Reviews: Books

Liberty or Death! The Life and Campaigns of Richard L. Vowell

Victor, Maria P. Liberty or Death! The Life and Campaigns of Richard L. Vowell, British Legionnaire and Commander – Hero and Patriot of the Americas. Ticehurst: Tattered Flag, 2013. 213 pages. ISBN 9780954311582. $19/£15

Victor, Maria P. Liberty or Death! The Life and Campaigns of Richard L. Vowell, British Legionnaire and Commander – Hero and Patriot of the Americas. Ticehurst: Tattered Flag, 2013. 213 pages. ISBN 9780954311582. $19/£15

The 19th Century Great Britain seemed to have produced many larger than life men, whose adventures and heroics seem more fiction than plausible.  These include, such notables as Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, a Royal Naval Captain and member of Parliament, who was dismissed from the navy for his part in a stock market fraud, but who would organize and lead the Chilean, Brazilian, and Greek navies in their quest for independence; Sir Richard Burton, the explorer; and James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak. One, whose exploits were on par with them, was Richard Vowell, who was born in 1795 but never fought in the Napoleonic Wars.  He dropped out of Oxford in 1817 and joined the British Legion to fight for South American independence.

Over the next twelve years he would serve as a cavalry officer training and commanding troops in the Venezuelan Patriot Army, be the brigade major of the British Legion, become the aide-de-camp to Simon Bolivar, be promoted to major, and eventually serve under Admiral Cochrane as the commander of the marines of the Chilean Navy.  His adventures would take him from the Caribbean to the llanos of Venezuela across the Andes, down the spine of South America to southern Chile.  During that time, he would fight numerous battles, both on land and sea, catch yellow fever, spend months evading Spanish troops after his command was destroyed, be decorated for valor several times, and see the liberation of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile.

Major Vowell returned to Great Britain in 1830 and in 1832 immigrated to Australia.  There is luck ran out.  In 1835 he was convicted of robbery on what was most likely trumped up charges[1] and sentenced to death.  This sentence was commuted to life at hard labor in the notorious prison on Norfolk Island. Fortunately for him, in 1841 his sentence was further commuted to seven years and he was released shortly afterwards.  He died in Casterton, Victoria in 1870.

Richard Vowell was a keen observer and kept copious notes during his twelve years in South America.  These note notes were not just about his life in the military and his battles and campaigns, but also of the land, the plants and animals he saw, and the people, both soldiers and civilians, he encountered.  In 1831 he wrote Campaigns and Cruises, a three volume set of memoirs of his adventures.  He also wrote two novels, which incorporated many of his observations about life in South America.[2]

Major Vowell is all but unknown outside of Latin America and even then his name is forgotten except by historians who specialized in the Wars of Independence. One of my personal goals for the Napoleon Series is to bring to life as many of the men and women who fought in the Napoleonic Wars.  Not just the generals and admirals, but the junior officers, NCOs, and the common soldier, whose exploits on and off the battlefields were instrumental in the success of those officers much senior to them.  Liberty or Death! does this for Richard Vowell.

Ms. Victor draws heavily on primary sources, including Major Vowell’s Campaigns and Cruises, to draw a fascinating portrait of an unselfish man who sacrificed his inheritance and spent much of his life fighting for the freedom of others.  The author’s admiration for him is evident; however, she does not shy away from pointing out his flaws.  In the end, the reader is left with a clear idea of who Richard Vowell was and what motivated him.  Yet the reader will also be puzzled why, after accomplishing so much, did he die in such obscurity.

Liberty or Death! is a fast paced and enjoyable read.  The only criticism I have about it is the lack of suitable geographical maps of the areas where the story took place.  Ms. Victor includes historical maps of South America, Chile, and Venezuela but their scale is too large to pinpoint the many cities and rivers mentioned in the text.  This is the only weakness in an otherwise fine biography.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham

Placed on the Napoleon Series: February 2014

Notes:

[1] He was convicted of stealing a watch. Page 143

[2] The Savannas of Barinas and The Earthquake of Caracas

 

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