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Ploughing the sea: Latin America observed

Travels in Colombia

Title page and frontispiece depicting the author in costume standing beside a donkey.Frontispiece depicting the author and title page.Colombia, which at the time of its independence from Spain in 1819 encompassed present-day Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, was 'The Liberator' Simón Bolívar's proudest creation. He was to live to see it break up just before his death in 1830 at the age of 47; his dream of a united Latin America was as far from realisation as ever.

The difficulty in realising this ambition gave rise to his most-quoted aphorism: 'He who serves a revolution ploughs the sea.' However, even this incompletely fulfilled ambition seemed at one time a fantasy.

Many in the colonies from all backgrounds still felt intense loyalty to the Spanish crown; many creoles were frightened that the independence struggle would provoke slave or Indian uprisings, as had recently happened in Haiti, Peru and Mexico, and the independence uprisings were divided by regional and personal enmities. The independence of Latin America was determined more by Ferdinand VII's inability to command the support of his army in crushing the uprisings in 1820 than by unequivocal support for independence in any section of colonial society.

The new republics welcomed British support, whether it was diplomatic recognition or, as in the case of the Cochrane clan, naval expertise. Charles Stuart Cochrane's father, the naval officer Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane (1758-1832), offered assistance to the Venezuelan freedom fighter Francisco Miranda in 1806; this came to nothing, as the British authorities had no intention of antagonising Spain at this time. His cousin, the naval officer Thomas Cochrane, 10th earl of Dundonald (1775-1860), gave naval support to the liberation of Peru and Chile and helped to strengthen the navy of newly independent Brazil, enabling it to defeat Portugal's attempts to re-establish control.

Charles Stuart Cochrane (b 1796), partook of the family's eccentricity but expressed it in a more quixotic fashion. Initially he had a career in the navy, which included a spell at Buenos Aires. He left the Navy in 1822, having achieved the rank of commander, and decided to seek his fortune in Colombia, apparently attracted by the promise of pearl-fishing and copper-mining concessions. However, this venture was attended with the same lack of success as William Bullock's in Mexico.

His account of his travels demonstrates the reasons for this; the topography and poor transport infrastructure of Colombia rendered his schemes impractical. In the late 1820s, following a probable nervous breakdown, he travelled extensively in Britain in the disguise of a Spanish troubadour, taking the name of Juan de Vega. In 1833 he was awarded a patent for spinning cashmere wool. After this, nothing more is heard of him.

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