He was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1725, the son of Thomas Reilly, a Catholic nobleman, and Rose McDowel. He participated in the Italian campaigns during the War of Polish Succession and in the War of Austrian Succession. After 1748, he joined the French army. In 1762, he joined the Spanish armed forces and was assigned command of a regiment in the invasion of Portugal. The following year, he returned to Spain with the rank of brigadier.
After the loss of Havana to the British in 1762 during the Seven Years War, Spanish monarch Carlos III saw the need to implement both military reforms, to improve defenses in the Antilles, as well as economic reforms, to alleviate the monetary burden of maintaining those territories and to improve their economic conditions. To achieve those goals, Alejandro O’Reilly was assigned inspector general of Cuba with the charge of reorganizing and rebuilding Havana’s defenses and implementing governmental and economic reforms.
After his successful work in Havana, he was promoted to field marshal and moved to Puerto Rico in 1765, where with the help of Governor Ambrosio de Benavidas, chief of engineers of San Juan Tomás O’Daly, and his assistants, he gathered information on the defenses of the fortified town of San Juan and the needs of its inhabitants. He also gathered information about the state of poverty and illegal activity on the island and proposed a series of reforms to improve the island’s political and socio-economic conditions.
The same year, he presented his findings and recommendations to King Carlos III in a report titled Relación circunstanciada del actual estado de la población, frutos y proporciones para fomento que tiene la Isla de San Juan de Puerto Rico. The document described the island’s main problems, among which were the poor condition of the island’s defenses, the almost non-existent trade with Spain, the small amount of money collected in royal taxes and the dependence on smuggling.
He admitted that smuggling had been useful on the island because it had helped improve, in part, the island’s terrible economic conditions. O’Reilly also ordered that a census of the population be conducted, which found that there were 44,883 inhabitants, of which more than ten percent were slaves.
The report also detailed his impressions about the poverty on the island, the recently formed urban areas, the personality of the island residents, relations between the races, certain customs, the construction methods of the housing, the level of education of the people, as well as descriptions of the rural landscape, among other topics.
In terms of reforms to the defense systems, he ordered the reorganization of the militias and the regular army. He removed soldiers who were incapacitated and replaced those who were married with single men. He moved the best soldiers to a new battalion that replaced the old guard and gave them the same position as a unit in Spain. He approved formation of one militia consisting of free blacks.
Along with engineer Thomas O’Daly, he also developed a plan for rebuilding the fortifications to make San Juan one of the most fortified cities in the Americas. He proposed the construction of batteries on the coast and the bay, particularly in the forts that were already built and along parts of the wall. He also ordered the strengthening of the land defenses, which would include the construction of additional lines of defense, new defenses in the Boquerón sector and the continuation of the city wall in the sector that went from the Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort to the San Cristóbal fort, among other changes.
After the Crown looked favorably on his recommendations, repairs of the San Juan defenses were begun in 1766, a process that would take twenty-five years. O’Reilly’s report also led to the implementation of socio-economic reforms such as the liberalization of trade with Spain, stimulation of agriculture for export and greater freedom in the treatment of slaves.
After completing his task in the Caribbean, he returned to Spain. He was given the rank of lieutenant general after he helped control the riot of Madrid in 1766. When a revolt broke out in the Louisiana territory, the king sent O’Reilly to smother it (1769). Later, he remained in the region as governor and captain general and implemented what was known as the "O’Reilly Code," a text that stipulated the laws of the colony and the rights and duties of its residents.
Upon his return to Spain in 1770, the king gave O’Reilly the title of count and viscount of Cavan. He was assigned the charge of inspector general of the army of the Americas. In 1775, after a defeat in Algiers, he fell from favor with the Crown and was transferred to Andalusia, where he was governor and captain general from 1776 to 1786. Later, he returned to the court when Carlos IV had become king and he assumed the charge of governor and captain general of Cadiz.
He died in Bonete, a province of Andalusia, in March of 1794 while he was on his way to Barcelona to take charge of a regiment.
By the PROE Editorial Group
Autor: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 12, 2014.