British Legions

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Rifle regiments were decisive in campaigns of Bolívar

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.[1]:217-220 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.[2]

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.


Union Flag flies on a flagpole with clear sky and sun behind.
The Union Flag was a battle flag of the British Legions during Bolívar's campaign to liberate New Granada.[2]
Flag of the Irish Legion carried by General Devereux[3]

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 in the Vargas Swamp Battle on July 25, 1819. 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" and awarded with the ‘Order of the Liberator’ one of the rare occasions during the war when this decoration was bestowed onto an entire unit. 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.[4] 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.[citation needed]

Expedition embarked
Under command:
Number of Soldiers
Colonel Hippisley 720
Colonel James Towers English 1,200
Colonel Elson 572
General John D’Evereux 1,729
General Gregor MacGregor 600
Colonel Meceroni 300
Colonel James Rooke 200
Others 387
Total 5,508


Monument honoring the British Legions at the Bridge of Boyacá.

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.[5]

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Arana, M., 2013, Bolivar, New York: Simon & Schuster, ISBN 9781439110195
  2. ^ a b Brown, Matthew (2006). Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations. Liverpool University Press. p. 210. ISBN 9781846310447. 
  3. ^ Brown, Matthew (2006). Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations. Liverpool University Press. p. 116. ISBN 9781846310447. 
  4. ^ John Lynch (2007). Simón Bolívar: A Life. Yale University Press. p. 124ff. ISBN 0-300-12604-2. 
  5. ^ Mitre, Bartolomé: Historia de Belgrano. Imprenta de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 1859. V. II, page 321. (in Spanish)

Further reading[edit]

  • Brown, Matthew. Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simón Bolívar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations (Liverpool University Press, 2006). ISBN 1-84631-044-X
  • Hasbrouck, Alfred. Foreign Legionnaires in the Liberation of Spanish South America (Columbia University Press: New York, 1928; and New York: Octagon Books, 1969).
  • Hughes, Ben, Conquer or Die!: British Volunteers in Bolivar's War of Extermination 1817-21 Osprey (2010) ISBN 1849081832
  • Lambert, Eric. Voluntarios británicos e irlandeses en la gesta bolivariana, 3 vols. (Caracas: Ministerio de Defensa, 1980 and 1993).
  • Rodríguez, Moises Enrique. Freedom's Mercenaries: British Volunteers in the Wars of Independence of Latin America, 2 vols. (Lanham MD: Hamilton Books, University Press of America, 2006). ISBN 978-0-7618-3438-0

External links[edit]