Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Two Invasions of Buenos Aires

by Tom Williams

Latin American revolutionaries seeking freedom from Spanish rule were active in London around the beginning of the 19th century. The most famous was the Venezuelan, Francisco de Miranda who tried to persuade the British to intervene on the revolutionaries’ behalf.

In 1804, Pitt, then the Prime Minister, met Miranda to discuss the possibility of sending an expedition to South America. This was not to be an exercise in colonial conquest. The mission objective (to use modern parlance) was to be "to secure independence for the Latin Americans" as well as commercial opportunities for Britain.

Although he was sympathetic, Pitt considered that the time was not right for such an expedition. The meeting, though, had also been attended by Home Riggs Popham, late of the Royal Navy but now the Member of Parliament for Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight.

Two years later, Popham – now back in the Royal Navy as a Commodore – found himself in South Africa, where he was to assist the British army in driving the Dutch out of the Cape of Good Hope. The fighting proved surprisingly easy and Popham realised that he now had access to an army which had no immediate military objectives to meet. He saw the opportunity to sail across the Atlantic with the men who had been expected to fight in the Cape Colony and capture Buenos Aires.

In my novel, His Majesty's Confidential Agent, I suggest that Popham was ordered to do this by the British government. In reality, it is not at all clear to what extent he was following orders and to what extent he carried out this invasion on his own initiative. Whatever the truth of the matter, he arrived in the River Plate in June 1806. According to some accounts, he was assisted in navigating the Plate by a British agent. It was certainly not an easy river to navigate. Popham was quoted at the time as saying, "It was a bit bumpy," as his ships nearly grounded on sandbanks.

Popham’s army was commanded by Colonel William Beresford. The illegitimate son of the 2nd Earl of Tyrone, Beresford had served under Wellington and was held by many (though not Wellington himself) to have a less than perfect grasp of military strategy. He landed his troops at Quilmes, fifteen miles from Buenos Aires. The Spanish did not have enough troops to mount an adequate defence, and Beresford had an easy march, brushing aside the meagre forces sent to oppose him. On the 27 June 1806, Buenos Aires surrendered.

The Spanish governor had fled with the treasury, but Popham sent soldiers in pursuit and succeeded in capturing the money – over a million Spanish dollars. The idea that this was a liberation rather than a simple raid on Spanish territory was, by now, in tatters.

It seems likely that Popham's main objective was plunder. Certainly neither Popham nor Beresford had any clear idea what to do with Buenos Aires now that they had captured it. Resentment amongst the population grew.

The civilian population turned on the British. A Spanish admiral, the French emigre Santiago de Liniers, led an attack that combined regular troops, riders from the rural farms and civilians from Buenos Aires. Beresford, with around 1,500 troops now faced a combined opposing force of around 10,000. He surrendered on 12 August 1806.

The episode had been a farce and Popham, who had left Beresford to cope unsupported, was court-martialed for leaving his station. In London, though, the arrival of eight wagons of silver bullion was a source of public rejoicing. The convoy with its military escort was greeted by the Lord Mayor in his robes and regalia and the City of London awarded Popham a Sword of honour. The court-martial censured him, but it did no harm to his future career. He was promoted to rear admiral in 1814 and made a KCB in 1815.

My novel has the 1806 invasion at its centre. Generally, I've tried to be true to the historical facts. However, I drew the line at describing what happened next, because it would stretch the credulity of the reader.

The 1806 invasion ended in disaster and led to the court-martial of one of its main organisers. However, on the principle that if a thing is worth doing badly, it's worth doing badly twice, the British invaded again in 1807. Eight thousand troops, belatedly sent to assist Beresford, finally arrived on the River Plate. They successfully captured Montevideo, in modern Uruguay, but then set out to march on Buenos Aires.

A strong garrison was left in Montevideo, leaving a relatively weak force to attack Buenos Aires. The British moved without transport and with only a limited number of cavalry. By the time they arrived at the city, they were in poor shape with many of their weapons unusable. They tried to fight their way into the town but found themselves coming under fire from the tall houses which lined the sides of the narrow streets. Much of the fighting was in a road named, to this day, La Defensa – The Defence.

The Convento de Santo Domingo. The tower on the left was used as an
observation post and came under heavy fire, marked by the cannonballs embedded in it.
(Photo: author’s own)

The Convento de Santo Domingo on Calle Defensa still has cannonballs embedded in one of the towers, ostensibly from the battle that took place there. (In fact, the church has been much restored and rebuilt in the past 200 years – including the construction of the second tower – and these are not the original cannonballs.)

Unable to reach the centre of the town, despite taking around 3,000 casualties, the British asked for a truce and retreated. General John Whitelocke, the British commander, was, like Popham, court-martialed. The judge advocate noted that this was "the first Trial by Court Martial, instituted to investigate into the Conduct of a General Officer, having the command of an Expedition against a foreign Province." Unlike Popham, he had failed to extract any financial benefit from his efforts and the court was not inclined to leniency. He was found to have been incompetent and dismissed from the army.

1807 was the last time that a foreign power attempted to capture Buenos Aires. The British and Argentinian armies did not meet on the field again until 1982 when Argentina invaded the Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The British won a decisive victory. There were no military engagements on the Argentine mainland.

Reference: Byrne, Thomas 'British Army, Irish Soldiers - the 1806 Invasion of Buenos Aires in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 7:3 (March 2010), pp. 305-312.


Tom Williams is the author of His Majesty's Confidential Agent, which has just been published by Accent Press. Most of it is set in Argentina, which was convenient for him as his main interests are tango and street skating and Buenos Aires turns out to be a really good place to do both of them. Tom writes about 19th century history, Argentina and tango on his blog.

His Majesty's Confidential Agent is a Napoleonic War spy story. The hero, James Burke, was a real person who lied and spied for Britain. There's skulduggery and battles and beautiful women. Swashes are buckled and bodices ripped as Burke fights and intrigues his way from the jungles of Haiti, through the court of the Spanish king, to a bloody climax in Buenos Aires. James Bond meets Richard Sharpe in a tale that is rooted surprisingly firmly in historical fact.


  1. So much never taught in school ... thanks this was fascinating

  2. There was another confrontation in 1845 (a rather chaotic period after the declaration of independence, by the way). The Argentina navy faced the combined forces of Britain and France, an event which proved very important to enforce the country sovereignty.


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