Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Night We Burnt Down Rio - 2,500 Munster Farmers Against the Emperor of Brazil (PART 2!)

* Hi - this is the second part of a cut-down chapter from my last book - Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem - The Blackest Hearted Villains from Irish History.

The book is available on Amazon/Kindle etc - it's got 11 stories like this - have a look here Murder, Mutiny & Mayhem

This particular story is about a long-forgotten, frankly bizarre episode in Irish history, when the Emperor of Brazil tried to import thousands of farming families from Munster in Southern Ireland, to be used as soldiers and colonists in his wars and territorial struggles with Argentina.

An Irish mercenary soldier called Col William Cotter was sent to Ireland in 1827 by the emperor to recruit over 2,500 farmers and their families. Cotter told them they were going to a new life on free farms in a land of milk and honey - what they found on their arrival after sailing in an armada of ten ships out of Cork - was very different........

Street Scene from Rio - 1820s

**** The Irish settlers arrived in Rio de Janeiro between December 1827 and January 1828.

They were arriving into a city already seething with resentment against the ‘Irish mercenaries’
brought across the sea to fight a deeply unpopular war.  Brazilian newspapers, politicians and businessmen opposed to the war against the Argentines to the south had poisoned local opinion against the Irish. The German soldiers and settlers who had preceded them were already pariahs in the city and had fought running battles in the streets with the nativists and African slaves.

One English resident of Rio recorded the sight of the bedraggled Irish landing on, what must have been for peasant farmers from Waterford and Cork, a very foreign shore.

‘Mothers with their infants at their breast, young girls approaching womanhood, and athletic labourers in the prime of life were all landed in a state of almost utter nudity’.

And almost as soon as the gang-planks had lowered, the Irish settlers discovered that Colonel William Cotter had sold them a pack of lies; the agents of Dom Pedro tried to immediately press gang them into regiments that were shipping out for the still-smouldering border regions in the

Their women and children would have been left stranded on the docks and William Cotter, their only mediator with the Brazilian authorities, was nowhere to be seen.

After much confusion, the Irish were marched between files of local militia to the barracks at Barbonos Street ‘amid the taunts of the populace and the jeers of multitudes of negroes, shouting
and clapping their hands at the unexpected apparition of the “white slaves", as they pleased to denominate the unfortunate Irish’, was how one contemporary witness described the scene.

After a welcome like that, William Cotter’s promises of great opportunities in a new land of plenty must have started to ring hollow. When they reached the overcrowded, squalid barracks, they found that their living quarters and food fell far short of the standard promised by William Cotter. Their new life in Brazil had started badly and it was about to get a lot worse.

The Irish violently resisted attempts to put them into the imperial army uniform and sought help from the British ambassador, Robert Gordon. Gordon was an ‘ill-mannered and obstinate Scot’ in the view of Dom Pedro, but the British minister in Rio knew his duty and Dom Pedro was dependent on British goodwill for his plans for both Brazil and Portugal. Gordon immediately lodged a strongly-worded protest with the Brazilian court and after further pressure from the British, the Imperial army backed down on plans to press-gang every Munsterman who could shoulder a musket.

Dom Pedro of Brazil - Not A Munster Fan

Fewer than four hundred Irishmen eventually joined the Imperial army and any plans for creating an Irish Legion had to be abandoned. As they were too few to become a separate unit, the Irishmen were integrated into the Third (German) Battalion of Grenadiers and found themselves sharing the ranks with that equally-disgruntled band of recent arrivals. Who did not speak their language - but hated the Portuguese.

Meanwhile, the war on the Argentine frontier was fizzling out, thanks largely to their countryman William Brown and his destruction of Brazilian naval forces, so the Irish who did sign up never made it to the front.

The Munster settlers were now stranded in Rio with no real protectors and little or no help from
the authorities who no longer needed them to fight their war. Nothing was done to move them to the farmlands they had been promised. They lived in squalid, disease-ridden barracks and shacks and depended on the help of two British doctors, Dixon and Coates, for medicines and food relief.

The enslaved Africans – called ‘moleques’ – were in the majority in the Imperial capital, and they had their reasons for harbouring a violent antipathy towards the Irish and German settlers and mercenaries. As the poorest class of people in Brazil, the moleques took a ‘fiendish delight in tormenting the destitute Irish’, according to the Irish-born churchman Robert Walsh, calling them the ‘escravos brancos’ or ‘white slaves’ and brawling with them in the street. Abandoned, starving and unarmed, the Corkmen responded by forming ad hoc street gangs and fighting the Africans with sticks and stones through the back allays of Rio.

After six months of escalating tensions, the Brazilian government, under increasing pressure from the British and concerned about the gangs of Irish that were now threatening civil order started to look for ways to ship them out. Colonel William Cotter made a brief reappearance on the scene, charged with chastising his rebellions Irish recruits, but his presence only served to inflame the Irish migrants who felt they had been cheated and lied to.

On 15 March 1828, 101 families of Cork and Waterford emigrants left Rio on the Victoria for Salvador, a town further up the Atlantic coast of Brazil. They arrived in early August and settled as farm labourers in Taperoa, near Valença. Some struggled on to build a new life for themselves, others kept travelling northwards towards the United States.

Rio In The 1820s - Sugarloaf in the Background 

In June, the remaining eighty or so Irish serving in the Grenadier Battalion decided to join a large band of their German comrades in a violent mutiny: on the morning of 11 June, a party of fourteen mutinous German grenadiers left their barracks at Sao Cristovao to capture their hated Brazilian commander on the streets of Rio. The Brazilian major, tipped off to their approach, managed to barricade himself into a police station. The Germans stormed the police station, but the major escaped on a fast horse. The soldiers were spotted by a large party Irish soldiers and the two forces joined up and started rampaging through the streets of downtown Rio.

Their ranks swelled by Irish civilians, the mob started looting shops and bars, burning houses and terrorising the indigenous poor people of Rio, the cariocas. The Irish mob included women and children, who helped to burn up to a hundred houses and businesses, killing or maiming many of the occupants; within hours, ferocious street battles involving the Munstermen, Germans, local militias and black African slaves had erupted across Rio. The Irish soldiers and their families raged through the streets, shouting ‘Death to the Brazilians!’ and ‘Death to the Portuguese!’

Resentment had broken into the worst communal violence seen in Rio. The Irish mob shouted that they would drag Dom Pedro from his palace and string him from the nearest tree.

The Emperor’s Minister of War, Barroso responded by telling his troops; ‘Kill them all. Give no quarter to anybody. Kill the Irish! Kill those foreigners!’

Some Irish civilians and soldiers did hold back from the rampage; at Praia Vermelha, today the popular ‘Red Beach’ of Rio, underneath the Sugar Loaf mountain, an officer called Colonel MacGregor managed to restrain his Irish/German infantry battalion, but he could not persuade his men to help put down the rioting and the battalion stayed out of the street battles that went through the night and into the following days.

The Irish from the Third Battalion took the lead in the rioting and went after Colonel Cotter.

After months of hardship and lies, they wanted a reckoning with the Irish soldier of fortune they accused of selling them into slavery. The mob chased Cotter and his officers out of the Campo de Santana area of downtown Rio and attacked a police post, killing six policemen. In desperation, the authorities issued arms to the civilian population, including the slaves (an unprecedented measure - who could say they would not turn the weapons on their masters?). For the first time ever, the African population of Rio was allowed to practise their secret capoeira form of unarmed combat on the streets as they went up against the Irish mob that was armed with muskets, sticks, stones, machetes and bottles. After forty-eight hours of pitched battles, the Cork and Waterford men withdrew to their barracks and barricaded themselves in.

Brazilian troops were rushed to the capital and Dom Pedro appealed to local British and French naval commanders to land sailors and marines to help them. On 12 and 13 June, the rebel barracks were put under siege by a multinational, multi-coloured force of slaves, soldiers, sailors and marines. British and French forces, stationed on ships in the harbour, had agreed to act as holding troops at strategic points around the city to allow Imperial forces to be freed up to take on the Irish and Germans. The mutineers and their families were told to surrender; some did, but many decided to fight to the end. The episode ended in carnage, with as many as a hundred and fifty soldiers of fortune, both German and Irish, cornered and killed in their barracks. Hundreds of Brazilian  soldiers and hundreds more local civilians also died.

The surviving Irish and German mutineers were marched through the streets, back to the harbour where they had arrived earlier that year, and crammed into disease-ridden prison hulks. By this stage, Emperor Dom Pedro was desperate to rid himself of his rebellious Munster subjects and in July 1828 and with the help of the British, arranged for around 1,400 of the immigrants to be put on boats for Ireland and Britain. Perhaps as many as four hundred other Irish remained in Brazil as farmers and eventually settled in the southern provinces of Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.

This leaves some six hundred Irish immigrants unaccounted for, most of whom probably met their death in Rio, in the surrounding regions or on ships bound for some sort of sanctuary.

The emperor Dom Pedro blamed the entire incident on the minister for war, Barroso, whom he accused of inciting the mutiny and doing nothing to suppress it.

Large parts of Rio were devastated, hundreds were dead and mutilated bodies littered the streets. The Emperor’s best regiments had been battered by the mutineers and his plans to bring thousands more settlers from Ireland were in ruins. His forces, assaulted on land by Irish farmers-turned-mutineers and on sea by their countryman Admiral Brown, were in no shape to carry on the war. Dom Pedro was soon forced into a humiliating and costly concession to the French, who were looking for compensation for ships and cargoes blockaded in Rio harbour during the Napoleonic wars. And there was further humiliation for the Emperor when he was forced to concede the loss of the provinces that made up Uruguay, which became the independent state it is today.

Dom Pedro’s gamble on Irish and German mercenaries and his trust in unscrupulous men like Colonel William Cotter had backfired in grand style. There are no further accounts of Colonel William Cotter in Brazilian history. In the style befitting the man, he slipped out of the story, almost certainly weighed down with a large commission for selling out his countrymen.

****** Thanks for Reading - Joe O'Shea


  1. Thank you Joe, that is a very good narrative of a remarkable event amazingly so little mentioned in history books.

    As a Brazilian, I have no recollection of any significant lecture or texts in regular school in my student years making allusions of Irish people in Rio, nor have I noticed any paragraph dedicated to the subject in the duration of my sons' studies.

    Anyway, most countries are very tactful to filter and expose the native students only to the nations " best moments "..... as you might know, for the Turkish, Atila is known as a military hero.

    I would like to mention that Pedro II was much more successful than his father, Pedro I, and ruled much longer 1840 - 1889.
    During Pedro II the immigration was more decently stimulated : Germans, Japanese, Polish, Spanish and mainly Italians moved to Brazil to settle relatively well in the South and Southeast.
    This process was abruptly interrupted in the republican era, in the early 30's, because the just established fascist government did not want potential troublemakers.
    The Italians and Spanish were leaving their home countries to escape not only poverty, but also fascist repression and they were perceived as a threat by the Brazilian government as these nationalities were bringing communist and anarchist ideals to the Southern hemisphere.

    The story of large conflicts in Rio is congenital: the colonial " Cidade Maravilhosa " staged large battles as early as in the mid 1500's, when Portuguese-Brazilian fought to expel the established French colony called " France Antarctique ". They were calvinists united with local Tamoio indians entrenched in Fort Villegagnon.

    Fábio Guimarães

    1. HI Fabio, Thanks for your comments and the very interesting further history - I think it's not really talked about in Brazil because it was a brief, strange moment in your history - and one that nobody could have been happy about - the Irish who were taken to Rio mostly left, many ended up still fighting, some in North America, some in Portugal in the further dynastic wars - that's interesting about the French colony in Rio - I had not heard about that before.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post - thanks for reading - Joe O'Shea


Hi - I welcome comments - even if they don't agree with what I say or simply don't like it. But I always try to treat people with respect and I would appreciate the same in return. There's no point in calling me names or getting into personal abuse because there are only a handful of people in the world whose opinion of me I respect and - no offense - you are unlikely to be one of them.