University of Notre Dame


Hesburgh Libraries

Rare Books & Special Collections

William Brown (1777-1857)

Biographical Information

Largely unknown outside of naval history and the Southern Cone, Admiral William Brown was one of the most audacious and successful naval commanders of his generation. Brown bravely led the under-manned and under-financed Argentine navy through the wars of independence and early years of the republic. For these achievements, he is recognized in Argentina as one its principal heroes.

Brown was born in County Mayo, Ireland, and immigrated with his family to the USA in 1786. Offered a job as a cabin boy, he jumped at the opportunity. His occupation quickly took unexpected turns as he was captured by a French man-of-war during the Napoleonic Wars. Taken prisoner, he escaped to England before shipping out to South America where he was shipwrecked and ended up in the Rio de la Plata. He remained in the region finding profitable opportunities, even after his first ship, the Eliza, ran aground. He crossed the Andes to Chile where he purchased a schooner, called the Industria, which he used to establish a regular shipping service between Uruguay and Argentina. His profitable trade route was interrupted when the Buenos Aires cabildo declared its independence from Spain. In 1813 Brown volunteered to lead the nascent navy against Spain's dominant armada.

Commanding Argentina's "fleet" of seven ships, he captured the fortified island of Martín García, named "The Gibralter of the La Plata" because it controlled access to the Parana and Uruguay rivers, as well as nine Spanish warships. Upon his return to Buenos Aires, he was given the rank of Admiral. Receiving a plea from republicans in Chile and Peru, he sailed around the horn to support their efforts in 1816.

Admiral Brown maintained the Argentine navy as the continent entered a period of nation building where neighbors were as often at war as at peace. In the 1820s a struggle ensued between Argentina and Brazil over the future of Uruguay. Brazil's superior navy blockaded Buenos Aires. Brown was called upon again to protect the nation against foreign incursions. Brown had lost none of his audacity as he broke the blockade and attacked the Brazilian shipping lanes, capturing ships, and causing panic along the mainland with his raids from an undermanned navy.

At the battle of Juncal, February 1827, he destroyed the fleet of seventeen warships with seven ships and a few launches. The fate of Uruguay was settled shortly thereafter as it became a nation that year. The Porteños repaid Admiral Brown by appointing him mayor of Buenos Aires. The city's problems proved too much for him. He resigned to the peace and quiet of his farm. Many years later in 1847, he returned to the place of his birth. He died in Argentina ten years later and is entombed in the Recoleta, a fitting resting place for one of Argentina's greatest heros.

Return to top of page

Description of Archival Collection (MSH/SCH 1504-01)

Document in which the title of 2nd Lieutenant is conferred to Fabián Gonzales, by order of William Brown. William Brown was designated to take the place of General Lavalle as Governor of Buenos Aires.

Return to top of page