Jun 272021

On this same date in both 1806 and 1807 British forces attempted the capture of Buenos Aires, a chapter in the 6 – yes SIX – Anglo-Argentine wars up to that point. If nothing else does, these wars prove that British worldwide imperial aggression was not about “civilizing” other nations or any other such nonsense. It was outright territorial expansion – something they decried in Napoleon, yet had no trouble doing themselves. On the second attempt, the heavily armed and disciplined British army was beaten back by Argentinos armed with sticks. When we drink mate we have to change the yerba when it gets weak and mate palitos (little sticks) rise to the surface. We say at that point, “the British are coming.” I rarely post about battles on this blog, but as a proud Argentino I feel the need to make a point about British colonialism in the region.

There were many Anglo-Spanish Wars between 1585 and 1808, most of which lasted for several years with Britain harboring interests in taking control of Spanish colonies in South America. Many attempts had been made by the British in past conflicts to establish a foothold in South America such as in the disastrous battle of Cartagena de Indias (1740-41).

As early as 1711, the British colonial administrator, John Pullen, had sent a memorandum to Whitehall stating that the Río de la Plata, the estuary on which Buenos Aires was located, was the best place in the world for making a British colony. His proposal also included Santa Fe and Asunción, and would have generated an agricultural area with Buenos Aires as the main port. Admiral Vernon also declared the benefit of opening markets in those areas in 1741. By 1780 the British government approved a project of colonel William Fullarton to take the Americas with attacks from both the Atlantic (from Europe) and the Pacific (from India), but this project was cancelled.

In 1789 war between Britain and Spain seemed imminent after the Nootka Crisis of 1789 involving clashes between British and Spanish colonists in the Pacific Northwest of North America. The Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda took the opportunity to appear before prime minister William Pitt with his proposal to emancipate the New World territories under Portuguese and Spanish rule and turn them into a giant independent empire governed by a descendant of the Incas. Not sure how well this plan would have gone down in indigenous South America! The plan presented in London requested the assistance of the United Kingdom and the United States to militarily occupy the major South American cities, ensuring that the people would greet the British cordially and would be rushing to organize sovereign governments. In return for this help, Britain would receive the benefits of unrestricted trade and usufruct of the Isthmus of Panama, in order to build a channel for the passage of ships. Pitt accepted the proposal and began to organize the expedition. The Nootka Convention in 1790 ended hostilities, and the Miranda mission was canceled.

Chancellor of the exchequer, Nicholas Vansittart, made a new proposal in 1796: the plan was to take Buenos Aires, then move to Chile and attack from there the Spanish stronghold of El Callao in Peru. This proposal was canceled the following year, but was reinvigorated by Thomas Maitland in 1800 as the Maitland Plan. The new plan was to seize control of Buenos Aires with 4,000 soldiers and 1,500 cavalry, move to Mendoza, and prepare a military expedition to cross the Andes and conquer Chile. From there, the British would move to seize Peru and then Quito.

All these proposals were discussed in 1804 by William Pitt, Lord Henry Melville, Francisco de Miranda and admiral Home Riggs Popham. Popham did not believe a complete military occupation of South America was practical but argued for taking control of key locations to allow the main objective, to open new markets for the British economy. Although there was consensus for weakening Spanish control over its South American colonies, there was no agreement as to how and when to take such action. For instance, it was not even agreed whether the cities be turned into British colonies after their capture or just be made into British protectorates.

In 1805 Popham received orders to escort a military expedition against the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which was allied with Napoleon. With nearly 6,300 men they took it in January 1806. Popham received new orders from the admiralty to patrol the east coast of South America, from Rio de Janeiro to the Río de la Plata, in order to detect any attempt to counterattack the Cape. However, Popham had the idea of taking the Río de la Plata with a military action similar to the one made at the Cape. His agent William White had informed him about the local politics of the region, such as the discontent among some groups about the restrictive regulations enforced by Spain concerning international commerce. Popham took the 71st Regiment of Infantry, artillery and 1,000 men, to attempt the invasion. On the way, the expedition got reinforcements of 300 men from the St Helena Regiment.


The Spanish Viceroy, Rafael de Sobremonte, had asked the Spanish Crown for reinforcements many times, but received only a shipment of several thousand muskets and instructions to form a militia. Buenos Aires was then a large settlement housing approximately 45,000, but the Viceroy was reluctant to give weapons to the Criollos (Spanish colonists born in South America). His best troops had been dispatched to Upper Peru, now Bolivia, to guard the frontiers from Túpac Amaru II’s revolt, and when Sobremonte learned of the British presence in the area he dispatched the remaining troops to Montevideo, considering that the main attack would be in that city. Thus, the British found Buenos Aires almost defenseless.

The British took Quilmes, near Buenos Aires, on 25 June 1806, and reached and occupied Buenos Aires on 27 June. Initially the British forces were met with a somewhat lukewarm welcome by the residents of the city, with some wealthy families throwing feasts in honor of the British officers. Nevertheless, some political figures remained antagonistic. Manuel Belgrano said “Queremos al antiguo amo o a ninguno” (we want the old Master or none at all) before leaving for Uruguay. Religious leaders swore loyalty as well, after the promise that the Catholic religion would be respected. Some merchants were displeased by the repeal of the Spanish monopoly and the opening to British trade, as it harmed their interests.


Juan Martín de Pueyrredón organized a militia near Buenos Aires, but was discovered before being ready, and his troops were defeated. Santiago de Liniers, who was assigned to guard a nearby coast defense, got into the city and weighed the situation. He convinced Spanish merchant, Martín de Álzaga, to continue resistance to the British plans, and moved to Montevideo. The governor Ruiz Huidobro gave him command of 550 veterans and 400 soldiers to return to Buenos Aires and attempt the re-conquest. On 4 August 1806, Liniers landed at Las Conchas, north of Buenos Aires, and advanced with a mixed force of Buenos Aires line troops and Montevideo militia toward the city. On 10 August he took control of the strategic points of Miserere and El Retiro, holding the north and west entries to the city. The British finally surrendered on 14 August.

On 3 February 1807, the British attacked the region again.  They conquered Montevideo and then, under the command of general John Whitelocke, 13,000 troops sailed to Buenos Aires, landing on June 27 (fateful anniversary !!). On 1 July, a Spanish force led by Liniers fought but was overwhelmed by superior numbers in the city environs. At this crucial moment, Whitelocke did not attempt to enter the city, but twice demanded the city’s surrender. Meanwhile, Buenos Aires’ mayor Martín de Álzaga organized the defense of the city by digging trenches, fortifying buildings and erecting fences with great popular support from the Criollos who by this time were seeking their independence from Spain and were not interested in being colonized by Britain. Finally, 3 days after forcing the troops under Liniers to retreat, Whitelocke resolved to attack Buenos Aires. Trusting in the superiority of his soldiers, he divided his army into 12 columns and advanced without the protection of the artillery. His army was met on the streets by a militia, including 686 African slaves, stiffened by the local 1st Naval Infantry Battalion and 1st ‘Los Patricios’ Infantry Regiment (still the elite guard of Argentina) and fighting continued on the streets of Buenos Aires on 4 July and 5 July. Whitelocke underestimated the difficulty of urban combat, in which the inhabitants threw cooking pots filled with burning oil and boiling water from rooftops, injuring many soldiers of the 88th Regiment. Meanwhile the locals fought hand to hand in the streets with rakes, clubs, sticks, and whatever else they could find, eventually overwhelming the British troops.

By the end of 5 July, the British controlled Retiro and Residencia at the cost of about 70 officers and 1,000 other ranks killed or wounded, but the city’s center was still in the hands of the defenders, and the invaders were now demoralized. At this point, a counter-attack by the militias and colonial troops present, defeated many British commanders, including Robert Craufurd and Denis Pack. Then Whitelocke proposed a 24-hour truce, which was rejected by Liniers, who ordered an artillery attack. After suffering 311 killed, 679 wounded and 1,808 captured or missing, Whitelocke signed an armistice with Liniers on 12 August. Whitelocke left the Río de la Plata basin taking with him the British forces in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Colonia, but leaving behind 400 seriously wounded. On his return to Great Britain, he was court-martialed and cashiered.

My “recipe” of the day has to be yerba mate with paulitos (little sticks).  Mate (note the spelling – no accent) is the national drink of Argentina, and has been since even before Spanish colonization.  Yerba mate was first consumed by the indigenous Guaraní people and also spread among the Tupí people that lived in the departments of Amambay and Alto Paraná in the territory of Paraguay. Its consumption became widespread during European colonization, particularly in Paraguay in the late 16th century, among both Spanish settlers and indigenous Guaraní, who had drunk it, to some extent, before the Spanish arrival, more for medicinal purposes than as a social drink. This widespread consumption turned mate into Paraguay’s main commodity with the labor of indigenous peoples being used to harvest wild stands.

In the mid-17th century, Jesuits managed to domesticate the plant (Ilex paraguariensis) and established plantations in their Indio “reductions” in Misiones, Argentina, sparking severe competition with the Paraguayan harvesters of wild stands. After the expulsion of the Jesuits in the 1770s, their plantations fell into decay, as did their domestication secrets. The industry continued to be of prime importance for the Paraguayan economy after independence, but development in benefit of the Paraguayan state halted after the War of the Triple Alliance (1864–1870) that devastated the country both economically and demographically. Some regions with mate plantations in Paraguay became Argentine territory, and Argentina took over as the major producer. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, domestication of mate was reinvented, with Misiones as the center of production – and remains so to this day.

Different countries process yerba mate in different ways — and for me the Argentine way is the only way!  In Argentina, the best mature leaves are picked by hand, dried in a special oven under high, dry heat, left to mature in flavor, then milled into a mix of leaves and stems (paulitos). An average supermarket in Buenos Aires has at least one aisle devoted exclusively to brands of mate from strong to mild, and with or without other flavorings.  I drink Rosamonte (strong) most of the time, when I can get it, or Cruz de Malta (mild). Importing supplies into Cambodia during the pandemic is a sore trial.  But . . . I drink around 1 kilo per month (from early morning to late evening).

In Argentina mate is normally shared.  The designated host boils water. Loads a gourd or container (also called a mate) about ¾ full of yerba, adds hot, not boiling, water, tests for taste, and then refills the mate with hot water and begins sharing.  The mate gets handed to the person on the left of the server who drinks and hands it back to the server, who refills it and hands it around the guests – clockwise.  Holding on to the mate too long is likely to elicit “no es microfono” (it is not a microphone) from one of the impatient guests.  While drinking the host will also serve little biscuits (galletas) or pastries (facturas). My friends in Argentina get a doleful tone when I tell them I drink my mate alone these days – se tiene compartir los mates, gitano (mate must be shared, gypsy – my nickname).


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