Thursday, August 16, 2012

How Britain Created Colombia

Daniel O'Leary, a soldier from Ireland
who also preserved Simon Bolivar's personal
documents for history. 

Of course, that's probably an exaggeration. But I thought about it while looking at some English miniatures now on display in the National Museum in Bogotá.

The technique of creating miniatures probably came to Colombia with the Royal Botanical Expedition of 1783 to 2016, led by Celestino Mutis, which created miniatures to record plants encountered during the travels. After the expedition's end, artists sought other ways to earn money, such as making portraits of the wealthy.

One of the tiny portraits on display shows Irishman Daniel Florence O'Leary. He was an aide-de-camp under Simon Bolivar and perhaps the most famous member of the British Legion, a volunteer force which fought alongside Bolivar against the Spanish empire. The British effort was not altruistic, of course: they wanted to weaken a rival empire and rule the world - which they eventually accomplished.
England's King George IV: A dissolute,
unprincipled man, but nevertheless
admired by Colombians.

Even after the colonies had broken away from Spain's rule, their real independence wasn't assured. France, which practically controlled Spain, considered trying to reconquer the colonies. And a coalition of Europe's conservative monarchies talked of sending members of European royal families across the ocean to rule the New World. (The only place where this was actually tried was Mexico, where the French installed the Austrian Maximilian I. Maximilian lasted only three years, however, before being overthrown and executed by Benito Juarez.)

An unidentified member of the British Legion. 
Latin America's independence was tentative and uncertain until the British Empire, pushed by Foreign Secretary George Canning, recognized Colombia, Argentina and Mexico. Canning, naturally, did not act out of altruism. He wanted to weaken France, which controlled Spain, and open the Latin American markets for the British Empire's trade. Canning made no bones about this:

British Foreign Secretary George Canning,
whose recogintion of the nations of
Latin America made their independence certain.
"Spanish America is free," he said, "and if we do not mismanage our affairs she is English ... the New World established and if we do not throw it away, ours."

"I resolved that if France had Spain it should not be Spain with the Indies," Canning explained the next year. "I called the New World into existence to redress the balance of the Old."

The British Cemetery in Bogotá,
created for the British Legion veterans.
But if Canning acted out of Britain's interests, he evidently did have liberal, progressive sentiments. He had also opposed tyrranical governments in Naples and the Netherlands, advocated expanded rights for Britain's Catholics and opposed slavery.
A plaque on Plaza Bolivar in Bogotá
comemorating the British Legion.

Previously, the United States had recognized Colombia in 1822 and the next year U.S. Pres. James Monroe issued his famous doctrine opposing further European colonization or interference in the Americas. But the U.S. was a weak nation: It was Britain that mattered.

A tomb in Bogotá's Central Cemetery carries the surname O'Leary - possibly a descendent of revolutionary hero Daniel O'Leary, who is buried in Caracas, Venezuela?

A plaque in the British Cemetery says that a fence was built from the British Legion's muskets. 

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

No comments: