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He was born in Foxford, on June 22nd, 1777. In the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires there is a memorial with the inscription: “William Brown was born on 22nd June, 1777, at Foxford, County Mayo.” His uncle was Parish Priest of Foxford and was arrested for alleged complicity in the 1798 insurrection. Escaping from the barracks where he was detained, he went into hiding from his enemies, sheltering in Glanduff and other places from time to time in evasion of the pursuit that was hot on his tracks.
The Brown family emigrated to Philadelphia about 1786, when William was only nine years of age. A short time after the arrival of the Browns in Philadelphia, the friend who had invited them out and offered them food and hospitality, unfortunately died of yellow fever. This was a severe blow to the poor emigrants’ hopes and prospects. But even a worse bereavement followed, when William’s father also succumbed also to the same disease.
The Seafaring Starts….One morning when young William Brown was wandering along the banks of the Delaware River, he met the captain of a ship then moored in port. The captain enquired if he wanted employment and he joyfully answered yes. The captain then and there engaged him as a cabin boy, thus setting his foot on the first round of the ladder, and opening to him a career on the sea where in after days he was destined to win distinction and pre-eminence. From such small and apparently accidental beginnings mighty events often follow. From the humble rank of a cabin boy, the future admiral worked his way up by sheer grit and native intelligence to the post of captain of a merchant vessel. During the Napoleonic wars, Brown’s ship was seized by a French man-of-war, and he was made a prisoner and sent to Lorient. On being transferred to Metz he succeeded in escaping disguised in the uniform of a French officer. He was captured, however, and then imprisoned in the famous fortress of Verdun. There he formed an acquaintance with another prisoner, an English colonel named Clutchwell. They planned an escape and succeeded. After undergoing a series of narrow shaves and enduring many hardships and sufferings, Brown managed eventually to reach German territory and comparative safety. From Germany he made his way back from Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, and started there to trade on his own account.
The Merchant….He became part owner of a ship called the “Eliza,” and began trading between Montevideo and Buenos Aires. When the “Eliza” met with disaster and went aground, Brown carried his cargo of merchandise inland, and having disposed of it profitably, he next crossed the Andes Mountains and penetrated into Chile. He had now accumulated sufficient capital to enable him to purchase a schooner called the “Industria,” with which he opened a regular sailing-packet service between Uruguay and Argentina, the first venture of its kind in South America. But now Spain stepped in sensing a threat to her mercantile interests.
From Merchant to Commander-in-Chief…Spanish ships destroyed Brown’s schooner, and took drastic effects to nullify Argentina’s attempts to defend her costs against Spanish raiders. As a result of the incident, Argentina resolved to provide ships to protect her coasts and trade, with Brown being appointed Commander-in-Chief.
The Battle…..Brown immediately resolved to try conclusions with Spanish Navy Officer Romarate, and to attack the formidable Spanish squadron with his ill-equipped navy and patchwork crew. A forlorn venture, one would think. But, on March 8th (1813), Brown bravely set sail with his despicable fleet and within 48 hours was engaged in a furious battle. Land and sea forces operated at Martin Garcia, a fortified island twenty miles above Buenos Aires, commanding the two rivers Parana and Uruguay, and known as the Gibraltar of the River Plate. Brown failed to win possession of the island. His flagship, the “Hercules,” was badly battered and ran aground. They attacked vigorously by land and sea on St. Patrick’s Day, and after a stiff contest succeeded in gaining possession of Martin Garcia. Romarate hastened with his ships to Montevideo hotly pursued by Brown, whose naval forces were now increased by the addition of three armed merchant vessels. The Spanish blockading squadron was now blockaded itself by Brown and his fleet. Montevideo was threatened with starvation. Brown, pretending to retreat, drew the Spaniards away on May 14th from the protection of the fort guns, and two days afterwards on May 16th, a hot and fierce engagement took place in the course of which Brown’s leg was shattered by a cannon ball. Undeterred by the mishap, and in spite of his agonising pains, Brown stoically continued to issue orders and direct operations while stretched bleeding and helpless on the deck of the “Hercules.” In a fearful panic the Spanish squadron rushed for shelter to port, but three of their ships were captured. As a direct result of this engagement the River Plate was freed from Spanish domination. The Argentine fleet rode the waves victorious. Montevideo had fallen.
Brown was the hero of the Day. The emancipator of Argentina. The vindicator of her liberties. Honours were showered on him. He was raised to the rank of colonel and made commander of the navy. His flagship, the “Hercules,” was presented to him as a personal gift and reward for his brave and gallant services against the traditional oppressor and enemy, Spain. Brown was not destined to remain long inactive. Uruguay had been a bone of contention between Spain and Portugal for three centuries. And now it became a matter of bitter dispute between Argentina and Brazil. So much so, that the question at issue could only be settled by the arbitrament of arms. On December 11th, 1825, war broke out between Argentina and Brazil. The Brazilians initiated operations by blockading Argentina. In this dire emergency, Argentina, under the guidance and inspiration of Brown, improvised a new squadron of which he took supreme command. As a counter move to the blockade of Argentina, he vigorously attacked the Brazilian coast, shattered Brazilian shipping, and at the hard fought battle of Juncal, he captured the entire opposing Brazilian squadron and took captive the commander. On June 11th, 1826, the decisive battle of Los Pozos took place between the Argentine and Brazilian forces in view of Buenos Aires, Argentina being represented by only eleven while Brazil had thirty-one fighting units. After a violent and strenuous encounter the Brazilians were routed and a type of peace followed. To grapple with the difficult situation that had arisen, Brown was induced to accept the post of Governor of Buenos Aires, the only foreigner who had ever been entrusted with this high and responsible office. But, finding the problems that surrounded him too complex and difficult even for his genius and administrative capacity, he soon resigned, and withdrew to his country residence to enjoy some peace and tranquillity after his hectic and exciting days, leaving the opposing factions to finish the dog-fight.
In 1847 Admiral Brown visited his native Foxford accompanied by his daughter. Ten years later, in 1857, he died, receiving the rites and consolations of Holy Church from Father Fahy, a native of Loughrea, Co. Galway, who had spent some time on the mission in North America prior to taking up duty in Argentina.
In personal appearance Admiral Brown is described as a tall, strongly built man, with a beetling brow, powerful jaw, firm chin, full mobile lips, with a strong burning fire in his eyes. Nervous and restless in manner, his outward simplicity yet contained a suble idea of greatness that seemed to emanate from his every movement. The generosity of his nature, the firmness of his control over persons and events, the greatness of his daring, raised him to the supreme height of personal influence and imparted to his personality the magnetic touch. It was his code to take the greatest risk in times of danger, to be scournful of death but jealous of honour.
Argentina does not forget him. His memory is commemorated in his native place, Foxford, by the Foxford Memorial Hall named after him and by a monument on Church Road.. From Tierra del Fuego, in Argentina, to Foxford, in Ireland, the name of Admiral William Brown is honoured and his fame is perpetuated.