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British Invasions of the Río de la Plata
Part of Anglo-Spanish War (1796–1808)
File:Invasiones Inglesas.jpg
Above: Beresford surrenders to Santiago de Liniers (1806). Below: British conquest of Montevideo (1807)
Date1806 - 1807
LocationBuenos Aires, Montevideo, Colonia del Sacramento, Maldonado
(present-day Argentina and Uruguay)
Result Decisive Spanish victory[1][2]

Spain Kingdom of Spain

United Kingdom United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Spain Santiago de Liniers
Spain Juan Martín de Pueyrredón
Spain Martín de Álzaga
United Kingdom Home Riggs Popham
United Kingdom William Beresford  (POW)
United Kingdom John Whitelocke

First invasion:

  • ~2,500 soldiers
  • ~2,000 soldiers in Montevideo

Second invasion:

  • ~7,000-8,000 soldiers

First invasion:

  • ~1,668 soldiers
  • ~6,000 soldiers in Montevideo

Second invasion:

Casualties and losses
About 660 killed and 1,205 wounded First invasion:
About 1,300 were captured[6]
Unknown dead or wounded
Second invasion:
About 2,800 killed, wounded or captured[1]

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 stormed and 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 social effects of the invasions are among the causes of the May Revolution. The criollos, who had so far been denied important positions, could get political strength in military roles. The successful resistance with little help from the peninsula fostered the desire of self-determination. An open cabildo and the Royal Audience of Buenos Aires deposed the viceroy Rafael de Sobremonte and designated instead the popular hero Santiago de Liniers, which was a complete unprecedented action: before that, the viceroy was only subject of the King of Spain himself, and no Spanish American had authority over him.


River Plate, 1806

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 and since the beginning of the conquest of the Americas, England had been interested in the riches of the region. The Peace of Basel in 1795 ended the war between Spain and France. 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. This battle forced Spain to reduce to a minimum its naval communications with its American colonies. Historically, Buenos Aires had been relatively neglected by Spain, which sent most of its ships to the more economically important city of Lima. The last time when a significant Spanish military force had arrived in Buenos Aires was in 1784.[2]

British interest in the region

There were six Anglo-Spanish Wars from 1702 to 1783, most of which lasted for several years and Britain had long harboured interests in taking control of the region from the Spanish before the invasions.

Back in 1711, John Pullen stated that the Río de la Plata was the best place in the world for making a British colony. His proposal included Santa Fe and Asunción, and would have generated an agricultural area with Buenos Aires as the main port. Admiral Vernon also declared the benefit of opening markets in those areas in 1741. By 1780 the British government approved a project of colonel William Fullarton to take the Americas with attacks from both the Atlantic (from Europe) and the Pacific (from India). This project was cancelled.[7]

Nicholas Vansittart made a new proposal in 1796: the plan was to take Buenos Aires, then move to Chile and attack from there the Spanish stronghold of El Callao in Peru. This proposal was canceled the following year, but was improved by Thomas Maitland in 1800 as the Maitland Plan. The new plan was to seize control of Buenos Aires with 4,000 soldiers and 1,500 cavalry, move to Mendoza, and prepare a military expedition to cross the Andes and conquer Chile. From there, the British would move from sea to seize Perú and then Quito.[8]

All these proposals were discussed in 1804 by William Pitt, Lord Henry Melville and Sir Home Riggs Popham. Popham did not believe a complete military occupation of South America was practical but argued for taking control of key locations to allow the main objective, to open new markets for the British economy. Although there was consensus for weakening Spanish control over its South American colonies, there was no agreement as to the system and the moment to take such action. For instance, it was not even agreed whether the cities be turned into British colonies after their capture or just be made into British proctectorates.[9]

First invasion

Portrait of Don Santiago de Liniers. Naval Museum of Madrid.

Sir William Beresford, commander of the British troops.

In 1805 Popham received orders to escort the David Baird-led expedition against the Dutch colony of the Cape of Good Hope, which was allied with Napoleon. With nearly 6,300 men they took it in January 1806. Popham received new orders from the admiralty to patrol the east coast of South America, from Rio de Janeiro to the Río de la Plata, in order to detect any attempt to counterattack the Cape. However, Popham had the idea of taking the Río de la Plata with a military action similar to the one made at the Cape. His agent William White had him informed about the local politics of the city, such as the discontent among some groups about the restrictive regulations enforced by Spain about international commerce. Popham manifested Baird his will to take the zone, with or without his help. Baird gave him the 71st Regiment of Infantry, artillery and 1,000 men to attempt the invasion. Baird promoted William Carr Beresford to general and designated him vicegobernor of the zone if it was taken. The expedition got reinforcements of 1,500 men and 36 officials at Saint Helena.[10]

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 best troops had been dispatched to the Upper Peru currently Bolivia to guard the frontiers from Túpac Amaru II's revolt, and when Sobremonte learned of the British presence in the area he dispatched the remaining troops to Montevideo, considering that the attack would be in that city. Thus, the British found Buenos Aires almost defenseless. The British took Quilmes, near Buenos Aires, on 25 June 1806, and reached and occupied Buenos Aires on 27 June. The Viceroy fled to Córdoba with the city's treasury, but lost it to British forces during his escape. Although his action was in line with a law enacted by former Viceroy Pedro de Cevallos, which required the treasury to be kept safe in case of a foreign attack, he was seen as a coward by the population because of it.[11]

The wealthy members of society were not pleased with the British arrival.[12] nevertheless the politicians swore loyalty to them, such as the members of the Cabildo or the Consulates, with the exception of Manuel Belgrano who said "Queremos al antiguo amo o a ninguno" (we want the same Master or none at all), leaving to the Banda Oriental, now Uruguay. Religious leaders swore loyalty as well, after securing the promise that the catholic religion would be respected. The Real Audience ended its activities. The rich people included the British among their celebrations, and those promised that their slaves wouldn't be emancipated. However, the bulk of the population did not like the new situation and rejected the British. Merchants were also displeased by the repeal of the Spanish monopoly of commerce and the opening to free trade, as it harmed their interests; one of their leaders was Martín de Álzaga. De Álzaga organized the digging of a secret tunnel to the fort, where the British were located, with the purpose of filling it with explosives and attacking the invaders by surprise. Juan Martín de Pueyrredón organized a militia near the city, but was discovered before being ready, and his troops were defeated. Santiago de Liniers, who was assigned to guard a nearby coast defense, got into the city and weighted the situation. He convinced Álzaga to hold on his plan, and moved to Montevideo. The governor Ruiz Huidobro gave him command of 550 veterans and 400 soldiers to return to Buenos Aires and attempt the re-conquest. Sobremonte was doing the same in Córdoba, but Liniers got to Buenos Aires first.

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. On 10 August he took control of the strategic points of Miserere and El Retiro, holding the north and west entries to the city. Beresford finally surrendered on 14 August. An open cabildo decided afterwards to depose Sobremonte from having military authority, and giving instead such authority to the victorious Liniers. As pointed, Sobremonte's departure at the beginning of the war made him highly unpopular among the peoples of Buenos Aires. Sobremonte would not return to Buenos Aires, and move to Montevideo instead. The open cabildo decided as well to prepare the city against the possibility of a British counter-attack.

Foreseeing the possibility of a second invasion, militias were formed by the Spanish and criollos, such as the Patricios,[13] 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

Lieutenant-General John Whitelocke, commander of the British forces in the second invasion.

Battle of Montevideo

On 3 February 1807 Montevideo, defended by approximately 5,000 men, was besieged at 2:00am by a 6,000 strong British force in a joint military and naval operation under General Sir Samuel Auchmuty and a naval squadron under Admiral Sir Charles Stirling. Reinforcements for the defenders came en route from Buenos Aires, so that the rapid success of the operation was essential.

Swiftly breached, the city was then assaulted by the 40th regiment and the elite 95th (Rifle) regiment. Once inside the walls, the British met heavy resistance as the Spanish fought to halt their advance, but they gradually spread out and forced back the defenders. On the other side of the city a second assault was launched, spearheaded by the 87th Regiment of Foot taking the Spanish defenders in the rear. The Spanish Governor Ruiz Huidobro accepted Auchmuty's demand of unconditional surrender around 5:00 A.M. The Spanish took 1,500 casualties and a further 2,000 were taken prisoner while the British had taken 600 casualties.

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

2nd Battle of Buenos Aires

On the 1 July, the force led by Liniers fought bravely but 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 for the Creoles hungered for independence.[14] 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 mixed race militia, including 686 African slaves,[15] stiffened by the local 1st Naval Infantry Battalion and 1st 'Los Patricios' Infantry Regiment,[3] 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 employed cooking pots filled with burning oil from rooftops, injuring several redcoats of the 88th Regiment.[16] The locals eventually overwhelmed the British troops.

By the end of 5 July, the British controlled Retiro and Residencia[17] at the cost of about 70 officers and 1,000 other ranks killed or wounded,[18] but the city's centre was still in the hands of the defenders, and the invaders were now demoralized. At this point, a counter-attack by the militias and colonial troops present, 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 suffering 311 killed, 679 wounded and 1,808 captured or missing,[1] Whitelocke signed an armistice with Liniers on 12 August; the local marines playing an important part in defeating Brigadier-General Robert Crauford and his two thousand redcoats at the Battle of Plaza del Mercado which is now recalled by the people of Buenos Aires as 'The Defence'.[3] Whitelocke 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.[19] Less than three years after the second invasion, the May Revolution took place in 1810, as a prelude to the Declaration of Independence of Argentina of 1816.


  • Luna, Félix (1994) (in Spanish). Breve historia de los Argentinos. Buenos Aires: Planeta / Espejo de la Argentina. 950-742-415-6. 
  • Luna, Félix (2003) (in Spanish). Los conflictos armados. Buenos Aires: La Nación. ISBN 950-49-1123-4. 


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Historic cities of the Americas: an illustrated encyclopedia, Volume 1, David Marley, p. 658, ABC-CLIO, 2005
  2. 2.0 2.1 Invasiones Inglesas (Spanish)
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 'With the Gurkhas in the Falklands' - A War Journal's Postscript By Mike Seer July 2003
  4. The growth and culture of Latin America, Donald Emmet Worcester, Wendell G. Schaeffer, p. 404, Oxford University Press, 11/11/1971
  5. Britain and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History, Will Kaufman, Heidi Slettedahl Macpherson, p. 833, ABC-CLIO, 2005
  6. Historic cities of the Americas: an illustrated encyclopedia, Volume 1, David Marley, p. 658, ABC-CLIO, 2005
  7. Luna, p. 12-13
  8. Luna, p. 13-15
  9. Luna, p. 15-17
  10. Luna, 16-18
  11. Luna, Breve..., p. 52
  12. Tavani Pérez Colman, Oscar. Martínez de Fontes y la fuga del General Beresford. Editorial Dunken, 2005, p.49. "The lack of identification with the Spanish government in Buenos Aires began to express itself on the friendly welcome extended to the enemy by ladies who, smiling, gave them welcome. Moreover, the 1 July, Sarratea Martin -father-in-law of Liniers- and his brother-in-law Leon Altolaguirre offered a reception to the British leaders, attended by Santiago de Liniers and his wife's brother-in-law Lázaro de Rivera." -- "La ausencia de identificación con el gobierno español en el pueblo de Buenos Aires comenzó a exteriorizarse en la simpática acogida brindad al enemigo por parte de señoritas que, sonrientes, les daban la bienvenida. Es más aún, el día 1º de julio, Martín de Sarratea -suegro de Liniers- y su cuñado León de Altolaguirre ofrecieron una lucida recepción a los jefes británicos a la que concurrieron Santiago de Liniers y su concuñado Lázaro de Rivera."
  13. Compañía de Granaderos de Infantería o Provinciales
  14. Argentina: The Path to Independence. By Chris Brooks.
  15. The African experience in Spanish America, 1502 to the present day, Leslie B. Rout, p. 166, CUP Archive, 1976
  16. An authentic narrative of the proceedings of the expedition under the command of Brigadier-Gen. Craufurd, until its arrival at Monte Video; with an account of the operations against Buenos Aires under the command of Lieut.-Gen. Whitelocke. , p. 157, G. E. Miles, 1808
  17. Invasiones inglesas. La defensa.
  18. An authentic narrative of the proceedings of the expedition under the command of Brigadier-Gen. Craufurd, until its arrival at Monte Video; with an account of the operations against Buenos Aires under the command of Lieut.-Gen. Whitelocke. , p. 164, G. E. Miles, 1808
  19. Buenos Aires celebrates routing of British invasion, MercoPress, South Atlantic News Agency, August 12th 2006

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