In the early nineteenth century, joining the local forces fighting Napoleon in Spain was a group of British soldiers and engineers who would later be central to the early exploration, development and governance of Australia.
In 1808, Spain was a nation simultaneously both cataleptic and revolutionary; the lines were being created around which its future civil wars would take shape. As Napoleon’s misadventure laid waste to swathes of the Iberian Peninsula, the fight against the little emperor prepared and hardened those soldiers who rallied around both local warlords – this was the war that gave the English language the word ‘guerrilla’ – and general Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington.
The names of these veterans of the Spanish War of Independence now read like an atlas of the Australian landscape: William Light, Thomas Mitchell, George Gawler, Charles Sturt, Thomas Brisbane, Ralph Darling, George Gipps and Richard Bourke. For some, their Spanish experiences were brief and largely anecdotal; for others, a cornerstone of their development as men of a certain vision and leadership. With Napoleon defeated by 1815, many were looking for their next assignments; as chance would have it, at that time the British Empire had a new project, one where discipline and endurance were required, and men prepared to map out new worlds, to tame unknown environments. Driven by circumstance, ambition or need, these officers, surveyors and engineers decamped to New South Wales, where they helped transform the young colonies, and in so doing left their names inscribed across the national geography.
Joaquin Sorolla, Spanish Uprising Against Napoleon in Spain (1884)
They came to explore, section and classify; to survey and administer. They found a continent still largely unmapped. This antipode was without roads or fence lines across its vast interior; its mountains still unknown, its countless valleys and rivers uncharted beyond the coastal strip. Their task and feat was to impose order on its loose and mazy expanses, bringing streets and legislation; they came accompanied by theodolites and measuring rods, compass and ledger; fencing wire and camels, thermometers and husbandry; surgical instruments, pianos and metronomes.
One of the most outstanding was William Light, his skills polished during two decades of vicarious soldiering in Spain, Portugal, France and Egypt. After a life combining huge excitement and intense periods of quiet, of great volumes of artistic production, drawings and surveys, of bravery and sexual license, and with two marriages behind him, the new colony of South Australia, out on the frayed edges of the empire, must have been something of a blank slate for Light. Not terra nullius, but for a surveyor charged with laying out a new city, certainly tabula rasa.
Light was considered a ‘dashingly handsome’ officer: intelligent and charming, in love with women and the heat of battle, in love with drawing and pencil sketches, fascinated by topography, tactics, subterfuge and the great ongoing enlightenment project of rendering the world sensible. In Spain, Light was to develop the arts that were to play a vital role in the surveying of Adelaide in 1836 and beyond. He was a wonderful draughtsman, his skills often being used to sketch enemy placements and battle lines with great accuracy; he proved invaluable to the British forces under Wellington. ‘I have never met with a more zealous, intrepid or intelligent officer,’ wrote one of his commanders, by way of recommendation.
Scrambling up hills, down gullies and through forests, Light could come across anything: ‘I was sent to reconnoitre the fords over the Mondego [and] saw more women’s backsides etc. etc. naked than ever I saw at one time,’ he diarises in October 1810, reflecting upon his scouting expedition in the Mondego River valley near the Portuguese border with Spain. Light found time to sketch the valley; on his sketches of the naked rural women, history has been silent. ‘Got into a House with very civil Girls,’ he writes from the same region, before bemoaning the fact that his enjoyment had been spoilt – without specifying exactly how – by his comrade in arms, Dudley Carleton.
Light was in the thick of the action. In 1810, early in the campaign he defied a prohibition on any sort of plunder or looting, which had a few days before seen two men of his regiment hanged. In the village of Caldas, he writes, there was ‘famous plundering going on, for my part, I only stole a wax candle and a woman’s shirt, clean, which I was glad to put on.’
A selection of Light’s diaries and sketches from the Spanish campaigns can be explored in the City of Adelaide archives. They are a motley assortment – bound in red, yellow, olive or dark green leather, these small pocket notebooks travelled with Light through sea voyages and overland journeys; he filled them with drawings and sketches, mathematical calculations, poetry, biblical quotations and gripes about the weather as he wandered up and down the Iberian Peninsula, recording reconnaissance work in tight topographical sketches. Writing both horizontally and vertically, in Spanish and in English, his script is sometimes spidery and at others languid and stretched in curls across the page. His ink maps of daily marches across different regions, with their contoured peaks, rivers and bridges, and the barely feasible mud and stone villages, enable us now to recreate very closely the movements of this peripatetic soldier, with his watercolours, his love interests town by town – Light had, it seems, ‘a girl in every port’ – and his daring surveys dashed off, observing enemy lines and formations. The dairies showcase a beautiful bilingualism: not only does Light switch easily from English to Spanish and vice-versa; his words and spellings are a window into the Spanish language of 200 years ago, less codified than now, full of regional variety and what seem, by modern standards, oddities of spelling. Late in 1813 he writes: ‘Arrived at Alcubierre.’ This would be unremarkable but for the fact that the Aragonese village of Alcubierre is the very place where a young George Orwell lived his first frontline experiences, in 1936.
Regional view of Alcubierre in Aragon, where both William Light and George Orwell were stationed
Despite the rain that permeates his notebook entries, Light – in common with those Australian members of the International Brigades some 125 years later in the Spanish Civil War – also experienced the dry squalor of the Spanish interior: the dust and starvation of a war-torn land, the dead horses, the wretched corpses and the value-less lives of the peasantry and townsfolk, pulled apart and sacrificed between warring sides. Counterbalancing the tough conditions were spots of beauty – the cork trees of Extremadura or the Roman town of Merida – but above all it was the charm and friendliness of the Spanish people Light enjoyed, and the company of Spanish ladies.
This is an edited extract from ‘The Beautiful Obscure’ (Transmission Press), available now from bookshops and via transmissionpress.com
Header image: George Jones, Portrait of William Light (detail.) (1871)