Lieutenant-colonel James Florence Burke : officer, adventurer and spy
James Florence Burke is an almost unknown Irish officer and undercover agent who saw service under both the French and British colours in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He began his military career in the service of France but events soon led to a switch of allegiance to Britain. Most of Burke ‘s eventful and unorthodox life as an army officer was spent on the European continent gathering military and political intelligence for the London government. He also made two forays into South America at a critical juncture in the political history of that sub-continent. Some of the details of Burke’s life, insofar as we know them, resemble episodes from a novel and provide interesting glimpses of political developments in Europe and Latin America during the Napoleonic War period. The fact that Burke devoted much of his working life to espionage and undercover work makes it difficult to follow his career in any detail, as documentary and published sources containing information about him are scarce (1). Almost sixty years ago, however, an officer in the Argentine army reserve published a well-researched account of the 1806-7 British invasions of the River Plate colonies, then belonging to Spain, which contains occasional references to Burke’s career (2). This work by Roberts forms the basis, supplemented with some other sources, of the following brief biographical sketch of an Irish military intelligence agent who saw service during a crucial period of modern European history.
James Florence Burke was born in 1771 in Ireland into a well-known family whose surname was originally de Burgh. According to Roberts, Burke reverted to the earlier form of his surname after 1812, appearing in British army lists from then on under this appellation. Some members of Burke’s family, like those of many other Irish middle-class and Catholic gentry families of the eighteenth century, emigrated to France and Spain. James’ brother, for example, was aide-de-camp to Marshal Davout of the French army in 1808, and later became a general and a count. Another relative, O’Ryan, served as a commissary general in the Spanish army at this time. Of Burke’s early life we know very little. Like others of his class before him, James took a commission in the Regiment of Dillon, one of the famous Irish corps in the service of France, in 1792. He served as a junior officer in Santo Domingo in the West Indies, where his regiment was garrisoned. He appears to have had a facility for languages, and it was on the island of Hispaniola that he added Spanish to his repertoire (3).
Burke’s service under the French flag was not to last long. The new and terrifying force of radical nationalism unleashed by the French Revolution impelled Britain to declare war on its old rival, France, in 1793. In the course of these hostilities, Dillon’s Regiment surrendered to an English force under Lieutenant-Colonel John Whitelocke following defeat in an engagement in Haiti on 22 September 1793 (4). Rather than remain prisoners of war, the members of the regiment opted to change sides and fight under British colours, a not uncommon occurrence at that time. For the next twenty years, until 1814, a corps known as « Dillon’s Regiment » formed part of the British army, fighting in Egypt under Abercromby, and in the Peninsular War under Wellington (5).
Burke nominally retained his position as an officer in his old regiment, but between 1794 and 1804 he was seconded on intelligence work in Germany and other parts of the continent, reporting directly to the British commander-in-chief, the Duke of York, son of George III. It is possible that Whitelocke, who had close relations with the royal family (6), may have recommended the Irishman for undercover work because of his knowledge of languages. In addition to English, French, and Spanish, Burke mastered German, and one of his favourite disguises was that of a Prussian officer.
When Burke was sent on his first information-gathering mission to South America in 1804, he was still attached to his old regiment, with the rank of captain. He now requested a transfer to an English corps and this was agreed to by the commander-in-chief. The frequency of his transfers from one unit to another over the next decade, and the comparative ease and speed of his ascent in the army hierarchy without, apparently, any direct participation in the military campaigns of the time, suggest an unorthodox career as a soldier. According to the army lists of 24 January, 1804, Burke was appointed as a second lieutenant in a reserve battalion by no less a personage than the Duke of York. Only four days later he was promoted to a lieutenancy in the 8th West Indian Regiment. On May 19,1804, he was transferred, as a lieutenant, to the 77th Infantry Regiment from which he was moved, on 23 December, 1806, to the Nova Scotia Regiment. Two days afterwards, he was promoted to captain in the distinguished 2nd Infantry Regiment (The Queen’s Royal Regiment). He was brevetted as major in 1807 (only eight months after his promotion to a captaincy), and as lieutenant-colonel in 1813. He took up the post of major in the 2nd Regiment in 1817 and terminated his military career as a lieutenant-colonel on special service from 1825 to 1826 (7).
We know very little of Burke ‘s first ten years in the British service, apart from the fact that he was engaged in intelligence work on the continent. His first mission to South America began in mid-1804, when he left London for Buenos Aires, the capital of the viceroyalty of the River Plate, which was still a Spanish possession. At this point, Spain was technically neutral in the war between Britain and France, but open hostilities were soon to break out between London and Madrid, and Pitt’s government had for long contemplated an invasion of the Spanish Indies (8). Burke was accompanied by his fellow countryman, Thomas O’ Gorman, a merchant then living in Buenos Aires who was a nephew of the royal physician in that city, Dr. Michael O’Gorman (9). Burke, we read, travelled out with orders from the British Government to supply information on the colony, ranging through all aspects of local life, from geographical detail to commercial and social customs, armament and attitudes to Spain (10).
Burke, a tall, elegant, man of the world, now aged thirty three, was evidently very accomplished at insinuating himself into exclusive social circles wherever he went. Shortly after his arrival in Buenos Aires, he managed to have himself received by the best families in the city, and soon became friendly with the Spanish viceroy, Marquis Rafael de Sobremonte (11). He was invited to many of that dignitary’s soirees, where he passed himself off as a Prussian officer and a man of science. At the same time he led the city’s French community to believe that he was a French emigre. He also managed to win the favours of Thomas O’Gorman’s wife, Ana Perichon, an attractive woman of French ancestry, who was not averse to the company of influential males, and who is reputed to have taken numerous lovers (12).
Burke soon got in touch with the leaders of the small, pro- independence party in Buenos Aires, of whose existence neither the public nor the viceregal government appear to have been aware at this stage. These patriots, who were mainly créoles, or upper-class South Americans of Spanish ancestry, advocated independence for the colony, and hoped that the British would intervene on their behalf (13). Burke’s cover story to the members of this group was that he was aide-de-camp to the Duke of York, which may not have been too far from the truth. We do not know the substance of the ensuing discussions that took place between the colonel and the pro-independence faction in Buenos Aires. It is likely, however, that he informed the conspirators that England might be prepared to send an expeditionary force to free them from Spanish domination provided that favourable commercial and trading concessions were granted to Britain in return.
After remaining in Buenos Aires for a few months and making a visit to Montevideo on the other side of the River Plate, Burke succeeded in acquiring a passport which allowed him to travel through Chile, and to return to the capital of the viceroyalty by way of Upper Peru (now Bolivia). Complications arose on the final leg of this journey, however, when Burke was detained between Potosi and Cochabamba on suspicion of being a spy. He was brought back under arrest to Buenos Aires. A letter from him written after his return to Europe, and addressed to Colonel Taylor, secretary to the Duke of York (14), confirms that the charge of espionage was correct. Burke disclosed that acting under the orders of the Duke of York, he had toured the Chilean coast, making sketches of its fortifications and gathering data on the troops stationed there. He also revealed that he had collected information on a variety of other topics such as the topography of the Andean mountain chain, the location of mineral deposits, and the diversity of animal life to be found in the region. All of this intelligence had been passed on to Taylor in coded letters between 1804 and 1806. Burke also claimed that, aided by an unnamed accomplice, he had devised a plan to seize control of the fortress of Montevideo, Spain’s main military and naval base in the South Atlantic, should British policy make this necessary.
Although the Irish officer managed to talk his way out of the spying charge by claiming to be a native of France, with which country Spain maintained friendly relations, he was evidently obliged to leave the colony somewhat hurriedly in the second half of 1805. His hasty departure from Buenos Aires forced him to leave behind two créole stallions, three llamas, two alpacas and two vicunas. He told Taylor he had obtained these animals in Chile and Peru on the instructions of Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society (15). Burke ‘s intention to present this menagerie to the Duke of York on his return to England had come to naught. It is clear, nevertheless, that the colonel was determined to retain the goodwill of his royal patron. He had managed to hold on to an extensive collection of minerals gathered during his travels in South America, and he transported these with him to Lisbon in five chests. Taylor (the Duke of York’s secretary) was asked to give Burke’s compliments to the Duchess, and to inform her that he intended presenting her with some precious stones from this collection as soon as he returned to London.
After his hurried exit from Buenos Aires, Burke sailed north to Rio de Janeiro, capital of the Portuguese colony of Brazil. Not long after his arrival there, a military expedition headed by Commodore Sir Home Riggs Popham and General Sir David Baird docked in the Brazilian port of Bahia, en route to drive Napoleon’s Dutch allies from the Cape of Good Hope (16). Burke did not come into contact with this British force, as he was visiting diamond mines in the Brazilian interior at the time. By this stage he had become involved in a commercial enterprise which was engaged in the export of cattle hides from Buenos Aires. This trading concern may have served as a convenient front for the colonel’s espionage activities. It would also have provided him with a supplementary, and possibly lucrative, source of income in addition to the remuneration he was receiving for his spying activities in South America.
Burke’s compatriot, Thomas O’Gorman, appears to have been one of his associates in the export trade. O’Gorman ‘s brother was a London- based merchant and the brothers had had previous business dealings with one another (17). Burke’s commercial activities were not trouble-free, however, because about this time the colonel complained to his superiors in London that a shipment of merchandise, valued at 12,000 pounds sterling, in which he had an interest, had been lost. This cargo was being carried by the Spanish vessel Princesa de la Paz from Buenos Aires, and with Boston as its probable destination, when it was intercepted on the high seas by an English cruiser, and became a prize of war (18). Cooke, Under-Secretary for War in the British cabinet, whom Burke had informed of his South American business activities, neglected to pass on to the Admiralty the information that the cargo was at least partly British-owned, and so Burke and his partners presumably lost their investment on this occasion.
Burke left Rio and sailed to Lisbon where he arrived on 1 June, 1806, after two years’ absence from Europe. Some time after his return, the colonel drafted a plan for British intervention in the viceroyalty of the River Plate. This proposal was eventually to be forwarded by the Duke of York for consideration by Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War, when Portland’s Tory ministry came into office in March 1807 (19). In the meantime, before Grenville’s Whig government, which came into office following Pitt’s death in January 1806, had the opportunity to analyze Burke ‘s reports on the political and military situation in the River Plate provinces, Popham had begun his unauthorized invasion of that colony with 1 ,600 men loaned to him by General Baird, the military commander at the Cape of Good Hope (20). The new Whig cabinet now found itself confronted with a fait accompli : British troops had invaded and seized the capital of the viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata, and the commander of the invasion force urgently required reinforcements and further instructions from the government ; It is likely that if Popham had not gone ahead with his irresponsible venture, and had the politicians in London been given more time to digest and act on the information presented to them by Burke, the political development of the River Plate region might well have followed a very different course, and the independence of the colony could have been brought forward by several years (21).
Not only did Popham ‘s 1806 invasion attempt, under the command of Irish-born Brigadier-General William Carr Beresford, ultimately fail, but so also did a larger military incursion the following year, led by Lieutenant- General John Whitelocke (22). Burke commented on the disastrous outcomes of these two British invasions of South America in a letter written from Lisbon on 22 September, 1807, and addressed to Colonel Gordon, who had replaced Taylor as the Duke of York’s secretary.
That, my good friend, is the way of the world. Do you not recall our conversations, my correspondence of a year ago, and the notes I gave you, and do you not see how much bloodletting the country would have been saved, and how many benefits it would have obtained, had I been consulted, listened to, and engaged in South America ? Let us draw a veil over this foolish and bloodstained affair, but keep this note and if I perish on my dangerous mission (in Spain), I give you carte blanche to open my trunk, remove my papers and disclose to the world the plan I drew up, the sacrifices I made, and the hardships and weariness I endured, in an attempt to put my country on a respectable and profitable footing in South America (23).
After returning from his first mission to South America in 1806, Burke was instructed to proceed to the Continent to gather information on the strength of French forces in various European countries. In the course of this undertaking he became a confidant of the Prussian general, von Blucher, one of the victors, with Wellington, at Waterloo almost a decade later. He also succeeded in being accepted at the court of the Empress Josephine while Napoleon was absent on military and imperial business. When news reached London in September 1807, of Whitelocke’s defeat in Buenos Aires, Burke was dispatched to Portugal and Spain with instructions to monitor the movements of French forces in these countries. After landing at Lisbon, Lord Strangford, the British minister at the Portuguese court, who seems to have harboured a certain antipathy towards Burke, sent him to El Ferrol, the powerful naval base in Spain, to report on the disposition of the Spanish fleet operating from that port (24).
This part of his mission completed, Burke arrived in Madrid in January 1808, bearing a letter of introduction to the French ambassador in Spain from no less a personage than Talleyrand, the French foreign minister. Much of the credit for this entree into the world of Spanish politics and diplomacy must go to Burke ‘s brother, who held an influential military position in France as aide-de-camp to one of Napoleon’s marshals. Talleyrand’s note to the French minister in Madrid stated :
Mr. Burke is the brother of Marshal Davoust’s first aide-de-camp. The marshal esteems this officer highly and, since he takes a considerable interest in everything concerning him, would be pleased to hear of the success of the request which I am asking you to make to the Spanish government. I would like you to to use all your good offices to insure its favourable reception and I recommend him to you as a matter of personal interest to me, since Marshal Davoust is interested in him (25).
During his stay in Madrid the Irishman posed as a merchant, long- established in Buenos Aires, who was now seeking naturalisation as a Spaniard, and permission to export European products to the River Plate provinces.
Helped by his letter of introduction, and with the assistance of a relative named O’Ryan, a commissary general in the Spanish army, Burke was soon on intimate terms with members of the most elevated social and political circles in Spain. Among those he became friendly with were Beauharnais, the French ambassador, who was a son of the Empress Josephine ; Manuel Godoy, Spain’s chief minister, who was often referred to as « the prince of peace » ; and even Charles IV, the weak and vacillating king, and his wife, Queen Maria Luisa. He informed the Spanish monarchs, in confidence, that he was a British agent, and warned them that the French ambassador had hinted to him that Napoleon planned to install a new dynasty in Spain. Having alerted the Spanish royal family to the potential dangers that loomed ahead, Burke set out for England to inform the government there that Charles IV would be prepared to request British military intervention to save his country from Napoleon and that, as a last resort, he and his court would be prepared to move to South America in the event of a French invasion, as his Portuguese counterparts had already done. As evidence of the esteem with which he was held by the King and Queen of Spain, Burke, on his departure from Madrid, was entrusted with letters for Princess Carlota, daughter of Charles IV and Maria Luisa. The princess was then living in exile in Brazil with her husband John, the Prince Regent of Portugal, and his entourage.
As soon as he arrived in London, Burke reported to his superiors that Napoleon planned to seize Spain and that the French emperor was concerned lest the Spanish royal family and court might escape to South America where they could rally resistance to French rule in Spain. Burke added that, in the circumstances, Napoleon was likely to adopt measures to prevent such a flight, and that the French emperor had resolved to send emissaries to South America to promote the French cause there.
After studying Burke’s reports, the British authorities decided to send the colonel back to Madrid to continue monitoring developments there. By the time he returned to the Spanish capital (April 1808), however, he had been overtaken by events. The country was full of French troops and Prince Ferdinand, heir to the Spanish throne, had left for France. Napoleon was putting into operation his plan to promote his brother Joseph from the throne of Naples to the more exalted throne of Spain. Burke informed London that Queen Maria Luisa of Spain was so angry at Napoleon’s intervention in her country’s affairs that she was apparently threatening to poison him if she got the opportunity ! When the popular revolt against French domination of Spain exploded in Madrid early in May 1808, and then spread quickly to the rest of the peninsula, Burke was forced to return to London. The French emperor’s tactics had stirred up a mood of fanatical nationalism among both Spanish and Portuguese that was eventually to cost him dearly. Back in England, the Irish colonel presented a daring and possibly foolhardy scheme to Portland’s Tory administration. Burke claimed he could kidnap Napoleon in Bayonne and transport him to England, provided he was allocated forty resolute men to assist him, and paid expenses of 200,000 pounds (26). Burke’s audacious offer was not taken up.
The British government had been contemplating for some time the dispatch of a military expedition under General Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) to South America, to help Spain’s colonies in Venezuela and the Rio de la Plata region achieve their independence (27). Burke, who had acquired first-hand knowledge of the River Plate region from his earlier visit there, was directed to accompany that part of the invasion force that was destined for Buenos Aires. Britain and Spain had, of course, been enemies since 1805 because of the latter’s alliance with France. British support for the independence of Spain’s American possessions was designed to economically weaken Madrid (and hence its ally north of the Pyrenees), and to further open up South American markets to British trade (28). The revolt of May 2, 1808, against the French, dramatically altered Anglo-Spanish relations. The events of el dos de mayo brought England and Spain together as allies in a life and death struggle against the common enemy. Just as preparations for the departure from Cork of Wellesley’s South American invasion fleet were nearing completion in July 1808, the government decided to divert these troops to Spain to assist in the rebelion that was now raging there against Napoleon. The Peninsular War that was to devastate large parts of Spain and Portugal, and was to bleed the armies of Britain and France of their manhood, had begun.
Dramatic changes had also taken place in the political circumstances in which Britain’s other ally, Portugal, found itself. Lord Strangford, the English minister in Lisbon, succeeded in persuading the Portuguese royal family that it would be preferable to transfer their residence to their Brazilian colony on the other side of the Atlantic, rather than allow themselves to fall into the clutches of Napoleon. In November 1807, the entire Portuguese court, including the insane Queen Maria, her son John who was Prince Regent, his wife, Carlota (the daughter of Charles IV of Spain), and a retinue of over 1,000 servants and courtiers, fled to Brazil, barely escaping an invading French army under Marshal Junot. This extraordinary convoy was escorted across the Atlantic by a British naval force under Admiral Sidney Smith. The Portuguese court took up residence in Rio de Janeiro in March 1808 (29). Admiral Smith continued on in Brazil to command the British naval squadron in South American waters, and Lord Strangford was re-appointed to his post as British ambassador to the Portuguese court, a court which was now living in exile, and was to remain in Rio until 1821.
Once the Portuguese royal family had established itself in its new, exotic capital, disagreements over certain aspects of foreign policy became apparent. This friction had its origin in the antagonistic national interests of Spain and Portugal in Latin America. In the past, the policies traditionally pursued by the rulers of the two Iberian countries in relation to each other’s possessions in the New World had sometimes brought them into open conflict. Now, a royal matrimonial alliance transferred these rivalries from their customary international setting into the very bosom of the Portuguese ruling dynasty. The Prince Regent was of Portuguese royal blood, while his wife, the wanton Carlo ta Joaquina, was a member of Spain’s ruling dynasty. To make matters worse, the marital relationship between the two consorts was deteriorating.
Prince John was not long in Rio when he revived Brazil’s old ambition of seizing the Banda Oriental (now Uruguay) from Spain’s La Plata provinces, and extending Portuguese influence southwards as far as the great river that separated Buenos Aires from Montevideo. Strangford, who exercised a form of guardianship over the Portuguese court on behalf of the British government, opposed these expansionist aims, because they would adversely affect Madrid’s territorial interests in the region, and would almost certainly bring Britain’s two Iberian allies into conflict with one another. The Court of St. James had entered into an alliance with Spain in June 1808 against their mutual enemy, France, and official British policy, while this coalition lasted, was to oppose any changes to the established order in Spain’s American colonies.
Strangford’s task was not made any easier by the fact that Dona Carlota pursued a foreign policy that was diametrically opposed to her husband’s in relation to the Spanish possessions that lay to the south of Brazil. As the daughter of the now deposed Spanish king, she was prepared to take a stand against any extension of Portuguese control over Spanish territory in South America. In fact, Carlota hoped to establish herself as the legitimate representative of the Spanish monarchy in the sub-hemisphere and to protect Spain’s colonies there until Napoleon had been defeated. As a first step towards this goal, she schemed to make herself regent of the River Plate provinces. Admiral Sidney Smith, and subsequently Colonel Burke, both of whom seem to have been on intimate terms with the Princess, supported her in these aims, which also appear to have been acquiesced in by Castlereagh, Secretary of State for War in Portland’s cabinet. Strangford, on the other hand, was just as opposed to Carlota’s regency ambitions as he was to the expansionist policy of her husband, and strove to preserve the status quo in South America as long as the British-Spanish-Portuguese alliance endured. In this he had the support of his superior, Canning, the Foreign Secretary, who was Castlereagh’s chief opponent within the cabinet (30).
Having outlined the mise en scene in Rio de Janeiro, we return to the subject of our biographical study. The changed relationship between Britain and Spain, and the cancellation of London’s plans to send an expeditionary force to South America, caused Castlereagh, on 4 August, 1808, to direct Colonel Burke to return to Buenos Aires, where he had last gone four years earlier. This time his instructions were to report back on the mood of the people, and on the activities of French emissaries and agents in the distant colony. In addition, he was to inform the viceroyalty’s inhabitants of recent political developments in Spain, and to acquaint them with the formation of the Anglo-Hispanic alliance, and with the dispatch of Wellington’s army to the peninsula.
The Irish colonel was also to make it widely known that Britain pursued no territorial objectives in South America, and that it was animated solely by a desire to destroy Napoleon, and prevent Spain and her colonies from falling into his grasp. Burke ‘s cover story was to be that of an emissary sent by Admiral Smith in Rio to arrange for the between the British and the Spanish of the colony’s military and naval defences in the event of a French attack. Castlereagh also wrote to Admiral Smith advising him of Burke ‘s impending arrival, en route to Buenos Aires, and directing him to assist this officer in every way possible. Smith was warned to observe the greatest secrecy with regard to the real motives for Burke ‘s mission to the Rio de la Plata provinces.
In October 1808, the Irish officer, now travelling under the alias of James, landed at Rio. Here he was forced to remain for five months, on the admiral’s advice, because of political disturbances in Buenos Aires (31). The colonel made good use of this period of enforced delay. Having delivered letters to Princess Carlota from her mother, the Spanish queen, he entered into an intimate frienship with the Prince Regent’s wife. It was not long before Burke became an enthusiastic member of the coterie supporting Carlota in her quest to become regent of the Rio de la Plata provinces. An indication of the trust that the Princess reposed in the presentable colonel can be seen in the latter’s report to Castlereagh of 1 March, 1809, in which the Irishman related that Carlota had authorized him to act as her personal representative in the River Plate colony during his forthcoming visit there. As we shall see, however, a powerful obstacle to the Princess’s ambitions existed in Buenos Aires, in the person of Ana Perichon, the wife of Thomas O’Gorman, Burke’s former business partner.
Meantime, a letter from Admiral Sidney Smith, written from Rio on 24 February, 1809, informed Castlereagh that Burke was preparing to continue his journey to Buenos Aires where, Smith believed, he would be welcomed as an advocate of the colony’s independence. The admiral added that there was nobody better suited for such a mission than « this spirited officer because of his extensive local knowledge and general experience » (32). By this stage, General Santiago de Liniers, the French- born hero of Buenos Aires’ valiant resistance to the British invasions of 1806 and 1807, had been temporarily elevated to the position of viceroy. Liniers, now a widower, had taken Ana Perichon as his mistress, and was believed to be very much under the influence of his inamorata. The lovely La Perichona opposed Princess Carlota’s plans to become regent of the colony, as this would almost certainly lead to the removal of Liniers as viceroy, and the consequent loss of her own status and power as the leading lady of Buenos Aires. Princess Carlota was aware of Ana Perichon’s opposition to her plans and Burke, before leaving Rio, promised the Spanish infanta that he would do all in his power to part Liniers from his paramour.
Burke arrived in Buenos Aires on 11 April,1809, and was accorded a formal reception in the capital’s fortress by the viceroy and the city’s leading authorities. The colonel delivered a letter from Admiral Smith requesting Liniers to treat « this distinguished officer » with « hospitality and kindness ». Burke ‘s mission, Smith dissembled, was to co-ordinate the defensive role of the Rio-based British naval squadron with the colony’s military and political authorities so as to frustrate any enemy attack on the River Plate region. Unfortunately for Burke, and for the success of his mission, his reputation as a British agent had preceded him on this occasion, and his reception after disembarking at Buenos Aires was distinctly unfriendly. After the dispatch from the admiral had been read, Liniers made it clear to the assembled dignitaries that he believed their distinguished visitor to be a spy. He disclosed that Burke had posed as a Frenchman while in Madrid a few years earlier, and had deceived the Marquis de Sobremonte, his predecessor as viceroy. The Irish officer was frostily ordered to re-embark on his ship, and to leave the country forthwith. He was informed that a response from the colony’s authorities to the admiral’s letter would be dispatched directly to Rio in due course.
The promised reply was not long in coming. Liniers, in a letter to Admiral Sidney Smith on 13 April, 1809, declared that the admiral obviously knew very little about his emissary and had clearly been deceived by him, as the officer in question was well-known in Buenos Aires as a British spy (33). The viceroy proceeded to outline Burke’s activities as an undercover agent in the city in 1804. He claimed that although an order for Burke’s arrest had been issued he, Liniers, out of the respect he bore for the admiral, had arranged for the British agent’s immediate re-embarkation on the vessel that had brought him from Rio.
The Irishman’s explanation for the unfriendly nature of his reception at Buenos Aires was very different. He later insisted that Liniers wanted him out of the way because of jealousy that he, Burke, might replace him in the affections of his mistress, Ana Perichon, with whom the colonel had been very friendly on his previous visit to the city. Whatever the truth of this allegation, in a letter to the British government written on board ship after his hasty and unexpected re-embarkation, Burke announced that he had taken unspecified measures to encourage Liniers’ mistress to abandon Buenos Aires. Shortly afterwards, for reasons which have never been clarified, Ana Perichon left the city for Rio de Janeiro where, before long, she became intimate with Lord Strangford (34).
On 5 June, 1809, after returning to Rio from Buenos Aires, Burke reported by letter to Castlereagh on his abortive visit to the Spanish colony of the Rio de la Plata. He insisted that Princess Carlota retained her limitless confidence in him despite the failure of his mission. He boasted that he could influence her to take whatever decisions were best- suited to London’s interests. For that reason he asked the government to consider giving him the necessary credentials to negotiate on behalf of Britain with the River Plate provinces. Strangford, the British minister at Rio, who supported Canning’s cautious diplomatic policy of maintaining the status quo in South America while the Spanish alliance endured, would have none of this. He clearly wanted Burke, who was accountable to Castlereagh, and not to the Foreign Office, out of Rio, but lacked the authority to ask him to leave. Instead, Strangford used his influence with the Prince Regent to have Burke declared persona non grata. It was not long before the Irishman was informed by Rio’s police authorities that he was regarded as a subversive element who, by his presence, was endangering relations between Britain, Portugal and the River Plate provinces. Told that Prince John desired his departure, he had no option but to sail for home at the end of July 1809.
After landing in England, Burke wrote, on 25 November, 1809, to the Earl of Liverpool, the new Secretary for War (both Canning and Castlereagh had resigned from the cabinet following their duel), detailing his recent activities in South America and asking for appropriate financial recompense. He repeated to the new minister his earlier, confident assurance that such was his domination over the wife of the Portuguese Prince Regent that, provided he remained at her court, he could influence policy outcomes in whatever way best suited Britain’s interests. Burke ‘s words seem to have fallen on deaf ears, and a few days later he found himself reassigned to the staff of the new Foreign Secretary, Marquess Wellesley (35). Ignoring the Irishman’s request to return to Rio, the Duke of Wellington’s elder brother made use of his undoubted talents and experience in the intelligence-gathering sphere by sending him on a number of missions to the European continent from 1810 to 1812. In the course of these assignments, Burke came into contact with pivotal figures on the contemporary European political stage, such as Tsar Alexander of Russia, and Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s marshals, who later became King Charles XIV of Sweden.
The career of our Irish adventurer becomes more difficult to follow after 1812. General Sir Samuel Whittingham, who had served as to General Whitelocke in Buenos Aires in 1807, and who went on to command part of the Spanish army during the Peninsular War, refers in his memoirs to one of his subordinates, a Major Burke. The latter was described as an Irish-Austrian officer of twenty-five years’ service who commanded a battalion of Italians in Whittingham’s division in 1813. According to the general, « his tact and judgment made him the glory and pride of his men » (36). Although Burke is a relatively common Irish name, the rank and period of service of the subordinate mentioned by Whittingham correspond approximately to those of our subject, whom we also know to have been a fluent German speaker. It is conceivable, therefore, that the officer referred to was James Florence Burke, and that he had temporarily reverted to the performance of more conventional military duties after 1812.
Among the few documents from the post-1812 period containing a reference to Burke that were found by Roberts in the course of his research, was a petition to the Earl of Liverpool, then prime minister, dated 9 April, 1825. In this letter, written from the United Service Club in London, Burke asked to be more adequately compensated for his years of work as a secret agent in the service of the government. We have no record of whether he was successful or not, as such payments were made out of reserved funds for which the prime minister did not have to account publicly.
Burke seems to have retired from the army in 1826 at the age of 55, after 34 years of service. His name continued to figure in the army lists, as a retired officer, until 1881, according to Roberts, probably through error, as it is most unlikely he lived to be 110 ! It is possible that diligent research might reveal more details of the unconventional military career of this Irish-born officer who saw service under both the French and British flags in the Caribbean, who led a cloak-and-dagger existence as a secret service agent in Europe and South America, and who came into close personal contact with many of the leading political and military figures of the day on two continents.
Burke’s career is also of interest because it encapsulates, at the level of the individual, the changing nature of the socio-political relationship between Britain and Ireland in the period between the closing decades of the eighteenth century and the opening decades of its successor. This was a time when the remaining penal restrictions on Roman Catholics were being gradually lifted, and the earlier pattern of Irish recruitment into continental armies was being replaced by enlistment in the British armed forces. The violence, political upheavals, and anti-religious sentiments unleashed by the outbreak of the French Revolution had also created a potent obstacle to the survival of the earlier pattern of Catholic Irish emigration to mainland Europe. The combined effects of these developments, coming at a time when Britain’s empire was expanding at a prodigious rate, diverted the earlier, European, career destinations of many members of the emigre Irish Catholic middle class in a British direction (37). This tradition of service to the British crown remained strong for over a century, until 1921, and has not yet entirely disappeared. It is too early to be definitive about such matters, but recent political in the European Union appear likely to establish an alternative focus for Irish expatriate energies, which may now be reverting, at least in part, to an older, pro-European pattern. Burke’s life, insofar as we can document it, is instructive, not only for what it tells us of particular events and developments in the past, but also because it coincides with the swing away from Europe, as the preferred goal of Catholic Irish middle class emigrants. For the next century and a half, Britain, its colonies and former colonies, replaced the Continent as favoured locations for Irish settlement and employment. That phase, in turn, may now be drawing to an end.
(1) I have been unable to find any references to Burke in the standard works of
reference such as the Dictionary of National Biography, Crone’s Concise Dictionary, Dictionary of Irish Biography, Webb’s Compendium of Irish Biography, Boylan’s Dictionary of Irish Biography, Newman’s Dictionary of Ulster Biography, Hickey and Doherty’s Dictionary of Irish History since 1800, Newman’s Companion to Irish History, Burtchaell and Sadleir’s Alumni Dublinenses, or in the 1949-92 index to The Irish Sword .’Journal of the Military History Society of Ireland.
(2) Carlos Roberts, Las Invasiones Inglesas del Rio de la Plata (1806-1807) y la
Influencia Inglesa en la Independencia y Organizacion de las Provincias del Rio de la Plata (Buenos Aires : Jacobo Peuser ; 1938). See pp. 44-8, 53-56, 346, 353-60.
(3) In 1793 the French West Indies possessions consisted of the western half of
Santo Domingo, as well as Guadeloupe, Marie Galante, Martinique, St. Lucia, and Tobago. Marcus Cunliffe, The Royal Irish Fusiliers, 1793-1950 (London : Oxford University Press ; 1952), p. 10.
(4) Coincidentally, the paths of these two men almost converged fifteen years later
when Burke was sent to Buenos Aires following the failure of Whitelocke’s
attempt to capture the city.
(5) According to A. N. Rickett, Irish Sword, XII, 49 (Winter 1976), p. 316, there were no less than four separate units in the British service between 1793 and 1815 that went under the appellation of « Dillon’s Regiment ».
(6) He was rumoured to have been a royal bastard, but no evidence has been
produced to substantiate this charge.
(7) Because Burke frequently introduced himself as « Colonel », we shall, for
convenience sake, ascribe this rank to him throughout his career.
(8) See William Spence Robertson, Life of Miranda (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press ; 1929), Vol. 1, for details of various projected British invasions of Spain ‘s American colonies from the 1790s onwards.
(9) Andrew Graham-Yooll, The Forgotten Colony : A History of the English Speaking Communities in Argentina (London : Hutchinson ; 1981), p. 35, claims that Thomas was Michael’s son. For a brief biography of Dr. Michael O’Gorman (1749-1819) see The Southern Cross : Numéro del Centenario 1875-1975 (Buenos Aires : 1975), p. 40. Another member of this family, Camila O’Gorman, came to a tragic end when she and her lover, a young priest, were executed by the Argentinian dictator, Rosas, in 1848. John Masefield depicted this love affair in his long narrative poem, Rosas (1913).
(10) Graham Yooll, op. cit., p. 35.
(11) Sobremonte was deposed as viceroy in 1807 because of his ineffectiveness in resisting the British invasion of 1806.
(12) Ana’s father, Armando Esteban Perichon de Vandeuil, was French. He arrived
in Buenos Aires from Mauritius in 1796.
(13) Several of those connected with this group had Irish ancestry, e.g. Campana (Campbell), French, Warnes, and Pueyrredon. The latter’s mother, Rita Dogan [Duggan], was the daughter of an Irishman. Southern Cross : Numéro del Centenario, pp. 40-1, 46-7, 68.
(14) Taylor later became secretary to George III.
(15) Banks had accompanied Captain Cooke on his first voyage of discovery to the
Pacific in the Endeavour from 1768 to 1771.
(16) After the Cape had been recaptured by the British, Popham, without official
authorization, detached a small military and naval force which attacked, and briefly held, Buenos Aires in 1806. A second British expedition attempted to recapture Buenos Aires in 1807. For a recent account of these exploits, see Tan Fletcher, The Waters of Oblivion : The British Invasion of the Rio de la Plata, 1806-1807 (Tunbridge Wells : Spellmount ; 1991).
(17) The Marquis of Bedmar y Escalona, a Spanish grandee, may also have been a partner in the enterprise.
(18) Britain had declared war on Spain in January, 1805.
(19) Unfortunately, we do not know the details of this plan.
(20) For Popham ‘s attempt to justify this venture, see Minutes of a Court Martial, holden on board His Maiesty ‘s Ship Gladiator, in Portsmouth Harbour, on Friday, the 6th Day of March, 1807, and continued, by Adjournment, till Wednesday, March 11, following, for the Trial of Capt. Sir Home Popham. Including a complete copy of his defence, taken from the original (London : Lonaman, Hurst, Rees and Orme ; 2nd éd., 1807).
(21) Roberts, Las Invasiones Inglesas, p. 55.
(22) For documentary material relating to these invasions, and analyses from the Spanish/Argentinian perspective, see La Reconquista y Defensa de Buenos Aires. Publicacion del Instituto de Estudios Historicos sobre la Reconquista y Defensa de Buenos Aires, 1806-1807 (Buenos Aires : Peuser ; 1947) ; Juan Beverina, Las Invasiones Inglesas al Rio de la Plata (1806-1807). 2 vols. (Buenos Aires : Circulo Militar, Biblioteca del Oficial ; 1939).
(23) My translation back into English of the letter which Roberts transcribed from English to Spanish. Las Invasiones Inglesas, p. 56.
(24) Percy Clinton Sydney Smythe, sixth Viscount Strangford and first Baron Penshurst (1780-1855), was born in London to an Anglo-Irish family. Shortly after his birth, his clergyman father was appointed to a living in Co. Meath. Percy graduated from T.C.D. in 1800, where he won a gold medal. He had a distinguished diplomatic career, and was also a noted poet.
(25) Roberts, Invasiones Inglesas, p. 46.
(26) Some of this money would, presumably, have been required to suborn members of the emperor’s entourage.
(27) There may have been an element of political revenge behind Britain’s decision to promote the cause of independence in the Spanish Indies. London still resented the assistance Spain had given the North American colonies in their revolt against the British Crown thirty years earlier, depriving it of its most valuable New World possessions.
(28) British exports to the European mainland had been seriously curtailed by the Napoleonic wars and the country’s manufacturers were clamouring for access to new markets to compensate them for the loss of their old outlets.
(29) Hubert Herring, A History of Latin America from the Beginnings to the Present, 3rd ed. (London : Jonathan Cape ; 1968), p. 278.
(30) Increasing animosity between Canning and Casdereagh led them to fight a duel in September 1809, after which both had to resign from the cabinet.
(31) A power struggle was taking place in the viceroyalty’s capital between loyalists, who supported continued Spanish rule, and nationalists, whose long-term objective was to bring about the independence of the colony.
(32) Roberts, Las Invasiones Inglesas, p. 55.
(33) Liniers was clearly unaware that Burke was really an envoy of the British government and had received his instructions from no less a personage than the Secretary of State for War.
(34) Liniers himself may have been responsible for Perichon’s departure, as their relationship had become a public scandal and was endangering his position. Ana was later ordered out of Rio because of her affair with Strangford, which may have aroused the jealousy of Princess Carlota, and returned to Buenos Aires in November 1810. Graham-Yooll, Forgotten Colony, p. 35 ; Roberts, Las Invasiones Inglesas, p. 355.
(35) Richard Colley Wellesley. He retired from the Cabinet in 1812.
(36) Ferdinand Whittingham, éd., A Memoir of the Services of Lieutenant-General Sir Samuel Whittingham, K.C.B., K.C.H., G.C.F., Colonel of the 71st Highland Light Infantry Derived chiefly from his own letters and from those of distinguished contemporaries (London : Longmans, Green & Co. ; new ed., 1868), p. 175. See also p. 184.
(37) England had long been a popular destination for the Irish poor of all denominations, and presumably also for members of the Irish Protestant middle class. On the former, see Patrick Fitzgerald, « ‘Like Crickets to the crevice of a Brew-house’. Poor Irish migrants in England, 1560-1640 », in Patrie, Y O’Sullivan, éd., The Irish World Wide : History, Heritage, Identity, Vol. 1, Patterns of Migration (Leicester : Leicester University Press ; 1992), pp. 13
Source: Pyne Peter. A soldier under two flags. Lieutenant-Colonel James Florence Burke : officer, adventurer and spy. In: Études irlandaises, n°23-1, 1998. pp. 121-138..