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
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.
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
settled by the Irish was a temporary no-man´s-land, claimed by both
Who They Were
were no barefoot or impoverished migrants but rather the educated and
enterprising sons of some of
On the north
bank of the Amazon, near the modern town of
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
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.
certain is that
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.
Philip Purcell took a cargo of Irish tobacco back to
O’Brien himself was in
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
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.
watched, O’Brien spent a year in irons and took five years to break free. This time, a Spanish widow from
O’Brien’s misfortune that his Portuguese jailer, Captain Bento Maciel Parente,
happened to be in
author expresses his gratitude to Dr. Joyce Lorimer of