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The drizzle envelops us in Bogota all too reminiscent of a dull October morning in London. As the grey clouds obscure the ridges of the Cerros Orientales, the telltale pines and eucalyptus vanish, and you could be almost anywhere but for the thin oxygen, the red transmilenio buses and towering billboards of Aguila girls.
Perhaps the climate suited those attached to the Simon Bolivar’s Albion Battalion. But, more likely, these men – members of the famed British Legion - were now remnants of a military force pushed into redundancy by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, farmers and chancers looking to make ends meet and seek glory on the fields of battle in South America. And while the Spanish crown held a tenuous control over the territories in South America, in the eyes of those in the British Legion, this was a land that promised great wealth and a new life in an exotic far away land.
The British Legions were an important part of Bolívar’s army and there are numerous mentions made of the heroic deeds at pivotal battles in Venezuela (Carabobo), El Pantano de Vargas, la Batalla de Boyacá (both Colombia), Pichincha (Ecuador) and finally in Ayacucho (Peru) to put paid to the Spanish empire in South America.
Imagine that the Times newspaper of London estimated there to be 500,000 ex-soldiers in a total population of 25 million on the British Isles and once the country no longer required a standing army, these soldiers were put out to pasture and for the most part suffered a future of immense poverty.
And so, what of the 6,500 volunteers from the British Isles recruited between 1817 and 1820 to serve in Bolívar’s liberation campaigns? Well, the Albion Battalion receives very favourable write ups in the history books for bravery and tenacity, but what happened next? With the motto of “die or conquer”, many volunteers clearly never returned home - either perishing in battle or struck down by disease in the harsh South American environment.
But here, next door to the Cementerio Central in downtown Bogota there is a fitting, if little known, monument to their lives and sacrifice in the form of the Cementerio Britanico. This was a plot of land gifted by Bolivar as a grave site for those from the British Legion who perished in his campaign. Here, you can find tombstones dating back to the War of Independence and names that should be high up the list of the pantheon of heroes for Colombia. Bendle, Mackintosh, Smith, the names read like a British school roll call.
Beautifully tended and studiously guarded, the Cementerio Britanico has now served to act as a graveyard for Protestant expatriate Britons, a few Americans and more than a couple of Germans who have made their home and lives in Colombia over the years. There is even the curious gravestone of Florence Ethel Harwood, originally from Woking, Surrey, and who was nanny to the famed German Ribon family for 33 years.
If you can gain entry, perhaps with an invitation from the British Embassy, I highly recommend visiting this unknown and very atmospheric piece of overlooked history within the confines of a nondescript Bogota neighbourhood.