They say travel broadens the mind, and there is definitely something mind expanding about people wearing 19th century clothes in a well preserved European colonial town in South America. This is doubly so when they’re dressed as British Redcoats who are marauding and harassing the locals. Either we had arrived in Colonia de Sacramento during a bizarre anti-British protest, or someone was filming a comedic dramatisation of the British capture and swift surrender of Buenos Aires in 1806. It turned out to be the latter and the action ranged all over the historic centre of Colonia.
Colonia’s historic centre isn’t that big, and wherever we went we seemed to bump into actors and extras filming or resting in the shade. We stopped at the corner of the Plaza Mayor and watched a scene being filmed in which a group of British soldiers on horses charged up a street and then menacingly pinned one of the town’s residents against a wall. This scene left us in no doubt, the British were definitely the bad guys, in a vague pantomime villain sort of way. The main British character was wearing an eye patch for goodness sake.
Later, filming moved to the city walls and the original 18th century city gate. A Union Jack flew from a building and a few British soldiers seemed to be making a last stand against overwhelming odds. Not only were we the bad guys, apparently we were also losing. The story of the film is based on real events, and shines a light on the global nature of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1806, Spain and France were allies (Nelson fought a combined Spanish and French fleet at Trafalgar) at war with Britain. Argentina was still a Spanish colony.
The British sought to control the River Plate and trade between Argentina and Europe. In June 1806, a force of around 1,500 British troops arrived from the British Colony in South Africa to seize Buenos Aires from the Spanish. Things went well at first. They captured the city and excited newspaper editors in London reported that Buenos Aires had officially become part of the British Empire. This heady state of affairs came to an abrupt end a mere six weeks later when the British surrendered to Santiago de Liniers, a French officer in the pay of Spain.
This is the backdrop to the film which, imitating the hit song from the musical Evita, is called No Llores Por Mi Inglaterra (Don’t Cry for Me England). The ‘real’ story of the film though is how football (soccer, if you prefer) arrived with the British and became the national sport of Argentina. In the film, the British organise a game between two rival areas of the city to distract the people of Buenos Aires and stop the growing opposition to the British invaders. Another game between the British and Argentinians ends in riots – obviously.
It was fun to watch the filming and to be reassured that the British are routinely made the bad guys in Latin American cinema. Most Hollywood villains seem to be British, so why not? One outcome of this incident, and another failed invasion by the British in 1807, is that it weakened Spain’s hold on Argentina and made independence far more likely. I’m not saying Argentina can thank us for helping them achieve independence, but it’s nice to know that clumsy British empire building had a legacy of sorts.
We spent the day exploring the historic streets of Colonia, it really is a very beautiful place. We walked down ‘the most photographed street in Uruguay’, the Calle de los Suspiros (Street of Sighs), a cobbled street that dates from the earliest Portuguese era and which leads to the waterfront. We made our way along the front to the Rambla Colonia Del Sacramento in the newer part of town, before making our way along the string of beaches on the Rambla de las Amèricas.
Our goal was one of Colonia’s more unusual sights, a huge derelict bull ring designed in Moorish style and capable of holding 10,000 people. It opened in 1910 and featured some of the most famous bull fighters of the time, including Spain’s Torres brothers, Ricardo and Manual, better known as Bombita Grande and Bombita Chico. It was built by a group of Argentinian and Uruguayan businessmen after Argentina banned bull fighting. Two years after it opened the Uruguayan government also banned the ‘sport’ and the building has been slowly decaying ever since.