Argentina’s Heroes

28 Feb

The bull and bluster surrounding the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War continues apace, with reports in about Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego Province refusing to allow two cruise liners to dock at Ushuaia. At least one of the liners had recently visited the Falkland Islands, and both vessels were flying flags from the Red Ensign group.

The cause of Tierra del Fuego’s ire apparently, was that the ships had breached a local law which forbids access to ships flying the Union Jack. This is commonly known as the ‘Gaucho Rivero’ law, named after one of Argentina’s hero’s from 1833.

According to Argentine myths and legends, Antonio Rivero, a 26-year-old employed by Luis Vernet to hunt wild cattle on the Falkland Islands, opposed the return of British forces in January of 1833, valiantly raised the flag and held out for months against huge odds.

As with so many Argentine myths however, the truth is a rather different thing.

Antonio Rivero was indeed employed to hunt cattle although exactly how long he’d been employed by Luis Vernet is unknown. What is known is that Vernet paid his workers in promissory notes rather than hard cash. These notes could ony be used in Vernet’s own stores for over-priced goods, leading to a build-up of frustration amongst the gauchos.

On the 2nd January, 1833 a British naval force of two ships arrived off East Falkland Island and ordered the flag of Argentina to be lowered, and the trespassing garrison to leave. Which they did, without a fight. Vernet’s settlers were asked to remain and the majority agreed, including the gauchos who had their outstanding pay settled in full, in silver, by the British Commander.

Shortly after the British had sailed away again however, Vernet’s second-in-command returned to the Falklands and resumed the issue of promissory notes. Tempers flared, Rivero led a riot and during the course of this five of Vernet’s employees, including his deputy, Matthew Brisbane, an Englishman, were butchered.

The event was recorded by a visiting missionary, Titus Coan; “ .. here we heard an account of the shocking event and its immediate cause. Brisbane employed the Spaniard Antook as a shoemaker, and several Mestizos and South American Indians as herdsmen, bullock-hunters, etc. Failing to pay them promptly, from lack of means, as he said, they were angry, and determined to kill him and all his friends and plunder the village. According to the plot agreed on, Antook came to the door of this room one morning while Brisbane was sitting before the stove lighted with a fire of peat, the principal fuel of these islands, and demanded pay. Brisbane refused, and immediately a bullet went through his body. He grabbed for his pistol, in a cupboard on his left, arose to fire, but staggered and fell, when he received a blow upon his head from a cutlass and three stabs from a dirk. He was then dragged to the door, his feet bound with raw-hide rope, and this being attached to the saddle of a horse, he was drawn out into the field, where he was stripped, mutilated, and left unburied. His clerk was also killed with several others at the same time, and the town was sacked, a few Englishmen escaping ..”

The murderers fled into the interior and hid there until captured by a British force the following year. Rivero and eleven other men were seized, five of who were Englishmen. The offenders were eventually taken to London for trial, but Rivero was not prosecuted owing to a legal technicality over whether the dead men were under the ‘Kings Protection’ at the time of the riot.

Rivero was returned to Montevideo, and that was the last that anyone heard about him until Argentina’s nationalist movement raised him up as a hero more than a century later.

Argentina chooses strange heroes.

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