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The “mad Irishman”

17 March 2011

We may be celebrating the centennial of the War of Independence now, but the first full-scale drive for American independence (and a radical racial and social equality) did not come in the 18-teens, but in the 1640s, under the leadership of… what else would I write about on Saint Patrick’s Day?… an Irishman:   William Lamport.

Anti-colonialism seems to have been the Lamport family tradition.  William’s grandfather, Patrick, recognizing that the colonial English economic control of Ireland was not at all what one would call “free trade” turned to the era’s most popular form of tax evasion… free-booting.  At the insistence of King James I himself, Patrick was hanged in 1617.    While a student at Grensham College, William would publish a pamphlet attacking James I as a tyrant… making England (and Ireland) no country for at least that young man… who high-tailed it first for France (where he was captured by pirates… then joined them for a time), eventually making his way to Spain.

Lamport as diplomat, unfinished sketch by Anton van Dyck, ca. 1635

In Spain, re-christened Guillén Lombardo, he more or less pursued a more “traditional” career, as a diplomat, which wasn’t such a good career match for the former pirate from a family of pirates.   Spying seems to have been a better job choice.  As SILAS (Society for Irish Latin American Studies) biographer Ryan Dominic Crewe, writes:

Fleeing either a scandalous affair with this noblewoman or an unwanted marriage, William sailed on the Indies fleet bound for Mexico from Cádiz on 21 April 1640.

William travelled to the Viceroyalty of New Spain (present-day Mexico and parts of North and Central America) in privilege, on the same ship as the newly-imported viceroy, the Marqués de Villena. William later claimed that he travelled to Mexico with a special appointment from the Conde Duque de Olivares to spy on his behalf on the social situation in Mexico. There is some reason to lend credibility to this claim: In early 1640, the Conde Duque received a message from the sitting viceroy that the criollos, or Mexican-born descendants of Spanish conquerors and settlers, were on the verge of revolting against Spanish authority. William’s mission, he claimed, was to spy on elite criollos in Mexico City and report all rumours and evidence directly to his patron in Madrid.

Apparently, based on Lombardo’s report, the Conde Duque (the Prime Minister of Spain at the time) authorized a coup-de-etat, putting the Bishop of Puebla (who, although a Spaniard, was acceptable to the criollos) on the Viceregal throne.  Until the Conde Duque could send over another Spanish replacement.

Which wasn’t what the criollos wanted at all.  At which point, Lombardo, perhaps recognizing that he was on the wrong side in a colonial struggle (or, perhaps under the influence of the peyote he shared with indigenous shaman Don Ignacio of Taxco, who Lombardo helped with some lawsuits against mine owners), the Irishman met secretly with groups from across the social spectrum of colonial society, and hatched a plan that sounds much like that  which finally was the key to Mexican independence a century and a half later.  As Crewe tells it:

His tactical plan included the formation of a militia composed of indigenous rebels, enslaved African people, and disgruntled criollo militiamen. After assuming control of the government of New Spain, William would call for general assemblies in all the plazas across New Spain. There, all parts of society – Spanish, indigenous, and African – would proclaim him ‘our liberator, our Emperor and King of New Spain’. There would follow a period of radical social reforms: Freedom would be granted to all those slaves who co-operated with the rebellion, co-operative indigenous towns would be relieved of repartimientos (forced labour drafts) and tributes, and free trade would be established with Europe and China. With Mexican silver now remaining in Mexico, instead of being sent to Spain in the form of taxes and the quinto or ‘royal fifth’ rights to all silver deposits, William believed that this New World sovereign power would rise to prominence among the nations of the world. Finally, William’s regime would not be an absolute monarchy; he proposed a limited monarchy, with himself ‘or whoever the people choose’, as a king who would rule in consultation with an active parliament.

Alas, Lombardo/Lamport was a bit premature… he was betrayed to the Inquisition, on the rather interesting charge of heresy… based on his peyote use (I guess on the assumption that good Catholic Irishmen only get in touch with alcoholic spirits, and not the “pagan” ones of peyote visions).

The Inquisitors originally thought they just had  a nutty heretic on their hands, but soon realized that Lamport was quite serious… and he had better intelligence about the inner workings of the Viceregal government than any peyote vision would have provided and Lombardo/Lamport was a credible threat to more than religious orthodoxy.  It seems that the civil authorities wanted him kept by the Inquisition, in order to discredit him, either as a heretic or a nut, rather than risk what he might expose about the government in a secular trial,  or giving him the chance to appear in public and perhaps spark an uprising.  Perhaps locked up in a dungeon by the Inquisition, he would be safely forgotten.

Monumento de la independencia, D.F.

A nut… but Lamport was a hard nut to crack, resisting “with wit and intelligence” Crewes writes, for the next 17 years.    He also managed to write several treatises, a memoir and 900 psalms during his incarceration, using his bedsheets as paper.

After an attempted jailbreak (dungeon-break) in 1651, he was locked in solitary confinement, and reported to have gone completely mad. Unable to break him (or perhaps he really had gone around the bend), he was sentenced to be burned at the stake in 1659, but — even mad or not, he was not going to give in, nor to give the colonial ruling class the satisfaction of controlling his fate.  He spoiled a perfectly good heretic burning, when he hanged himself from the pyre.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. kwallek permalink
    17 March 2011 6:54 am

    One of those “what ifs” , an early revolt against European power in the America, the wars in Europe would have had different outcomes without the New World cash.


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