Friday, 14 September 2012

The Wreck of the 'Indian' (December 1817)

In early December 1817, a vessel sailing from Britain to Venezuela was shipwrecked on the northern coast of France. The 'Indian', which had previously carried convicts from Britain to Botany Bay in Australia, was now being used to take officers and recruits to fight for the independence of Venezuela from Spanish colonial rule. Led by Colonel Robert Skeene, around two hundred men and women were packed onto the 'Indian' when it left Falmouth. Nearly all of them lost their lives on the night of 9/10 December, with 143 corpses being washed onto the coast near Kerlouan the next morning, the only survivors apparently a few Irishmen and some pigs.

The shipwreck of the 'Indian', by René Ogor, 2012
At the time the owners of the 'Indian' were told that any materials salvaged from the wreckage had been sold off by the local council. But in the last few years, French marine archaeologists have identified a long-known wreck as the 'Indian', as the result of careful correlation of preliminary archaeological excavations with archival research in France and the U.K. Key to the identification process was a bronze button.

We know from the numerous memoirs written by adventurers who served under Bolivar in Venezuela, that great importance had been placed back in London on fitting out the mercenary expeditions (or at least the officers who led them) in the most impressive garments and uniforms possible. The 1st Venezuelan Hussares, to be led by Skeene, were no exception. When divers near Kerlouan found the button pictured above, with 'GR' on the reverse (referring to King George III) and 'VENEZUELA 1o. HUSSs.' on the front around an image of the setting sun, the link between the wreck and the archival references to the loss of the 'Indian' was confirmed.

Preliminary research at the wreck site near Kerlouan is ongoing in September 2012 under the charge of the DRASSM (French Department of Archaeological Maritime Research), and I eagerly await news of what they have found. Can surviving uniforms or weapons tell us about the state of preparation of these armed forces? Will bone remains allow us to analyse the health or physical-readiness of the recruits? Will we get a better picture of the number of women and children who accompanied the expeditions?

The discovery of the 'Indian' forms part of a wider picture of research on the historical period I've called the 'Bolivarian times', roughly 1810-1830. In the past, as I've noted in my book Adventuring through Spanish Colonies, most work on the British involvement in independence was either completely diplomatic in focus, or overwhelmingly military. Hence most historians of the subject (including myself) spent most of their time in either diplomatic or military archives. Now, just as historians have opened up public and private correspondence, business collections, newspaper archives and all other manner of printed records, archaeologists are taking their turn to shed new light on the matter. An excellent example is a new article by Alasdair Brooks and Ana Cristina Rodriguez called A Venezuelan household clearance assemblage of 19th-century British ceramics in international perspective, which you can find in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology (46) 2012.

The authors dug up a lot at the back of a house in Barcelona, eastern Venezuela, that had belonged to the influential Monagas family during the nineteenth century. They found a remarkable collection of ceramics, many of them British, such as those pictured above, which they were able to date to the late 1830s. These findings demonstrate what historians had previously only been able to imply or hint at - the extent to which British commerce was able to enter the South American mainland in the decade after independence, and the way in which elite cultural preferences shifted towards British models and designs. More research is needed, of course, to see if the Monagas household was atypical or not in its ceramics collections - and with three nineteenth-century presidents in the family, it might be hard to call them representative - but the findings, discussed at length in the article, are wonderfully suggestive.

Taken together, archaeological research into the 'Indian' and the 'Casa Monagas' show just how much new material is emerging around the subject of Britain and the Independence of the Bolivarian Republics. This material will lead to exciting new interpretations to add to those developed by economic, political and military historians.

These words were the basis of my presentation at Canning House on 5 September 2012, entitled 'New Research on Britain and the Independence of the Bolivarian Republics'. I am extremely grateful to René Ogor for sharing his ongoing research into the 'Indian' with me, and his permission to share it with readers of this blog. Information on the shipwreck of the 'Indian' comes from Eric Lambert's book Voluntarios británicos e irlandeses en la gesta bolivariana (1990) and from The Times, January 1818

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