The Irish Mail on Sunday
Don Juan’s search for the lost Inca GOLD
Wicklow man ‘Don Juan’ O’Brien set off in1834 to hunt for South American gold.. an obsession that became his life
IN 1834, Irish cavalry officer John Thomond O’Brien left the Peruvian city of Cuzco bound for the lowlying Amazon rainforest in search of gold. Cuzco is the former capital of the Incas. It is located high in the Andes, in one of the spectacular valleys that are familiar to Irish backpackers who have trekked along the Inca Trail towards the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.
O’Brien travelled north, through lung-sapping mountain passes, skirting vertiginous ravines and treacherous rivers, before descending the eastern slopes of the Andes into the humid climate of the Amazon basin. This was a region of Peru shrouded in legend. The Spanish who had arrived in the 16th century had been told of the existence of a hidden Inca city called Paititi. It was thought to lie on the border between the Andes and the Amazon and was said to be rich in gold, silver and jewels.
For centuries, European explorers had dreamt of finding unimaginable riches deep in the heart of the rainforest, and for much of his adult life, John Thomond O’Brien was no different. He was already an experienced miner and explorer when he set off on his 1834 expedition but it was as a soldier that he had first found wealth and fame.
Born in Baltinglas, Co. Wicklow, in 1786, O’Brien had probably first heard of South America’s fabulous riches as a child in 1795 when the discovery of a hefty gold nugget in a stream on the slopes of Croghan Kinsella in Wicklow led to what became known as the Wicklow Gold Rush. For a few weeks in late summer, farmers and labourers rushed to the site to see if they could make their fortune. The brief hysteria was such that newspaper articles dubbed that part of south Wicklow the ‘New Peru’, ‘Little Peru’ or the ‘Irish Potosí’ after the legendary centre of South America’s silver-mining industry.
O’Brien grew up during a period of political turmoil – west Wicklow was a centre of violent repression and resistance during the 1798 Rebellion and its immediate aftermath – but he himself was given over to the pleasures of an 18thcentury gentleman. Tall and wellbuilt, he was an inveterate womaniser but his most serious vice was gambling and it was his mounting debts that forced him to leave and find a living abroad.
O’Brien arrived in Buenos Aires in 1811 with a view to establishing himself as a merchant in the city; his family was involved in the textile industry and there was then a flourishing trade between Britain and Ireland and South America.
Within two years, however, he had joined the patriot armies who were fighting for South America’s independence from Spain.
In 1817, O’Brien crossed the Andes from Argentina with the armies that liberated Chile from Spanish rule. In 1821, he stood on the platform in the main square in Lima when Peruvian independence was declared. It was in the aftermath of the wars of independence that O’Brien first began to take a serious interest in gold and silver.
His first venture was a dilapidated silver mine close to Lake Titicaca on the border of Peru and Chile. The licence to the mine was a reward from the new republican government of Peru for war-time services. O’Brien carefully rebuilt the mine, importing a speciallydesigned steam engine from England to drain it.
Requiring a ship to bring supplies across Lake Titicaca, he bought and dismantled a broken-down sailing vessel called the Santa Maria, which he had brought by mule across the Andes from the Pacific coast. Once reassembled on the shores of Lake Titicaca, it became the highest-operating sailing ship in the world. However, being the sort of man who could never sit still, and who seemingly had an insatiable desire to see new places, O’Brien was soon looking for other challenges.
In the early 1830s, O’Brien visited the British-owned Gongo Soco mine, close to the Brazilian city of
Belo Horizonte, where about 250 free men and 500 slaves worked under Cornish supervisors. It was here that O’Brien heard a story from an old miner about some flood plains far to the west which were said to be swamped with gold.
Having visited the west of the country, O’Brien realised that the Madre de Dios region in the east of Peru was the source of the gold that flowed down Brazil’s rivers and decided to launch a new expedition from Cuzco. He spent months with the indigenous Harakmbut during his expedition to the Peruvian Amazon in 1834. He discovered several streams, which were rich in gold-bearing sand, naming one Erin’s Golden River after his homeland.
However, O’Brien’s plans to extract the gold were upset by competing expeditions – he set fire to a pile of books written by an English rival in the main square of Cuzco in 1835 – and the continuous civil war that bedevilled postwar Peru. He took a break from his prospecting expeditions to become a sheep farmer in Uruguay in the 1840s but never abandoned the idea of finding the fabled mother lode in the Amazon jungle.
In 1853, at the age of 67, and with little material wealth to his name, he once again was preparing to launch an expedition into eastern Peru to find the fabled golden mother lode. Once again, the onset of war, this time between Argentina and Chile on one side, and the confederation of Peru and Bolivia on the other, put paid to his plans.
He died in Lisbon in 1861, en route from Ireland to South America.
O’Brien had been a consummate self-publicist, his exploits featuring regularly in the Irish and British newspapers, so that by the time of his death, his name had become synonymous with Amazonian exploration and South American silver and gold-mining in the minds of the Irish and British public.
‘Gold nugget discovery led to Wicklow Gold Rush’
▪ Tim Fanning is an author and journalist, who has written extensively on the history of the Irish in Latin America. Don Juan O’Brien: An Irish adventurer in 19thcentury South America by Tim Fanning is available online from Cork University Press.