Sunday, 1 May 2011

Tales from Argentina - The O'Gormans......... (Part 1 of 6)

I have always been fascinated by the tragic tale of the Argentine girl of Irish descent, Camila O’Gorman, about whose life much has been written in Spanish and two successful films made (“Camila O’Gorman”, 1910, and “Camila”, 1984).  In researching the story to tell it in English I learned that she had a notorious grandmother – Anita - whose story was equally interesting; I realised that the two stories should be told together.  Her grandmother’s heyday was at a time of great political and social change in Argentina, and I have therefore included some background information, which I hope will enhance rather than detract from the tale.

Anita O’Gorman’s Story

Yellow:  Viceroyalty of the River Plate (present day Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia)
Pink:  Viceroyalty of Peru (present day Peru and Ecuador)
White:  Brazil, owned by Portugal

Live Life to the full – while you can

My story begins in the 1770’s, when Argentina wasn’t yet Argentina – because it was known at the time as the Viceroyalty of the River Plate.  It continues through the period when the Spanish colony sought independence from its mother country – from 1810 – when patriots called it the United Provinces of the River Plate and later the Argentine Confederation, and ends in 1848 when it had been finally established in the Constitution of 1826 that henceforth the country should be known as  the Argentine Republic.
They were times of turmoil, adventure, excitement, of violence and summary executions, when patriotic idealism and passions ran high.   It was also a time of impossible romances and the ensuing public scandals, and this story concerns two of them.  They were connected insofar as the protagonists were grandmother and granddaughter, but unless you believe that the predisposition was in their genes it was otherwise a coincidence of history.  The lives of these two ladies intersected for a few brief years, and during that time they felt great affection for one another.  Their personalities were very different, and all that can be said with any confidence is that the older woman’s free spirit may have given her granddaughter the impetus she needed to follow her heart.

Ana María Périchon de Vendeuil (later known as Anita) was born in 1775 on the island of Bourbon, as it was known at the time, near Madagascar in the Indian ocean.   Close to the island of Mauritius, it is now known as Réunion.  Her father, Étienne Armand Périchon de Vendeuil, was a colonial official in the French government and latterly a merchant; the family were originally from Paris and royalists.  When the aristocracy was wiped out by the French revolution he moved to Mauritius, and later when the House of Bourbon fell and Louis XVI went to the guillotine in early 1793, he began to realise that his position in the colony was becoming progressively difficult. 

Anita, now a beautiful young girl, had been married the year before at the age of 17 to a former Irish soldier in the French army and now a merchant, Thomas O’Gorman.  When his father-in-law decided it was time to abandon the island he was persuaded by Thomas to head for the River Plate region where O’Gorman had relatives and promised to set him up in commerce.

They all departed together – wife, three sons, daughter Anita, her husband and their two sons, Tomás and Adolfo, both born in the same year.  They finally arrived in Buenos Aires on the River Plate in 1797.  Being a man of some wealth and standing, Périchon de Vendeuil brought with him a frigate and 27 slaves, together with goods amongst which featured 15 bales of fine linen handkerchiefs and three very heavy chests containing fabrics.  After establishing himself as a merchant for a time, in due course he took his family to Itatí in the province of Corrientes, 1000 km further north, leaving Anita and Thomas behind in Buenos Aires with their sons.

Anita O'Gorman as a young woman

Thomas got involved in many different business ventures, which kept him away from home for long periods of time, and it soon became apparent that all was not well with the young couple.  Anita was becoming increasingly unhappy; she liked excitement, it was true, and at first she had liked Thomas’ sense of fun and his willingness to take risks, but with time she realised that life with Thomas was disorganised and chaotic.  In an era when having a good name was everything, her husband’s had fallen into some disrepute both personally and as a businessman because under the guise of being a merchant he was making a living partly from smuggling; in the best circles he was known as an adventurer.

Fashion at the turn of the 18th century

In 1805 he sailed for Europe with two ships which were carrying goods belonging to the Viceroyalty of the River Plate, and on behalf of other merchants.  It is said that he was supposed to have sold the merchandise and return with the profit, but instead once in London he handed it over to his brother for resale, in cancellation of an old debt between them.  He then calmly returned to Buenos Aires, accompanied by a nephew and Irishman James Florence Burke, whom he may or not have known was a British spy. 

The story of his wheelings and dealings in the commercial world of the day is complex, but he must have been a master at getting out of tight corners  We do not know how he explained it away to the merchants, but in the following year he managed to befriend British General William Beresford, who was briefly Governor of Buenos Aires during the first of two unsuccessful British invasions, and he employed O’Gorman as debt collector.  He was so effective in this job that when the British capitulated, he hastily got himself onto a ship and fled to Brazil.

For the time being Anita was therefore free to do as she pleased without a husband with whom she felt totally incompatible and embarked on an affair that shocked Buenos Aires.  She was pretty, vivacious and loved champagne and entertaining; more than that, she adored being the centre of attention and knowing all the gossip.  She was fluent in French, English and by now Spanish, and she put all her skills to good use.  She knew who was in favour and who wasn’t, and worked hard to manoeuvre herself into a position where she could influence the outcome.  But she needed a protector.

Santiago de Liniers y Bremond

Santiago de Liniers y Bremond was born in France in 1753 and had started his career in the French cavalry.  At about the time when Anita was being born in far off Réunion, Liniers moved to Spain and joined the Spanish navy where he acquitted himself so well that in a few years he was commanding his own ship. 

In 1788 Liniers travelled to the River Plate with his Spanish wife and son.  His wife died two years later and he soon married again in Buenos Aires; however he was widowed yet again in 1804.  By this time he was in charge of all naval operations in the city and played a decisive role in beating back the British during their invasion in 1806 (the first of two). 

It is generally accepted that Liniers’ success was due to his knowledge of the special weather conditions prevailing in this part of the world; in Montevideo, the other side of the River Plate, he waited with reinforcements until the weather changed and the sudestada arrived – stormy weather from the south east Atlantic which was guaranteed to last several days and produce high waves. 

Beresford, briefly British Governor
of Buenos Aires

Under cover of appalling weather and the muddy roads upon which the British found it difficult to travel, Liniers and his troops were able to enter the city unseen and retake it.  Governor Beresford handed over his sword, which scene has been recorded in a famous painting.

(Oil painting by Charles Fouqueroy)

Liniers was the hero of the hour, and on a triumphal procession through the city, the story is told that the admiring Anita O’Gorman watched from the balcony of her home, and as the mounted men in their smart uniforms trotted by in precise formation below, she tossed her perfumed lace handkerchief down at his feet as he passed.  Liniers stopped, picked it up with the tip of his sword to return it to her, and responded smartly to her greeting.  He fell instantly in love with her and very shortly after arranging a meeting with her, they started an affair and he moved in with her.

Further laurels followed for Liniers.  He was made Governor of the city and later Viceroy of the River Plate because the previous one had fled at the first sign of danger when the British landed.  Liniers was the first non-Spaniard to receive this appointment.

The following year in 1807 the British attacked again and after an initial effective skirmish suffered the same lack of success as the first invasion.  This time the populace were encouraged to assist in the defence, and stories were told of residents pouring boiling oil over their balconies onto the heads of the British soldiers below.

There followed an exciting time in Anita’s life, for though she may have shocked the society matrons with her behaviour, her home was where all the wealthy and influential people of the day gathered to indulge in intrigue and seek favours from the Viceroy - and she would intercede on their behalf. During this period she became known as La Perichona, a combination of her surname Périchon, and La Perichola, the nickname of an equally notorious dancer and actress who had become the mistress of the Viceroy in the far away Viceroyalty of Peru.

María Micaela Villegas y Hurtado
(La Perichola) and
Manuel de Amat y Juniet, Viceroy of Peru

A generation earlier La Perichola had shocked Peruvian refined society by having a long standing affair with the Viceroy.  María Micaela Villegas y Hurtado was a brave and feisty woman and the Viceroy of Peru cared deeply about her; they had a son, and there are buildings in Lima still around today which were erected prompted by his desire to indulge her wishes.  The wealthy society of Lima was forced to accept her at its centre.  Here in Buenos Aires was a potential mirror situation, and it was inevitable that Anita O’Gorman should become La Perichona.

Anita O'Gorman at the height of her fame.
(note her costume imitates the viceroy's)

This contemporary drawing of Anita show an attractive woman, and according to the wisdom at the time …”whose loud elegance accentuated her ardent and volcanic beauty” (Groussac).  She was also described – predictably – as a trollop.  No doubt she spoke Spanish with a French accent, which though ‘chic’ might have added to this perception of her.  She was short of stature, and her gallant protector called her La Petaquita (an affectionate term referring to a woman who is short and somewhat squat, loosely translated as ‘little baggage’).  She was sensual, amusing, she spoke the language of his youth and was not intimidated by anyone - he could refuse her nothing.  But his relationship with her was dangerous for him politically. 

It was thought that she supported the British cause and harboured British spies – she was accused of having an affair with the British spy James Florence Burke, who had returned from London with her husband a few years before and assiduously attended her soirées.  She was also wilful and spoilt, and insisted on having the service of government troops to escort her about, guard her home and work the fields on her farm.  She was witty, worldly and cheeky and understood perfectly the effects of her spontaneous coquetry on the men around her. 

Fashion from around 1810, when outsize combs
were a mark of class and distinction... made fun of by a contemporary cartoonist,
who has drawn society ladies at the theatre
wearing ridiculous outsize combs.
(Artist:  César H Bacle, 1794-1838)
Anita was clearly fond of Liniers, who though undeniably handsome was 23 years older than she was, and for her the excitement lay in his power and influence and the reflected importance of her role, in addition to true love – a heady combination.  This was to happen several times in her life.   As she had no more children that we know of, and contraception in the early 19th century was decidedly hit and miss, how she managed this aspect of her various affairs is a matter for conjecture.

As Viceroy, Liniers was accused by the well-to-do of nepotism; the intense disapproval of his relationship with La Perichona if anything intensified as time went by. 

Meanwhile there was news of husband Thomas again.  He had been transporting mercury around the Pacific, and in 1808 is recorded as docking at the Chilean port of Valparaiso to claim that following a storm at sea he had lost all his goods.  He requested permission from the Viceroy to return to Buenos Aires.  Liniers gave his consent, rather surprisingly.  Was he tiring of his Petaquita with her intrigues and demands?  She was clearly becoming an embarrassment to him.  In the same year the spy Burke reported her verbal indiscretions to Liniers and he realised that the situation could not continue.  He sent her into exile and she was forced to sail for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Thomas O’Gorman was not seen again in the River Plate.  He sailed for Spain never to return, and apparently died there in around 1810, penniless and alone.

Carlota Queen of Portugal, Empress of Brazil

In Brazil, it didn’t take La Perichona long to revert to type.  Her home became a refuge for Argentine expatriates fleeing from Spanish authority, and she was having other affairs, notably with the British ambassador.  Living in the same capital city was Carlota, Spanish Infanta, Queen of Portugal and Empress of Brazil. She was an assertive, ambitious, jealous and sometimes violent woman who when she got to hear of this behaviour had Anita expelled back to Buenos Aires, where she returned the following year. 

In the meantime Liniers had been accused of bribery and embezzlement, and his scandalous affair with Anita also counted against him.  The Spanish throne replaced him with a Spanish born viceroy, and Liniers went to the north of the country into exile.  When Anita returned at this point, the new viceroy refused to receive her, and in April 1810 she was forced to return to Rio de Janeiro once more, this time with two of her brothers, though not before writing a bitter letter of complaint to the authorities and demanding legal process, which was denied her.

Liniers had by then decided to return to Spain for good when news of the patriot uprising in the capital reached him.  His final decision cost him his life – at the instigation of the new Viceroy who had replaced him he decided to stay and fight for the Spanish Crown’s right to govern the River Plate region.  The patriots won, the new Viceroy fled, and Liniers was executed one wintry August morning of 1810, refusing to wear a blindfold.

In Brazil Carlota’s antipathy towards Anita O’Gorman was stronger than ever, and she would not countenance having La Perichona on her soil – so back she went a few months later, arriving in Buenos Aires once again in November 1810, to find that her former lover and only protector had been shot a few months earlier.  The new independent local government allowed her to stay, provided she ‘behaved with circumspection’. 

By a stroke of fate she had lost both her husband and her greatest protector in the same year.  An intelligent woman, Anita realised that the country was going through a period of unrest and violence; she was 34 years of age and had no protectors.  She wisely retired with her family to the farm in Matanza on the outskirts of Buenos Aires which Thomas had purchased when they first arrived from Réunion all those years before.  Her children – now in their teens – had up to that point been brought up during all this upheaval by her parents. 

In 1819 she heard of the death at 70 of La Perichola far away in Peru, and that she had been buried dressed only in white cotton sackcloth, a symbol of penitence. 

As battles and new elected local governments brought the country into the 19th century, slowly but surely she became a relic of the bygone age of the Viceroyalty.  She concentrated on bringing up her children, Tomás and Adolfo, who became successful and influential men in their own right – probably no thanks to their mother - and were Federalist partisans of the Governor and Dictator of the day, Juan Manuel de Rosas.   

Juan Manuel de Rosas


Her younger son Adolfo married Joaquina Ximénez Pinto, and one of their children was Camila O’Gorman, who was to become famous through her relationship with Ladislao Gutiérrez, a catholic priest.  This is the subject of my next post.

Sources:  Wikipedia,, and dozens of other sites. Pictures from Google images


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital archives

I've left this one at medium size because it's a selection from
a larger picture, and it won't enlarge much - but I love squirrels.

A visit to the zoo...

This is indeed a dud, but it's the only one I got of an extraordinary subject.  The gorilla carer has a close relationship with this creature, and every lunch hour he crawls into his cage and reads his book while the gorilla rests his head on his lap.  I watched them for some time, and loved their peaceful companionship.



Joyful said...

An intriguing story.

Lonicera said...

This first part was hard to write because I didn't have enough information about the woman herself, and no anecdotes. The rest is about her granddaughter, a much more appealing tale that leaves you thinking.

Laura McKenna said...

This is a great post providing wonderful detail about the life of La Perichona and the political backdrop.

Lonicera said...

Thanks Laura, your comment is much appreciated. This post was harder than the other 5 in this series put together, as it was mainly dry history. All enjoyable though. Thanks again.

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