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Liberty or Death!
The Life and Campaigns of Richard L. Vowell
British Legionnaire and Commander – Hero and Patriot of the Americas
Maria Páez Victor
E-book - Now Available!
"Reading Liberty or Death immersed me in day-to-day realities that today seem so surreal. One cannot read the exploits of Richard Vowell, as so richly described by Maria Paez Victor, without having an intimate sense of knowing him. Richard Vowell became my friend and companion in adventure and misfortune. The book traces his adventures across the continent of South America and eventually to Australia. Throughout I felt like I was walking along beside him, seeing and feeling the people, the country, the cities and the politics of his time. Throughout the complex trail that the author takes us along, I gained much greater understanding and appreciation for the enormous sacrifices made in the name of liberty, the results of which we enjoy today ... and largely unconsciously. This book is a most enjoyable read for those who enjoy great adventures and for those interested in South American history and politics. Be careful however not to pick up the book unless you have strong willpower ... it is very hard to put down." Amazon Reader Review
"I have to say how much I enjoyed this book. Although I considered that my knowledge of South American history was above average, I knew that I was in for a thrilling and enjoyable read as soon as I read the brief introduction where the author Maria Victor relates the story of how a total stranger talked to her about a freedom fighter who died in 1873 as if he was a "mutual friend" in a land where "History is not quite dead...where past glories continue to give solace". The subject in question was none other than one of the author's own ancestors. Before I read this book I had no idea what sacrifices the Venezuelan patriots made for their country and what part the British played. This book vividly describes the challenges, sufferings and triumphs of the oppressed peoples and their "ragtag" army who eventually defeated their rulers. The description of the trek across the Andes by Bolivar and his men sent shivers up my spine. That a relatively well off Brit as Richard Vowell should choose to suffer with the patriots for the sake of liberty, and then live to tell the tale in his book "Campaigns and Cruises" without even putting his name on it, is a human story that grips your heart as you read this wonderful book. This should be a movie!
The book also has some lighter moments which made me chuckle out loud. For example, there was one where, with the Spanish forces pursuing, the escaping villagers had to take their most beloved family possession - their guitar! A feeling I totally related to! Another was how a lady signifies that she's interested in a man...by giving him a cigar! Priceless! Maria's descriptions of the Llanos and the Llaneros and their brave and carefree lifestyle made me want to visit there to see for myself.
What irony that Richard Vowell landed up in Australia and was buried in an unmarked grave when he is treated with such respect in South America even today! Indeed, he could have gone back to South America in his later years where he might have been treated like a hero. As Maria remarks, he must surely have kept on writing to the end, and those documents, perhaps without his name on them, may still be somewhere! In some remote attic or library maybe...
I await the sequel to the story with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, next stop - Venezuela!" Amazon Reader Review
"Liberty or Death, Maria Páez Victor’s book about the intrepid English adventurer, Richard Vowell will take you places you have never been and show you parts of the world you may never have seen. Victor’s incredible research takes us from a secure post-Waterloo Anglo-Saxon world to the colonies of South America and Australia where Vowell died aged 75. Along the way we get to know Richard Vowell with his gift for observation, his astute writing, his excellent descriptions, his integrity, and love of justice. How is it that Vowell, as young man gave up the safety of life as an English gentleman to join the instability of the Venezuelan Patriot Army? He chose the smoke and bustle of warfare amongst crocodiles, mosquitoes and man-eating fish, to fight with Simon Bolivar, to fight against the domination of Spain for the liberation of Colombia, Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, and Venezuela. Maria Páez Victor explores Vowell’s discoveries,. his choices, and many historic moments in a delightful book, a fascinating read about an exciting period of history. I highly recommend it." Amazon Reader Review
This is, firstly, the story of Richard Longfield Vowell, an audacious and intrepid young English adventurer who abandoned his studies at Oxford in 1817 to fight against the Spanish Empire that had ruled Latin America for 300 years. It is also the story of the little known British Legion, formed of English and Irish volunteers, which became an integral part of Simón Bolívar’s patriot army. The British Legion played a crucial role in training the patriot forces to face Spanish troops battle-hardened in the Peninsular Wars.
With the words ‘Liberty or Death!’ emblazoned on a black banner, Bolívar set out to liberate Venezuela, and indeed, South America. For the bold and the idealistic, his quest was the stuff of dreams, and in England there had never before been such intense interest in the destiny of the Spanish colonies. Bolívar’s exploits were reported assiduously in the English press, so much so that the Spanish authorities called it ‘a South American mania’.
Bolívar lacked a modern army and, with England awash with officers and soldiers demobilized from the Peninsular Wars, he took the opportunity to obtain campaign-seasoned fighting men. So it was that in distant Venezuela, Vowell and fewer than 2,000 other British volunteers, distinguished themselves in battle.
Crossing the Andes with Bolivar:
Such as have never felt the sensation of extreme thirst, cannot possibly form an idea of the welcome refreshment the first long draught of water affords, although the tepid fluid in these pools would disgust any person who was not really and painfully thirsty. It is, in general, of a greenish colour, swarming with insects, and frequently containing the bodies of horses, and other animals, that have just had strength sufficient to reach the water and die….
In Chile too there was a desperate need for a navy to counter Spanish warships and so Bernardo O’Higgins sought British officers to help form the celebrated First Chilean Squadron. Richard Vowell was recruited by the British naval hero, Admiral Lord Thomas Cochrane, to sail with the Chilean Squadron, and he became Commander of the Infantry Marines. He took part in the final naval battle that vanquished forever the Spanish Navy in the Americas.
After the wars in Latin America ended, Vowell returned to England and wrote a seminal book on the campaigns in Venezuela, New Grenada and the Pacific Ocean. Though not well known in the English-speaking world, he is considered to be a heroic figure and an insightful historian among Latin American scholars who frequently cite his work.
It is not difficult to find the way; for it is strewed (strewn) with the bones of men and animals that have perished in attempting to cross the Páramos in unfavourable weather. Multitudes of small crosses are fixed in the rocks, by some pious hands, in memory of former travellers who have died here; and along the path are strewed fragments of saddlery, trunks, and various articles that have been abandoned and resemble the traces of a routed army. Huge pinnacles of granite overhang many parts of these passes, apparently tottering, and on the point of overwhelming the daring traveller, while terrific chasms that are appalling to the sight, yawn far beneath, as if to receive him. A sense of extreme loneliness, and remoteness from the world seizes on his mind, and is heightened by the dead silence that prevails; not a sound being heard, but the scream of the condor.
This important first biography is based on extensive research undertaken in three continents. It uncovers information previously unknown about Vowell’s exciting life and daring exploits – from his birth in a genteel English country town, to his campaigns in the far-off Americas, and to his period in the harsh landscape of Australia, where he confronted another empire and was subsequently and unjustly imprisoned on a remote Pacific island.
This absorbing account sheds light on a lost but fascinating episode of British endeavour and valour and its contribution to the shaping of the modern Americas.
Maria Páez Victor is a sociologist, born in Caracas, Venezuela where she obtained her first degree. She has an MA from the University of Kent at Canterbury and a Ph.D. from York University, Canada. She lives in Toronto, and travels regularly to Venezuela and Britain. A life-long enthusiast of Latin American and British history and politics, she participates regularly on Canadian and Venezuelan television, radio, and at public events, and has published numerous articles on recent and historical topics in both English and Spanish. As a curious anecdote, while researching for this book, a remote personal connection surfaced with Richard Vowell, who served under three revolutionary generals who are in the author’s family tree, among them José Antonio Páez, leader of the Llanero cavalry and later President of Venezuela.