Maritime Cork: How Cork farmers ended up rioting on the streets of Rio

Maritime Cork: How Cork farmers ended up rioting on the streets of Rio

Two-and-a-half thousand men, women and children left Cork for Brazil in 1827. Pic: stockbyte

In 1827, several ships left Cork Harbour with Irish emigrants bound for Brazil.

Two-and-a-half thousand men departed, some accompanied by their wives and children.

They were attracted by the offer of land, government payments and new lives by an Irish Colonel acting on behalf of the Emperor of Brazil. It was a bad time in Ireland, poverty and destitution were rife, forced by landlords squeezing tenants for taxes and rents.

Most of them did not read the small print of contracts they were offered and didn’t take notice that Colonel William Cotter had arrived on behalf of the Brazilian Government which was being badly beaten in a war with neighbouring Argentina.

That was because another Irishman, Admiral William Brown from Foxford in Co. Mayo had turned the tide in a masterful defeat of the Brazilian Navy in the waters off Buenos Aires.

Brown became a national hero in Argentina.

Cotter became a hated figure for the Cork emigrants. He hadn’t highlighted that he was really recruiting soldier mercenaries to fight Argentina.

Amongst the ships which left Cork in August, September and later in 1827 were the Elisa, the Charlotte Maria, the Reward and others. The Elisa carried 260 men, 39 women and seven children when she sailed on August 7. The Charlotte Maria had 250 men, 26 women and nine children. The names of the emigrants included Sullivan, Reagan, Murphy, Leahy, Hegarty, Power, Clancy, Welsh, Shea, Burke, Murray, Dunne, Hurley and others.

Colonel Cotter was serving Brazilian Emperor Dom Pedro. He was effectively a mercenary and his boss needed troops. The Cisplatine Province had been annexed to Brazil in 1821 by his father, King John VI, who crushed a rebellion. Argentina was now supporting another rebellion, so Brazil was fighting the rebels and the Argentineans.

Pedro wanted Irish soldiers because, in those years, Irishmen had earned strong reputations fighting for various nations in wars around the world.

The emigrants recruited by Cotter had no military experience, their interest was farming.

They had a rude shock landing in Rio de Janeiro. The men were forced off to military barracks to be pressed into fighting service. Women and children were left abandoned.

The barracks were squalid. Trouble ensued. There was no sign of Cotter.

About 400 men agreed to join the Army, but Britain had mediated a war resolution. The need for big numbers of men to fight was no longer pressing. Those who wanted the land they had been offered were abandoned in dreadful conditions. They were disliked by native Brazilians who saw them as trying to grab land. Abandoned families did get together, but the conditions led to the Irish rioting in Rio. They fought with local people.

Colonel Cotter, with a force of soldiers, tried to bring those he had recruited under control. A mob chased him and he barely escaped.

Brazilian troops eventually restored control in Rio, but there were many deaths in the fighting. Emperor Pedro agreed to repatriation and nearly 1,500 Irish left in 1828 ships for Ireland and England. About five hundred were allowed settle elsewhere in Brazil, the fate of others is not clear, but many had died in the fighting.

Cotter’s eventual fate is not recorded.

Dr. Eileen Sullivan, Director of the Irish Educational Association in the USA, in a study ‘Irish mercenaries in 19th century Brazil’ recorded that many of the Irish became farm labourers, “a very different lifestyle than anticipated.” 

Emperor Pedro probably never wanted to hear a Cork accent again!

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