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British women and Latin American independence movements 1800-1825

It is well-known that Mary Wollstonecraft travelled to Paris to witness the French Revolution that she had celebrated in A Vindication of the Rights of Men. Less well-known are British women who supported Latin American revolutionaries fighting for liberation from Spain, in the early years of the 19th century. By 1825, most countries in Central and South America had obtained their independence.

My book Revolutionary Partners: Sarah Andrews and British Campaigners for Latin American Independence examines the participation of several British women: Sarah Andrews, Mary English, Kitty Cochrane and Maria Graham. What were their experiences and what did each woman contribute to the cause?

The book’s main protagonist is Sarah Andrews, from a shoemaker’s family in Yorkshire. She came to work in London where, in 1800 at the age of 25, she met the freedom fighter Francisco de Miranda. He had left Caracas in Venezuela to fight in both the American and French Revolutions, and arrived in Britain seeking financial and military aid for his mission to liberate Latin America.

Sarah Andrews and Miranda set up a British headquarters for supporters of this mission at 27 Grafton Street (now 58 Grafton Way) in the Fitzrovia area of London in 1802.  Their visitors included British and Latin American politicians, notably Simón Bolívar (the future liberator of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama) and radical intellectuals such as James Mill and Jeremy Bentham.

When Miranda was away from 1805-1807 on an expedition attempting to liberate Venezuela, Sarah Andrews maintained the Grafton Street headquarters despite bringing up their two young children in penury and being threatened with eviction. She refused to allow Miranda’s 6,000 volume library, an essential resource for campaigners, to be sold.

In 1810, Venezuela declared independence from Spain. Miranda returned to become supreme military commander, but was captured when the Spanish retook the country. He died in a Cádiz prison in 1816. Undaunted, Andrews remained in the London house, which became the recruiting centre for the Legión Británnica, the British volunteers who joined Bolívar’s army and crossed swamps and mountain ranges to help liberate Latin America.

A number of women accompanied the Legión Británnica. One of them was Mary English, whose husband Colonel James English had recruited a thousand volunteers for Bolívar. On arrival at the coast of Venezuela in 1819, Mary gave a rousing speech at a grand review of the British recruits, exhorting them to make their wives and sweethearts at home rejoice by triumphing in the cause of liberty. But in the harsh tropical conditions, with food and water lacking, many of the troops died from fever, including James English.

Mary was left to support herself and her young daughter, who had remained in England. She travelled to find Bolívar and asked for a pension as a war widow. This was not granted. Returning to England, surviving a shipwreck en route, Mary obtained employment as an agent for a British firm trading goods with Colombia, a most unusual job for a woman.

In 1823, Mary English settled in Bogotá. Her home was a centre for officers who had fought in the Legión Británnica and were now diplomats or military aides in the new Colombia. Her letters are a key historical source for this social and political world.

Mary English also became a personal friend of Bolívar. He gave her an engraving of himself, and offered accommodation when her home was damaged by an earthquake in 1827, sending her flowers when she decided to stay in a gardener’s hut instead. She married again and set up a cacao plantation in Colombia, where she died in 1846.

Kitty Cochrane, who came to Chile in 1818, took a more direct part in the independence struggle. Her husband, Lord Thomas Cochrane, had been appointed commander of the Chilean navy to rid the Pacific coast of the Spanish fleet. His daring tactics in doing so were matched by his wife’s bravery.

Kitty Cochrane’s exploits included crossing the Andes on horseback to take vital dispatches to Argentina, despite an attempt by a royalist infiltrator to attack her on a precipitous path where the slightest false step would have sent her into an abyss. She was an expert horserider. Legión Británnica officer William Miller recorded that when Kitty galloped into the plaza during a review of his cavalry troops. Miller told them ‘this is our generala’, and Kitty bowed to the troops, who burst out with loud cries of ‘viva!’

To escape from the Spanish army in Peru in 1821, Cochrane crossed a perilous rope bridge over a fast-flowing river, carrying her baby daughter. As she reached the centre, the ropes swayed so much that she had to lie down with the child held tightly in her arms, hanging above the raging torrent. Her bodyguard Pedro Flores crawled towards her and took the baby to safety, while Kitty completed the crossing alone. Joining her husband on a Chilean warship shortly afterwards, she insisted on remaining on deck during a Spanish attack.

Maria Graham’s experiences were different again, since Chile had been fully liberated by the time she arrived in 1822. She was alone in Valparaíso, as her naval husband Thomas Graham had died of a fever on the voyage around Cape Horn. Maria Graham decided to stay, and her Journal of a Residence in Chile during the Year 1822 became a key source of information for the British public about this newly independent country.

To compile a history of the revolution, Maria interviewed Bernardo O’Higgins, one of the liberators of Chile and its Supreme Director. She also drew on documents supplied by Lord Cochrane, a personal friend who had served with her husband in the British navy. In addition to commenting on the achievements of the new government, Maria offered her readers insights into the Chilean way of life, describing everything from agricultural production to modes of social behaviour.

The Journal also contained scientific reports. As a botanist, Graham described flowers and trees native to Chile, highlighting the knowledge of local women as herbalists and healers and consulting them when she could not identify a plant. As a geologist, she was thrilled when she was caught up in a major earthquake, examining the beach the next day and hypothesising that such upheavals could be responsible for the formation of the Andes, an idea later confirmed by Charles Darwin.

These four British women thus supported Latin American independence in a variety of ways, both political and military, whether by running a headquarters, participating directly in the struggle, or as writers, reporting on their experiences to those back home. Their letters and diaries provide a fascinating historical record from the front line. Their stories are told in more detail in my book Revolutionary Partners, available free here.

Charmian Kenner is an independent researcher and writer on women’s history, with a special interest in Latin America. She lives in Hastings, UK. She is happy to be contacted on c.kenner [at]

Image credit: Mary English by William Armfield Hobday, 1818, from wikicommons.