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

- by Tim Fanning

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.

 ??  ?? ExpEditiOn: The Madre de Dios region in eastern Peru, where Don Juan discovered rivers of gold
ExpEditiOn: The Madre de Dios region in eastern Peru, where Don Juan discovered rivers of gold
 ??  ?? COLOURFUL: Tim Fanning’s book on the notorious Irish adventurer
COLOURFUL: Tim Fanning’s book on the notorious Irish adventurer

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