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British Legions

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British Legions

The British Legion or British Legions were foreign volunteer units that fought under Simón Bolívar against Spain for the independence of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru. Venezuelans generally called them the Albion Legion. They were composed of over seven thousand volunteers, mainly Napoleonic War veterans from Great Britain and Ireland, as well as some German veterans and some locals recruited after arriving in South America. Volunteers in the British Legion were motivated by a combination of both genuine political motives and mercenary motives.

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Their greatest achievements were at Boyacá (1819), Carabobo (1821), and Pichincha (1822), which secured independence for Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. They also took part of the last major campaign of the Independence wars, culminating in the Battle of Ayacucho in Peru (1824), which marked the end of the Spanish rule in South America. The British Legions fought until the end of the wars, their number much depleted.

Background

In March 1819, Bolivar combined most of his foreign volunteers into a brigade of 250 men named the British Legions, with James Rooke as commander. The British Legions consisted of the 1st British Legion led by Colonel James Towers English, the 2nd British Legion led by Colonel John Blossett, and the Irish Legion, led by Colonel William Aylmer (1772–1820).

The British Legions were an important part of Bolívar's army. They played a pivotal role in the Vargas Swamp Battle on July 25, 1819, and Bolivar credited them with the victory at the subsequent Battle of Boyacá on August 7, 1819, saying "those soldier-liberators are the men who deserve these laurels." At the victory at Carabobo Bolívar described the Legions and all who served in them as "the saviours of my country", for they fought in the battle as part of the 1st Division, led by General Jose Antonio Paez. Nonetheless, for a long time they were largely forgotten to history.

As a reward for their service, they were given the Carabobo battle honour by the general staff of the Patriot forces, and all its personnel rewarded with the Liberators' Star by Bolívar himself, 20 days after the battle.

Motivation

The motivations of volunteers for the British Legions were mixed. Many Britons were still concerned by the threat that Spain, as a restored world power, potentially posed to Britain. Despite Spain and Britain having been allies in the Peninsular War just a few years before, many Britons' image of the Spanish in America was influenced by the now-disputed Black Legend. Volunteers were also motivated by the liberal propaganda of Bolívar's supporters that portrayed the war as bringing freedom and rights to people under Spanish tyranny. For these reasons, particularly the former, the recruiting of British volunteers received tacit government support, even if in principle the British Crown discontinued its support to the insurgents after the Congress of Vienna in 1814.

However mercenary interests also played a large part in motivating potential recruits, who were often unemployed, and who perceived South America as a land of immense wealth of which they would be able to have a share. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars the British Empire no longer required a large standing army. In April 1817, The Times calculated that there were 500,000 ex-soldiers in a British population of 25 million. After a quarter-century of Continental wars—both the wars against Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic Wars—these men had no other employment history or trade and, therefore, often found themselves in poverty. South America's wars of independence provided many of them with an opportunity to continue their military careers and escape from the prospect of inactivity and poverty at home.

References

British Legions Wikipedia


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