Links between Brazil & Ireland

 

 

 

The Amazon Irish : New World Pioneers were Lured by Dreams of Riches, Freedom

 

1st. published: Irish Echo, New York, 11-17 March 1992.  Reprinted by kind permission of BMcG

 

By Brian McGinn

 

 

 

For both Ireland and England, 1620 was a watershed year in the settlement of the Americas.  In the north, the Mayflower landed a group of English religious dissidents – better known as Pilgrims – at Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.  Far to the south, fully six months before the Mayflower’s December arrival, the William and Thomas disembarked a party of Irish Catholic settlers on the shores of the River Amazon in modern-day Brazil.

 

Brazil has no national feast of thanksgiving to commemorate these Irish pioneers.  And no colonial village marks their landfall.  But the determination and perseverance of the Amazon Irish surely deserve the recognition and respect of all their countrymen who have followed their footsteps to the New World.

 

In the opinion of historian Joyce Lorimer, an expert on Irish trade and settlement in the region, these ventures on the Amazon are probably “the earliest examples of independent Irish colonial projects in the New World.”

 

Dreams of riches and freedom drew the Irish to these remote equatorial outposts.  And, for a few decades, those dreams were fulfilled beyond their wildest imagination.  Dutch and English financiers who backed the ventures expected to triple their investments within two years.  Records indicate, however, that those projections were quickly surpassed.

 

Early explorers had found that the Amazon soil, combined with a year-round growing season, was perfect for tobacco, a crop long grown by local Indians.  The Irish brought not only a sharp business acumen but also superior tobacco curing techniques, learned from Spanish planters in the West Indies.  At a time when English leaf from Virginia sold for two shillings a pound, the best Amazon tobacco fetched 30 to 40 shillings in the Amsterdam and London markets.

 

The area settled by the Irish was a temporary no-man´s-land, claimed by both Spain and Portugal and coveted by both Dutch and English.  Against repeated English attempts to subject them to the Crown, and Portuguese assaults to expel them, the Irish responded with such political dexterity, resourcefulness and tenacity that they maintained their independence and eluded the Portuguese for almost 20 years.

 

Who They Were

 

These Irish were no barefoot or impoverished migrants but rather the educated and enterprising sons of some of Ireland’s most venerable Irish and Anglo-Norman families.  Led by Bernardo O’Brien from County Clare, this party of 12 Irishmen were attended by four English Catholic servants.

 

On the north bank of the Amazon, near the modern town of Macapa, O’Brien built a wood and earthen fort that he named Coconut Grove.  Neighbouring Indians were less interested in fighting than in exchanging food and labour for the glass beads, whistles, mirrors, combs, knives and axes that the Irish had brought as trade goods.

 

More important, the Indians welcomed the Irish as allies against the Portuguese.  The relationship was first and foremost a commercial one, and as such inevitably exploited the Indians.  But from the beginning, the Irish knack for peaceful communication and commerce drew the envy of the other Europeans.  Franciscan friars from Portugal readily acknowledged that the Irish were the only whites with whom the Amazon Indians would voluntarily ally themselves.

 

The Irish proved themselves worthy of the Indian’s trust.  O’Brien quickly mastered the dialect of the neighbouring Arruan tribe, and his colleagues became expert navigators of the maze of tributaries, canals and islands that form the mouth of the Amazon.  There was no priest in the party, but four of O’Brien’s men were, in his words, “good scholars and Latinists.”  Taking it upon themselves to spread the word of God, they converted 2,000 Indians to Christianity.

 

O’Brien’s June 1620 landing was not the first Irish incursion into the Amazon.  Eight years previously, in 1612, Philip Purcell had led a group of 14 Irishmen up a narrow tributary of the Amazon called the Tauregue and established the first Irish colony on the river.  Joined by his brother James, Philip Purcell built a thriving tobacco plantation on the Tauregue, thereafter known as Purcell’s Creek.  Only a few of the other Irishmen associated with these ventures can be identified with any certainty in the manuscripts of the Spanish and Portuguese archives.  Among them are Stephen Corse, John Allen, William Gaynor, Richard Molran and Mathew More.

 

What is certain is that Munster men predominated.  O’Brien was a member of the venerable House of Thomand in Clare.  The Purcells were, in the early 17th Century, a prominent Tipperary family.  Corse was a Spanish version of de Courcy, a family that held lands near the County Cork port of Kinsale.  More was most likely the Spanish spelling for Moore or O´Moore, and Molran likewise an Hispanic rendition of Mulrian, the old Irish form of Ryan.

 

Rainbow’s End

 

From 1620 to 1625, the Irish enjoyed five golden years of the Amazon.  O’Brien and the Purcells co-ordinated their planting and marketing, trading with passing Dutch and English merchantmen.  By 1623, European plantations were sending back 12 to 15 shiploads, or 800,000 pounds of tobacco, each year.

 

In 1621, Philip Purcell took a cargo of Irish tobacco back to London aboard the William and Thomas, leaving his brother James to run Tauregue.  By 1624, Philip had formed a joint venture with a Dutch planter named Nicolas Hofdan and established a new plantation on the south shore of the Amazon near modern day Gurupa.  Their fort, called Mandituba, was manned by a mixed group of 200 Dutch and Irish.

 

By 1625, O’Brien himself was in Holland with a cargo of tobacco and cotton that he sold for 16,000 escudos (17th Century gold coins).  The young Irishman then turned his attention to ransoming his father from an English prison, an effort that cost him a quarter of his Amazon fortune.  O’Brien then embarked on a three-year grand tour of Europe and Asia.

 

In his absence, the Portuguese began their assault on the Irish forts.  In May 1625, they overran Mandituba, killing Philip Purcell in a bitter fight that left 60 of his men dead.  Faced with insuperable odds, James Purcell surrendered Tauregue on condition the Portuguese forgo their usual massacre of prisoners.  The surviving Irish endured Portuguese captivity until 1627, when, through the intercession of Franciscan friars, James Purcell, Stephen de Courcy and Matthew Moore were sent home.  The Amazon Irish were down but by no means out, as the Portuguese soon learned.  In 1628, Purcell and Moore met O’Brien in Holland, and by January 1629 the trio were back on the Amazon.  On the site of the Tauregue fort, destroyed in 1625, the Irish erected a new fortress with earthen walls nine feet high and 12 feet thick.  Surrounded by a moat of 15 feet deep, the fort was armed with four mortars and one heavy gun.

 

Round Two

 

The Irish handily withstood the first Portuguese assault, in May 1629.  But in September the Portuguese returned with 1,600 Indian bowmen.  Cut off by sea and land, Purcell and O’Brien held out until October 24, when some 80 defenders marched out of Tauregue in military formation and surrendered.

 

Ironically, O’Brien knew that help, in the form of an English and Dutch fleet, was available just a few leagues down the river.  An Irish sailor had sent O’Brien a coded message, written in Irish, warning that the English intended to take control of the Irish.  Rejecting the thought of turning over Tauregue to the Protestant English, O’Brien entrusted his fate to the Catholic Portuguese.

 

This time, the Portuguese were determined to avoid a repeat of 1627.  The prisoners were scattered to remote settlements in the Brazilian interior.  Nevertheless, 18 of the Irish promptly escaped, adding insult to injury by stealing away in the governor’s boat.

 

Closely watched, O’Brien spent a year in irons and took five years to break free.  This time, a Spanish widow from Seville plotted the getaway, and O’Brien and Dona Maria sailed from Brazil for Spain in November 1634.  Although gone, the Portuguese were by no means rid of this indomitable Irishman.  By early 1636, he was in Madrid petitioning the Spanish King for permission to settle the Amazon with loyal Irish Catholics.

 

It was O’Brien’s misfortune that his Portuguese jailer, Captain Bento Maciel Parente, happened to be in Madrid at the time.  Consulted for his opinion, the exasperated officer recommended immediate hanging for the pesky fugitive.  While there is no evidence that the king followed this advice, it was clear that the golden age of the Amazon Irish was over.  It can also be said, with near certitude, that Bernardo O’Brien did not accept even a royal ‘ no’ as the last word on the subject.

 

 

The author expresses his gratitude to Dr. Joyce Lorimer of Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, for generously sharing unpublished details on the post-Amazon fate of Bernardo O’Brien.  A complete English translation & definitive interpretation of O’Brien’s own account of the Amazon colony can be found in Joyce Lorimar, editor: English & Irish Settlements on the River Amazon, 1550-1646 (London: The Hakluyt Society, 1989).