Maritime Warfare in the War of the Spanish Succession I

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Sea Battle of Vigo bay, 23 October 1702. Episode in the War of the Spanish Succession.

Compounded by remarkably careless navigation, were implicated in the great disaster of 22 October, when Shovel’s returning squadron ran on to the outer rocks of the Scillies in the dark. The admiral and the ships’ companies of three ships of the line were lost.

A series of treaties between European powers had provided for a peaceful division of the Spanish empires on the death of Charles II. Louis XIV’s Agrandson the due d’Anjou would inherit the throne, but Charles’s Austrian Habsburg cousins would gain valuable territory in Italy, which was what they really wanted, while the English and Dutch looked forward to improving their access to the trade of the Spanish Americas. None of them had any appetite for further war, even when it was revealed that in his will Charles II had left all his possessions to Anjou, and Louis XIV chose to accept the will and disavow the treaties. It took a characteristic display of Louis’ blundering arrogance to create another coalition against France. French troops marched into the Spanish Netherlands, threatening the Dutch frontiers; French external tariffs were sharply raised, threatening their foreign trade; while French officials moved to take over the management of the Spanish American empire, with the obvious intention of excluding English and Dutch merchants. For the English, the final straw came when James II died in September 1701, and Louis, repudiating one of the clauses of the 1698 peace treaty, recognized his son as James III and VIII.

For the ‘Maritime Powers’, England and the Netherlands, the War of the Spanish Succession was about access to the Spanish empire, not Spain itself. The allies adopted a candidate for the throne, the Archduke Charles of Austria, but they did not plan major campaigns in the Iberian Peninsula. The protection of the Netherlands required a campaign in Flanders, as in the previous war, but the allied fleets were expected to cut Spain’s transatlantic links and force open the door for allied trade in Spanish America. They also needed to control the Western Mediterranean to cut Spain’s links with her Italian empire, and support Savoy, a vulnerable ally in a key strategic position. In Spain itself the accession of Anjou as Philip V aroused little opposition except among the Catalans, traditionally loyal to the Habsburgs and hostile to Madrid. In the Spanish American empire, however, officials and colonists rebuffed French attempts to take over their trade. Dutch and English traders, though officially illegal, were accepted as honest and peaceful; but the French (the only European power still sponsoring buccaneers) were regarded as little better than pirates, and du Casse, the same who had sacked Cartagena, was the worst of all. In the Caribbean Spanish governors eyed French admirals come to ‘protect’ their silver home to Europe with an intense, and fully justified, suspicion. In these waters there therefore developed a sort of three-cornered war, in which French squadrons had as much trouble with their allies as their enemies. The weakness of the Spanish navy left the government in Madrid no choice but to rely on French warships to escort home the silver of the Americas, but every effort was made to ensure that it was landed in Spain rather than in France, whence (as Philip V’s government quite rightly feared) very little of it would ever return. The French navy therefore mounted a series of large convoy operations over the course of the war. Though on strictly military grounds a few fast ships could have transported Spanish silver more safely, large squadrons were politically essential to demonstrate French commitment and overawe Spanish opposition.

The first French squadron sailed in April 1701 under the marquis de Coëtlogon, but the Spanish governors would not even allow him to buy victuals, and he returned empty-handed. He was followed in September 1701 by Château-Renault, who had more success in collecting the Spanish convoy and seeing it back across the Atlantic. Vice-Admiral John Benbow sailed from England at the same time, but was too late to meet Château-Renault. In August 1702 another French squadron under du Casse, now a rear-admiral, arrived in the Caribbean. Benbow intercepted him on 19 August, off Santa Marta in what is now Colombia, and there ensued a desultory running battle lasting over six days. Benbow had seven ships of the line against four, but he was unsupported by several of his captains, and was eventually forced to draw off, badly wounded. He lived long enough to see Captains Richard Kirby and Cooper Wade court-martialled and condemned to death for cowardice. Benbow was one of the most respected admirals in the Navy, and the story of his last fight made a popular sensation which was remembered long after the campaign was forgotten.

Meanwhile the allied main fleet under Sir George Rooke was preparing to sail. The plan was for a major amphibious landing to capture the port of Cadiz, which would at a stroke have cut off Spain’s transatlantic trade, provided the allies with a base for Mediterranean operations, and the Archduke Charles with a foothold in Spain. Rooke, however, had no faith in a planwhich involved leaving the Brest squadron between himself and home; he was ill, grieving for his wife, who had died just as they had sailed; and the fleet had insufficient victuals for prolonged operations. He put the troops ashore at Puerto Santa Maria, some distance from Cadiz, where their officers soon lost control and they fell to drinking, looting and desecrating churches. This was the end of any hope of military success, or of local support for the Archduke Charles: ‘our fleet has left such a filthy stench among the Spaniards, that a whole age will hardly blot it out,’ commented a local English merchant. Presently the troops were re-embarked and the expedition sailed for home.

At the same time Château-Renault was on his way back from the Caribbean. He hoped to make a French port, the Spaniards demanded a Spanish one, but Shovell had a squadron off Brest, and Rooke the main fleet off Cadiz, so to avoid them both Chateau-Renault steered for Vigo, on the north-western corner of Spain just north of the Portuguese border. The Galician coast here is penetrated by deep fjord-like inlets called rias, and the Franco-Spanish force took refuge at Redondela at the head of the ria of Vigo, which was blocked by a boom with batteries at either end. More or less by accident, Rooke learned where they were, and mounted an attack on 12 October. Marines were landed to take the batteries, and Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Hopson’s flagship the Torbay led the attack which broke the boom. There was heavy fighting, and the crew of the Torbay were almost asphyxiated by the explosion of an improvised fireship laden with snuff, but the result was a conclusive Anglo-Dutch victory from which no enemy ship escaped. Six French ships of the line were taken and the other six burned or wrecked. Nineteen Spanish ships of all sorts were burned or captured.

Vigo was a great victory which rescued allied naval reputation and morale, and badly damaged the Franco-Spanish alliance. The French navy suffered heavily, and the Spanish navy was virtually eliminated, forcing Spain into a total dependence on French ships to keep up communication with the Americas. On the other hand most of the silver had been landed before the battle and was saved, indeed multiplied. Spanish revenues from the Americas had long been mortgaged in advance to foreign bankers, in this case mainly Dutch bankers. The Anglo-Dutch attack gave Philip V a perfect excuse to repudiate his debts and confiscate the money. Better still, he gathered much of the considerable proportion of silver which was usually smuggled. It was a disaster for Amsterdam bankers, and a financial windfall for Philip, only moderated by Louis XIV’s insistence that Spain pay France for the lost French warships.

In the longer perspective, the battle of Vigo had another consequence of great significance for England. On the accession of Philip V, Portugal, anxious to remain friends with its powerful neighbour, had signed an alliance with France. But the security of Portugal’s overseas empire was even more important than the security of its inland frontier, and ministers in Lisbon were well aware that their own navy was incapable of assuring it; they had to have a good understanding with the dominant naval power in the Atlantic. The victory of Vigo reinforced the idea which Rooke’s presence had already suggested; that France was not the right choice. In 1703 Portugal signed the ‘Methuen Treaties’ with England, the commercial provisions of which were to be an essential component of eighteenth-century Britain’s prosperity. The discovery in the 1690s of rich gold mines in Brazil made Portugal a wealthy country without generating much economic development. Though the Portuguese government, following the textbook economics of the day, offically banned exports of bullion, the logic of the economic situation was that Portugal would import the textiles and manufactures it needed, and pay for them with Brazilian gold. The essential was that the convoys from South America be protected, even at the price of economic and naval dependence: ‘The preservation of our overseas colonies makes it indispensable for us to have a good intelligence with the powers which now possess the command of the sea,’ commented José da Cunha Brochado, Portuguese minister in London, ‘the cost is heavy, but for us such an understanding is essential.’ The consequence throughout the eighteenth century was a flourishing trade in which English exports to Portugal were paid for with illegally exported gold, much of it carried in British warships whose captains found occasion to touch at Lisbon to pick up a profitable ‘freight’. Portugal’s only significant export trade was built up largely by the Scottish, English and Dutch merchants whose descendants still control it: the port wine trade, which provided English merchant ships with a return cargo and English dinner-tables with a patriotic alternative to French wines. Portuguese gold was an essential support for the British balance of payments, to set against the Baltic and East India trades which imported from countries where English products found few markets, and had to export silver to pay for them. The naval victory of Vigo therefore made an indirect but powerful contribution to Britain’s long-term prosperity.

In the short term the Portuguese alliance forced a major change in allied strategy, for Peter II’s price for changing sides was an allied army to protect his frontier. Instead of a largely maritime war, the Maritime Powers now found themselves committed to extensive campaigning in Spain, with one army to the westward, based on Lisbon, and subsequently another in Catalonia. This was to prove a heavy and ultimately fruitless burden on their economies.

The Mediterranean was now more important than ever, and thither Sir Cloudesley Shovell was sent in 1703, but he had only thirty-two ships, and arrived too late to achieve anything. He was delayed by the usual weakness of English victualling, and a new factor which was to become more common as the finances of the States of Holland weakened; the tardy arrival and short numbers of the Dutch squadron. Returning late and sickly to English waters, he was caught in the Channel by the Great Storm of 26–27 November, usually reckoned to have been the worst in two centuries, with winds of 150 knots. Shovell narrowly survived, but over 10,000 English seamen died; four ships of the line and nearly 100 merchantmen were lost on the Goodwin Sands in one night.

Rooke and the main allied fleet in the Channel achieved little in 1703, meeting neither opposition nor opportunity. Three successive squadrons were despatched to the West Indies. The first, under Rear-Admiral William Whetstone, was ordered to reinforce Benbow in May 1701, and finally reached Jamaica in July 1702 after a fourteen-month struggle with bad weather and ill-found ships. A squadron under Captain Hovenden Walker arrived in the Leeward Islands in December 1702, and mounted an unsuccessful attack on the French island of Guadaloupe. Finally Rear-Admiral John Graydon took over the command in May 1703 with orders to collect the ships and return, making an attack on the French settlements in Newfoundland on the way. He failed in this attack, failed to fight du Casse’s returning squadron which he met in mid-Atlantic, and returned sickly, worm-eaten and empty-handed, to be dismissed from his command. The whole two-year campaign had been fruitless and costly, and for the next three years the English Navy effectively abandoned the Caribbean to concentrate on the new strategic situation in Europe.

William III was succeeded by his sister-in-law Queen Anne in March 1702. The replacement of a foreign general, strategist and statesman by an ill-educated Englishwoman who knew little of public affairs wrought many changes in the political world, but some things remained the same. Like William, Queen Anne disliked party politicians; like him, but for different reasons (she hated public assemblies, in which her poor sight caused her constant embarrassment), she preferred to work in private through trusted advisers – though unlike him, she presided at Cabinet and worked through rather than around her ministers. First among her confidantes was Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, whose husband John was one of the senior army officers who had defected to William III in 1688. William had never entirely trusted him, but Anne did, and he soon occupied something of the position William had as de facto commander-in-chief of the allied armies in Flanders and chief strategist of the alliance. As a general he had talents which William had never possessed, and moreover he had a good working relationship with the equally brilliant Austrian general Prince Eugene of Savoy. As a strategist he followed William’s policy, against the sense of the insular majority of English politicians, arguing that the coalition would collapse unless England made large contributions to an allied army in Flanders to defend the Dutch. As a result, he and the queen gradually found themselves forced, as William had been, into the arms of Whig politicians whom they distrusted, because no one else would support a Continental war.

Marlborough had served afloat during the Third Dutch War, he had brothers in the Navy, and he understood the value of sea power, but in 1704 he was preoccupied with the threat that the francophile Elector Maximilian II of Bavaria would open the way for French armies to march down the Danube to Vienna, destroying the Austrians and the alliance at a stroke. In an audacious move, kept a close secret (from English and Dutch politicians as much as the French), he marched the allied army 250 miles from Flanders across Germany to the Danube, and on 2/13 August he and Prince Eugene crushed the French army at the battle of Blenheim. Meanwhile Rooke had taken the allied main fleet into the Mediterranean, using Lisbon as an improvised forward base. The French too had concentrated their main fleet in the Mediterranean, and the two were briefly in sight off Minorca in May, but no action ensued. Having no landing force but the fleet’s marines, Rooke evaded pressure from his allies to make another attempt on Cadiz, and in June the fleet failed to take Barcelona in spite of much local support. As some compensation, Rooke turned to Gibraltar, a small and ruinous fortress with a garrison of only 150 men. This was within the capabilities of the fleet, and on 24 July it was captured. It was a joint Anglo-Dutch operation, in the name of ‘Charles III’, the allied candidate for the Spanish throne, but the English had long been conscious of Gibraltar’s strategic situation, and were already thinking of its future. Its immediate operational benefit, however, was negligible. Gibraltar had little trade, the anchorage was unprotected, and the only naval establishment was a small mole where a couple of Spanish galleys had sometimes sheltered. There was no question of basing a fleet there.

The French fleet, now commanded by Louis XIV’s bastard son the comte de Toulouse (Tourville had died in 1701), was too late to prevent the fall of Gibraltar, but advanced to fight for its recovery. On 13 August the two fleets met off Malaga, the French being to leeward, but between the allies and Gibraltar. The allies had fifty-three ships of the line (forty-one English andtwelve Dutch) against, probably, fifty French. Rooke’s ‘Sailing and Fighting Instructions’ of 1703 sum up the accumulated experience of half a century of Anglo-Dutch fleet actions, and the two fleets fought in what was now the conventional scheme of parallel lines. It was a hard-fought battle (the English casualties were proportional to those of Trafalgar), with two unusual features made possible by a flat calm. The French fleet was accompanied by galleys, which proved useful to tow damaged ships out of the line; while the allies, uniquely in a fleet action, used bomb vessels, which secured some damaging hits. At the end of the day neither side had a decisive advantage, but after a long bombardment of Gibraltar before the battle the allies were seriously short of ammunition. Some English ships had no shot left at all, though hasty redistribution during the night gave an average of ten rounds a gun (out of the standard allowance of forty) all round. Next day a shift of wind gave the French the weather gage and the opportunity to renew the action, but the majority of Toulouse’s senior officers persuaded him that ‘what we did yesterday will suffice for the reputation of the Navy and the king’s arms’, and the French fleet returned to Toulon. Only a minority understood that they had fought for a tangible strategic objective, Gibraltar, which a final effort might well have regained.

In England Tory politicians opposed to the war on the Continent tried to cry up Rooke and his battle as a counterweight to Marlborough and Blenheim.18 The admiral, now in poor health, took no part in this, but profited from the opportunity to retire from active service. Over the winter Franco-Spanish forces made a determined effort to recapture Gibraltar, whose situation was precarious. Supplies had to be shipped from Lisbon, where an allied squadron under Sir John Leake wintered, through a French blockade based on Cadiz. Leake’s first effort arrived in November, just in time. On 9 March 1705 he returned with a bigger convoy, and an escort force including Portuguese as well as Dutch and English ships. This time he was able to intercept the French blockading squadron, commanded by Pointis, whose five ships of the line were all destroyed or taken. Their crews were lost too, which made this in some ways a more damaging defeat than La Hougue or Vigo, where the French ships were lost but their men saved. The siege was lifted and the immediate threat to Gibraltar removed.

On 15 June the allied fleet under Shovell and van Almonde met at Lisbon. Joined to Shovell as joint commander-in-chief afloat, and sole commander-in-chief of English forces ashore, was the Earl of Peterborough. This talented if eccentric nobleman had no military or naval experience, and the intention of Queen Anne’s government seems to have been to establish a political representative with authority over the strategic employment of English forces. Peterborough’s powers, however, allowed him to interfere in operational decisions, which he did with enthusiasm. Shovell found him extremely tiresome. The allied fleet arrived before Barcelona in August, and though the allies were too weak for a siege, the admirals insisted on attempting an assault. To the soldiers’ astonishment, it succeeded, providing ‘Charles III’ with a capital, and opening a second land front on Spanish soil.

Unfortunately Barcelona was scarcely more useful as a fleet base than Gibraltar, and the allies were still forced to depend on the improvised resources of Lisbon. This gave the Franco-Spanish forces good prospects of retaking Barcelona before the allies could return, which they nearly did in the spring of 1706. At the last moment, on 27 April/7 May, just as the storming parties were preparing, the allied fleet (under Leake and Baron van Wassenaer) appeared. Toulouse and the French blockading squadron made good their escape, but the city was saved. Soon after, Cartagena, Alicante, Ibiza and Majorca were taken by the allies. On the western front, the Duke of Berwick was forced back by the Earl of Galway’s allied army, and on 27 June Galway entered Madrid. In the north Marlborough won another great victory at Ramillies in May and drove the French out of the Spanish Netherlands. Philip V retreated from Barcelona under cover of a total eclipse of the sun, and that summer it seemed that his grandfather the Sun King was in eclipse everywhere.

Yet still the allies’ efforts in the Mediterranean were crippled for want of a naval base. In 1707 they planned to solve the problem in the most radical possible manner, by capturing the French base of Toulon. The idea was that Prince Eugene would lead an allied army along the coast with the help of Shovell’s fleet. This part of the plan worked, but Savoy’s commitment to the project was equivocal, the defences of Toulon were strong, and as the siege proceeded Eugene became alarmed at the risk of being trapped by a relieving army. Early in August the allied army retreated, but even as it marched away, the ships achieved part of what they had come for. By destroying some coastal batteries they briefly cleared a way for English and Dutch bomb-ketches to get into range of the harbour, firing blind over an intervening ridge with the aid of observers ashore ‘to show signals how the shells fell’. This bombardment lasted only about eighteen hours, and sank two ships of the line, but it frightened the French into scuttling the remainder of the fleet in shallow water. The intention was to raise the ships when the danger was passed, and the wrecks were raised after the war, but only a few ever re-entered service. The allies now had undisputed control of the Mediterranean. It was at this point (not, as older histories used to say, after the battle of Barfleur) that the French government effectively abandoned its main fleet in favour of the privateering war.

Still the allies had no winter base in the Mediterranean, and Shovell’s fleet came home late in the season. Successive admirals since Russell had been grumbling about the risks of keeping out the big ships past the end of August, and for all its familiarity, the entrance to the English Channel was dangerous to navigators unable to fix their longitude. The usual practice of seamen making landfall after an ocean passage was to run down a parallel of latitude (i.e. a course due east or due west) to a safe landfall, some prominent feature which could been seen far off and safely approached. The mouth of the Channel is most unsafe, Ushant being foggy and ‘surrounded with dangers in all directions’, the Scillies low-lying and also surrounded by reefs. Nor are they easily identified: in 1704 an inbound convoy mistook Scilly for Guernsey and had reached Lundy before they realized that they were on the wrong side of Cornwall. The Channel itself, lying roughly east north-east and west south-west, cannot be entered on a parallel of latitude, for a course due east clearing the Scillies by the small margin of ten miles leads straight on to the Casquets reef off Alderney. The Scillies themselves were laid down about fifteen miles too far north on contemporary English charts, and there is a variable and unpredictable current tending to set ships to the northward. All these factors, compounded by remarkably careless navigation, were implicated in the great disaster of 22 October, when Shovel’s returning squadron ran on to the outer rocks of the Scillies in the dark. The admiral and the ships’ companies of three ships of the line were lost. Shovell was perhaps the only truly popular English admiral of the age, beloved by officers and men, respected by politicians of all parties. His death caused a profound shock, and led in due course to the 1714 Longitude Act, offering large prizes for a practicable method of fixing longitude at sea.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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