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British Invasions of the Río de la Plata
Part of Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815)
Rio de la Plata 1806.svg
River Plate during the conflict
Date 1806 - 1807
Location Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Colonia del Sacramento, Maldonado, Ensenada and Fuerte Barragán, Quilmes.
Result Decisive Spanish victory
Spain Spanish Empire United Kingdom United Kingdom
Santiago de Liniers
Martín de Álzaga
Sir Home Riggs Popham
John Whitelocke
~2,500 first invasion
~2,000 in Montevideo
~7,000 second invasion
~1,668 first invasion
~6,000 in Montevideo
~8,000 second invasion
Casualties and losses
660 killed
1,205 wounded
705 killed
1,361 wounded or captured

The British invasions of the Río de la Plata were a series of unsuccessful British attempts to seize control of the Spanish colonies located around the La Plata Basin in South America (today part of Argentina and Uruguay). The invasions took place between 1806 and 1807, as part of the Napoleonic Wars, when Spain was an ally of France.

The invasions occurred in two phases. A detachment from the British Army occupied Buenos Aires for 46 days in 1806 before being expelled. In 1807, a second force occupied Montevideo, remaining for several months, and a third force made a second attempt to take Buenos Aires. After several days of street-fighting against the local militia and Spanish colonial army, in which half of the British forces were killed or wounded, the British were forced to withdraw.

The resistance of the local people and their active participation in the defence, with little direct support from Spain, were important steps toward the May Revolution in 1810, and the Argentine Declaration of Independence in 1816.



Pedro de Mendoza founded the Ciudad de Nuestra Señora del Buen Ayre (Our Lady of the Fair Winds) on 2 February 1536 as a Spanish settlement. The site was abandoned in 1541, but re-established in 1580 by Juan de Garay with the name Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Santa María del Buen Ayre, and the city became one of the largest in the Americas. A Portuguese colony was founded nearby at Colonia del Sacramento in 1680. To deter Portuguese expansion, the Spanish founded Montevideo in 1726, and Colonia was finally ceded to Spain under the Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1777, one year after the creation of the Spanish Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata, the forerunner of modern Argentina.

The South Sea Company was granted trading concessions in South America in the time of Queen Anne, under the Treaty of Utrecht. The British had long harboured ambitions in South America, considering the estuary of the Río de la Plata as the most favourable location for a British colony.

The Napoleonic wars played a key role in the Rio de la Plata conflict. Since the beginning of the conquest of Americas, England had been interested in the riches of the region. The Peace of Basel in 1795 ended the war between Spain and the French Revolution. In 1796, by the Second Treaty of San Ildefonso, Spain joined France in its war with Britain, thus giving Britain cause for military action against Spanish colonies. Britain judged it the right moment after the defeat of the Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar.

First invasion - 1806

Beresford surrenders to Santiago de Liniers. Work by Charles Fouqueray.

A British force commanded by Lieutenant-General David Baird and Admiral Sir Home Popham took the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope in 1806. A smaller British force of 1,500 men under Colonel William Carr Beresford was sent across the South Atlantic to invade the Plata region, departing on 14 April 1806 .

The Spanish Viceroy, Marquis Rafael de Sobremonte, had asked the Spanish Crown for reinforcements many times, but only received a shipment of several thousand muskets and instructions to form a militia. Buenos Aires was then a large settlement housing approximately 45,000, but the Viceroy was reluctant to give weapons to the Creole population.

The British took Quilmes, near Buenos Aires, on 25 June 1806, and reached and occupied Buenos Aires on the 27 June. The Viceroy fled to Córdoba Province with the city's treasury, but lost it to British forces during his escape. His mismanagement of the situation alienated him from the population of Buenos Aires; they later opposed, and prevented, his reinstatement as a Viceroy after the end of the war.

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The residents of the city were pleased to see the British arrive at first, although some feared becoming a British colony and favoured independence. However, one of the first measures of Beresford was to decree free commerce and reduction of port taxes. These measures displeased the merchants, who benefited from the Spanish monopoly, and so they gave their support to the resistance.

French marine officer Santiago de Liniers y Bremond, at the time an acting officer of the Spanish navy, organised the re-conquest of Buenos Aires from Montevideo, with help of the city governor, Ruiz Huidobro. Also of importance was the participation of Juan Martín de Pueyrredón, chief of the creole urban militias, and volunteers such as the second lieutenant Manuela Pedraza.

On 4 August 1806, Liniers landed at Las Conchas, north of Buenos Aires, and advanced with a mixed force of Buenos Aires line troops and Montevideo Militia toward the city. After two days of fighting, Beresford surrendered on 12 August. Two days later, the government at the Buenos Aires Cabildo named Liniers military and political chief of the city.

Foreseeing the possibility of a second invasion, militias were formed by the Spanish and criollos, such as the Patricios [1], Arribeños, Húsares (of Pueyrredón), Pardos and Morenos. The creation of such local forces created concern within the Spanish elite, fearful of an attempt of secession from the Spanish Crown.

On this first invasion, the 71st Regiment of Foot lost both of its Regimental Colours during the combat, which are currently held in Argentina. On the second invasion, there was a frustrated attempt to recover both flags. They were retaken by the Buenos Aires militia and returned to the Santo Domingo convent. Another two banners from the British Royal Navy are also held in the convent.

Second invasion - 1807

Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke commanded the British forces in the second invasion.

On 3 February 1807, Montevideo was captured in a joint military and naval operation using British reinforcements of 8,000 men under General Sir Samuel Auchmuty and a naval squadron under Admiral Sir Charles Stirling.

On 10 May, Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke arrived in Montevideo to take overall command of the British forces on the Río de la Plata. He landed on 27 June.

On 1 July, Liniers force was overwhelmed by superior numbers in the city environs. At this crucial moment, Whitelocke did not attempt to enter the city, but twice demanded the city's surrender. Meanwhile, Buenos Aires' mayor Martín de Álzaga organised the defence of the city by digging trenches, fortifying buildings and erecting fences with great popular support. Finally, 3 days after forcing the troops under Liniers to retreat, Whitelocke resolved to attack Buenos Aires. Trusting in the superiority of his soldiers, he divided his army into 12 columns and advanced without the protection of the artillery. His army was met on the streets by a determined militia, and fighting continued on the streets of Buenos Aires on 4 July and 5 July. Whitelocke underestimated the importance of urban combat, in which the inhabitants of the city overwhelmed the British troops.

Santiago de Liniers

By the end of 5 July, the British controlled Retiro but the city's centre was still in the hands of the defenders, and the invaders were demoralized. At this point, a counter-attack by the Buenos Aires militia defeated many important British commanders, including Robert Crauford and Dennis Pack. Then Whitelocke proposed a 24-hour truce, which was rejected by Liniers, who ordered an artillery attack.

After having more than half his forces killed and captured, Whitelocke signed an armistice with Liniers on 12 August. He left the Río de la Plata basin taking with him the British forces in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Colonia. On his return to Great Britain, he was court-martialled and cashiered, mainly for surrendering Montevideo. Liniers was later named Viceroy of the Río de la Plata by the Spanish Crown.

Towards independence

Having to fight the British invasions by themselves, with little direct help from the Spanish Crown, and given that the Spanish King was captured by Napoleon, the idea of independence from Spain grew stronger. Less than 3 years after the second invasion, the May Revolution took place in 1810, as a prelude to the Declaration of Independence of Argentina of 1816.


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