Pensacola 1781

Control of the area around the Mississippi was a key Spanish war aim and it had been achieved by 1780. This territory, in the words of the Spanish Minister of the Indies, was to be ‘the bulwark of the vast empire of New Spain’. Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of New Orleans who had already demonstrated considerable diplomatic skill in his handling of the Willing raid, had taken to military operations like a duck to water.

Gálvez had received news of the Spanish declaration of war long before any British forces in the area and had prepared a little fleet to raid up the Mississippi. His ships, apart from a single frigate, were then destroyed by a hurricane, but the determined and resourceful Gálvez went back to work and created another little fleet out of thin air by raising some wrecks from the seabed and sending troops far and wide to strip the Gulf Coast around New Orleans of every available craft. Once ready, his new fleet carried a jumble of men: Spanish veterans, Mexican recruits, Canary Islanders, carabiniers, militiamen, free blacks, mulattos and Indians. The fleet was shadowed on the banks of the Mississippi by those soldiers who could not fit on the boats.

On 7 September this eclectic maritime force surprised the British at Manchac, thus securing the first Spanish victory of the war. The key strategic location of Baton Rouge fell soon after, and then Fort Panmure at Natchez. Also, and perhaps more importantly, they captured eight British vessels in the river and adjacent lakes, including one troop transport on its way to Manchac, which was taken by a Spanish crew that was five times smaller than that of its prize. Not only had the Spanish taken control of the key British forts on the river, therefore, but they had also acquired a small fleet with which they could police the river and link their new possessions together. In total Gálvez and his men captured three forts, 550 soldiers, eight vessels and 430 leagues of the best land on the Mississippi. Quite a prize.

In the summer of 1780, therefore, the Hudson, the Mississippi and the mighty harbour of Newport were in American, Spanish and French hands: a three-way transnational allied claw on the American colonies that held them fast against British threats from north, south and east and provided a strong foundation from which to build. The French presence in Newport paralysed the Royal Navy at New York and Solano’s massive fleet at Havana paralysed the British fleet at Jamaica. There were no significant British naval forces in the Floridas, Georgia or South Carolina at all, and Gálvez seized the opportunity.

He set about preparing for a strike against Mobile, the closest British base to New Orleans and a crucial harbour. Mobile Bay is like a tooth knocked out of the face of the Gulf of Mexico. Thirty miles long, six wide and protected by sandbanks, it was a fine anchorage. Some 1,200 men were readied in fourteen ships, but Gálvez’s preparations were undone by another storm, this one so fierce that 400 Spanish sailors and soldiers drowned. Yet again Gálvez was forced to resuscitate a fleet, and yet again he succeeded where many would have failed. For Gálvez the struggle for sea power was, more than anything else, a struggle against the elements.

When his fleet finally arrived at Mobile, things again went wrong. Six ships ran aground, one was wrecked, and the whole process of unloading troops and supplies, trying at the best of times, became almost farcical in the tempestuous weather. Gálvez lost so many supplies that he seriously considered retreating overland to New Orleans. Ten days after his arrival, however, reinforcements arrived from Havana and the siege was on. The Spanish immediately began to make scaling ladders from their shattered ships. The city was defenceless against such sea power and Fort Charlotte fell on 13 March. The Spanish thus took control of Mobile and with it secured access deep inland via the Alabama and Tombigbee rivers.


Gálvez’s next goal was Pensacola, capital of British West Florida and only fifty miles or so further along the coast. Pensacola, however, was another type of target altogether, a fact which Gálvez knew well, having commissioned a detailed spying operation on the British defences there in the twilight years before official Spanish involvement in the war. To take Pensacola would require a far more significant expedition than that which had taken Mobile, and it would rely entirely on Spanish ships: Pensacola was almost completely cut off from the interior by impassable swamps – it was, in effect, an island. Gálvez therefore travelled to Havana to urge Solano in person to let him borrow his fleet. Solano agreed.

In October nearly 4,000 troops boarded a fleet of seventy-two ships under Solano’s command, left Havana for Pensacola, and immediately sailed into a horrific storm – the third time in three operations that natural forces destroyed Spanish fleets. ‘The day began beautiful, with a clear horizon and a good wind’, wrote one Spaniard, but things started to change, and fast. ‘The wind rose at 9.30; at twelve it became violent; and at 4 there was a furious hurricane.’ Three days later, their masts gave way, and ‘water came in through the heads, the ports, and everywhere’. One ship, the San Ramón, was taking on fifty-eight inches of water every hour.

Most surviving accounts of the storm are terse and echo shock and disappointment, rather than detailing the actual struggle with the elements, but one letter written by an educated Spaniard, perhaps an officer and certainly a seaman, offers a glimpse of the shocking destruction that visited the fleet. He reported that, of Gálvez’s seven ships of the line, only one returned unscathed. One was never seen again and the rest were all left dismasted and adrift in the Gulf of Mexico. The fleet was scattered far and wide across the Gulf of Mexico: some survivors came ashore at their intended destination of Pensacola; others reached Mobile, New Orleans, even Campeche on the south-eastern tip of the Gulf of Mexico’s crescent; others still, including Gálvez himself, were able to make it back to Havana. In many instances the sailors had thrown overboard everything that the ocean had not already claimed, simply to stay afloat. For warships the heaviest and most dangerous items in a storm were the cannon; for the horse transports it was the poor horses; for one of the hospital ships it was her entire supply of ‘equipment and materials’. No detailed figures survive, but the British press boasted that over 2,000 Spaniards died. The hurricane was so powerful that its existence can be physically demonstrated today in tree-ring isotopes in Georgia.


This sequence of three storms endured by the Spanish in three separate operations raises the important question of weather forecasting in this period. In this campaign alone Gálvez had been frustrated at every turn, and in the war as a whole the weather repeatedly played a major role, not least in the storm that disrupted the battle between Howe and d’Estaing off Rhode Island in 1778, the storms that delayed and damaged Byron on his way to America and then the Caribbean in 1778, the storm that damaged d’Estaing’s fleet at Savannah in 1779, the storm that nearly destroyed Arbuthnot and Clinton’s expeditionary force to Charleston in 1780, and the major hurricane of October 1780 that would shortly tear apart the Royal Navy in the Caribbean.

It is important to realize that the men who navigated these ships, entirely dependent on the weather though charged with the fate of empires, actually knew very little about the science of the weather. Professional sailors had a general understanding that certain locations were dangerous at certain times of year, but apart from that their weather forecasting simply relied upon portents in the immediate environment: the behaviour of sea-birds; pods of dolphins moving in a certain direction; the appearance and behaviour of ocean swells. The science of meteorology was not unknown, but it was not yet a rigorous science, and instruments were very rare and neither standardized nor accurate. Certain crucial basics had not yet been discovered: atmospheric dynamics and the concepts of revolving storms and moving depressions were all unknown until the nineteenth century.

It is all too easy to focus on a warship’s guns and forget that these ships had no weapons at all with which to fight or outwit the weather. If caught out, all that the sailors could do was endure, though it is important to appreciate just how skilled they became at doing exactly that. A practised eighteenth-century crew could swiftly transform a ship set up to squeeze every last knot from a light breeze into one that could be punished by the elements for days at a time. Their repair skills were also exceptional. Wood or canvas could be taken from one part of a ship to be grafted onto another, like a bone transplant. Rudders could become jury-masts; capstan poles could become yards; sails could block breaches in the hull. We only have a dim sense now of just how they did what they did, however, and the question of seamanship during or after storms and battles remains one of the most interesting but least researched topics of naval history. Indeed, one of the most fascinating hidden statistics of this period is not how many ships were wrecked by storms but how many were saved by exceptional seamanship and innovation – a type of knowledge that is now largely lost to history.


Gálvez’s men endured this third storm and, eventually, returned with all but one of their ships to Havana, an impressive achievement indeed. Gálvez set about rebuilding the force. In Pensacola knowledge that this extraordinarily resilient man had his eyes set on them weighed heavily on the British, and they began to suffer from the same anxiety that had plagued the citizens and soldiers of New York in 1776, Philadelphia in 1777, and Charleston in 1780. Eyes nervously scanned the horizon for a force that they knew was coming but which they could do nothing to stop. Capture, rot and convoy duty had reduced the British ‘squadron’ at Pensacola to two armed schooners, and the same hurricane that shattered the Spanish fleet at Havana had nearly destroyed the British fleet at Jamaica. Parker was now unable to offer any help at all, even if he had been willing.

The lack of British naval presence threw the Pensacolans into ‘a state of disagreeable uncertainty’. This was no Gibraltar; they had no expectations of succour at all. With the Spanish threat so clear and so close, the military and civilians of Pensacola fell to pecking at each other, the military claiming that the civilians were ‘selfish and lazy’ while at the same time coming up with plans to hand them all over to Gálvez as soon as he arrived so that they could be kept, for their own ‘safety’, in Spanish ships. Unsurprisingly, the idea appalled the civilians, who considered it ‘unprecedented in any society’.


The lesson of 1780 was that the worst British fears had come true: they had lost control of the sea. The combined American, French and Spanish threats meant that there were insufficient British warships to protect all their possessions. This had been a problem since the start of the war, but now, with competent men at the helm of the French and Spanish navies, it had become particularly acute. It is no surprise that the allies also began to make significant convoy captures in this period. On one occasion, on 9 August, a Franco-Spanish fleet of thirty-three ships sailed from Cádiz and captured a vast British convoy of over sixty ships, taking prisoner 1,350 seamen and 1,255 troops, and seizing £1.5 million in cargo and stores. It was the worst British convoy disaster in living memory, and was felt so severely that it led to significant changes in British marine insurance. Under pressure everywhere, the British had been unable to provide this convoy, which was travelling at a predictable time of year along a predictable course, with any more than a single line-of-battle ship and two frigates as escorts. The Channel Fleet was weak with sickness and the pressure of trying to control home waters with an inadequate force nearly killed Admiral Geary, then commander-in-chief of the home fleet. He appears to have had a complete breakdown and remarkably the doctor’s report still survives. ‘The Admiral’, wrote Dr James Lind, ‘thro’ a constant fatigue and hurry of business added to an over anxiety of mind, seems to have exhausted his strength, and spirits. He is feverish, his pulse weak, has for a violent headache, pain of his Breast, and profuse sweats.’ He simply had nothing left to give, broken by the challenge of exercising British sea power.

The British maritime empire was starting to fall apart because its maritime connections could not be guaranteed. This naval weakness, experienced empire-wide, was sensed intensely in Britain, particularly in London, where the pressure of exercising inadequate sea power was crippling its already divided political hierarchy. The sudden outburst of riots in London, the worst riots of the century, is no coincidence. The very last thing that the British now needed was for Spain to open a new front in the Mediterranean; for France to reopen another front thousands of miles away in India; for several more countries, all equipped with their own navies, to flex their maritime muscles against Britain; and for the Spanish and French to ignore the festering wounds of their failed combined operations and to begin to co-operate once more.

But – quite extraordinarily – that is exactly what happened.


Early summer of 1781, while Rochambeau was marching across Connecticut to link with Washington, and while La Luzerne was persuading Congress to allow Louis XVI and Vergennes to negotiate America’s future. In June, in a harbor in Haiti, the Comte de Grasse and the Spanish nobleman Captain Francisco de Saavedra, thirty-five, sat down aboard the majestic Ville de Paris to decide where in North America de Grasse’s fleet would go.

Saavedra had credence in this meeting because he had recently been involved in successfully besieging a British stronghold in North America, Pensacola. Saavedra, a special emissary from Carlos III appointed to coordinate the activities of France and Spain in the Caribbean, had put together the forces for the Pensacola attack—the Spanish and French soldiers, the vessels, and their commander, Gálvez. Back in May, that Spanish fleet and polyglot army had started to attack that Gulf Coast city. Bernardo de Gálvez’s 1,315 troops had been ferried there on Spanish ships from Havana, some of those ships and troops having recently crossed the Atlantic to reinforce the Spanish Caribbean fleet.

The first Spanish ship to enter Pensacola Bay had run aground and the fleet commander refused to attempt the bar with any of his other vessels. Gálvez was furious, and his situation was shortly remedied by the arrival of more ships sent by grateful American residents of New Orleans, ships that were put under his sole command. With these he passed the sandbar, and then needled the Havana-based ships into following him through. During the ensuing siege he was wounded twice. Saavedra then arrived with more reinforcements, Spanish regulars accompanied by eight hundred French troops and some free blacks. By May 1781 in Pensacola Bay Gálvez commanded seven thousand men—more soldiers than Rochambeau had at Newport. On May 8, a Spanish cannonball pierced the walls of Crescent Fort and hit the powder magazine, which exploded, killing 105 men and making it possible for the Spanish to fire without opposition at the main Pensacola defensive works, Fort George. Two days later the British surrendered. It was a major victory. Together with the Spanish-led takeover of the lower Mississippi, it left control of the Mississippi Delta and the nearby Gulf of Mexico in Spanish hands. Gálvez, promoted to field marshal in charge of all Spanish military forces in the Caribbean and New Spain, elevated Saavedra to strategist of all future military activities.

Before entering the military Saavedra had been a theological student, and his intelligence had aided his rise in the Spanish government, in diplomatic and council posts, before he was sent to Havana. France had agreed that in the Caribbean, Spain’s would be the dominant force and the French would be under their command. Learning of de Grasse’s imminent arrival in Haiti a week in advance, Saavedra went there and was well acquainted locally by the time he and de Grasse met aboard the Ville de Paris on June 17.

There the leaders formulated a two-step plan. De Grasse would best the British in North America, and then in the fall return to the Caribbean to take part in a joint Franco-Spanish operation against Jamaica, the most valuable of the British possessions. In regard to the North American venture, as Saavedra put it in his diary, they “could not waste the most decisive opportunity of the whole war”—to take advantage of the British naval inferiority in the American Atlantic. The most vulnerable British point, in the view of Saavedra and de Grasse, was Virginia, because the British troops there enjoyed only sporadic naval protection from squadrons based in New York and the Caribbean. De Grasse was also not inclined to attack New York because he knew that d’Estaing had not been able to pass the bar at Sandy Hook. Letters from Rochambeau and La Luzerne championed a Chesapeake Bay focus, as did Saavedra’s positive reports of the success of the action at Pensacola against a well-defended British stronghold. De Grasse would go to Virginia.

The most important strategic decision of the war, to attack the British on the Yorktown Peninsula, was made by French and Spanish military men in a Haitian harbor.

To receive permission to depart for American waters, de Grasse had to obtain his ships’ formal release by Spain. Gálvez authorized that, but Saavedra vetoed allowing de Grasse to take Spanish ships with him, as de Grasse had requested, on the grounds that their fighting directly for America might be construed as de facto recognition of American independence, which Madrid was at pains to avoid. The Spanish fleet, by remaining in the Caribbean and protecting both French and Spanish colonies, would tie down Rodney’s squadron, as the British admiral would not risk going to the aid of his brethren in the north for fear that the Spanish would use his absence to seize more British sugar islands.

De Grasse was under instructions from Rochambeau to raise specie to pay the French troops, whose stash was running out. He was unable to coax very much from the French Caribbean colonists, even after public notices advertising a very favorable credit exchange rate. Saavedra then stepped in. Deciding that “without the money the Conde de Grasse could not do anything and the delay … would put his fleet in jeopardy,” the young captain told the admiral to start his ships toward America and that he would have conveyed to them at sea the needed money, which he would obtain from Cuba. In just six hours, by an “emergency appeal” to the populace in Havana, he collected five hundred pesetas and had them ferried to de Grasse. The admiral then took off northward with his fleet, sending ahead a letter that his destination was Chesapeake Bay.



Elizabeth I and the Spanish Armada; the Apothecaries painting, sometimes attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. A stylised depiction of key elements of the Armada story: the alarm beacons, Queen Elizabeth at Tilbury, and the sea battle at Gravelines.

Admiral Sir Francis Drake, commander of the English Armada

In our march towards Lisbon, the King and the Prince of Portugal . . . looked for the nobility and chief of the country to come . . . But none came, save only . . . poor peasants without stockings or shoes and one gentlewoman who presented the king with a basket of cherries.

William Fenner to Anthony Bacon, Plymouth, 1589.

After the Armada’s humiliating retreat, Queen Elizabeth was haunted by two worrying and pressing issues. Firstly, the Spanish fleet was far from vanquished. Her spies suggested it could return to threaten England’s shores once again, with Parma’s undefeated veterans in Flanders still available as a formidable invading army. Next time, assuming the Spanish high command could learn from their disastrous mistakes, the land and naval forces might link up successfully. Secondly, Elizabeth’s exchequer was uncommonly and uncomfortably bare. Her continuing paucity of cash threatened to jeopardise not only the defence of her realm but also her continued payments to the Dutch for the war against the Spanish in the Netherlands and to Spain’s enemies in France. Lord Treasurer Burghley had been driven to distraction to find the money to confront the Armada and was forced to borrow at exorbitant, if not punitive, interest rates, including arranging a £30,000 loan from the City of London in July 1588. There was a real danger that the sweet savour of victory could soon be transformed into the sour taste of defeat in all the queen had striven for at home and overseas.

The queen’s regular annual income amounted to £250,000 and Parliamentary subsidies had brought in £215,000 in 1585–8. Additional contingency funding totalling £245,000 had been drawn from the exchequer’s £300,000 reserves – her ‘chested treasure’ – accumulated through Burghley’s far-sighted management of her budget over the previous decade. This money had disappeared at an alarming rate. Elizabeth’s financial support to the Dutch rebels had totalled more than £400,000 over the last three years, despite cynical attempts to economise by only part-paying her seven thousand troops based in the Low Countries. After deducting the £167,000 cost of defence against the Spanish threat, by early October 1588 there was just £55,000 left in the exchequer. Even at peacetime rates of spending, this would barely last eight months.

It would take time to collect any new income voted to her by Parliament and her ministers were increasingly worried by mounting popular resistance to new taxation. Burghley had warned Walsingham in July of ‘a general murmur of the people and malcontented people will increase . . . the comfort of the enemy’. Notwithstanding these fears, the counties were instructed to impose an enforced loan on the gentry totalling about £50,000 in December, and in February 1589 the merchant adventurer William Milward was sent to Germany to arrange a huge credit of £100,000. He was ordered to disguise the identity of the debtor (lest the lenders be tempted to demand exorbitant interest rates) and, under no circumstances, to agree to anything higher than 10 per cent. But his mission proved fruitless: no one would advance him a penny, not even the Fuggers, who had lent money so willingly to the queen’s father, Henry VIII, almost five decades before. Elizabeth was therefore forced to adopt what she called the ‘vicious policy’ of selling off her properties – an anathema to a Tudor monarch, forever rapacious for wealth and always conscious of status.

Throughout those worrying days, Burghley may have reminded her how Henry had bankrupted England by his runaway expenditure on wars with France and Scotland in the 1540s, leaving himself with no option but to debase the coinage, generating rampant inflation and wreaking havoc with the economy of the realm for more than a decade afterwards. That fiscal policy could not be repeated.

Given all these bleak financial realities, it is unsurprising that Elizabeth was enthused by a new strategy that could resolve both her monetary and defence quandaries at a stroke. Sir John Hawkins and Walsingham had long been its advocates, and even the cautious Burghley was now an eager supporter. It was simple, relatively safe and, with its successful conclusion, the queen could enjoy the satisfaction of revenge on Philip of Spain.

By attacking Philip’s annual convoy carrying silver bullion from the New World colonies to Cadiz, Elizabeth stood to reap several million pounds’ worth of plundered ingots, which would fall like ripe plums into her welcoming and thankful exchequer. Moreover, this sequestering of the king’s revenues would leave him unable to meet the cost of a new Armada, fund his armies in Flanders and subsidise the Catholic League in France. Who knows? The threat, real or implied, of repeated interdiction of his treasure fleets, or the loss of even part of one shipment, might coerce Philip to sue for peace so that Elizabeth’s cripplingly expensive war could at last be ended.

There was just one snag, as there always is with any simple plan offering alluring benefits.

The queen’s ships, after being at sea on active service for up to eight months, required refurbishment, a process that would take many weeks to complete. When the time required to sail to the Azores to intercept the treasure fleet was factored into the operational planning, it became obvious the English vessels would arrive on station too late to seize the ponderous Spanish ships. Quite literally, Elizabeth had missed the boat. And her financial and defence imperatives dictated that she did not have the luxury of waiting until the 1589 bullion convoy crossed the Atlantic from Havana in Cuba.

All was not lost, though. On 19 September, Sir John Norris proposed a modified plan with three objectives. First, English ships should attack any Armada vessels under repair in the northern Spanish ports. Second, an English army, supported by the queen’s ships, should capture Lisbon and set Dom Antonio, the Portuguese pretender, on the throne. Third, the fleet and its troops should sail on to the Azores and capture the islands, which would allow plenty of time before the Spanish treasure fleet was due to arrive there.

Sir Francis Drake was a fervent supporter of Norris’s strategy and both men – these ‘warriors of the Lord’ – were comforted by the corporate opinion of a group of London Puritan ministers, who after protracted and tedious disputation, decided that there was no incongruity in restoring a Catholic pretender to the Portuguese throne if it would grievously damage God’s greater enemy, Philip II of Spain.

Elizabeth, in her fiscally embarrassed state, could not fund the expedition and was anyway distracted by the expense of having to hastily organise the defences of Ireland to round up the Spanish shipwreck survivors. So it was decided to follow the example of Drake’s financially successful raid on Cadiz and make it a private enterprise operation, with the queen providing only £20,000 towards the costs. Backers in the City of London and other ‘adventurers’ would provide funding of £43,000 and pay the operating costs of six ‘second-class’ queen’s ships (Revenge, Nonpareil, Dreadnought, Swiftsure, Foresight, Aid) and two pinnaces (Advice and Merlin), as well as providing armed merchantmen. Her commissioners would raise eight thousand troops and one thousand pioneers for the army. Half the soldiers would be volunteers and the rest would be armed only with swords and daggers to save money. Elizabeth would supply two captured Spanish prizes, ten siege cannon and six field guns, together with twenty lasts of gunpowder and tools for the pioneers. The Dutch rebels would be asked to contribute four thousand harquebusiers and to provide the weapons for the troops: a thousand halberds, three thousand muskets, four thousand calivers, two thousand breastplates, six siege guns and forty lasts of powder. Food and other provisions, enough for four months, would also be supplied from Holland. The Dutch contribution would amount to £10,000 in kind. It looked, initially at least, a cut-price invasion.

The queen did not demur even when Norris asked for £5,000 in advance, promising that they would not ask for the remainder until the full £43,000 of private cash was raised. On 11 October at Westminster, she issued a commission to Drake and Norris, granting them authority for the ‘whole charge and direction’ of the enterprise; allowing them to choose their officers and levy troops ‘to invade and destroy the powers and forces of all such persons as have this last year, with their hostile powers and armadas, sought and attempted the invasion of the realm of England’. They also obtained royal permission for any person to volunteer for the expedition.

It had taken just over three weeks for the plan to be formulated, discussed and approved – an astonishing achievement, given Elizabeth’s habitual procrastination and havering. Was she being uncharacteristically bold – or was she desperate to find some solution to her worries?

In Paris, Mendoza was quick to pick up rumours of the expedition. One of his spies in London, Manuel de Andrada, codenamed ‘David’, was a handily placed member of Dom Antonio’s household. His reports led the ambassador to believe there were plans ‘of sending forty or fifty sail’ to assist the pretender, ‘but no preparations to that effect are visible’. Two weeks later, Mendoza was convinced that the pretender would sail for Portugal, but considered this merely a diversionary tactic, as the real target was the Azores: ‘Fifty ships [are] being fitted out [and] are now being hurried forward furiously. A great number of bullocks have been slaughtered to provision them. Most of them are being fitted out by private persons in the hope of gain, as they see that the many ships that go out to pillage come back laden with booty.’ In early November, he reported Elizabeth’s tart riposte when she heard that the Spanish king was repairing and reinforcing his fleet: ‘I will give Philip plenty to do before he can repair damages or turn round [the ships].’

Parma had begun to besiege Bergen-op-Zoom on 12 September and on 20 October. Norris, who had taken across an extra 1,500 English troops to help relieve the town, laid the plans before the rebel Dutch Council of States. Two months later, they agreed to most of the English requests for the expedition. They would provide ten warships for five months, plus 1,500 infantry, and Norris would be allowed to purchase weapons, armour, ammunition and provisions free of any tax or customs duty.

The paramount need for the expedition was underlined by intelligence that around forty Armada ships remained at Santander and another twelve at San Sebastián. There were few sailors to man these warships and repairs were proceeding slowly because of a shortage of dockyard workers. The soldiers were in winter quarters 20 miles (32.19 km) inland. Walsingham warned Stafford in Paris that Elizabeth was determined ‘to use advantage of the late victory . . . by keeping the King of Spain unable to redress and set up [again] the like forces to the disquiet of his neighbours’. Therefore Stafford should urge Henri III to ban all exports of cereals and naval stores from France. The German Hansa merchants were also warned that their ships would be stopped on the high seas and if their cargoes were found to be provisions or munitions destined for Spain, these would be seized.

In February 1589, the queen issued orders to Drake and Norris, emphasising that their mission had two overriding objectives: ‘the one to distress the King of Spain’s ships, the other to win possession of the islands of Azores thereby to intercept the convoys of treasure that yearly pass that way to and from the West and East Indies’. Only after the destruction of the surviving Armada ships could they move on to restore Dom Antonio to the Portuguese throne. But this phase carried the stern proviso that ‘nothing can be attempted without very great hazard’ should local Spanish forces prove too strong. If popular support for the pretender was overwhelming, the English army should stay long enough merely to ensure that Dom Antonio’s frontiers with Spain were protected and the English army’s costs of the operation repaid by the new king. Her orders could not have been clearer or more insistent.

Elizabeth demanded that Drake and Norris swore solemn oaths, promising to obey these operational priorities. If they failed to fulfil their vows, they fully acknowledged they would be ‘reputed as traitors’. The queen must have suffered nagging doubts that Drake would resort to his old tricks and become distracted by the prospects of lucrative plunder. She decided to send a ‘trusty servant of her own’, Anthony Ashley, one of the clerks of the Privy Council, to be her ‘eyes and ears’ on the expedition. He was granted authority ‘for the observation of their actions and for writing of their common letters . . . and to assist them with good counsel and advice’. He was also told to ‘keep a true journal in writing of all public actions and proceedings’.

Many of the discharged soldiers were swept up in this new call to arms against Spain. Other recruits were found among the much-despised vagabonds, ‘the scum and dregs’ of English society, and the Privy Council noted with alarm the ‘ragged condition and debauched condition’ of many volunteers. The Spanish spy codenamed ‘David’ reported they were recruited ‘under the impression that they have only to land and load themselves with gold and silver . . . They also say that they have been promised by Dom Antonio the sack of all towns which do not submit to him and that when they enter Castile they shall sack every place and carry war with blood and fire through the country.’

War is not always such fun. Some recruits were seriously wounded during training when they fired gunpowder contaminated by ‘small hailshot’ either put in the mix by ‘the lewdness of those who sold the same [to make it heavier] or by other negligence’. In Southampton, justices and ‘other gentlemen dwelling near the sea coast’ were instructed to issue proclamations to enrol all ‘mariners and fishermen to the end there may be a good choice had of apt and sufficient men for her majesty’s service’.

Periods of national crisis often throw up the more eccentric among us. John Trew wrote to the queen in December offering his services for ‘her preservation and salvation . . . Though an old man, I desire to be employed in the wars.’ Like those unfortunates who, in later centuries, scurry between newspaper offices carrying tattered brown paper packages containing incontrovertible evidence of a world secretly governed by aliens, Trew’s fixation soon became apparent in his letter: ‘I have an invention which would do as much service as five thousand men in times of extremity and also an engine which can be driven before men to defend them from the shot of the enemy,’ he boasted. Like others of his ilk, his offer was politely declined and we shall never know whether John Trew was the earliest inventor of the main battle tank.

Predictably the expedition’s plans soon went awry and the costs began to climb, rendering the original budget set by the commanders hopelessly inadequate. Promises were not kept. There was no siege train of artillery. No Dutch warships ever hove into sight. Around half of the military stores which Norris bought in the Netherlands never arrived. No cavalry came from the Low Countries and only twelve experienced infantry companies were sent over from Flanders – 1,800 trained men rather than the 3,500 expected. The Minion of Fowey, laden with biscuit, beef and beer, sank within Dover harbour during a storm, but was later raised. There were too few ships to transport what had become a 19,000-strong army gathering there in March 1589.

Then, over the horizon, sailed a rare piece of good fortune. Sixty Dutch flyboats displacing 150–200 tons each, passed through the Straits in ballast, en route for France to collect cargoes of sea salt. Drake immediately commandeered every one, citing the passports from Parma found in some of the vessels as justification for this act of war.

The fleet sailed on to Plymouth but were delayed there by ‘unusually stormy’ weather, with the ‘wind continuing contrary’. Finding provisions for the fleet proved increasingly problematic. William Hawkins, mayor of Plymouth, could not purchase more than twelve tons of oil ‘and by reason it is now seed time, we cannot both in peas and beans furnish above four hundred quarters’ [5,080.24 kg]. No more than two thousand new landed fish could be bought from the fishermen, but beef supplies were abundant and there was plenty of butter and cheese ‘which the country yielded readily’.

The expedition was turning into a financial disaster before it had even sailed. Stuck in harbour for longer than planned, they had no option but to raid the provisions earmarked for the voyage to feed the army as well as the four thousand sailors in the fleet. Drake and Norris had already spent in excess of £96,000 – 18 per cent more than their latest budget for the entire expedition. After the fleet was forced back to Plymouth by adverse winds on 17 April, Norris told Burghley the next day:

We are utterly unable to supply ourselves and, the voyage breaking, we cannot think what to do with the army.

Upon failing of the voyage, every man will call for pay from her majesty, being levied by her highness’s commission.

And if they have it not, the country will be utterly spoiled, robberies and outrages committed in every place, the arms and furnitures lost, beside the dishonour of the matter.

Burghley saw through this piece of thinly disguised blackmail, but the project had progressed too far to pull back now. The Council authorised the mayor of Plymouth to victual the fleet for one month more. The sum of £10,000 was to be sent down in carts from London and a further £4,000 supplied by Cornwall and Somerset tax collectors. In the event, there were economies imposed by sleight of hand: fish and peas were substituted for beef, and there were no supplies of beer, saving nearly £7,000 in the cost of provisions. Moreover, the final cost to the exchequer of this latest contribution was £11,000 rather than the £14,000 promised, as not all the money left London.


The English Armada

The Greatest Naval Disaster in English History

“At last the real history of the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604. It turns out that the famous Armada of 1588 was more propaganda achievement than decisive English victory. Gorrochategui’s marvellous account of their counter-armada the following year to destroy the Spanish threat and liberate Portugal reveals an equal if not bigger disaster. It provides an important rebalancing of what proved a long war of attrition.” –  Hiram Morgan, Senior Lecturer, University College Cork, Ireland

“A profound and detailed study of enormous merit and scope about an historic event that has given rise to much controversy. As the author states in his illuminating epilogue, the success of the English expedition would have made it possible for the English and the Dutch to gain access to the Spanish crown’s territories in the Americas, but its failure enabled Spain to retain them. That is why it was an event of such importance. This engaging and easy-to-read work describes very compellingly a decisive episode of the period.” –  José Cervera Pery, Honorary Member of the Royal Academy of History, Spain

“Essential reading for those who love history or who are professionally engaged in it. Using primary sources Gorrochategui Santos constructs and describes the operations, the rifts and the battles with accuracy in a format which is engaging and coherent. It will certainly make some people feel embarrassed as it returns to historical memory events that should not be concealed.” –  Antonio Luis Gómez Beltrán, author of La Invencible y su leyenda negra (2013)


Elizabeth’s new court favourite was the red-haired Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex, Leicester’s twenty-two-year-old stepson. This tall, handsome, vain and quarrelsome young man had first come to court four years earlier, burdened with the huge debts inherited from his imprudent father’s abortive attempts to subdue the Irish province of Ulster. The son’s wilful and extravagant lifestyle soon augmented his army of creditors. Faced with massive debts amounting to £23,000 (£70,000,000 at 2013 spending power), Essex became disenchanted with the fripperies of court life and decided to seek military glory (and profitable plunder) from the expedition to Spain and Portugal, both to brighten his aimless life and appease his twitchy creditors. Without the queen’s permission, he recklessly left St James’ Palace late on the afternoon of 13 April and headed off to the West Country.

He wrote to the Privy Council from Plymouth, itching to fight but seeking pardon ‘of her majesty’. He appealed to ‘your lordships to mediate . . . for me, [as] I was carried with this zeal so fast that I forgot those reverend forms which I should have used. Yet I had rather have had my heart cut out of my body than this zeal out of my heart.’ In another letter, he was frank about his need to earn some cash:

My debts [are] at the least two or three and twenty thousand pounds. Her majesty’s goodness has been so great as I could not ask more of her. [There is] no way left to repair myself but my own adventure which I had much rather undertake than offend her majesty with suits [requests for money] as I have done heretofore. If I speed well, I will adventure to be rich. If not, I will not see the end of my poverty.

Elizabeth was incensed at his unauthorised absence and concerned that his life would be endangered by this foreign military adventure. The next day she sent off his uncle, Sir Francis Knollys, to find Essex and bring him back to court like a naughty schoolboy truant.

It was too late. Essex sneaked on board Henry Noel’s Swiftsure and hid there until that evening, when she departed Plymouth. A panting and dishevelled Knollys was given use of a pinnace by Drake and Norris to pursue the errant favourite, but the vessel could not clear nearby Rame Head before the wind veered southerly and he was forced back into harbour.

The actions triggered by the queen’s infatuation with the unruly earl were fast assuming the comedy, chaos and confusion of a Keystone Cops’ chase. The Earl of Huntingdon was dispatched to Plymouth hard on Knollys’s heels with fresh commands from Elizabeth, so the expedition commanders sent Knollys off again in another pinnace. Unknown to all, the change in wind direction had forced Swiftsure back into port – at Falmouth, 60 miles (96.56 km) west of Plymouth – and there Essex remained for more than ten days, spending his time carousing with army officers, particularly ‘my faithful friend’ Sir Roger Williams, colonel general of the infantry. Drake told Burghley: ‘The matter of the Earl of Essex has been a great trouble to us but we have as yet been unable to discover him.’ Despite his blandishment, there seems little doubt that Drake colluded in his escapade.

The expedition finally sailed on 28 April 1589. It numbered around one hundred ships, formed into five squadrons, including eleven hired armed merchantmen, some of them veterans of the Armada campaign – Merchant Royal, Edward Bonaventure, Toby, Centurion, Golden Noble, Tiger and Vineyard. Essex was in Swiftsure when she departed Falmouth the same day.

Instead of making for Santander and the damaged Armada ships, Drake steered for Corunna, blaming contrary winds. Besides, in a strange echo of those phantom Hansa ships that unwittingly led him to the plunder of the Rosario, he and Norris claimed to have received reports of two hundred ships ‘of diverse nations at The Groyne [Corunna] and other ports of Galicia and Portugal with a store of munition, masts, cables and other provisions for the enemy’. As the queen rightly feared, the lure of plunder aplenty had distracted Drake from his agreed tactical objectives before a shot had even been fired.

The English fleet anchored a mile (1.61 km) off Corunna at three o’clock on the afternoon of 4 May. Their arrival took the Spanish completely by surprise. The new Venetian ambassador to Madrid, Tomaso Contarini, reported:

The [marqués of Seralva] governor of Galicia was attending to private matters. The courts were sitting. The soldiers had left their quarters and their arms and were scattered all over the country.

Everyone was so far from expecting an attack that they had no time to turn the useless out of the town or put their dearest possessions in safety.

[The governor’s] wife and daughter fled in their terror six miles [9.66 km] on foot.

The marqués did all that he was able and the troops performed their duty but the forces of the enemy, their sudden arrival, the weakness of the fortress and the want of proper munitions, place the city in danger of falling.

There was no sign of Drake’s two hundred ships. The only vessels within the quiet harbour were the battered San Juan, a 600-ton Flemish hulk, another ship loaded with pikes and firearms, and two oared galleys.

Despite the wet and stormy weather, seven thousand soldiers were landed within three hours on the narrow isthmus that connects Corunna to the mainland and their fire drove back the few enemy forces to shelter behind the walls of the lower or ‘base town’. Norris landed two demi-culverins on 5 May and opened fire on the two galleys (which promptly rowed off to the safety of Ferrol) and the San Juan, silencing her few remaining operational guns.

Another two thousand English soldiers landed before dawn on 6 May and attacked the lower suburbs of Corunna, swiftly winning control of the streets. The San Juan was set ablaze by the defenders and the two hulks abandoned to the English who set about looting the town. Many soldiers were soon lying insensible from drinking the copious supplies of wine they had ‘liberated’. The alcohol certainly did not help, but epidemics further decimated the troops, possibly caused by typhus picked up from ‘the old clothes and baggage of those which returned with the Duke of Medina Sidonia’, as Sir Roger Williams suggested. During the subsequent interrogation of prisoners, Norris and Drake heard there was a ‘good store of munitions and victuals’ within the upper part of Corunna. Rather than consuming their own stores, they decided on its capture. After a four-day siege of the upper city, they reported:

With great difficulty a little breach was made [in the walls] and at another, a mine which threw [down] a round tower near adjoining.

An assault was attempted but the gentlemen and leaders, very suddenly and valiantly mounting on top of the breach, some walls . . . overthrew those that went upon it and [the] fall buried such as were at the foot of it.

[This] unfortunate and unlooked for accident was the cause the town has not been entered and taken.

Conveniently forgetting the target of Santander, they determined to sail onwards to Lisbon, but this decision may have been influenced by their inability to stop the galleys re-supplying the garrison and the news that twelve more were on their way with substantial enemy reinforcements.

Although they failed to capture the citadel of Corunna, English raiding parties had been able to roam with impunity in the surrounding countryside, happily pillaging and looting. ‘Black Jack’ Norris defeated a hastily gathered 8,500-strong Spanish force of raw levies at Puente de Burgos, killing up to 1,500 of them before they fled. Returning in triumph with a captured Spanish royal standard as a trophy, he urged Burghley to persuade Elizabeth to send out more artillery, powder and munitions and thirty companies of trained soldiers from the Low Countries, ‘which would serve to continue this war here all this year which was a more safe and profitable course than to attend an enemy at home’.

Drake may have committed a cardinal tactical error in quitting Corunna so soon. The Spanish feared that, if he held the port, he could be reinforced and provisioned from England, enabling much more damaging punitive operations both inland and along the coast. The Venetian envoy observed:

The naval forces of Spain are not such as to allow them to face the enemy on the open sea.

Owing to the want of ships and men, they are extremely weak . . . From want of soldiers they have adopted a plan which may prove more hurtful than helpful. They have enrolled Portuguese and have so armed the very people whom they have cause to fear.

In London, the queen was greatly angered by the disobedience of the expedition commanders. After receiving news of the inconclusive action at Corunna – ‘a place of no importance and very hazardous in the attempt’ – she insisted they ‘had not performed that which they promised . . . They had two places where they should have done greater service in taking and burning the ships.’ When Thomas Windebank, one of the clerks of the signet, suggested that Drake and Norris would never do anything but ‘the best service for her majesty and her realm’, Elizabeth observed acerbically that ‘they went to places more for profit than for service’. She ordered them to attack the Armada shipping at Santander, which should be accomplished ‘before your return . . . you have [not] given us cause to be satisfied with you’.

It would be many days before Drake and Norris could taste the queen’s indignation, so the fleet sailed on for Lisbon, apparently in the mistaken, if not disingenuous, belief that the ‘better part of the king’s fleet’ was within that city’s harbour. The fleet, now joined by Essex in Swiftsure, landed a vanguard of two thousand troops at Peniche, 45 miles (74.4 km) north of Lisbon, on 26 May, beneath the walls of the castle.35 True to form, the earl was the first ashore, splashing through the surf, before he killed a Spaniard in hand-to-hand fighting – one of a force of five thousand stationed to oppose the landing on the cliffs above. An English soldier, Ralph Lane, described the skirmish that followed on a sandy plateau overlooking the beach:

The Earl of Essex and the colonel general [Sir Roger Williams] took their first landing . . . and made fight with the enemy almost two hours before the general could make land by reason of the huge billows and most dangerous rocks that split diverse of our boats and [cast] many of our men away in landing.

Very brave charges the enemy made and made two retreats and in the third were clean repulsed and quitted the field . . .

The earl lost a brave captain, a man of his own, Captain Pew, was slain by a push of the pike and some others of meaner account.

But the Spaniard did abide it even to the very pike.

Two days later Norris, with Essex in tow, marched off towards Lisbon at the head of six thousand men (the force heavily depleted by disease), arriving in the city’s western suburbs on 2 June. The siege was ineffectual. Norris had no artillery, little gunpowder and only small quantities of match, used for firing the infantry’s shoulder arms. Dom Antonio’s promises of a popular uprising in his support came to nothing. After desultory skirmishing and more casualties, the English broke away on 4 June, but only after Essex vented his frustration by sticking his pike into the city’s wooden gates and challenging all comers to personal combat to defend the honour of Elizabeth’s name. None of the defenders, observing this martial tantrum from the city walls above, decided to take up his kind offer.

Dom Antonio was scathing about the attempted invasion:

We disembarked at Peniche where the strong wines of the country increased the sickness of the men. When we arrived before Lisbon, there were not enough fit men to attack a boat and our host [army] was far more fit to die than to fight.

But he had nothing but praise for Drake and Norris or the fighting qualities of the English soldier – when he was not drunk or sick: ‘This I can assure you, that four thousand Englishmen are equal to eight thousand Spaniards and whenever I can embark with them I shall gladly do so, especially if Sir John Norris and Sir Francis Drake be amongst them for, by my faith, they are gallant gentlemen.’

Meanwhile, instead of supporting the English army by sailing up the River Tagus, Drake was amusing himself capturing sixty Hansa merchantmen which were heading into Lisbon with supplies for Spain.

Norris was forced to retreat along the estuary to Cascaes, troubled by intermittent cannon fire from Spanish galleys that ‘struck off a gentleman’s leg and killed the sergeant-major’s mule’ from under him as they passed the town of St Julian. In spite of the reverse at Lisbon, Sir Roger Williams still believed that Spain and Portugal were soft targets, bragging to Walsingham that with ‘12,000 footmen and 1,000 lancers, her majesty might march’ through the two countries ‘and dictate terms of peace’. He added contemptuously: ‘The Portuguese are the greatest cowards ever seen.’

A friar then reported that the enemy had followed them as far as St Julian and were boasting they had driven the English from the gates of Lisbon. Affronted by this slight on his honour, Norris immediately formally offered battle, under flag of truce and trumpet. Essex, not to be outdone in the chivalry stakes, offered to fight the best man the Spanish could offer, or, he could test their mettle, six against six, or ten to ten, or any other number they cared to name. The earl declared that he would be in the front rank of the English vanguard and could be easily identified, wearing a large plume of feathers in his morion and a red scarf on his left arm.

The next morning, there was only a deserted camp: the Spanish had gone.

It was the end of any military adventure for Essex. A few days later, a letter arrived from Elizabeth which left Drake and Norris in no doubt about what would happen if the earl was not returned to the safety of England immediately:

If Essex be now come into [your company], you will cause him to be safely sent hither forthwith. If you do not, you shall look to answer for the same to your smart, for these be no childish actions, nor matters wherein you are to deal by cunning devices to seek evasions as the custom of lawyers is. Therefore, consider well your doings.

Ashley, in his report home, adroitly observed that the landing at Corunna was ‘judged to have been the special hindrance of good success here, the enemy upon knowledge thereof having in the meanwhile assembled great strength for the city and defeated Dom Antonio by all possible means of any favour or aid in these parts’.

The English troops re-embarked and the fleet sailed out, intending at least to fulfil the expedition’s final objective: the occupation of the Azores. This now looked impossible, given the poor condition of the troops and their reduced numbers. Perhaps Drake hoped to snatch glory out of ignominy by repeating the success of his Cadiz raid and capture a face-saving Spanish ship or two. But after burning the city of Vigo on 29 June, his plans were stymied by a fierce storm. Revenge sprang a serious leak so he was forced to sail home, arriving on 10 July with ‘twenty or thirty ships’.

The expedition was a disaster. By 1 September, one hundred and two ships had returned, but of the 23,000 who had sailed with the fleet, only 3,722 were fit and well. The rest had been cut down by disease, and between 8,000 and 11,000 had died. In one ship, only 114 were left out of a crew of 300, and just eight were in a fit state to work the ship as she approached Plymouth.

After spending at least £100,000, none of the three objectives of the expedition was achieved. Parallels with the Armada’s fate were both ironic and mortifying. Beyond private loot, the plunder was limited to one hundred and fifty brass cannon captured at Corunna and £30,000 prize money for the cargoes in the Hansa ships captured by Drake. The German vessels had to be returned to their owners.

The Spanish spy codenamed ‘David’ reported that ‘Dom Antonio and his people arrived in Plymouth in a wretched state’ and that the Portuguese were now more unpopular in England than the Spaniards. ‘The English hold Dom Antonio in no respect whatever and the only name they can find for him and his people is “dog”. They openly insult [him] to his face without being punished.’

On 4 or 5 July, Essex arrived at Plymouth with seven ships and cravenly sent his brother Walter ahead to the queen to abjectly seek her pardon for his absconding.

Once again, an English army was discharged, largely without pay.

At the end of the month, ‘certain mariners and other lewd fellows’ gathered ‘in mutinous sort’ outside the Royal Exchange in the City of London, trying to sell illegally their weapons and armour. The lord mayor was ordered to apprehend them and ‘lay by the heels’ any that ‘persisted in any such tumultuous sort’. In this he failed signally, and ‘all the mariners and soldiers remained about the city in contemptuous behaviour’. On 16 August the Privy Council wrote to Lord Cobham about the ‘great disorders’ committed by soldiers from Sir Edward Norris’s and Anthony Wingfield’s companies in Maidstone, Kent, demanding that the miscreants be captured and gaoled. Night watches were set up to prevent soldiers from gathering because ‘some of late have offered violence to persons they met on the highway and have taken money by force’. In the end, these hard-done-by heroes were treated like vagrants and posted back to their home counties.

It was not only ordinary soldiers who suffered. In October, twenty-five army captains ‘having acquainted the [Privy Council] with their great charges in raising their companies and maintaining their offices before the voyage and since coming home, without any consideration [recompense], pray their lordships they may be employed in her majesty’s service’.

Elizabeth was also fearful about the diseases the unemployed rude soldiery might be spreading on their return to England. A proclamation of 22 July banned anyone who had served with the fleet to come ‘within the Court’s gates’ on pain of arrest by the queen’s knight marshal and committal to the Marshalsea prison without bail.

The private backers were also out of pocket. Thomas Cordell, one of the London merchants who invested in the enterprise, found, like his colleagues, ‘upon the sudden return of the generals and the army’ with a surfeit of provisions on their hands ‘to their great loss’. A sympathetic Privy Council wrote to Burghley seeking a licence for him and his partners to export 1,200 quarters (15,240.71 kg) of corn and 50 fothers of lead to Greece without customs charges as a reward for the ‘good disposition and forwardness they did show in making them provision at their own charges which, if the voyage had gone forward, might have served to good purpose’.

Despite the queen’s public admiration for Drake’s and Norris’s ‘valour and good conduct’, once the scale of the losses in men and money became apparent, the two men faced a court of inquiry into the expedition in October 1589. The queen declared that if Drake had ‘gone to Santander as he went to The Groyne, he [would have] done such service as never subject had done’.

With twelve sail of his ships he might have destroyed all the forces which the Spaniards had there, which was the whole strength of the country by sea.

There they did ride all unrigged and their ordnance on the shore and some twenty men only in a ship to keep them.

It was far overseen that he had not gone thither first.

Both commanders fell from Elizabeth’s good grace. Norris was not granted another military command for two years, while Drake remained out of favour until 1595. Greed had undone him. England’s naval talisman had lost some of his magic.

Philip pressed ahead with rebuilding his Armada, with twelve million in gold to spend. The Spanish boasted that, a year hence, they would have a ‘fleet and an army to sack England and take a just and accumulated vengeance on their enemies’.


British Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon.

Unknown oil on canvas of Blas de Lezo.

Date March 14-May 20,1741

Forces British: 29 ships of the line, c. 150 other vessels; Spanish: 6 ships of the line

Losses British: 50 ships of all kinds; Spanish: 6 ships of the line

Location Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

When war broke out in October 1739, it was conceived by Britain as a formal naval war. The British navy was to use its numbers and capability to achieve decisive results at critical points within Spain’s vulnerable and vital maritime empire. British squadrons were well placed to begin the campaign. The small squadron at Jamaica had already been ordered to undertake reprisals. The Mediterranean squadron was reinforced and ordered to prevent the Cartagena and Cadiz squadrons from uniting with the squadron at Ferrol. Vice Admiral Edward Vernon had been sent to the West Indies to do what damage he could to the Spaniards. Rear Admiral Chaloner Ogle had a small force off St Vincent to intercept Spanish shipping. An expedition to disrupt Spanish commerce in the Pacific was prepared under Commodore George Anson, and in December 1739 it was agreed to send a large expedition of 12,000 soldiers to the Caribbean to achieve the decisive conquests that would force Spain to make peace.

The results were profoundly disappointing. The Cadiz and Ferrol squadrons evaded the British squadrons and sailed for the West Indies. The French Brest squadron of 18 line under the Marquis d’Antin and the Toulon squadron of 12 line under the Comte de La Roche-Alard also got out and sailed to the West Indies. The uncertainty about the intentions of these neutral French forces and their eventual escape increased the demands on the expeditionary force intended for the West Indies and imposed delay upon it. An escort of 25 line was required to take the expeditionary army to join Vernon’s six warships, but by the time the expedition arrived at Jamaica, d’Antin had decided to return to Brest. Despite what appeared to be overwhelming superiority, the attempts upon Cartagena de las Indias, Guantanamo Bay on Cuba and Panama were all failures. Only the little island of Roatan in the Bay of Honduras was seized and held before the remnants of the expeditionary force sailed for home in October 1742.

The success at Porto Bello in 1739 inspired the British to prey further upon Spain’s colonial possessions. A massive force, requiring a quarter of the entire strength of the Royal Navy, was sent to the Caribbean the following year. The death of the expedition’s overall commander, Lord Cathcart, en route left the naval force under Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, victor of Porto Bello, and the troops under Major-General Thomas Wentworth, with no one to arbitrate if they disagreed.

Britain’s target was Cartagena de Indias, the major port in Spanish-ruled New Grenada. Leading its defense was Admiral Bas de Lezo, one of Spain’s most gallant naval commanders, who had lost a leg, an arm, and an eye in a distinguished fighting career. He had only six ships of the line to face the British armada, but had no intention of giving in. The British arrived off the city in mid-March and settled down to a bombardment of its walls. The entrance to the harbor was defended by shore batteries and the guns of de Lezo’s six ships anchored inside. On April 15, the British attempted a sea and land assault on these defenses.

After a sharp fight de Lezo scuttled his ships to keep them out of British hands and fell back on the port’s inner fort. As time passed and tempers frayed, cooperation between Vernon and Wentworth broke down. Land assaults proved to be costly failures, while Vernon’s ships bombarding the walls came under damaging fire from shore guns.

Caribbean epidemic diseases raged, decimating naval crews and troops. After 67 fruitless days the British sailed away on May 20, burning some of their ships because they had no crews left to man them. De Lezo did not enjoy his triumph for long, dying of a wound sustained in the siege. The British government was embarrassed by this ignominious defeat because the operation had been prematurely hailed as a triumph and victory medals struck.

The Adoption of Crusade Ideology in Mesoamerica

Many motives drove Christopher Columbus to sail west toward the Indies, but one purpose that drove the westward voyage of this complex and often inconsistent man was the dream of converting the Great Khan of Cathay and joining with him in a final, great, and successful crusade against Islam, which in turn would usher in even greater events. In his so-called Book of Prophecies, a compilation of texts prepared essentially between 1501 and 1505 for the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Fernando and Isabel, the master mariner placed the discovery of the Indies into the grand divine plan for the forthcoming salvation of all humanity, the Final Judgment, and the End of Time. He argued that his voyage to the west had been the first step in the process of liberating Jerusalem, itself a necessary step in the unfolding of God’s plan of universal salvation. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not he actually believed these messianic prophecies (and it seems clear that he did), it is clear that Columbus was appealing to a widespread belief that the road to Jerusalem lay through the Indies. After all, he was appealing to two crusaders, the Catholic Monarchs Isabel and Fernando, who had conquered Granada on January 2, 1492, and who saw victory over the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula as another stepping stone in their God-sanctioned struggle against Islam, a struggle that was foreordained to result in triumph.

Even after it became clear that Columbus had not sailed to the Indies, at least some European churchmen continued to harbor the hope that the lands and peoples of the Americas would be the means for the liberation of Jerusalem and the destruction of Islam, and they apparently imparted that dream to at least some of their Indian converts. Festivals celebrating the victory of Christians over Moors became an integral part of Catholic religious culture throughout Latin America wherever Spanish and Portuguese missionaries brought the faith after 1492. Among these were the Tlaxcalans, whose religious pageants offer an important example of how thoroughly Catholic Christianity was assimilated in the New World.

The Tlaxcalans, themselves Nahuatl but nevertheless traditional enemies of the Mexica and their Aztec empire, had been defeated by Hernan Cortés in September 1519, and following that defeat they allied with the Spaniards in their march against the Aztec empire. Thousands of Tlaxcalans participated in the fighting and proved to be a decisive factor in the Spanish victory. A number of Cortés’s lieutenants married Tlaxcalan women of high birth, and despite initial reluctance to give up their ancestral deities, the Tlaxcalan chiefs were baptized as Christians sometime after July 1, 1520.

Mock battle pageants between “Christians and Moors” had been a popular expression of Reconquest realities and ideology in the Iberian Peninsula since at least the late thirteenth century. Now they were translated to the New World and its Christian converts.

We are fortunate to have a description of a Corpus Christi pageant performed by the Christian Indians of Tlaxcala in 1539 to celebrate the peace treaty between Emperor Charles V and the king of France and recorded shortly thereafter by the Franciscan missionary Fray Toribio de Benevente Motolinia in his History of the Indians of New Spain. In this elaborate pageant, which was composed at least in part by the Tlaxcalans but clearly with the help of their Franciscan mentors, the playwrights portrayed the future conquest of Jerusalem by the combined armies of Charles V’s European possessions and New Spain and the consequent baptism of its presumed occupier, the Muslim sultan of Cairo (although, in fact, Jerusalem had passed into Ottoman hands in December 1516).

Significantly, the pageant included several large and spirited mock battles, which apparently served to underscore the fact that holy war and the festivals that celebrated divinely mandated conflict and bloodshed were as much a part of this new religion of the Tlaxcalans as they had been when they and other Mesoamerican tribes conducted “Flower Wars,” preconquest battles fought for the purpose of capturing enemy warriors who were then sacrificed to a local deity. Often the sacrifice was either preceded by or took the form of a mock battle, when the captive was given an ineffective wooden sword with which to battle a fully armed adversary.

The most striking aspect of this pageant and its mock battles is that all of the combined crusader forces, European and Indian, fail to take Jerusalem despite their bravery. The Christians only succeed when the combined Indian forces of New Spain are joined in the fray by a heavenly patron on a brown horse, Hippolytus, a third-century soldier-saint on whose feast day, August 13, 1521, the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies had captured Tenochtitlan. Indeed, just as the Tlaxcalans are led by Saint Hippolytus, the Spaniards, who now sweep to victory alongside these new Christians, are led by Santiago Matamoros- Saint James the Moor-slayer-on a horse “as white as snow.” Significantly, Santiago was the patron-saint of the Reconquista, the crusading wars of reconquest waged by Christian Iberians against the Muslims of Spain from roughly the mid-eleventh century to late fifteenth century.

According to legend, the apostle Saint James the Greater, whose relics were believed to have been miraculously transported to Compostela in northwest Spain, had initially appeared to lead the Christian forces of Asturias to victory at the mythic Battle of Clavijo in 844. He was also the namesake of the Order of Santiago, the most powerful of the Iberian military orders, founded in 1170 in Leon. Significantly, Hernan Cortés, the conqueror of Mexico, belonged to that order, as did many of his subordinates. And we are told by the sources that these conquistadors regularly shouted out the traditional Spanish battle cry, “Señor Santiago,” as they went into battle in the Americas.

The meaning of this Tlaxcalan pageant is clear. There is every reason to conclude that the Tlaxcalans were anxious to present themselves, and fellow Nahuatl converts to Catholicism (including their former enemies, the Mexica), as latter-day crusaders and as having accepted totally the Spanish crusading ethos despite whatever animosities they still harbored against their conquerors.

Moreover, the Tlaxcalans were fully aware, as were the Spaniards, that Cortés’s small army of Spanish soldiers could never have conquered the Aztec empire without the tens of thousands of Indian allies who marched with him, and chief among these were warriors from Tlaxcala. As a consequence, Tlaxcala became a privileged, largely self-governing province under Spanish colonial rule and was showered with honors and privileges.

The ideology of crusade was such a driving force in the Spanish conquest of Mexico that even the conquered and converted felt it necessary to claim identity with it. And what sort of crusade was that? By 1500, indeed well before that date, the crusade had metamorphosed into a struggle of apocalyptic proportions and with deep millenarian overtones. Put simply, it was a global, even cosmological, struggle between Catholic Christendom and Islam, heresy, heathenism, unbelief, and every manner of error, which included the “heathen errors and practices” of preconquest Mesoamerica.

Bibliography Gillespie, Jeanne. Saints and Warriors: Tlaxcalan Perspectives on the Conquest of Tenochtitlan. New Orleans: University Press of the South, 2004. Harris, Max. Aztecs, Moors, and Christians: Festivals of Reconquest in Mexico and Spain. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000. Matthew, Laura E., and Michel R. Oudijk. Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007. Motolinia, Toribio de Benevente. History of the Indians of New Spain. Edited and translated by Francis Borgia Steck. Washington, DC: Academy of American Franciscan History, 1951.

Mesoamerican Spanish Conquests

Globally, one of the most important patterns that scholars highlight in the early modern era is the gradual unfolding of the “Military Revolution” in Europe-a profound military, political and socioeconomic transformation between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Such an approach usually focuses on the European expansion around the world, in particular the Spanish conquests of the Aztec and Inca states and the arrival and establishment of European navies in the Indian Ocean, where local Islamic and Indian states proved to be unable to retain supremacy of the seas. Equally interesting, however, is the increasing ability of Europe to fight off the Ottoman attacks, clearly revealed when comparing the Christian failures of the early sixteenth century with successes of the seventeenth century.

The European conquests-of Cortes and Nuno de Guzman, in central Mexico, Pizzaro in Peru, Francisco and Pedro de Alvarado Orozco in Guatemala, or Francisco de Montejo in the Yucatan Peninsula to name just a few-consequently followed the pre-Columbian trade routes which greatly contributed to their success. From the earliest years of Spanish colonization of the western hemisphere, the Spaniards became aware of how quickly they could seize control over local population by capturing local leaders. This tactic may have had precedents in Spanish experiences with the Moors or in North Africa, but the surprise capture of the local ruler during a seemingly friendly negotiation became a standard. Thus, in 1519, Cortés, invited to an audience with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II, captured the emperor in an attempt to seize control of the empire. His success inspired Francisco Pizzaro to capture the Inca leader Atahualpa in 1531.

Despite the popular perception of the Spanish conquistadors as invincible and gallant warriors, the real story of success lies in local elites’ early support for foreign invasions. Their motivation included both the desire to free themselves from existing military and tributary controls as well as the opportunity to aggrandize themselves with land and riches. Indeed, alliance-building was a fundamental practice in Mesoamerica, successfully used by the Aztecs in the form of the Triple Alliance (confederation of city-states of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan) to incorporate much of the region into their empire prior to Europeans’ arrival. When Cortés arrived in Mesoamerica in 1519, the Fat Cacique of Cempoala followed a long-standing alliance-building tradition in offering the Spaniard an alliance with Tlaxcala, Huexotzingo, and other city-states against the powerful Aztecs; the presence of tens of thousands of native soldiers allowed the Spaniards to bring down the Aztec empire.

Mesoamerican War Strategy, Battle Tactics, and Armaments

The Indians of pre-Hispanic Mexico developed strategic war aims, battlefield tactics, and arms and armaments to suit the societies they created. Aztec warfare, as well as that of other neighboring polities and cultures, primarily aimed to capture but not kill opposing warriors, who would then be sacrificed to various deities. Whereas Eurasian armies developed well-organized and highly maneuverable infantry and cavalry formations, the Aztecs and their neighbors, as well as all of their predecessors, lacked close-ordered drill and instead stressed charges and individual combat designed to win prestige by acquiring sacrificial victims. They still, however, also fought for larger objectives, namely conquest and subjugation, as representations of stylized burning temples and tribute lists in the few extant Mexica codices (bound books) make abundantly clear.

The Aztec (or Triple Alliance) order of battle illustrates the height of pre-Hispanic arms and armaments in Mesoamerica. The Aztecs fielded armies as large as 100,000 to 200,000 fighting men, divided into 8,000-man units. Lightly armed scouts and skirmishers, carrying atlatl launchers and spears, preceded the more heavily armed main body of warriors. These warriors wore quilted cotton armor; carried painted, sometimes feathered, round shields; and employed razor-sharp obsidian-bladed clubs and knives as well as slings, darts, and other weapons to make war. The highest-ranked among them, including commanders and members of prestigious military orders, such as the Otomi who were named after an especially fierce tribe of neighboring Indians, and at times the emperor himself wore elaborate feathered costumes and sandals. The more elite the military order, the more elaborate the feathered costume. Reserve forces, including conscripted troops from conquered provinces, followed.

Such formations failed to survive Spanish battlefield tactics and arms and armaments during the conquest of Mexico. While the Aztecs obsidian-bladed club could and did decapitate horses, it proved too unwieldy and could not match the Spaniards’ steel swords, which could parry, slash, and thrust, not to mention the Spaniards’ determination to destroy and not merely capture their opponents in war.

Bibliography Hassig, Ross. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995. Padden, R. C. The Hummingbird and the Hawk: Conquest and Sovereignty in the Valley of Mexico, 1503-1541. New York: Harper and Row, 1970.

The British in Manila

Lieutenant Colonel William Draper, an officer of the 79th Foot (one of the regular regiments that had fought at the Battle of Wandiwash), had been on leave in England in the winter of 1761–62 when he suggested an expedition against the Philippines to Anson and Ligonier. Reasons similar to those that had made them choose Havana as a target disposed them to listen to Draper’s proposal. Manila was the center of trade and administration for the Spanish Philippines and perhaps even more important in the Pacific than Havana in the Atlantic. Nor was conquest an impossible goal, for although the Spanish had built the fort of Cavite to protect the harbor and had enclosed the city’s core within a bastioned wall, they had clearly believed that Manila’s best source of security was its remoteness. That the Philippines took six to eight months to reach from Europe, in fact, only made the expedition more attractive to Ligonier and Anson, for Draper assured them that all the troops he would need were already in India, just six or eight weeks’ sail from the archipelago. Since Spain communicated with the colony via Mexico on the Manila galleon, there was good reason to hope that the invaders might arrive before the garrison even knew that Spain and Great Britain were at war.

Soon after the declaration of war, therefore, the ministers decided in favor of the venture. In February, Draper left Britain with a temporary commission as brigadier general and authority to raise an expeditionary force of two regular battalions and five hundred East India Company troops. By the end of June he had reached Madras. Once there, however, nothing went as planned, and the would-be conqueror of Manila found that the local authorities were willing to release only one redcoat regiment (his own 79th Foot), and a company of Royal Artillery. Draper therefore recruited what men he could—two companies of French deserters and several hundred Asian recruits (“such a Banditti,” he grumbled, as had “never assembled since the time of Spartacus”)—and sailed from Madras at the end of July.

When Draper’s little flotilla of warships and transports entered Manila Bay on September 22, the Manila galleon had yet to arrive. Thus the British sailed unchallenged past the guns of Cavite, landed near Manila, and attacked the city on the twenty-sixth, before the Spanish commander had heard that a state of war existed between their monarch and his own. Despite the tiny number of troops Draper had at his disposal (only about two thousand, including a battalion of sailors pressed into service), and despite the onset of the monsoon, which repeatedly held up siege operations, the British managed to breach the wall and storm the city on October 5. Manila surrendered later that day. Five days later the fort of Cavite capitulated, and on October 30 Spanish authorities throughout the archipelago made their formal submission. The booty captured exceeded $4,000,000—more than £1,300,000 sterling—in value.

There could have been no more conclusive demonstration of the global reach that the army and navy had acquired during the Seven Years’ War. In the whole military history of Europe nothing quite compared to it. Even as the government faced unprecedented postwar challenges—as Wilkes railed against the ministers and the London crowds roared back their approval—the conquest seemed to affirm Britain’s essential invincibility. Even more than Havana, Draper’s feat was the crowning accomplishment of Britain’s most glorious war, and in it the British people for one last shining moment saw reflected all their nation’s glory. What they did not see (and perhaps would not have understood if they had) was the significance of what happened once the conquerors ran the Union Jack up Manila’s flagstaff.

Unlike Canada, Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Havana, the people of the Philippines did not turn out en masse to trade with the British. Instead the East India Company, to which Draper turned over the task of governing in November 1762, never did establish control over the archipelago, or indeed over any territory outside the immediate vicinity of Manila itself. Don Simón de Anda, a junior judge of the royal Audencia (supreme court), managed to slip out of the city during the siege and escape to the province of Pampanga, on the north shore of Manila Bay. There, in the town of Bacolor, thirty-five miles from Manila, he established a provisional government and began to organize an army. The highest officers of the Spanish colonial administration hesitated to join him, but thousands of Filipinos did not. Soon Anda’s guerrilla army mustered ten thousand men, and even though more than seven thousand of them lacked arms more formidable than bows and arrows, they still denied the British control over anything outside of Manila and Cavite. Despite news that a treaty had been signed, Anda refused to agree to a truce until orders arrived from London in March 1764, restoring the archipelago to Spanish control. Even then he would not order his men to lay down their arms until the new Spanish governor arrived. On the last day of May 1764, Anda led a column of native soldiers into Manila to receive the city from its British rulers. Any casual bystander would have concluded that he was witnessing a British surrender.

Administering Manila from November 2, 1762, to May 31, 1764, cost the East India Company over £200,000 sterling above its (modest) share of the booty and its (negligible) profits on trade. The conquest of Manila differed from other British overseas victories, therefore, insofar as the occupants of the colony refused to be subdued either by force or by commerce. Anyone paying attention to the history of Great Britain’s occupation of the Philippines at the moment it ended might well have pondered its implied lessons in the relationship between arms and trade, loyalty and empire. In the Philippine episode more than any other of the Seven Years’ War, the principles of imperial dominion stood out with unmistakable clarity. Military power—particularly naval power—could gain an empire, but force alone could never control colonial dependencies. Only the voluntary allegiance, or at least the acquiescence, of the colonists could do that. Flags and governors and even garrisons were, in the end, only the empire’s symbols. Trade and loyalty were its integuments, and when colonial populations that refused their allegiance also declined to trade, the empire’s dominion extended not a yard beyond the range of its cannons.