Monday 19 March 2018

Review: Non-fiction: Admiral Brown by Marcos Aguinis

The Admiral Brown Society, €17.95

Mayo-born Admiral William Brown has certainly left his mark in Argentina. One of the longest streets in Buenos Aires is not only called after him -- it is dominated by a replica of his home lovingly recreated on a hill overlooking the city he once saved from destruction.

The house -- La Casa Amarilla, or the Yellow House -- is painted its original bright colour and houses the Instituto Nacional Browniano, the National Institute of Brown -- devoted to the study of all things "Brownian".

Another major city, a couple of towns, a football club, over 1,000 streets and hundreds of schools and statues also bear the name of this Irishman.

Yet in Ireland, if he is known at all, Brown is usually tagged the "Founder of the Argentine Navy" as if he were a particularly efficient bureaucrat.

To the Argentines this is akin to describing Admiral Nelson as "a half-decent civil servant."

There, he is The Hero of Two Oceans or The Liberator of the South Atlantic.

Born in Foxford, Co Mayo in 1777 on June 22, Brown emigrated at the age of nine to Philadelphia, where his father died shortly after. Over the next 10 years, he went from cabin boy to captain in US merchant ships before being press-ganged into the British navy.

He was captured by the French and imprisoned for six years before breaking out through the roof of a high security jail and climbing down to freedom.

Back in Britain, a hero for his escape, he married the daughter of a wealthy merchant and sailed to Argentina to earn his fortune -- just as the region exploded into rebellion.

And Brown was ripe to join the republican cause.

On March 16, 1814, he led a ragtag rebel fleet against the Spanish royal navy at their island stronghold of Martin Garcia on the River Plate -- an estuary up to 220km wide.

The Spanish had already annihilated a rebel squadron and looked set to do the same again when Brown's flagship ,the Hercules, ran aground.

By nightfall, a quarter of her men were dead, another quarter badly wounded and his ship was a sieve holed 82 times by cannon.

But Brown had a trick up his sleeve -- what would become known in Argentina as a maniobre Browniano, a Brownian manoeuvre, meaning a bold and innovative strategem.

Just before dawn, the Hercules crept up to the island and Brown sent his men ashore in small boats.

But the attackers were pinned down on the beach. To inspire his men, up to a quarter of whom were Irish, Brown got his pipers to play St Patrick's Day in the Morning as he led one final desperate assault.

The first major victory of the South American revolution was won.

The Mayoman followed that up by beating the rest of the Spanish navy off Montevideo -- again with a 'Brownian manoeuvre.'

He lured the 13-strong Spanish fleet out to sea by pretending to flee.

The battle raged for days and Brown's thighbone was smashed by a loose cannon, but he remained on deck to secure another victory.

This one led to the fall of Montevideo, the last royalist stronghold in the region.

As a result, Argentina's army was free to cross the Andes and link up with another of South America's fighting Irish, Bernardo O'Higgins, to liberate Chile, Peru and Bolivia.

In 1826, the empire of Brazil/Portugal invaded Argentina intent on bringing South America's fledgling republics back under royalist rule.

That June, Brown headed out to confront a 31-strong Brazilian fleet bearing down on Buenos Aires with just four ships supported by seven tiny gunboats.

He told his men, "do not be afraid of that mountain of sail" and reminded them to "shoot straight" because their wives and sweethearts were watching.

Indeed, the whole population of Buenos Aires looked on as the warships battled it out from dawn to dusk to decide their fate, and perhaps that of all South America.

As night fell, the people of Buenos Aires collectively held their breath as ghostly shapes loomed out of the smoke. They were Brown's four ships, largely intact. In the distance the Brazilians sailed off in retreat, towing several shattered hulks behind them.

The triumph was one of the most extraordinary in naval history. But how had he done it?

He had anchored his four ships across the narrow channel, neutralising Brazil's numerical advantage.

Earlier he had cut an extra deck of cannons into his flagship, the '25th of May', to the horror of his shipwrights who protested she would be top-heavy and never seaworthy again.

But canny Brown knew she never needed to go to sea -- the war would be fought on the wide and shallow waters of the River Plate, where she was a Weapon of Mass Destruction.

The '25th of May' had bought Brown time to even the odds and in early 1827, he led 17 Argentine ships against 18 Brazilians in a series of brutal naval dogfights called the Battle of Juncal.

By the end of two weeks' savage fighting, 11 Brazilian ships were captured, four sunk and three trapped.

The Brazilians -- led by very able former British officers -- fought hard.

Brown was given the honour of signing the resultant peace treaty that created Uruguay as a buffer between the two superpowers of the region and pretty much secured the borders of South America we know today.

Bill Tyson is translator of the Admiral Brown biography Liberator of the South Atlantic and producer of the documentary on Brown. The book and DVD are available from

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