dying.
They were spotted by sentries who sounded the alarm
Brown realised at sunset that his fleet had received tremendous punishment and that the chances of success were now severely reduced. After some consideration he decided to land on the island before dawn, and take the fort by storm. He was most anxious to defeat the enemy and take this strategic base, this “Rock of Gibraltar” of the River Plate.
The news that the Spanish had requested reinforcements from the nearby Colonia de Sacramento increased the urgency. During the night the patriot force under Brown was assembled and issued with cutlasses, pistols, and muskets. A number of the combatants were gauchos, and were skilled with their long facones (knives). They landed on the island at four o’clock in the morning unopposed. However as the troops approached the fort, they were spotted by sentries who sounded the alarm. Their advance was halted as men began to fall, but Brown determined to succeed in his audacious attack, called on his band to play “Saint Patrick’s Day in the Morning” which helped rally the patriots, together with shouts of encouragement from the officers many of whom were Irish. The advance was renewed with spirit and the royalists were overwhelmed and finally surrendered. Thus Brown secured his first victory against the Spanish, who retreated to the fortified city of Montevideo.
The battle for Montevideo
Following orders from Buenos Aires, Brown sailed for Montevideo, the bastion of royalist strength in South America. On arrival, Brown’s flotilla of seven ships surrounded the bay thus completing the encirclement together with the patriot land forces which blockaded the city from the land side, under the command of General Alvear. This stranglehold proved to be effective and resulted in shortages of all supplies and the outbreak of epidemics. The Spanish fleet in an effort to destroy the blockade sailed out to meet the patriots, and comprised of thirteen ships with one hundred and fifty guns, and one thousand two hundred men, under the command of Commodore Agustin Sierra. Brown wishing to have room to manoeuvre succeeded in luring them into deeper waters of the Plate in order to get between them and the port. Realising the need to be as agile as possible in combat he decided to transfer his flag to his sister vessel the Itati. As firing commenced Brown as usual was exposed to the violent gunfire, and he was soon struck down with great pain, and the crew transferred him back to his flagship the Hercules.
His constant presence was vital to success
Once back on board Doctor Campbell, who was trying to cope with a string of wounded men, attended to him. Brown refused to be carried below decks and insisted on transmitting orders through the use of a large megaphone. Campbell had no alternative but to set his leg on deck, and treat his injury as best he could, while Brown gyrated to take in the whole area of combat, and bring his guns to bear on the Royalists’ fleet. His constant presence was vital to success. Following a furious series of dramatic clashes that lasted for three days, the Patriots overcame the Spaniards and entered the harbour of Montevideo, much to the fury of the enemy commander Governor Vigodet. The ships San Jose, Neptuno, and Paloma, were captured and five hundred sailors were taken prisoner. The final destruction of the Spanish fleet was completed by 17th May and ever since this date is known as the Day of the Argentine Navy.
A series of disastrous events
On his return to Buenos Aires, Brown was received like a hero. In recognition of his valour and honourable services during the naval campaign of 1814, the government promoted him to the rank of Colonel, and transferred the ownership of the frigate the Hercules to him. Following a large banquet which was held in his honour, Brown was given the privilege of hoisting the National flag for the first time on the town hall of Buenos Aires. These victories destroyed the Spanish bastion and allowed General San Martin to pursue his land campaign over the Andes and later the Pacific and Peru. During 1815 and 1816 Brown was granted the letters of marque to conduct a corsair campaign up the Pacific coast and had successful forays against royalist shipping up to Guayaquil, where he was captured in battle but subsequently released in an exchange of prisoners. A later disastrous series of events led to Brown losing his ship in the Caribbean, and temporary detainment in Barbados. However, the matter was resolved and he was united with his family in England. On his subsequent return to Buenos Aires he ran foul of the authorities for alleged insubordination.
The Brazilian threat
When the Empire of Brazil invaded the future land of Uruguay and declared war on the United Provinces (Argentina) Brown was appointed to the rank of Admiral of the fleet in the month of January 1826, and set about recruiting, raising funds, and fitting out ships, in the face of this new threat. On the morning of 11th June of that same year, the residents of Buenos Aires awoke to see the impressive, but worrying sight of thirty-one Brazilian warships coming over the horizon heading for the port. Brown had four battleships available to him the frigate the 25 de Mayo, the Congreso, the Republicia, and the Independencia. Brown’s crews of seven hundred and fifty men faced two hundred and sixty six cannons, including two thousand three hundred sailors, and marines. Prior to the engagement, Brown addressed his crews stating:
“Sailors and Soldiers of the Republic, do you see the floating mountain of sail on the skyline, those are thirty one enemy ships. But do not think your commander has the slightest doubt about the outcome, because he does not doubt your valour. You will follow the 25 de Mayo which will be sunk before surrendering. Comrades have confidence in victory through discipline, ” Three cheers for the fatherland”. The enemy fleet sailed towards Los Pozos, opposite Buenos Aires, with twelve thousand onlookers lining the river bank. Brown let the Brazilians come in to the shallow waters, which he knew so well. Once the signal to attack was raised, Brown responded with the signal spelling out ” Rake the enemy with fire our people are watching us “.
They found themselves with their guns facing the wrong way
It was a typical Brownian manouvere and like Nelson, the victor of Trafalgar, Brown went forward into the enemy line dividing his force into two columns, and was then joined by Captain Leonardo Rosales. The patriots cut into the Brazilian fleet, dividing them into three sections, and once they were amongst them, they opened up with broadsides from both sides while the Brazilians found themselves with their guns pointing the wrong way. Also another factor in Brown’s favour was that his ships were more manoeuvrable and they were aware of the location of the dangerous shallows. Following a terrible pounding, and afraid of going aground, the Brazilians went about and withdrew. As the smoke cleared, Brown took his ships back to Buenos Aires, where the crowds went wild on his arrival. He had achieved a miracle, driving away a fleet several times the size of his, without incurring any loss of vessels. Bernardino Rivadavia, on behalf of the government, came down to the shore to greet and congratulate Brown, and the crowd carried him on high to the main plaza. Eventually peace was restored and the State of Uruguay was established as an independent nation in 1828, Brown was nominated as Governor of the Province of Buenos Aires. However, he did not seek a role in internal politics and subsequently resigned from his appointment as Director of the Bank of the Nation, and from the Navy.
The French blockade
He returned to the Navy in 1838 when a French fleet blockaded Buenos Aires, and once again organised the fleet during a confrontation involving Uruguay in 1842. He defeated the enemy ships which were led by Giuseppe Garibaldi, and during an engagement spared his life. Brown retired finally in 1845 and dedicated his time to farming, and his many friends. He died in Buenos Aires in 1857 and is buried in the Recoleta Cemetery.
A National hero
He is regarded as Argentina’s greatest naval hero and one of the founding fathers of the nation. On the centenary of Brown’s death in 1957, the Argentine nation donated a bronze bust of Admiral William Brown to the people of Foxford, and commemorations to mark his death are held in the town annually on the 3rd of March. The Irish Naval Flagship, the L.E. Eithne who was commanded by Castlebar native, Commander Mark Mellett, who is currently Officer Commanding the Irish Naval Service, travelled to Argentina in 2007 at the invitation of the Argentine Government, as part of the 150th anniversary commemorations of Admiral Brown’s death. On its return to Ireland it transported a life size statue of Admiral Brown which was erected on Sir John Rodgerson’s Quay in Dublin, as part of the 150th anniversary commemorations of his death. Also the Dublin City Corporation named a road in the vicinity in his honour.
The Admiral William Brown Society in Foxford, have over the years promoted the life of Admiral William Brown, and in the process have forged and fostered strong relationships with the Argentine Navy and nation, and the development of a fitting Memorial Park, is currently underway in Foxford. The Society are also hoping to undertake a feasibility study to give expression to the establishment of a Language School / Irish Argentina Cultural Centre, in Foxford, which would enhance the strong educational, cultural, historical, and charitable ties between Ireland and Argentina.
JJ and the Admiral
The Society in association with the Mayo Galway Association and Timesnap Productions have recently completed a film entitled “J.J. and the Admiral” outlining the life of Admiral William Brown and his champion the late J.J.O’Hara. Copies of the film and books pertaining to Brown are available for purchase from the website, http://www.admiralbrown.com/