Flinter, George Dawson (1796-1838)

Author: Rodrigo Escribano Roca

The figure of the military man, adventurer, and essayist George Dawson Flinter was notoriously crucial in constructing an Anglo-Spanish anti-liberal vision of the Atlantic revolutions. As the biographical sketches published in The Times and The Examiner would later point out, Flinter was one of many Irishmen from a military family who had enlisted in the armies of the British Monarchy to fight against Napoleon. The global scale of the conflict had led him to serve the Empire in ‘all parts of the world’, especially in the West Indies and South America. Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, the end of the Napoleonic wars and the consequent decline in UK military expenditure led to the government dispensing his services in 1816, relegating him to the reserves and reducing his stipend to a humble half-pay.

By then, Flinter was already lending his talents to another monarchy more in need of them. His interest in the conflicts in Spanish America had begun in 1812 when his regiment had stopped in Curaçao. The Irishman became involved in the trade linking this island with Venezuela. He also had the opportunity to observe the intriguing arrival of Spanish settlers fleeing the war on the mainland. His curiosity was soon satisfied: the sloop of war Royalist travelled for courier delivery to the government in Caracas, and he did not hesitate to join the expedition. Once in Venezuela, his knowledge of the Castilian language made him a valuable interpreter and translator. He thus integrated into the Spanish American government officialdom, achieving successive promotions lavished on him by Captain General Juan Manuel de Cagigal. His marriage to a wealthy aristocrat from the Spanish West Indies linked him to the powerful Aramburco dynasty, with the consequent acquisition of properties and enslaved people. He also settled as a merchant in Cádiz. Such entanglements had finally made him loyal to the cause of the unity of the Hispanic world. It is also important to mention that his family’s Loyalist background strongly conditioned Flinter. His father had been a lieutenant in the British Army and had died fighting the Irish revolutionaries in 1798. Flinter´s continuous services and promotions in the Spanish force destined for South America inspired him to become a reputed publicist in the service of the overseas interests of Ferdinand VII. Flinter was at once loyal to the British and Spanish crowns, imbued as he was with the monarchist ideals acquired in the military and at the school of the Reverend Charles Bristow. The Irish writer would be consistent with his liminal position, becoming the great advocate of establishing an anti-revolutionary alliance between the two imperial monarchies.

In 1819 he published A history of the revolution of Caracas: comprising an impartial narrative of the atrocities committed by the contending parties. The book defended the Spanish government’s position in the conflict over the independence of its possessions. Flinter sought to counter the fallacies that condemned the Spanish’s ‘colonial system’ by presenting their imperial domination as legitimate, benign, and based on the tacit consent of the majority of the governed. Those who clamored for political independence and the establishment of sovereign republics, he claimed, had only found room for manoeuvre thanks to the weakness of the Monarchy and the fatal coincidence of a series of natural, economic and political disasters that had converged in Venezuela to facilitate the contagion of revolutionary ideals. Situated amid the complex geopolitical entanglements that connected the two empires, the Irishman sought to construct a horizon favourable to the consolidation of Anglo-Spanish cooperation, at least as far as the overseas crisis was concerned. To the British public and the Tory government led by Lord Liverpool, he announced that the economic promises associated with the dismemberment of the global Spanish Monarchy were unfounded. From his point of view, independence would give birth to depopulated countries. The new republics would be barbarized by civil conflict and the democratic fury of ‘demagogues’ such as Bolívar and San Martín. Flinter sketched a scenario in which the British Empire would not only lose the succulent markets that the orderly and paternal rule of the Spanish Monarchy could still secure but would also stimulate the fatal cause of republicanism in the Atlantic world. An American continent crisscrossed by popular democracies could become a geopolitical nightmare and an actual internal threat. Every triumph of the revolutionaries against the Hispanic throne was a germ of subversion that was susceptible to “contagion” in the short term. Such a claim could be susceptible to the Tory cabinets of the time, who increasingly feared that the rise of their radical political rivals would culminate in a disorganizing democratization likely to challenge the socio-economic hegemony of the landed aristocracies and the propertied classes.

Thirteen years after publishing his book about Venezuela, in 1832, Flinter wrote a pamphlet on Caribbean stability. The Irishman bitterly boasted of the accuracy of the predictions he had made in 1819: ‘Since that time the civil and political relations of the world have undergone a horrid change’. With the modest alibi of justifying Spanish rule in Puerto Rico, where he was then serving as an officer of the troops stationed there by a dying Ferdinand VII, the writer set out to assess the consequences of the virtually consummated Spanish American independencies. According to him, the democratic revolutions opened a historical fault line of nearly half a century, dynamiting the gradual progress that imperial monarchies had guaranteed on both sides of the ocean. Wars, legal chaos, constant governmental disturbances and public disorder had substituted the prosperous government of European monarchs in the Americas. His anti-republican discourse also served to justify the perpetuation of slavery in the Spanish West Indies. In his view, its abolition would lead to the path of anarchy and civil war that had presided over Haiti’s political life since its revolution. Flinter combined racism, slavery and monarchist imperialism to legitimize the Spanish Monarchy’s domination of the few colonial enclaves it retained.

After the death of Ferdinand VII in 1833, Flinter decided to support the side of his daughter, Isabella II and her mother, Maria Cristina, who was to serve as Regent until 1844. In doing so, he joined the ranks of the liberal armies, opposing the candidacy of Don Carlos, the late king’s brother. Although the Irishman was not unfamiliar with the traditionalist ideological approaches of Carlism, his loyalty to the Crown and his openness to modernisation led him to support the Queen Regent. Flinter took advantage of the margin of opinion opened up by the Regency to update his reading of the revolutions and to revise his geopolitical prospects for the Spanish and British monarchies. In 1834 he published a new essayistic pamphlet. In it, he renounced the project of the restoration of Spanish power on the continent, advocating diplomatic recognition of overseas independence. From his point of view, the weakened Spanish Monarchy of 1834 was incapable of recreating the deeds of the conquistadors in the vast continental spaces. Moreover, it could derive no more significant benefit from it than from the re-concentration of its human and economic resources on the Peninsula and its remaining ‘colonies’. The old empire of the Ancien Régime, immense but inefficient, acephalous and unprofitable, was to be succeeded by a second, genuinely colonial empire, more modest territorially, but at the service of the economic growth and geopolitical power of the metropolis. According to this interpretation, Spain was not one of many fallen empires, but a power in transformation, which would soon transcend the historical accident of the recent revolutions, to follow the informal and eminently naval model of the British Empire.

Only a few years later, on 10 September 1838, the newspaper El Correo Nacional reported that the monarchist general had committed suicide in a boarding house in Calle de la Reina, Madrid. This tragedy was partly the result of his disappointment at the poor treatment he had received from the Regency of Maria Cristina after what he considered to be courageous service during the Carlist War. Flinter left the world prematurely by present standards but leaving behind him an exciting intellectual and military biography, which establishes him as a critical figure for understanding the dynamics of interconnection that shaped the Hispanic-Anglosphere in the age of revolutions. Indeed, as Graciela Iglesias-Rogers and José Brownrigg-Gleeson Martínez have recently demonstrated, Flinter was one of the intellectual actors who contributed to consolidating the term ‘colonies’ to refer to the Spanish overseas dominions, thus helping to consolidate the shared language of colonialism in both monarchies.

Sources: Flinter, George Dawson (1819) A history of the revolution of Caracas: comprising an impartial narrative of the atrocities committed by the contending parties, Edinburgh; Dublin: sold by Bell & Bradfute; W. Gribben; idem (1832) Examen del estado actual de los esclavos en la isla de Puerto Rico bajo el gobierno español: en que se manifiesta la impolítica y peligro de la prematura emancipación de los esclavos en la India occidental, Nueva York: Imprenta Española del Redactor; idem (1834) Consideraciones sobre la España y sus colonias, y ventajas que resultarían de su mutua reconciliación. Madrid: Imprenta que fue de Bueno; “From a Correspondent, ‘Brigadier-General Flinter”, The Times, 23 November 1836, p. 1; ‘General Flinter’, Freeman´s Journal, 21 September 1838, p. 1; ‘Acontecimiento deplorable’, El Correo Nacional, 10 September 1838, p. 3; ‘Acontecimiento deplorable’, El Eco del Comercio, 10 September 1838, p. 3; Navarro García, Jesús Raúl (1994): ‘Un ejemplo de censura en el Puerto Rico decimonónico: la carta al duque de Wellington de Jorge D. Flinter (1829)’, Anuario de estudios americanos, 51 (2), pp. 261-71; Schmidt-Nowara, Christopher, ‘Entangled Irishman. George Dawson Flinter and Anglo-Spanish Imperial Rivalry’ in Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, ed. Entangled Empires: The Anglo-Iberian Atlantic, 1500-1830. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, pp. 124-41; Escribano Roca, Rodrigo. Memorias del Viejo Imperio. Hispanoamérica en las culturas políticas de España y el Reino Unido (1824-1850). Madrid: Marcial Pons, 2022; Iglesias-Rogers, Graciela and Brownrigg-Gleeson Martínez, José, “Spanish ‘Colonies’: A Term Forged in the Hispanic-Anglosphere” in Graciela Iglesias-Rogers, ed. The Hispanic-Anglosphere from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century – An Introduction (New York and London: Routledge, 2021), pp. 27-46.; Rigg, J.M. ‘Flinter, George Dawson’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

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Thematic categories: 

Exile and MigrationPoliticsTranslation; War and the Military

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