BATTLE OF SANTA CATARINA, 1777

Portuguese two decker ship of the line in the late 18th century.

Longstanding Portuguese-Spanish tensions over the area of modern Uruguay (notably the Portuguese base at Sacramento), led to a major Spanish naval expedition that attacked Santa Catarina island. The map shows this expedition, with the ships, which included troop transports, marked in red. Portuguese warships were brushed aside and the Portuguese positions were rapidly taken. The subsequent agreement left Sacramento as Spanish but not Santa Catarina. The Spaniards had also taken Port Egmont, the British base on the Falkland Islands, in 1770, but British naval pressure led the Spaniards to restore Port Egmont.

FEBRUARY 6-7, 1777.

A 116-ship, 19,000-man Spanish expedition appears of Brazil, spearheaded by the fleet of Vice Adm. Francisco Javier Everardo Tilly y Paredes, Marqués de Casa Tilly and Knight of the Order of Santiago, comprised of the 74-gun Poderoso of the flag captain Juan de Langara, San Damaso of Francisco de Borja, Santiago la América of Antonio Asorio y Herreras, San José of José Bauzes, and Monarca of Antonio Osorio y Funco; the 64- gun Septentrion; the frigates Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Santa Florentina, Santa Teresa, Santa Margarita, Santa Rosa, and Liebre; the Chambequin Andaluz; the bomb vessels Santa Casilda and Santa Eulalia; plus three lesser consorts. They intercept a trio of Portuguese merchantmen bound from Rio de Janeiro toward Europe-although the Spanish formation’s actual purpose is to retaliate on a much grander scale for recent clashes in South America. Some 8,600 infantrymen, 640 dragoons, and 150 gunners from 10 different regiments are aboard 96 transports under the veteran lieutenant general Pedro de Cevallos, Knight of the Orders of Santiago and San Genaro and now also viceroy designate for Buenos Aires.

Originally directed to assault the advance Portuguese outpost of Colonia do Sacramento (Uruguay), de Cevallos decides to assail Brazil’s Santa Catarina Island in passing, over the objections of his naval counterpart, Admiral de Tilly. While coasting south west toward this destination, the huge Spanish fleet brushes aside MacDouall’s four Portuguese ships of the line, four frigates, and four auxiliaries, which it finds anchored at Garupas on February 17.

FEBRUARY 20, 1777.

Santa Catarina. De Cevallos and Admiral de Tilly materialize outside this Brazilian base, fling into Canavieiras Bay at the northern end of the island to probe for a landing spot. The entrances on either side of Ratones Island are covered by Forts Sao José and Santa Cruz, so the at tackers disembark at nearby Sao Francisco Beach on the night of February 22-23, without opposition.

It is de Cevallos’s aim to take Fort Sao José from the rear, while simultaneously shelling it from out at sea with his 60-gun ship of the line Septentrion, the Liebre, and two bomb vessels; but the 2,900 unprepared Portuguese defenders under Gen. Antonio Carlos Furtado de Mendoça abandon all their citadels without a fight, most retreating over to the mainland by boat, then deserting en masse upon being marched to reinforce Rio Grande. Both of Santa Catarina’s forts therefore fall into Spanish hands by February 25, along with 195 artillery pieces, after which 3,816 surviving Portuguese troops and residents gradually give themselves up by March 5 rather than face starvation in the jungle.

MARCH 28, 1777.

After installing a garrison on Santa Catarina Island under Irish-born colonel William Vaughan of the Hibernia Regiment, de Ceval los sails southward with the bulk of his forces, intending to disembark at Lagoa dos Patos-again, over Admiral de Tilly’s protests-and attack the Portuguese concentration at Rio Grande in conjunction with a northeasterly movement out of Uruguay by a Spanish army under Vértiz. Instead, his expedition encounters such heavy weather that de Cevallos is obliged to stagger into Maldonado by April 18, without seeing action. He then detaches his heavier ships of the line on May 10 to cruise in search of Mac Douall’s Portuguese squadron, while retaining his lighter craft to conduct his army on toward Sacramento. APRIL 9, 1777. Antonio Barreto, newly designated governor of the “Upper Orinoco,” departs Santo Tomé de Guayana (Venezuela) with 50 soldiers aboard nine small vessels to sail upriver. He gathers an additional 50 soldiers farther inland, then probes the Portuguese defenses along the Negro River.

APRIL 21, 1777.

The 74-gun Spanish ship of the line San Agustin of Capt. José N. Zapiain and the smaller auxiliary Santa Ana (having arrived too late from Europe to overtake de Cevallos and de Tilly’s expedition, as well as becoming separated from their 74-gun consort Serio and frigate Magdalena) are captured near the mouth of the River Plate by Mac Douall’s Portuguese squadron.

MAY 22, 1777.

Sacramento. Mariscal de campo Victorio de Navia Osorio disembarks the vanguard of de Cevallos’s 4,500 troops at El Molino (three miles from this Portuguese outpost) and is joined the next day by the commander in chief, despite heavy rains. This expedition is further reinforced from Buenos Aires, then begins digging its first siege works by May 30, consisting of a mortar battery, another battery of eight-pounders to fire heated shot, plus a pair of heavy pieces and other lighter ones to protect the flanks. The surprised 700 Portuguese soldiers and 300 sailors under Col. Francisco José de Rocha-already half-starved because of a prolonged Spanish blockade-quickly sue for terms and sur render by the afternoon of June 4. The Spaniards’ booty includes 700 prisoners, 141 artillery pieces, and 2,300 muskets.

De Cevallos spends the next two months demolishing the fortifications at Sacramento and the twin batteries on adjacent San Gabriel Island with explosives, before finally scuttling blockships to close up the harbor’s entrance. He then reembarks his troops to sail east toward Maldonado on August 4. It is his intent to launch another offensive against Rio Grande, but this is cancelled when news reaches him on August 27 of the restoration of relations between Madrid and Lisbon back in Europe.

JULY 9, 1777.

De Tilly sets sail from Santa Catarina Island with seven ships of the line and five frigates, steering toward Rio Grande. However, bad weather hampers his progress, compelling him to stand into the River Plate by July 26. While approaching harbor after nightfall, his frigate Santa Clara is wrecked on the Banco Inglés, going down with 120 hands. The death of José I of Portugal on February 23, 1777, has produced a reversal in Lisbon’s policies, as he has been succeeded by his Spanish-born queen, Maria Victoria, who brings an end to these disputes by a preliminary treaty signed at San Ildefonso on October 1. The Portuguese give up all claims to Sacramento and Uruguay, further agreeing to re store the ship San Agustin to Spain. The latter returns Santa Catarina Island and agrees to recognize Rio Grande as falling within Brazilian territory. This agreement is finalized at El Pardo on March 24, 1778, and one month later, de Tilly’s expedition quits the River Plate for home.

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