Anglo-Spanish disputes, 1718-39

The Battle of Cape Passaro, 11 August 1718.

The Battle of Glenshiel 1719.

In 1719 that the Irish exile, the Duke of Ormonde, organized an expedition with extensive Spanish support to invade Britain and replace King George I with James Stuart, the Jacobite “Old Pretender”. However, his fleet was dispersed by a storm near Galicia in 1719, and never reached Britain. A small force of 300 Spanish marines under George Keith, tenth Earl Marischal did land near Eilean Donan, but they and the highlanders who supported them were defeated at the Battle of Eilean Donan in May 1719 and the Battle of Glen Shiel a month later, and the hopes of an uprising soon fizzled out.

The treaty of Utrecht had not satisfied Spain. Although the Spaniards had a Bourbon king who was broadly popular, they had lost their Italian and Netherlands possessions. This blow to his prestige irritated Philip V and his queen, Elizabeth Farnese. Austrian determination to limit Spanish ambitions in Italy was a threat to the peace that Britain, France and the United Provinces desperately wanted. In 1717 a fleet of 12 Spanish battleships, 17 frigates, seven galleys, two fireships and 276 transports carried 36,000 troops to Sardinia to overwhelm the Savoyard garrison. In an effort to deter further aggression, Sir George Byng was sent to the Mediterranean with a fleet of 20 line. Spain was not impressed, and Byng arrived too late to prevent a landing by Spanish troops on Sicily. Byng met the Spanish fleet of 12 line, 16 smaller vessels and some other boats off Messina on 31 July (o. s.) 1718. The Spanish fleet was withdrawing, but Byng ordered a general chase. The result was the comprehensive destruction of Spain’s new fleet. Thirteen of the larger ships were taken or burned. For the next 17 months Byng worked hard to assist the Savoyards and Austrians reduce Spanish resistance on the island. He was unable to prevent the Spaniards from reinforcing their forces from Sardinia, but eventually, in October 1719, Messina fell and the Spaniards were removed. In January 1719 Britain and France declared war and a French army invaded northern Spain. The rapid collapse of Spanish resistance forced Philip V to agree to terms. Although Britain found, as the French had done in the 1680s, that demonstrations of seapower did not deflect Spanish policy, the victory at Passaro and the contribution of the fleet were seen as major factors in the reduction of Spain. Other operations seemed to confirm this. A small force was landed at Vigo without significant opposition or effect. In 1719 naval forces also seemed able to deter any effective intervention by large Spanish naval forces after a small Spanish expedition landed in Scotland to support a Jacobite rising.

Seven years later, in 1726, Spain and Austria drew together to renew the former’s ambitions in Italy, to recover Gibraltar and to defend the commercial operations of the Austrian Ostend Company. The siege of Gibraltar lasted from February to June 1727, until disease reduced the Spanish attackers to impotence. The British decided to blockade the Spanish treasure fleet in the West Indies and Vice Admiral Francis Hosier was sent to carry out the task. Hosier and a large part of his squadron died of disease, but the blockade did break up the resistance of the Austrians and Spaniards to peace negotiations. The subsequent negotiations ended with a British squadron escorting Philip V’s son to his new territories in Italy.

The success of the blockade and the intervention in the Mediterranean were seen in Britain as yet further examples of the power of naval force. In 1730, the apparent power of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean was seen to be so great that merchants wanted operations curbed to prevent the Spanish trade being destroyed. Ever since Britain obtained the asiento in 1713 there had been increasing tension between British merchants and the Spanish guarda costas in West Indian waters. Illegal trading by British vessels and illegal seizures by Spanish coastguards were founded in mutually incompatible positions on the Spanish claim to a monopoly of trade to Spanish America. As the years passed, Spain proved that she would not be intimidated by the threat of seapower and the depredations of the guarda costas continued. The devastation of Hosier’s squadron by disease and the actions of the Royal Navy during the 1730s persuaded many that more vigorous action might resolve this intractable Anglo-Spanish problem. After 1737 there was growing pressure for naval action and every example possible was employed to demonstrate how effective it would be. The supposed effectiveness of naval operations during 1730-1 and the success of Sir John Norris’ expedition to Lisbon in 1735 to deter a feared Spanish invasion was yet more evidence to them.

Added to these apparent signs of naval power was a concurrent fear of the revival of Bourbon naval power. The defeat at Passaro had not deterred Spain from rebuilding its fleet. Between 1725 and 1740 the Spanish fleet rose from 27 to 54 battleships and cruisers. The former increased from 16 to 43. From 1726 until his death in 1736, this build-up was supervised by Jose Patino. Italy was the primary foreign policy objective, but Patino saw commerce, and particularly America, as the financial key to Spain’s policy objectives. The fleet continued to expand after Patino’s death.

Perhaps more worrying to Britons, who had developed a dangerous disregard for Spain, was the revival of the French navy. The fleet rose from 45 battleships and cruisers in 1725 to 54 by 1740, with the battleships increasing from 39 to 47. The main expansion had occurred between 1724 and 1731 and after years of minimal funding, the fleet was still extremely weak. The peacetime budget for the fleet between 1682 and 1688 was 11- 12 million livres. It only reached this figure once before 1734, in 1721. Otherwise the fleet had to make do with around 8 million livres, hardly enough to maintain investment in the infrastructure and expand the fleet. The fleet’s performance during the War of Polish Succession (1733-8) was not impressive. Operations off the Barbary Coast in 1731 and 1733-5, Genoa in 1732 and Danzig in 1734 were largely ineffective. These were actions by limited forces hardly calling for a sustained maritime effort; however, the very fact that the French fleet was operating at sea was enough to cause concern in Britain. French colonial commerce was expanding faster than Britain’s and there was a strong fear that since 1730 Britain had been diplomatically outmanoeuvred by Cardinal Fleury and that France was once again establishing herself as the primary force in Europe. To Britons, their trade was under direct attack from Spanish guarda costas and was being overtaken by French commerce. British interests in Europe were crumbling before French diplomatic successes. The French and Spanish navies were expanding and together there was the possibility that they would overtake the British navy in numbers before long. As the difficult negotiations with Spain broke down during the early part of 1739, Britain was going to war with explicitly maritime objectives-to take and hold some part of the Spanish American empire and to resolve the trading issues with Spain once and for all. It would be a naval war, and a large part of the political nation, including many in the Cabinet, believed that naval power could decisively resolve the matter. However, in contrast to this optimistic vision of naval success was a feeling that it was a last chance. In the summer of 1738, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir Charles Wager, produced a paper showing the respective forces of France and Spain, and concluded that now was the time for war. The Admiral of the Fleet, Sir John Norris, told Parliament in February 1740, that Britain must now “conquer or be undone”.