British Invasion of Cuba


The British invasion of Cuba was a failure for reasons that this map of the well-defended position they established in Guantanamo Bay did not reveal. An attack on the major port of Santiago was planned, but the British troops were landed in the bay more than eighty miles away. This foolishly exposed them to a long and dangerous advance through woody terrain ideal for Spanish guerrilla action. The troops suffered heavily from disease, did not reach their goal and were re-embarked. Santiago was to fall to American attack in 1898. An earlier British attack on Cartagena (in modern Colombia) and a later one on Panama, both in 1741, also failed.

The bay was called Guantánamo by its original inhabitants, the Taínos. Christopher Columbus landed in 1494, naming it Puerto Grande. On landing, Columbus’ crew found Taíno fishermen preparing a feast for the local chieftain. When Spanish settlers took control of Cuba, the bay became a vital harbor on the south side of the island.

The bay was briefly known as Cumberland Bay when the British seized it in 1741, during the War of Jenkins’ Ear. British Adm. Edward Vernon arrived with a force of eight warships and 4,000 soldiers with plans to march on Santiago de Cuba. However, he was defeated by local guerrilla forces of creole and Spaniards and forced to withdraw or face becoming a prisoner. In late 1760, boats from HMS Trent and HMS Boreas cut out the French privateers Vainquer and Mackau, which were hiding in the bay. The French were also forced to burn the Guespe, another privateer, to prevent her capture.

WAR OF JENKINS’ EAR (1739–1742)

The War of Jenkins’ Ear, an armed conflict between Britain and Spain, arose from longstanding Anglo-Spanish antagonism fostered by illicit British trading activities in the Spanish Caribbean and the determined, often brutal, attempts by Spain’s colonial guarda costa (‘coast guard’) vessels to suppress such ventures. Popular feeling, incited by opponents of the Walpole ministry in London and a vigorous merchant lobby opposed to diplomatic efforts, further intensified pressures conducive to war.  The immediate events that precipitated open hostilities were the alleged sinking of several British merchant ships by Spanish privateers, the suspension of the asiento or slave supply contract, and the intensification of Spain’s search and seizure claims against British smuggling vessels, and, marginally, the ill usage suffered by one Capt. Robert Jenkins, Master of the brig Rebecca. Legitimately bound for London from Jamaica with a cargo of sugar, Jenkins’s ship was plundered and his ear severed by the commander of a Spanish coast guard vessel near Havana on 9 April 1731.

The case received brief publicity, subsided, but then was revived (together with other, similar incidents) during a stormy Commons debate in March 1738. Although modern research has established that, contrary to historical tradition, Jenkins never appeared personally to present the missing ear; his plight was highly dramatized and contributed to the momentum of the political opposition campaign urging an immediate offensive against Spain. This appealed to national sentiment and commercial interests alike. Temporizing, Walpole arranged the Convention of Pardo with Spain, which provided compensation for vessels, lost but avoided the crucial issue: Spain’s continued determination to suppress all smuggling attempts. Confronted with growing public and parliamentary indignation, Walpole finally had to yield and war was declared on 19 October 1739.

In the lacklustre naval operations that followed, Admiral Vernon (1684–1757) sacked Porto Bello (in modern Panama) in November 1739, but the attack on Cartagena (Colombia) in early March 1741 failed due to spirited Spanish resistance, tropical disease, and dissension between British army and navy commanders. Commodore George Anson, operating with a small squadron off Chile, marauded coastal areas, and then circumnavigated the globe in the HMS Centurion (1740–1744), capturing Spanish treasure along the way. Attempts to seize Cuba in December 1741 and raids along the Florida coast were largely fruitless, resulting in heavy British casualties. Gradually the war overseas petered out into desultory forays against Spanish shipping and ineffectual attempts to isolate Spain from her colonies before becoming enveloped and overshadowed by hostilities in Europe (War of the Austrian Succession, 1740–1748) in which Britain, by means of mercenary forces, supported Austria against France (who had joined Spain) and her German allies.

While in its altered, Continental dimension the war enabled Britain to contain threatening Bourbon expansionism in key strategic areas abroad during the period 1742–1748, overseas it failed to achieve the initially anticipated sweeping victory over Spain.  Small-scale Anglo-Spanish clashes in Caribbean and Mediterranean waters produced little monetary or strategic gain, clearly indicating that naval action was not the solution to Britain’s commercial grievances at this time, nor the key to much-needed political stability.

Santiago in Cuba

The failed British naval invasion of Cartagena, a Spanish port city in modern-day Colombia, during March 22-May 9, 1741. During the Anglo-Spanish War (1739-1744), Britain, with the assistance of thousands of soldiers from its North American colonies, staged a disastrous amphibious assault against Cartagena.

Attacks in the spring and summer of 1741 on Cartagena in modern-day Colombia and Santiago in Cuba were humiliatingly repulsed. Disease made terrible inroads into the army and navy, and arguments between the naval and military commanders made effective cooperation impossible.

The British had completely abandoned Cartagena by May 9 and returned to Jamaica. Disease continued to devastate Wentworth’s troops to the point that he had only about 3,000 soldiers left. The expedition against the Spanish in the West Indies continued to fizzle. After returning to Jamaica the troops prepared for an assault on Santiago de Cuba but became bogged down near Guantanamo Bay, where the force fought only disease. By the time the orders to return home finally arrived, more than 10,000 men had perished, only 1,000 of them in action. American colonists perceived the deaths as evidence of the British Empire’s callousness, which helped fuel the development of a separate colonial identity.

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