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The Remarkable life of Admiral William Brown

Talk by Gus O'Hara, of the Foxford Admiral Brown Society. Given to the Renmore History society on Thurs. 03rd March 2010

William Brown was born in my hometown of Fox ford, Co Mayo in 1777 and he died in his adopted home of Buenos Aires, Argentina, in his own bed at 80 years of age. He was accorded a State Funeral and was a Hero to a young Argentina.

Argentine ship Admiralte Brown.

Our Society marked the 153rd anniversary of his death only yesterday in Foxford, accompanied by the Irish Naval Service and representatives of Argentina based here in Ireland. In those incredible 80 years he lived a live that justifies the reverence this Irishman is given by the people of Argentina to this day.

In his adopted home named in his honour there are…1,112 streets, 415 schools, 320 parks, 6 towns and to many Argentine nationals, the great privilege of having not one but 4 football stadia in his name.

Indeed Co Mayo is twinned with a city in Argentina called Citidad Admiralte Brown, a city of some 600,000 people.

In its centre is a Monument some 25 metres high dedicated to Brown and from there each of the seven roads leading away from the centre are named after Browns battleships.

Statue of Brown in La Plata.So who was this man that a country in South America so revered that they teach their children in school about him to this day?.

Who was this man that the Argentinean Navy continue to honour by always having a ship from their fleet named Brown?

And who was this iconic figure in Argentina that was born in Foxford, Co Mayo 233 years ago and is relatively speaking little known in his own land?

Astonishingly five generations of his descendants followed him in service into the Argentine Navy.

I was privileged to meet his great great grandson in Argentina in 2007. Guillermo Brown the Fifth, the only generation not to serve as he suffers with seasickness. Imagine how guilty the poor man felt. Guileremo, by the way is the Spanish for William.

Admiral Brown Monument in Beunos AiresI hope to enlighten you this evening and leave you with a deeper understanding of William Brown who has been referred to as “The Liberator” and “The Master of the River Plate “ the enormous river in Argentina which is as wide in parts as the Irish sea which Brown knew like his own back yard where he used tactical awareness and aggression on that river to thwart many of his foes.

Before I go back to 1777 and the beginning of William Browns life may I for a moment step forward to the present day and introduce the reason that I find myself standing before you this evening.

I mentioned to you earlier that Brown is relatively unknown here in Ireland. I was born in Foxford.Well actually I was born out the road in Tuam hospital?

I wonder does that give me some kudos in Galway? In any case I was aware of this historical figure as a young boy and of the Bust of him in my hometown. I knew little else about him when I was younger

Brown's Statue on the Argentine Frigate LibertadIt was my late brother JJ O’Hara that enlightened me to the hero that Brown was. JJ was passionate almost to the point of obsession in getting the story of Brown out to a wider audience.

With his stewardship of the Admiral Brown Society in Foxford he was responsible for engaging with Mayo Co Co, both nations Embassies, their Navies and many other bodies over the years in promoting Browns name and the story of Brown that I will relate to you tonight. JJ visited Argentina a total of 18 times, often at his own expense, to encourage and foster relationships between Foxford,Mayo and Ireland with the people of Argentina.

His crowning achievement was in arranging some 70 of his fellow county men and women to take a trip to Argentina in 2007 to see the Brown story for themselves. Sadly JJ passed away suddenly in August 2008 only eighteen short months ago. We miss him as family members terribly and the town of Foxford lost a great Ambassador on that day.

However life goes on and Louise his daughter who is with us here tonight agreed to step into the role of Honorary President of the Admiral Brown society in Foxford.JJs wife Bernie is also here with us and I thank them both for being here remembering mine and their own legend. Thank you, Bernie and Louise. I meanwhile took on the duties of Chairman.

I relate JJs involvement to you tonight as I need you to understand that it ought to be he standing here with his forensic knowledge of Browns life, and not I.

I looked over the illustrious previous speakers that have entertained you in the recent past and I ask your indulgence tonight. Brian MacGabhann and his fellow lecturers set high standards you know.

In these historical surroundings my only personal connection to here is in a name. In the 1600’s this fort or barracks stood on nearby Nimmos pier and I understand that it was know by my full Christian name Augustine or St Augustine’s Fort.I have however read and re read much that there is written about William Brown. Indeed I have been fortunate enough to visit Argentina on two occasions and have a real feel for the honour in which Brown is held in that country.

The late J.J. O'Hara, pictured beside the bust of William Brown in Foxford.

I count among my friends to day many Argentines. Bill Tyson, the translator of one of the few English books on Brown, is a neighbour of mine in Dublin and we swap stories on the adventures of William Brown.

However I am first and foremost an interested civilian and cannot possibly give you a forensic account of the numerous battles nor the lateral thinking in the tactics that Brown employed.

Secondly I am a shopkeeper based in Dublin and not a Professor of Maritime History or indeed any type of history. I could argue with you passionately on the decline of your local grocer in favour of the large multiple operations that straddle our towns and cities.

But that’s a story for another audience. Therefore I propose tonight to tell you the story of our Foxford native, in the only way I am able to...As a story.

It’s a true story; one that travels from desperation to elation and back again and I believe a tale that will make it on to the big screen one day. Indeed, Browns life is already in documentary form and with finances permitting may be released next year.

So then, with those caveats to my skillset on the subject shall we travel back together to 1777 for a little while and find out some more about this Brown chap. When you want to describe somebody you knew in the past, a relative, for example it is not unusual to describe his personality first and then delve into those person’s life achievements.

So let’s start there shall we?

William Brown can best be described as fearless, tough as old boots, and by his own admission a little insane. He actually fought depression for most of his adult life.

He was also a family man and unlike his peers treated all those under his charge with a respect and fairness that was alien in any Navy at that time .He was also considerate towards his prisoners of war.

In his long life he was a merchant sea man, a commercial Captain plying his trade in South America, at one time a pirate, a prisoner of France and Argentina, a farmer, and in his naval career retired not once but three times before being called back into service by his adopted homeland.

He never lost his love for Ireland and I'll illustrate that to you later.

So we know from records that William Brown was born in Foxford Co Mayo on 22 June 1777. To give you a dateline this was the year in which Captain Cook visited Australia for the first time and was credited with discovering The Great Barrier Reef.,

In the previous year the American Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4th.And it was also the year the Spinning Jenny was invented in England, a mechanised machine that revolutionised the cotton spinning industry of the day. Google is a wonderful source of useless information.

.

'Mass Rock', Co. Galway.

Brown as a young naval officer.But all this was far away from Foxford. William’s parents were poor like many tenant farmers in the west of Ireland and conditions were stark. Williams’s father also worked in the local looms; a forbearer of what became the famous Foxford Woollen Mills. It was the Penal Times in Ireland and the practice of Catholicism was forbidden.

Williams Uncle was a priest. Fr.Brown. Young William served mass on the hills outside Foxford while a watch out was posted to warn of British Crown Forces.

Fr Brown also impressed upon young William the significance of the three 7s in the year of his birth, that it was a special and empowering set of numbers and would stand to William in later life. William held on to that belief of empowerment all of his life.

Young William also recalled his fascination with the powerful River Moy, which passed through Foxford remembered and his enjoyment being with his uncle on his boat up and down the river. Perhaps this was the earliest indication of William’s adventures to come. Williams’s father was in the position of many of his peers, racked by poverty and no choice other than to seek his fortune away from Ireland. And so it was at the tender age of 9 that William and his Father boarded passage to Philadelphia to gain employment through the assistance of a relative living over there...

William and his Father set sail in 1786 for America. He was never to see his Mother again. And it would be 61 years before he would set eyes on Foxford, Mayo or Ireland. No doubt the passage was an arduous one and on eventually arriving in Philadelphia went to seek out their ONE relative. Sadly they were informed that he had died a few weeks earlier.

Williams’s father obtained menial labour and certainly could not save enough to send for the remainder of the family Tragedy struck again in a few short months when Williams’s father contracted Yellow Fever and died. William was alone in the world. He was just 10 year of age.

18th century merchantman

He was however resourceful and went from harbour to harbour looking for work.

He was spotted one day by a kindly Captain of a Merchantman, a trading ship that travelled the Delaware and along the east coast of America. He pitied William and hired him. This is not to suggest that William had it easy.

Indeed he worked dawn to dusk all day every day as a deckhand. The Captain ran a tight ship and was not unaccustomed to pirating when the opportunity arose.

The young boy served his apprenticeship on board .He faced all the sea had to offer, manning the pumps, managing rations, taking the helm, learning the use of tourniquets to stem bleeding limbs. He faced Typhoon storms in those early years and earned his sea legs.

Crewman pressed into service.At this time the Royal navy was the great naval power of the world and were stopping merchantmen ships and checking out their crews in order to take off any British seamen and impress them into military service as they were gearing up for the conflict to come with Spanish and French fleets.

However Williams’s fortunes were about to change again. The French attacked his ship this time and he was arrested as an Enemy.. In 1804 he found himself transferred to a prison in Metz, northern France.

He managed to escape and find his way via Germany back to England.

He joined the Merchant Navy and befriended a man called Walter Chitty.Chitty’s family had a long history in maritime trade and this was to help William in setting up his own trading vessel.

The Chitty family had another asset of interest to William, the young Elizabeth Chitty who was to become his dutiful and loyal wife to his dying day. They were married in England in July 1809.William was 32.

Naval Frigate, 18th century.

After his wedding Brown invested all of his savings in a merchantman named “Jane” and loaded down with a valuable cargo set off for the west coast of South America. He successfully crossed the Atlantic but at the mouth of the river Plate approaching Buenos Aires he was attacked by a Portuguese man-o war and forced aground. Many of the merchant ships at that time were armed and Brown proved himself a worthy combatant and his enemy were forced to flee.

His by now pregnant wife was on board and he was concerned for her safety and that of his crew. Fortunately he was able to get all ashore and be paid salvage for most of his cargo. Their first child, Eliza, was born in Buenos Aires in 1810. This salvage allowed him to purchase his second ship The “Belmont” and begin trading up and down the river Plate from Buenos Aires to southern Brazil.

... The knowledge he learned at this time of the notorious shifting sands on the deltas of the river Plate and the “pampas” winds, which blew across it were to serve him well in warfare before long

On 25th May 1810 there was revolution on the streets of Buenos Aires and this date is credited as the birth of modern day Argentina.

The date is significant as a warship named The 25 de Mayo” is part of the Argentine Navy to this day. Brown was to serve on its original predecessor. As a result of the revolution the port of Buenos Aires was blockaded.

Brown, from his audacity in the encounter with the Portuguese had come to the attention of the Rebel Forces.They offered him the command of a small fleet headed by “The Hercules.”

The Hercules (left) rakes a Spanish Frigate.

Browns first battle was for control of the Island of Martin Garcia, which commanded the mouth of the Parana River at Buenos Aires and was heavily fortified by the Spanish.

The Hercules and a ragtag fleet of untrained men-about a quarter of whom were Irish-took on the Spanish Fleet. The battle took place in March and St Patricks Day 1813 was to prove eventful.

Within a few hours the Hercules was trapped, holed by cannon 80 times with a quarter of the men dead or wounded.

Brown was expected to abandon ship during the night. Instead he packed his men into rowing boats, attacked the island fort in the dark, took it and turned its guns on the Spanish Navy, winning the day in a Brownian manoeuvre. A Brownian manoeuvre is today the common term in naval forces in Latin America given to an aggressive and innovative tactic in battle.

Brown had proved himself in his first encounter. Never again were the Spanish to control the River Plate.

The traditional Irish air “Saint Patricks Day in the Morning”is now a standard marching tune in the Argentine Navy and emanates from this battle. (Click here to hear the tune as played by an Army piper on the night of the lecture)

In the following months Brown continued east to Montevideo, the last Spanish bastion on the Atlantic coast of South America and fought a series of running battles with the Spanish. Brown taunted them into coming out of their last stronghold in the area by blockading a superior force with just five ships.

Eventually they did come out and he pretended to flee-in fact he sailed a wide arc cutting them off from retreat and fought them for two days.

At one point a cannonball smashed his leg and the doctor bound it on deck while Brown continued to direct the battle.

He captured or destroyed all the Spanish ships and Montevideo surrendered.

With nowhere to land in the southern half of South America, a Spanish army of 30,000 was diverted to Colombia instead and Argentina had its independence.

Freed from the need to defend its east coast General San Martin marched over the Andes, linked up with General Bernado O’Higgins, an Irishman and in time liberated Chile and Peru.

In 1815 Brown is hailed a hero. The government of Buenos Aires reward him with the “Hercules” and grant him a licence of corsair (in effect piracy) to attack Spanish vessels in the Pacific. This decision is shrouded in controversy and politically Brown falls out of favour with his Government.

For the next three years Brown sails the high sea trading and also causes great disruption to Spanish shipping.

......

Bernardo Higgins.He eventually returns to Buenos Aries in 1818 knowing that he is out of favour and is imprisoned for disobeying orders. It’s humiliating for Brown, as he had been hailed a hero just three years previously. However he is pardoned in 1819 and released. He resigns from the Navy but retains his military grade. He returns home to a busy family life.

Eliza is 9 and has three siblings, William or Guillermero, Edwardo and baby Martina. Browns wife Elizabeth hopes that he will stay in their home in Barracas, out side Buenos Aires where he has a successful farm. He settles down to a quieter life for the next seven years. It is evident in his memoirs that during this period his mental state is at times fragile as he has time to ponder the horrific sights and experiences he endured in battle..

However in 1825 Brazil declare war on Argentina over disputed territory on the River Plate. With war looming Brown is again called up, this time appointed Admiral of the Argentine fleet in January 1826. Brown however is faced with a real shortage of vessels yet again.

The battles of Quilmes takes place and Argentina are outnumbered 23 to 7.

When 4 of those 7 are held back the odds are even greater and Brown breaks out with his flagship and limps back to port.

On June 11th 1826 the battle of Los Pozos is underway.

The Brazilians have been ordered to destroy Buenos Aries and attack with 33 ships.

Brown has just 4 ships and 7 tiny gunboats to defend the port.

Battle of Juncal. Brown engages the Brazilian fleet.

He tells the man not to fear the “mountain of sail” and he anchors his four ships across the main channel outside Buenos Aires.

The battle rages all day watched by the entire population. They can hear the ferocious cannon fire but cannot see for the smoke.

Finally the see shapes coming into port-its Browns four ships all-intact.

The Brazilians retreat, towing several wrecks with them. Brown is again the hero of the day and is adulated by city folk of Buenos Aires.

The decisive battle of the war with Brazil takes place the following year on February 8th and 9th 1827.The battle of Juncal. Brown captures or destroys 22 enemy ships without loss and Brazil retreat. This victory and further gains change the balance of power completely. Uruguay is created as a new as a new independent country.The map of South America we know today is drawn after this conflict.

The war of 1827 was not without personal tragedy for Brown. One of his Captains Francis Drummond,a Scotsman, is killed. This man is the fiancé of Browns daughter, Eliza. On hearing the news she dons her recently purchased wedding dress and walks into the river Plate never to be seen again.

Brown retires from the Navy for the second time in 1829 and is appointed Governor General of the province of Buenos Aires. However concerned with internal strife in the Government he steps down .He returns again to his farmland.

During the decade of the 1830s it is clear that Brown is uneasy with the ruling classes in Buenos Aires and he settles in Montevideo ,Uruguay where his second daughter Martina is living. He maintains a home and business interests in Buenos Aries .

An Elderly Admiral Brown.In 1838 relations between France and Argentina sour to the degree that the French Navy blockade the Capitals port. Two years of confrontation follows before this is settled. Brown did offer his services but they were not taken up. It appears that the internal strife in Argentina found Brown on the wrong side of the power base yet again.

Interestingly in September of 1838 Brown was offered and accepted command of the fleet of neighbour Uruguay who needed to build up a disciplined Navy. Brown carried out the function for five months and returned to civilian life yet again. In 1841,Brown is 64 and his country comes calling for the third time.

Ironically, Uruguay, sensing the political unrest in Argentina, authorised corsair actions by its fleet. Brown fought the Uruguayan Navy up and down the coast for the next three years defeating Giuseppe Garabaldi, the Italian who was to become famous as a Leader in his own country.

Brown retired for the third and final time in August 1845.He was 68.

On 23rd of July 1847 there is a record of William Brown and his wife Elizabeth boarding the ship “La Nifta”.

They visit England and William visits his sister Mary in Middlesex.

In Ireland he calls on representatives of Daniel O’Connell giving them $500 “wishing it was more “ towards Famine Relief.

 

Eithne on its visit to Argentina.John Grenfell.Symbolically JJ O’Hara as President of The Admiral Brown Society presented $500 to a school in Los Laurels in Northern Argentina in 2007 wishing it were more.

They later received generators and Computers courtesy of The Irish Naval Service and the Musgrave Group when the Le Ethnie visited the region in 2007.

Brown is also known to have travelled back to Foxford where he met with his brother and other family members.

The Browns returned to Buenos Aries in 1849.

During his retirement it is know that his old foe John Grenfell, former Commander of the Brazilian navy paid him a courtesy visit at his home. Grenfell had lost an arm in battle with Brown in 1825.

Brown writes his memoirs in 1852 and they are collaborated by his friend and journalist Bartholomew Mitre. Mitre went on to be President of Argentina from 1862 to 1868.

In 1856 Browns son Eduardo dies in an accident on his farm and this affects the health of the aging Brown.Surrounded by his remaining children, Guillermo and Martina and his wife Elizabeth William Brown dies 3rd March 1857. He is accorded a full state funeral with his lifelong friend Fr.Fahey of, Athenry, Galway officiating at the service. At the graveside ovation in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires MITRE, then Minister of Defence stated

“Brown in life, standing on the quarterdeck of his ship, was worth as much as a fleet to us”.

Brown's Statue in Dublin

and his native FoxfordBrowns coffin was draped in the flag from the Battle of Los Pozos.

I visited that cemetery in 2007 in the company of my late brother JJ and other family members. After visiting the crypt of Eva Peron (Evita) and Fr Fahey we made our way to the crypt of Admiral William Brown. It is a most imposing crypt and fittingly representatives of Mayo Co.Co laid a “sod of earth” from Foxford Co Mayo at the base of the monument. He is closer to home at last.

In 1803 Robert Emmett wrote on the evening before his execution “The man dies but the memory lives. That mine may not perish, that it may live in the respect of my countrymen.”

Emmett’s memory lives on. Your presence here tonight ensures you have played your part in ensuring the memory of Admiral William Brown will live on and our Society thank you for your attendance

The Admiral Brown Society would like to thank Dick O’Hanlon and the Renmore Historical Society for the opportunity to share our Admiral’s story with you.

In March 2011 we are embarking on a visit to Argentina with the Central Remedial Clinic of Ireland. It is foremost a fundraising walk for the Clinic and we have provided details of this at the table at the rear of the room. The CRC can send out an infromation pack to anyone who wants more details. Their contact number is 1800-612612.

On a personal note may I thank my colleague in the Admiral Brown Society Oliver Murphy who was central to organising the celebrations in Fox ford yesterday and is with me here this evening also.

 

 

The sail training vessel Europa approaches the Antartic research station Almirante Brown, named in honour of the famous Mayoman.


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A few of the very many tributes to William Brown in today's Argentina, in Beunos Aires, (left), Mendoza, (centre) and Vera Cruz (right).