In the month of June, in the year 1806, the city of Buenos Aires was attacked seemingly without warning by the British fleet off the coast of Argentina. Several days later the town’s inhabitants watched as the British soldiers took possession of their city. Over the next few months a small group of loyal patriots devised a plan to take back the town.
This is their Story…
British Intervention in Argentina in early 19th century
The story of British intervention in South America began with a memorandum written in 1804 by Commodore Home Popham, an eccentric and restless British naval officer. He set out details for an expedition to South America to divert its great wealth from Napoleon’s hands into Britain’s, as well as help the Spanish colonies in South America drive out their unpopular Spanish rulers. The idea appealed to the author’s trading instincts by promising to create a whole new market for British merchants, previously barred from direct trade with South America. When his plans failed to stir the government with the same passion he himself felt for the idea, he decided to take matters into his own hands. In 1806 Popham persuaded General Baird to lend him the 71st Regiment, fighting at the Cape of Good Hope under Colonel Beresford, to take over the Spanish possessions on Rio de la Plata.
With just seventeen hundred soldiers Popham was setting out to overthrow the Spanish hold on the province of Buenos Aires, a vast area including almost all of modern Argentina, as well as the republics of Uruguay, Bolivia and Paraguay. The city of Buenos Aires, the largest in South America, had a population of some seventy thousand who could not be relied on to welcome the British troops as friends. Bounded to the west by the mighty Andes Mountains and to the north by Brazil, Rio de la Plata presented the British with a task little less difficult than Napoleon faced in invading Russia in 1812. The evidence Popham had used to reach his optimistic forecast of British success in Rio de la Plata was unreliable and based on a few fully subjective and unprofessional opinions stemming from disaffection against Spain in Argentina and a perception of Spain’s military weakness.
On June 24, 1806, Popham and Beresford arrived off Buenos Aires, and after minor struggles forced the city to surrender. But the situation for the British was not as healthy as it appeared. Though poor in quality, the Spanish troops were numerous and were supported by thousands of Creole irregulars. Beresford had just sixteen hundred men, eight cannon and only sixteen cavalrymen to hold down the outlying areas. His control was therefore limited to the city of Buenos Aires and its immediate surroundings.
When Popham’s letters arrived in England, the government was faced with a fait accompli. They had not sanctioned Popham’s action in seizing Buenos Aires and had no idea how the matter would turn out. That is why they sent instructions to Beresford not to interfere in any revolutionary movements in the colony and to wait. Popham, meanwhile started advertising the financial potential of the newly-won land to the leading London merchants, rather than worrying about how he was going to keep it. In August, the local commander, Captain Santiago Liniers reached Buenos Aires with his force. On August 12, the entire population of the city, some seventy thousand strong, took up arms against the British. Beresford decided to abandon the city and return to the ships but was held up by bad weather. After suffering the loss of 165 men Beresford was forced to surrender.
He and his men were taken inland as prisoners. Meanwhile, reinforcements were beginning to arrive at Rio de la Plata. Admiral Sterling came from England to replace Popham – recalled to face a court-martial for abandoning his station at the Cape of Good Hope. From the Cape, fresh troops arrived at Rio de la Plata under Colonel Blackhouse, only to find to their astonishment that Beresford and all his men had been captured. Colonel landed his men and took possession of the small village of Maldonado, where he awaited further orders. In London the initial government reaction had mellowed somewhat as the financial implications became clearer.
Popham’s coup had proved to be tremendously popular in the country and by October the Minister of War, William Windham, had “evolved one of the most astonishing plans that ever emanated from the brain even of a British Minister of War.” Robert Craufurd (later to be one of Wellington’s most brilliant generals in the Peninsular War) was to be sent with four thousand men to land on the west coast of South America. Another British soldier, Auchmuty, arrived at Maldonado to relieve Blackhouse’s besieged men. He had already learned about the capture of Beresford and felt that his forces were too weak to recapture Buenos Aires without reinforcement. He therefore decided to strike instead at the city of Montevideo. What followed was a bloodbath. Though heavily outnumbered in both men and guns, the British troops forced a breach in the walls and took the city. While Auchmuty was consolidating his victory he was surprised by the appearance of Beresford, who had managed to escape his captors. Beresford’s action reflected little credit on him, as he had clearly abandoned the troops under his command and acted entirely in his own interests. Nonetheless, he was able to provide Auchmuty with valuable information before declining the offer of a command in the province and returning instead to England.
In England the government had now decided to send a senior commander, Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke, to take command of the forces at Rio de la Plata and to act as governor after the province had been subdued. By the time Whitelocke arrived at Montevideo to meet Auchmuty, on May 10, 1807, it was winter in South America, a fact that affected the conduct of the campaign. It hampered transport and communication, as well as rendering the British cavalry ineffectual against the well-mounted irregular horsemen of the enemy. Up to this point little had happened to suggest the disasters that were to follow and for which Whitelocke was to be blamed. He had encountered difficulties from weather and terrain that were common to anyone campaigning in the Rio de la Plata region. His troops were not the best the army had to offer but they were infinitely better than any possessed by the enemy. He had with him able and professional commanders, particularly men like Craufurd and Auchmuty, on whom he could rely for advice, if he was prepared to ask for it.
He had the support of a powerful fleet and a secure base at Montevideo. Yet, from this moment, his behavior becomes irrational and his incompetence contributes substantially to the failures of the campaign. Under Whitelocke’s direction, the army was formed into four divisions–commanded by Craufurd, Lumley, Auchmuty and Colonel Mahon–while a garrison of thirteen hundred men was left in Montevideo. By the morning of June 30 the horrors of disembarkation and the way through the swamp were past and Whitelocke was able to advance toward the village of Reduction. Craufurd and Lumley were ordered to take up a position near the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires. Having crossed the river, Craufurd proceeded to clear the heights of enemy troops. Leveson-Gower sent orders for Craufurd to withdraw but by this time the Scotsman was convinced he had taken the enemy by surprise and the city was his. In fact, Craufurd was right.
The Spaniards had massed nine thousand men and 50 guns by the bridge over the Chuelo but Craufurd’s lucky crossing by the ford had outflanked them. On hearing that the British had crossed the river Liniers rushed a column of troops back to the Corral. Ironically, Liniers had been defending the northern face of the city, having clearly received advance details of Whitelocke’s plan from a captured British officer. The extraordinary chance by which Craufurd had found the ford had enabled him to approach the city from an unexpected direction. But Leveson-Gower’s caution prevented Craufurd from taking the city and realizing the purpose of the entire expedition. Meanwhile, in spite of Craufurd’s successes, Leveson-Gower’s position was extremely difficult. His troops were now concentrated in the Corral, the city’s slaughter yard.
He had no idea where Whitelocke was with the main column. Leveson-Gower, as ordered, had demanded the surrender of Buenos Aires but had met with a defiant refusal. On July 3 Whitelocke at last made contact with Leveson-Gower. He asked him if he had had any thoughts of a plan to attack the city. Unfortunately after consulting Leveson-Gower, Whitelocke abandoned his own plan and called a meeting of officers for the next morning. Leveson-Gower’s plan, in fact, ranks as one of the most ridiculous in the whole of military history. He proposed nothing less than that the British troops should enter Buenos Aires from thirteen directions, in thirteen different columns, down thirteen separate streets. No arrangement was made to allow communication between the columns; each was to be entirely on its own. What was to happen next was anyone’s guess. Whitelocke–outside the city and with no communications with any of the columns–had accepted the role of a passive spectator. Satisfied with Leveson-Gower’s plan, Whitelocke instructed his brigadiers that the attack would begin at noon.
Auchmuty, arriving late at the conference was amazed. His officers had had no time to acquaint themselves with the plan, nor reconnoiter the ground, and indeed midday was an extraordinary time to assault a heavily populated city like Buenos Aires. Reluctantly, Leveson-Gower agreed to delay the attack until first light the next morning. However there were to be no other changes, even though Pack, Beresford’s companion in his escape from captivity and the only British officer with a thorough knowledge of the city, thought the plan was insane. The Spanish defenders of Buenos Aires were prepared to defend every street in the city and had organized themselves accordingly. Cannons were placed at the ends of the streets and trenches were dug across the main streets leading to the Great Square. Houses were barricaded and missiles of every kind were assembled on the flat roofs to hurl on the advancing British infantry. Moreover, the morale of the defenders was far higher than that of the dispirited British. Priests had aroused the people to a religious fury and everyone was willing to play their part in defending their city. There may have been as many as fifteen thousand Spanish and irregular troops in the city, commanded by Liniers, but there were thousands more ordinary citizens who would join in when the time came.
The British had lost the moral advantage of being seen as liberating the people from the Spaniards. They were now simply regarded as foreign invaders, and enemies of the Catholic faith. The British had about five thousand men to carry out the assault, with something over eleven hundred kept in reserve. Each column was to be led by two corporals equipped with crowbars, presumably to dismantle barricades. At 6:30 in the morning they advanced into the city. In spite of its population of seventy thousand, the city was deathly silent, with scarcely even a scavenging dog to be seen. The sound of marching soldiers and cannons being dragged over the cobbles echoed in the stillness. On the left, Auchmuty advanced a mile without meeting any resistance until suddenly two cannons opened up on his columns, followed by heavy fire from hidden musketeers. Meanwhile, to the south of Auchmuty, the 5th had reached the river by 7:15 am without encountering any opposition at all.
They raised a flag from a house top and entrenched in a nearby church. Their right-wing column, led by Major King, also occupied a house near the river and raised its flag but this only served to bring down heavy fire from troops in the Plaza de Toros. On the extreme left the 38th, under Colonel Nugent, found itself in a narrow lane leading to the Plaza de Toros and faced by a large house filled with enemy snipers. The British regiment battled on and was able to open heavy fire on Spanish troops in the bullring. With the timely assistance of Auchmuty and some of the 87th, the defenders of that building were forced to surrender. So far, for all the absurdity of Leveson-Gower’s plan, things were going well for the British. This probably resulted from the fact that neither the 38th nor the 87th had gone where he had ordered them. In any case, the Plaza de Toros had been captured and Auchmuty had taken over a thousand prisoners and thirty two guns. However, British casualties had been very heavy. To the south of Auchmuty, Lumley’s brigade, the 36th and 88th, had encountered strong opposition.
The 36th had fought its way through to the riverbank and had hoisted its colors over a tall building. However, this action brought down a hail of fire from cannons in the fort and marksmen in all the surrounding houses, so Lumley could do no more than hold his position. On the extreme right of the British line, the 45th advanced on the Residencia in two columns and occupied this building within an hour and with light casualties. This was an important achievement as it gave Whitelocke a strong point on the southeastern flank of the city, within easy reach of the fleet. To the north, the Light Brigade had advanced in two columns of six hundred men, one under Colonel Pack, the other under the personal direction of Craufurd. Both of these columns advanced unmolested as far as the beach. Upon reaching it there was immediate confusion. Craufurd wanted to advance on the fort and ordered Guard to support him with the 45th, ignorant of the fact that Guard had been ordered by Leveson-Gower to occupy the Residencia. Certainly there was no mention of this in the general orders. Pack meanwhile, assuming that the Great Square and the fort were his targets for attack, turned northward until an outburst of firing wounded him near the Franciscan church, and wiped out half his force. Pack tried to convince Craufurd that the situation was hopeless and a withdrawal to the Residencia was advisable, but the general decided instead to advance to the Convent of St. Domingo. Here Craufurd occupied the building and fortified it, but his men were under constant fire from surrounding houses. At noon a Spanish officer, showing a flag of truce, brought a message from Liniers, that Craufurd assumed was a Spanish capitulation.
Instead it was a demand for the British to surrender. Although Craufurd rejected it, by 3:30 pm it was apparent that his position was hopeless and he surrendered. This action marked the final episode in the chaotic assault on Buenos Aires. Throughout the fighting Whitelocke had simply paced up and down at his headquarters awaiting news. In fact, no reports reached him because none of the commanders in Buenos Aires knew where he was. So confused was the fighting in the city that messengers could not have reached him anyway. Once they entered the city Whitelocke’s troops were beyond his control. Whitelocke, from his distant command post, had been unable to influence affairs one way or another. By the time Whitelocke and Leveson-Gower met Auchmuty at Plaza de Toros to assess their situation, the British casualties amounted to nearly three thousan, with over four hundred killed. On the other hand, the Spaniards had lost heavily themselves, and the British were in possession of strategic points on both sides of the city. It was only a matter of time before the city fell, but Whitelocke was not to be granted that time. His troops no longer had any confidence in him.
However, frustrating as the general’s decision appeared to his troops, it was by now apparent that even if they completed the capture of the city they could not hope to control the whole province without committing the British government to a wholly disproportionate military effort. Whitelocke therefore signed an agreement with Liniers to restore all prisoners and to evacuate the province within ten days, though Montevideo was to be held for a further two months. A proposal for liberty of commerce for British traders was utterly rejected by the Spaniards, and so ended Popham’s dreams of commercial empire.
The debacle at Buenos Aires was not simply the result of incompetence on the part of Whitelocke and Leveson-Gower, it was also the result of a failure in grand strategy. The ministers in England had acted in complete ignorance of the true state of affairs in Spanish South America. They had considered plans not only for the conquest of Rio de la Plata but Chile as well, without thinking for one moment of the vast distances involved, the terrible climate the British troops would encounter, terrain ranging from almost tropical jungle in places to frozen wastes in Chile, and the great barrier of the Andes Mountains. How could Britain, engulfed in a “life or death” struggle with Napoleonic France in Europe, provide sufficient troops to hold down such a vast area of land? Whitelocke’s instructions were in themselves products of confused thinking.
He was ordered to conquer the province of Buenos Aires by force and exile those who had imprisoned Beresford. However, in doing so he was not to cause too much distress to the enemy or occupy too much of their territory. He was to convince the population of the merits of British rule, without committing Britain to any kind of protectorate over them in the event of a Spanish attempt to re-establish her authority. This required a capacity for sleight of hand that eluded General Whitelocke. Perhaps Auchmuty, had he not been superseded, would have managed the military side of the equation, but he would have found politics a far more dangerous arena than the Plaza de Toros in Buenos Aires.
The Plot: The Real Story (June/August 1806)
Two days after the British took Buenos Aires Felipe Sentenach and Gerardo Esteve y Llach, two Spaniards loyal to King Fernando, hatched a plan to take the city back. They expanded their plot to include a group of loyal Spaniards, protected by the wealthy businessman Martin de Alzaga.
Sentenach’s plan was to choose a location far from the city to be fortified, and then recruit an army of five hundred men for training. At the same time, a group of men would start to dig a tunnel to the Fortress and to the Rancheria, where the British were lodged. When the tunnels were ready, they would wait for Spanish troops to arrive and initiate a swift attack on the British forces. They hoped to be assisted by some battleships from Montevideo. In case of failure Spaniards were supposed to blow up both the Rancheria and the Fortress with the explosive charges already placed by the diggers.
The city was a nest of spies so they had to take precautions to avoid being detected. Sentenach and his people implemented a very smart procedure to recruit their men. This system guaranteed, if not safety, at least anonymity. Sentenach named five leaders who, in turn, would pick another five men and so on until they reached the number of five hundred, each man knowing only the name of those five he had picked. The men chosen were all paid soldiers.
Sentenach, who was an engineer and mathematician, visited the fortress in order to determine the right course, depth, and extension of the tunnels. When the work started, he sneaked into the Rancheria to make sure the noises from digging weren’t heard. At the same time, sentries and patrols watched for any suspicious movement of British soldiers.
Several houses were purchased to lodge the increasing army and manufacture the arms and ammunition needed for the operation. To cover up the constant movement of men and equipment, one of the houses was transformed into a carpenter’s shop. Anyone who was curious would assume the carpenter and his assistants were working overtime.
A short time before the Spanish army reached the city the dig was suddenly stopped, even though the main tunnel already extended 131 feet. No one knows why the plot did not reach its conclusion, but it is believed that as the attack grew imminent, insecurity, suspicions and stark fear forced the conspirators to call a halt.
About Mariana, Author of The Plot
I was born in Buenos Aires city in 1969 as an identical twin. Being a twin sister is like having your best friend living at home with you. We shared everything and had a lot of fun together. We particularly enjoyed our reading sessions: from comics to Enyd Blyton’s, Agatha Christie`s, Conan Doyle`s, Georges Simenon`s, Patricia Highsmith`s… Books had always been a big part of our lives. I was very young when I started to write, mainly mysteries and short detective stories. I guess, it was then, when I decided to become a writer some day.
After graduating from high school I went to Buenos Aires University and obtained a diploma as a graphic designer. I got a great job at a magazine. Things couldn’t get any better but I decided I needed some adventure in my life. I packed my suitcase and headed to England. I spent four months in London where I became an addict to BBC radio dramas. I had already made a one-year course in scriptwriting, and listening to the BBC productions was almost like making postgraduate studies. I realized that radio has a lot of potential and it is the perfect mean for storytelling. From science fiction to historical drama – the only limit in radio is imagination. I was fascinated with the genre.
When I got back home I enrolled in the Instituto de Estudios Radiofonicos, one of the most important institutions for the mass – media professionals in Latin America. I met a brilliant group of people there and we formed a team of scriptwriters. We created several TV, radio and movie scripts and submitted them to different production companies and contests. Our efforts resulted in an unexpected reward. In 1999 we won the first prize in the “General Society of Author’s” Scriptwriting Contest. We felt our work was appreciated.
THE PLOT was born as an assignment while I was studying in the Institute. I had to write a radio drama and, as I love history, I decided to make a historical drama. At the time, I was reading a book about Argentine history and I came across an interesting footnote. It referred to the event that occurred during the first British invasion in the Rio de La Plata in 1806. It seemed to be a perfect idea for a radio script.
I started researching to gather as much information as I could about the events. I didn’t find much, but what I got was enough to give an authentic background to the story. As the real plot never reached a final phase, I decided to write my own version of what could have happened. To make things more interesting, I kept the names of some people who actually took part in the affair. Sentenach, Esteve and Alzaga were real and had an impact on this particular episode in Argentine history. Unfortunately, it was never properly discovered and described by historians.
Shortly after the British troops bombarded and pillaged Buenos Aires, two Spaniards, loyal to King Fernando, launched a plan to recapture the city. The Plot begins with the secret creation of a 500-man army and the hazardous task of digging a tunnel to the fortress occupied by the British. The dramatic events that followed the conspiracy are debated among Argentineans, yet they are virtually unknown to the rest of the world. Since the real plot never reached a conclusion, Leimontas has fashioned her own account of what might have been. Her story is an unforgettable one of bravery, treason, and forbidden romance.
Although the events depicted occurred in the 19th century, Leimontas imbues her story with modern sympathies by telling a tale of chivalrous men and courageous women battling against oppression. The admirable women of The Plot are fighting for their country’s freedom and for their place in the divided world, breaking social conventions to gain a victory. Will they finally win the freedom to think and act the way their hearts tell them? The Plot gives a glimpse into a little-known episode of Argentinean history. The accompanying original soundtrack of sweeping musical vistas, inspired by Latin American rhythms, provides a backdrop to the story of conspiracies and valour.
The Plot, an historic drama written by Argentinean author, Mariana Leimontas, has been produced by VirtuallyAudio.com — a streaming broadcast audio and radio theatre website where the listening is always free. The Plot will premiere on VirtuallyAudio.com in March, 2004. In addition, the full-length audio presentation CD will be available for purchase through the website and some independent bookstores in Toronto and across Canada.