British Invasions, Río de la Plata

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British Invasions, Río de la Plata

Efforts by a British expeditionary force (1806–1807) to take Buenos Aires from Spain are known as the Río de la Plata British Invasions. In 1804 Spain aligned with Napoleonic France, only to have its navy devastated at Trafalgar in 1805. British trade with the Río de la Plata had been flourishing since the 1780s, and fueled by the Venezuelan patriot Francisco de Miranda's promises of Spanish American sympathy for direct relations with Britain, some British sectors advocated open support for independence struggles. Commodore Sir Home Popham, a seasoned veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, attracted by commercial possibilities in South America, ordered 1,600 troops to invade Buenos Aires, which they did in June 1806. Faced with an invasion led by General William Carr Beresford, the viceroy, Fernando Rafael de Sobremonte, fled with the Spanish garrison and the treasury, leaving the city to civilians. The British were welcomed at first. However, when the British imposed free-trade policies, they lost support of local business leaders and civilians soon turned on them. After two months a ragtag militia, organized in Montevideo and led by a French officer in the imperial employ, Captain Santiago de Liniers, captured Beresford and his troops. A coalition emerged of Spanish merchants, led by Martín de Álzaga, creole merchants (led by Juan Martín de Peuyrredón), and lesser imperial officers. Popham ordered General John Whitelocke to lead a second expedition to retake the viceregal capital. After seizing Montevideo in May 1807, Whitelocke fought his way to Buenos Aires with 7,000 soldiers but was mowed down by civilians and militia armed with cannon and muskets captured from Beresford. Whitelocke proved himself profoundly incompetent, leading his forces down narrow streets, where bullets rained down from the rooftops. He surrendered unconditionally on 7 July 1807.

The British invasions shattered the legitimacy of the viceroy, who had left his capital with threadbare defenses. Liniers became the interim viceroy but was much more attuned to the interests of creoles than of peninsular concerns, thereby opening a power struggle between pro-Spanish (led by Álzaga) and patriotic factions. Each side squared off in armed confrontation between various factions of the militia. The creole majority of the militia soon defeated Álzaga's followers. The municipal Cabildo also had become a battlefield for internecine bickering. Peninsular sympathizers eventually convinced Charles IV to replace Liniers with Balthasar de Cisneros. He proved to be as incompetent as Sobre-monte; therefore the creoles, supported by the militia, declared open defiance on 25 May 1810. The British invasions instigated a sequence of events leading to independence in the Río de la Plata and to the militarization of local politics. Eventually, in 1825, the British recognized the independence of the Río de la Plata.

See alsoBritish in Argentina; British-Latin American Relations.


Henry Stanley Ferns, Britain and Argentina in the Nineteenth Century (1960), esp. pp. 18-47.

Tulio Halperín Donghi, Politics, Economics, and Society in Argentina in the Revolutionary Period (1975), esp. pp. 133-139.

Additional Bibliography

Gallo, Klaus. Las invasiones inglesas. Buenos Aires: Editorial Universitaria de Buenos Aires, 2004.

Luzuriaga, J. C. Una gesta heroica: Las invasiones inglesas y la defensa del Plata. Montevideo, Uruguay: Torre del Vigía Ediciones, 2004.

                                            Jeremy Adelman

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British Invasions, Río de la Plata

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