Garibaldi in South America: An Exploration by Richard Bourne - review by David Gelber

David Gelber

The Gaucho Who Unified Italy

Garibaldi in South America: An Exploration


Hurst 240pp £25

Where might you expect to find a Casa Garibaldi, an Avenue Garibaldi, a Pizzeria Garibaldi and a towering bronze statue of Garibaldi? Not only in Rome and Palermo, but also in Montevideo, capital of Uruguay. Long before Giuseppe Garibaldi landed with his thousand Redshirts at Marsala and began his triumphant march through Sicily and Calabria, the spearhead of Italian unification fought his way across southern Brazil and Uruguay, learning the guerrilla’s trade. In this book, Richard Bourne, a veteran foreign correspondent, follows the Garibaldi trail from Rio de Janeiro to Uruguay, via the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Garibaldi’s transatlantic voyage was an act of desperation rather than idealism. Born to an Italian family in Nice in 1807, he started out as a merchant seaman. In his twenties he fell under the influence of the Young Italy movement and imbibed the nationalist, anti-monarchical ideas of its founder, Giuseppe Mazzini. He joined a secret society but an attempt in 1834 to orchestrate a mutiny in the Piedmontese navy fell apart. Sentenced to death in absentia, Garibaldi fled to Rio de Janeiro, capital of the Brazilian Empire.

At first, he sought to resume his career as a seaman. Yet a life ferrying farm produce up and down the coast of Brazil did not long recommend itself to him. Through Italian expatriate circles, he was introduced in Rio to Tito Lívio Zambeccari, a veteran of revolutionary causes in Europe. Zambeccari had been right-hand man to Bento Gonçalves, the leader of a breakaway republic in Rio Grande do Sul, deep in Brazil’s cattle country, but had been captured by government forces. From his prison cell, Zambeccari urged Garibaldi to offer his services to the separatists – nicknamed the Farroupilhas, or Ragamuffins, on account of their coarse battle array. In 1837, he received a commission from the Farroupilha leadership to form a navy and duly headed south.

A great struggle for liberty this was not. The schism between Brazilian government and the Farroupilhas had originated in a controversy over the price of beef jerky. There is also, as Bourne points out, a certain irony in the great evangelist of Italian unification dedicating himself to the break-up of another country. Yet there was just about enough in the separatist cause to reconcile a tattooed liberal like Garibaldi to it. The Farroupilha leadership had abolished slavery in the areas it controlled, albeit largely out of expediency (the free black population was enlisted in its army), and was nominally republican too.

The Garibaldi of Bourne’s book is the hardy, dauntless, incorruptible figure familiar from European folklore. So in 1837, we find him taking a bullet in the neck during a skirmish on the River Plate, undergoing surgery without anaesthetic to remove it, falling prisoner, escaping captivity, being apprehended once again, and suffering whipping and stringing up by the legs. We encounter him again two years later building two new vessels from scratch on the plains of southern Brazil and hauling them fifty-four miles across the pampas to reach the sea. And we see him throughout refusing offers of diamonds, land and money, though he did accept nine hundred head of cattle as a payoff from the Farroupilhas.

In 1839, Garibaldi, by then commanding a fleet of six ships, captured the Brazilian city of Laguna. There he met Anita Ribeiro, who would become his first wife and comrade in arms. Less than four months later, the city was retaken by imperial forces, who burned Garibaldi’s fleet. Thereafter, he carried on his struggle on land, leading groups of gauchos against the Brazilian army. It was while commanding these irregulars that Garibaldi adopted the poncho that would become his trademark.

In 1841, after a series of reversals, Garibaldi took his leave of the Farroupilhas, whose cause was in terminal decline. He retired to Montevideo, which had a sizeable Italian community, and resumed his trading activities. By 1842, however, he was once again in arms, this time lending his support to Uruguay’s president, Fructuoso Rivera, who was fighting a bitter civil war against an Argentine-backed rival, Manuel Oribe. In 1843 he formed an Italian Legion from among the expatriate community – the prototype for his famous Thousand, right down to the red colours its members wore. He remained in Uruguay for a further five years, assisting in the desperate defence of Montevideo during Oribe’s long besiegement of it (likened by Alexandre Dumas to the siege of Troy) and leading daring marine-style counterattacks along the River Plate.

Yet in spite of these exploits, would this ‘hero of two worlds’ be much remembered if he had died on the grasslands of Uruguay? South America was a magnet for footloose freelances from Europe, but who now recalls William Brown, John Grenfell or the many other soldiers of fortune who fought in the same wars as Garibaldi? His side eventually triumphed in Uruguay’s civil war, but due more to the intervention of the European powers than to his own heroics.

Bourne’s energetic narrative more or less ends with Garibaldi’s return to Europe in 1848, when revolution seemed in the air. He describes Garibaldi’s tumultuous welcome in Europe, though doesn’t really examine the role the press played in planting the seeds of his fame while he was in South America. In a slightly meandering section on Garibaldi’s legacy there, however, he does offer his thoughts on Garibaldi and Churchill, and Garibaldi and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the final part, Bourne offers two pieces of reportage based on recent trips to southern Brazil and Uruguay. These are a little homespun: we learn, for instance, that at the Hotel Mercure in Montevideo he received a room upgrade as a returning guest. Yet dispatches from these places are rare in the English-language media and Bourne offers a number of fascinating observations. In Rio Grande do Sul, he finds that the ill-fated Farroupilhas are wildly celebrated as paragons of gaucho self-sufficiency, even though separatist feeling is now barely extant there and Garibaldi (though not Anita) largely forgotten. In Uruguay, he discovers that Garibaldi’s reputation is a battleground in the undying feud between the Partido Colorado, the movement begun by Rivera’s followers, and the Partido Blanco, the heirs to Oribe. To the former he is a liberator, to the latter a mercenary. Bourne is indefatigable in his pursuit of Garibaldi, visiting every village, house and horse trough where he stopped. On one journey, he opts for the slow coach over the express bus in order to fully take in the sight of a roadside statue of Garibaldi. He also travels to a Brazilian town never visited by Garibaldi but named after him. Now a centre of wine production, Garibaldi is home to a large number of Brazilians of Italian descent – a reminder that the realisation of Garibaldi’s vision of a unified Italy forced millions of his countrymen to follow his route across the Atlantic.

There are moments when Bourne drinks too deeply of the Vino Garibaldi. He states, for example, that imperial Brazil was an ‘absolute monarchy’, when in fact it had a modern constitution, and that in Garibaldi’s day Tyrol was ‘occupied by Austria’, although it had been in the house of Habsburg since the 14th century. Yet overall Bourne writes with attractive, straightforward enthusiasm, and this is a useful history of Garibaldi’s unusual apprenticeship among the cowboys of South America.

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