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Admiral William Brown - a brief sketch of his life

When William Brown was born in Foxford, Co. Mayo on June, 22nd, 1777, not even in their wildest dreams would his parents have suspected that their newly-born son would eventually win fame and renown in the service of a remote South American state.  That he would become a national hero, the Father of its navy and the most popular foreigner in the continent discovered by Columbus and live for all time in the hearts of the people whose independence he furthered so ably by his heroic deeds on the waters of the River Plata.

Young Brown was only nine years of age when he was taken to the United States by his father, who died soon afterwards of Yellow Fever. The future hero’s vocation became clear early in life.  He is next heard of serving as a cabin boy in the American merchant service until 1796 when he was pressed into the service of a British vessel. 

During the Napoleonic wars, he was taken prisoner and was confined in Lorient, Metz and Verdun from which latter stronghold he managed to make his escape, eventually reaching England.

In the year 1809, he made his first trip to the River Plata.  An attempt to engage in the coastwise trade came to an end with the confiscation of his boat by the Brazilian authorities on the score that his papers were not in order.  When he returned two years later on his ship ‘Eloisa’, he found the river ports blockaded by the Spaniards as the outcome of the Revolution, which had broken out on May 25th, 1810, and the Vice-Royalty of the Rio de la Plata raised in arms against the rule of the crown of Spain.  In attempting to run the blockade, the ‘Eloisa’ ran aground and became a wreck.

Following a trip to Chile, Brown purchased a schooner, the ‘Industria’.  At this time he also erected a unique dwelling for his family – a replica of this dwelling now houses a museum to his life and achievements.  Misfortune visited the gallant mariner once again, as his boat was seized by the Spanish blockaders.

Nothing daunted the future Admiral, determined to make good his loss.  With two little sailing boats, manned by a handful of Irish, English, Scotch and American sailors, he boarded one of the Spanish blockading vessels and brought her back in triumph to Buenos Aires.  This exploit aroused the interest of the authorities and he was offered the command of a small fleet.  A better man could not have been found for the position; Brown was then in the prime of his life, an experienced navigator and thoroughly conversant with the estuary which was to be the scene of his glorious victories.

The new Commodore’s first objective was the island of Martin Garcia, which commanded the Uruguay and Parana rivers.  Strongly fortified, it was the key to the situation.  On March 11th, 1814, he attacked the loyalist position.  His flagship, the ‘Hercules’ ran aground within range of the enemy’s guns but was released and finally retired with some loss.  After repairing the damages and replacing the dead and wounded, Brown resumed the battle on St. Patrick’s Day, landed his forces and captured the island.

His next step was to blockade Montevideo which was simultaneously besieged on land by patriot forces led by General Alvear. By a clever move, Brown drew out the Spanish vessels from their base, cut off any chance they had of returning to port, completely dispersed them, captured a few while the remainder ran aground on the Uruguayan coast where they were promptly burnt.  A few days later the Argentine army entered the city.

This campaign of about one hundred days removed the most immediate danger that threatened the Revolution.  From that moment the River Plata was closed to Spain forever.

In later years, when war broke out with Brazil, all eyes once again turned to Brown.  He was called upon to improvise a fleet and meet far superior forces.  Brown, nevertheless, once again covered himself with glory.  Twenty-nine engagements took place with varied success, of which the battle of Los Pozos, which took place in full view of the people of Buenos Aires, deserves special mention.  With eleven vessels against the enemy’s thirty one, the Admiral achieved yet another victory and on landing, was embraced by Rivadavia.  The following message which he delivered to the fleet before the encounter evidences his spirit of leadership and his strong love for his adopted country.

“Sailor and soldiers of the Republic.  Do you see yonder floating mountain? They are thirty-one enemy vessels.  But do not think that your General has the slightest fear, for he does not doubt your courage and expects you to imitate the ‘Venticinco de Mayo’ (the Admiral’s flagship).  Comrades, confidence in victory, discipline and three cheers for the Fatherland”

Of Juncal – another of his famous successes – it has been said that it was the greatest victory in naval history.

Under the government of Rosas, Brown won further distinction in the engagement of Costa Brava and Montevideo.

At 2.00 a.m. on the morning of March 3rd, 1857, the greatest Irishman that Argentina has ever known breathed his last. During the prolonged illness, which preceded his death, he was visited by many of the prominent public men of his time and was administered the last Sacraments by Father Anthony Fahy, that other great Irish figure whose memory is treasured dearly by the Irish-Argentine community.

At his funeral, Colonel Mitre, who was later President of the Republic, delivered the funeral oration: “Let us venerate these remains, because that head, cold in death, bears the naval crown of the Argentine Republic and because the brief space taken up by them hold all our maritime glories”.

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