Spanish Tercio

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, disciplined pike-armed infantry had become the backbone of Europe’s increasingly professional armies. At the same time, firearms had become lighter and convenient enough to be used by infantry in battle. Such handheld firearms could inflict heavy casualties upon pike-armed forces arrayed for battle but suffered from the very serious shortcoming that the harquebusiers were vulnerable while performing the slow and complicated steps involved in reloading their weapons. Under El Gran Capitan, the Spanish commander Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba (1453-1515), Spanish forces began to combine blocks of pike men with blocks of harquebusiers. Such formations, called tercios, were successful combined-arms units. The harquebusiers deployed outside the pike square and fired into the enemy lines. If the enemy charged, the harquebusiers could retreat into the pike formation for protection. Thus a tercio combined continuous fire with the shock power of the pike. The devastating potential of these tactics was demonstrated at the Battle of Cerignola (1503). A French force of cavalry and Swiss mercenaries attacked Fernandez de Cordoba’s Spanish forces deployed behind a ditch. The fire of the harquebusiers was so severe that the French formations broke apart, whereupon Fernandez de Cordoba’s pikemen charged. The disordered French were overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties. These tactics put a premium on the pikes and handguns but reduced the need for cutting weapons such as halberds and glaives.

Tercio. “Third.” The name derived from the tripartite division common to early modern infantry squares, especially the main infantry unit in the 5th-16th-century Spanish system. Tercios started at 3,000 men, but heavy tercios could have up to 6,000 men each, formed into 50 to 60 ranks with 80 men to a file. They were super-heavy units of armored and tactically disciplined pikemen, supported by arquebusiers and lesser numbers of heavy musketeers on the corners. To contemporary observers they appeared as “iron cornfields” which won through shock and sheer mass rather than clever maneuver. Others saw in the tercio a “walking citadel” whose corner guards of clustered arquebusiers gave it the appearance of a mobile castle with four turrets, especially after the reforms introduced by Gonzalo di Cordoba from 1500. He wanted the tercios to better contend with the Swiss so he added more pikes at the front but also many more gunmen to replace the older reliance on polearms. These formations might have only 1,200 men. The new tercio was still heavy and ponderous on the move, but it was a more flexible unit with much greater firepower that could dig in for defense or advance to destroy the enemy’s main force as circumstances suggested. This reform first paid off at Cerignola (1503). At Pavia (1525), tercios destroyed the French under Francis I. For two generations after that most opponents declined battle against the tercios whenever possible, and they became the most feared infantry in Europe. They remained dominant for nearly a hundred years. Their demise came during the Thirty Years’ War when more flexible Dutch and Swedish armies broke into more flexible, smaller regiments. These units smashed the tercios with combined arms tactics that also employed field artillery and a return to cavalry shock.

Battle of Cerignola, (April 21, 1503)

Spain’s “Gran Capitan” Gonzalo di Co’rdoba had been beaten by a Franco-Swiss army at Seminara in 1495. To counter Swiss tactics, at Cerignola he dug a ditch in front of his line. This broke up the cadence of the Swiss pikers, exposing them to murderous Spanish arquebus fire. Once the enemy lines grew ragged Co’rdoba sent his tercios forward. These were newly reformed units with added pikes and more arquebusiers, which gave the Swiss a taste of their own famous “push of pike.” The Spanish infantry drove the Franco-Swiss troops backward and downslope, while Spanish cavalry pursued and cut down individual soldiers as they ran. The French artillery train was captured. Naples fell to Co’rdoba on May 13. While the pike remained an integral part of the Spanish tercio, it was the arquebus and musket that gave the formation its power at Cerignola. The battle was the beginning of the end for Swiss infantry dominance.

Battle of La Bicocca, (April 27, 1522).

During the Italian Wars (1494-1559) Francis I assembled an army of 25,000, including thousands of Swiss mercenaries, and marched to take back Milan which he had earlier lost to Charles V. Waiting to meet him with 20,000 Spanish and Italian troops, supported by German mercenaries, was Marchese di Pescara. The Habsburgs were positioned behind a sunken road and were well dug in. Their musketeers stood in four ranks partially concealed by heavy hedges and unusually, with pikemen to the rear. The Swiss in French employ charged with their usual ferocious abandon only to see a third of their number fall to the massed Habsburg gunmen. Each rank fired in turn, then retired, a countermarch tactic developed to maximize the fire effect of the new “Spanish musket.” That heavier weapon had been used in a siege at Parma in 1521 but this was its first test in a field battle. It was devastating: 3,000 Swiss fell dead or wounded inside 30 minutes. No more would the Swiss used outdated pike and halberd tactics in the face of opposing firearms. Henceforth, the Spanish tercio was admired as the best infantry formation in Europe, ahead of the suddenly outdated Swiss square. Francis withdrew toward Venice, his ally.

Los Tercios y el Ejército Español 1525 – 1704


Don Carlos of Spain

The survival of Spanish moderates and liberals in government posts, because of their competence, bothered extreme royalists, who increasingly gathered around the childless king’s brother, Don Carlos. Royalist irregulars called Volunteers, who rallied to Fernando in 1823, wanted places in the army that had been denied them by the professionals, whether conservative or liberal. In 1827 “aggrieved” royalists rebelled in Catalonia and were crushed.

The revolution of 1830 that brought Louis Philippe of Orleans to the French throne as the “bourgeois king” triggered several abortive liberal risings in Spain that served chiefly to provide the liberal cause with martyrs. Spanish clericals and conservatives grew more attached to Don Carlos, whereas their opponents put their hope in the new queen, Maria Cristina of Naples. Aged twenty-three, she had won the heart of the older king. After some wavering, Fernando issued a Pragmatic which declared that her child, whether daughter or son, would succeed to the throne. The tradition of the House of Bourbon was the Salic law-that only a son could succeed to the throne. Maria Cristina had two daughters, Isabel and Luisa. When Fernando VII died in 1833, Isabel, aged three, became Queen Isabel II, and her mother, Maria Cristina, regent. In opposition, Isabel’s uncle. Don Carlos declared himself to be King Carlos V.

The regent soon replaced Fernando’s last chief minister, conservative Francisco Cea Bermudez, with moderate Francisco Martinez de la Rosa, a onetime “jailbird.” He presided over the drafting of the Royal Statute of 1834, a sort of constitution bestowed by the crown. It provided for a twochamber Cortes, with an upper house that resembled the English House of Lords with archbishops, bishops, grandees, and titled nobles, plus designated appointees; and a lower chamber of deputies, to be elected indirectly by a restricted electorate. Its functions were consultative, and the ministers remained responsible to the crown. No bill of rights was included. The liberal direction of Spain was paralleled in Portugal and encouraged by Britain and France. They joined with Spain and Portugal in a new Quadruple Alli ance to preclude foreign interference. Whereas many moderate liberals were satisfied, other liberals were not, and in the provincial capitals the Progressives, the heirs of the exaltados, began to dominate the political debate. The differences of Moderates and Progressives would be played out against the background of the Carlist Wars.

Don Carlos, a vain, closed-minded man, soon had followers in arms, chiefly in the Basque Country, Navarre, Aragon, and rural Catalonia. These were regions where the Church was strong and with significant populations of poor but proud smallholders, regions that enjoyed historic privileges which seemed threatened by the centralizing policies of impatient liberals. Their battle cry proclaimed God, king, fatherland, and regional privileges (fueros). Conservative soldiers, former guerrilleros, and sometime bandits formed the core of the Carlist forces. While Don Carlos announced that their commander in chief was the Virgin of Sorrows, their best general was a professional soldier and hero of the War of Independence, “Uncle” Tomas Zumalacarregui. He drove government forces from the countryside of Navarre and the Basque Country but lacked the heavy equipment necessary to conquer the well-garrisoned and liberal capitals of Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Pamplona. When Don Carlos arrived in Spain in 1835, he pressured Zumalacarregui to assault Bilbao. The assault failed, and Zumalacarregui died of wounds. The First Carlist War sputtered on until 1840. Both sides massacred prisoners and terrorized civilians. Attempts at compromise based on the betrothal of Queen Isabel II to Don Carlos’s son, Carlos Luis, count of Montemolfn, foundered on Don Carlos’s intransigence. In 1837 the Carlists paraded to the outskirts of Madrid, but found no popular support and withdrew. By 1839, on the northern front the government arrayed 100,000 men and 700 guns, under General Baldomero Espartero, against the Carlists’ 32,000 men and 50 guns, under Rafael Maroto. A professional officer, Maroto knew his side had no chance; so with Espartero he signed the compromise of Vergara, which allowed the Carlists to lay down their arms, and the regular officers who had served Don Carlos to return to the army without loss of rank. This gave the Spanish army a notoriously high ratio of officers to men. By 1840 the war was over. Don Carlos fled to France, where he settled at Bourges, under the gaze of an unfriendly French government.

‘While their future depended on the defeat of the Carlists, the politicians in Madrid wrangled over revenues and constitutional questions. The task of finding money to meet war costs went to an energetic banker of Cadiz and London, Juan Alvarez Mendizabal. His enemies noted that he was both a Jew and a Freemason. Early in 1836 he rammed through a measure that had profound consequences: the disamortization (release from mortmain, a kind of entail), appropriation, and sale of all Church lands that did not di rectly support parishes, hospitals, or schools. For an idea long around, the moment had come. Mendizabal and his allies hoped that the chief beneficiaries of disamortization would be members of the middle class, who would purchase Church lands and become wedded to the liberal cause in order to keep them. For the Church hierarchy it was the last straw. The bishops broke irrevocably with liberalism and privately put their hopes on the Carlist side. Rome refused to confirm many of the Spanish crown’s episcopal nominees, and half of Spain’s dioceses were soon without bishops. As Church wealth dwindled, perhaps one-third of Spain’s clergy renounced their vows and quit.

The disamortization of Church lands formed part of the liberal economic program to encourage increased agricultural productivity through greater private entrepreneurial activity. The common lands of the former Church domains were also privatized, which led to more peasant unrest and several violent insurrections over the following thirty years. The same environmental and technological constraints that had always affected Spanish agriculture persisted, and the new patterns of ownership led to no marked increase in productivity.

In elections under the Royal Statute of 1834, the Progressives got the edge in the municipalities, and the unruly urban militias they dominated demanded the restoration of the Constitution of 1812. Demonstrations in Madrid in August 1836 caused the sergeants of the Royal Guards at the summer palace at La Granja to confront the regent over the matter. Faced with the “Sergeants’ Revolt,” she agreed to accept it and made it the business of the Cortes to undertake the necessary revisions. In 1837 she promulgated a new Constitution that provided a Cortes with a senate, appointed by the crown from lists submitted by designated provincial electors, and a Congress of Deputies, for which 4 percent of the male population could vote.

Dominated by Moderates, the Cortes gave the central government tighter control over Spain’s municipalities in 1840. Progressives took to the streets and rioted. Much of the tinder for riot and unrest was provided by office seekers. In Spain, as in the United States at the time, the spoils system reigned. The party that won power dismissed officeholders of the losing party and rewarded its own followers with their jobs. Government jobs had long been the chief aspiration of ambitious university graduates in a Spain that produced more lawyers than engineers, physicians, or scientists. Called pretendientes, those out of office became a fixture on the Spanish scene. Depending on family support to eat, they conspired and agitated to restore their party to power. With the transfer in 1836 of the University of Alcala to Madrid, as the Universidad Central, university students joined the politically restless elements of the capital.

To restore order, the regent in desperation appointed General Espartero as prime minister. The first of the political generals who dominated Spanish politics for the next two dozen years, he was the son of a carter of La Mancha and identified with the Progressives. Given his humble origins, he also made clear that the army provided a career open to talent. When Espartero and the regent differed, he used the need to end disorder to coerce her into yielding the regency to him. Maria Cristina’s position was already compromised by her marriage, soon after Fernando’s death, to Augustin Munoz, a sergeant of the Guards, whom she had her daughter make a duke and grandee. Maria Cristina and Munoz departed for France.

With Espartero regent and Progressives once more in control of the Cortes, the number of men enjoying the franchise was doubled. A pronunciamento by Moderates in the Basque Country was quickly squelched, and Basque privileges were curtailed. Concern over a swing to the right in Barcelona led to a more radical Progressive rising and the establishment of a popular junta, with budding labor unions involved. Unruly mobs dismantled part of the royal citadel erected by Philip V, and the Barcelona junta challenged the liberal doctrine of free trade and called for protectionism. Then tax riots broke out, and by the end of 1842, order had collapsed. Angry, Espartero refused to compromise with Barcelona, turned his artillery on the city, then stormed it.

Many Progressives abandoned Espartero in disgust and joined the Moderates. When their coalition won control of the Cortes, Espartero dissolved it. All over Spain disgruntled garrisons and municipalities pronounced against him. Moderate General Ramon Narvaez returned from exile in France and engineered Espartero’s fall. Rather than make Narvaez regent, his rivals had the Cortes declare Queen Isabel II to be of age, a year early since she was only thirteen. But Narvaez would dominate the government for most of the next ten years.

Spain’s economy began a slow expansion with the restoration of order in most of the country, which was maintained by the newly established paramilitary Civil Guard. Growth was more pronounced on the periphery: Catalonia and Valencia on the Mediterranean, western Andalusia, and the Basque Country. Old and New Castile remained poor, and Madrid seemed bloated by contrast. Also poor were Aragon and Galicia; Extremadura and rural Andalusia were the poorest of all. By midcentury, Spain’s population neared 15 million, an increase of more than 3 million since 1800.

Spain’s political elite, centered on Madrid and including the court, the politicians, the army, the bureaucracy, and the press, now fussed about the queen’s marriage. The Church hierarchy was not out of the picture, though it was still offended by its loss of landed wealth and the restrictions placed on religious orders. Great Britain and France also had ideas. Isabel II, with her mother remarried and exiled to France, grew up spoiled, indulged, overweight, and sensual. To every candidate for her hand objections sprouted. What seemed most logical, her marriage to the Carlist heir, Mon- temolfn, foundered on his claim that he was already King Carlos VI. In the end she married the least objectionable candidate, her first cousin Don Francisco de Asfs, son of her uncle, the duke of Cadiz. Aged twenty-four, Don Francisco de Asis was a fastidious army officer whose sexual relations with the queen derived from his sense of duty. Many attributed her unhappy situation to duplicitous French diplomacy. When Britain objected to a French proposal that she marry a son of King Louis Philippe, his son, the manly duke of Montpensier, married her sister, the Infanta Luisa. Suspicion grew that the French hoped Isabel and her ascetic consort would be childless and that Montpensier’s offspring would succeed to the Spanish throne. Isabel II and Don Francisco de Asis soon lived in separate quarters, but she bore four daughters and a son who survived early childhood and, despite questions regarding their paternity, were accepted as legitimate. Notoriously she took many lovers, mostly macho army officers. Although most regarded her behavior as scandalous, they admitted her marriage was unhappy.

Following Isabel’s marriage in 1846, a Carlist rising surfaced in Catalonia on behalf of Montemolin. Called the Second Carlist War and fueled by peasant unrest, it peaked in 1848 but was quelled by 1849. Coping with it brought Narvaez back to power in late 1847. In 1848, a year of revolution in much of Europe (which cost King Louis Philippe his throne in France), he kept a firm grip on the political life of Spain and sent an expeditionary force to Rome in 1849 to support the pope against revolutionaries there. In 1851 a coalition of disgruntled Moderates and ultraconservatives forced him from office once more. They were aided by court cabals that included Francisco de Asis, who found his niche in government through intrigue. The new government of Antonio Bravo Murillo dismissed the Cortes, which had a splendid new palace, and attempted to rule by decree, influenced by developments in France where Napoleon III seized power.

Santísima Trinidad (1769)

Epitome of the first-rate ‘ship of the line’, Santísima Trinidad was designed to lead a fleet into battle and to withstand a heavy cannonade. The concept of staying-power in the face of gunfire was becoming increasingly important.

These eighteenth-century scale drawings are guides to the installation of the supports for a canvas roofing to cover the entire upper deck. They were made before the vessel’s conversion to a four-decker.

The largest warship of the eighteenth century, with four decks of guns, the Spanish flagship was engaged in two of history’s great naval battles, at Cape St Vincent and Trafalgar. It was known as the ‘Escorial (royal palace) of the Seas’.

The Royal Shipyards at Havana, Cuba (then a Spanish possession) were a major building site for warships. Costs were less than in Spain and there were large timber resources, especially of hardwoods not available in Spain, like the American cedarwood used in Santísima Trinidad. It was the seventh Spanish warship of the name, confirmed by a royal order on 12 March 1768. Its designer was the King’s naval architect Matthew or Mateo Mullan, an Irishman, and building was supervised by his son Ignacio.

It was launched as a three-decker of unusually large dimensions. Spanish shipbuilding was of high quality, perhaps the best of any nation. The ships were strongly built and generally of larger size for their gun-rating than British vessels, which made them both more stable as gun-platforms and better able to withstand attack.

A Spanish 70-gun ship was about 1540 tonnes (1700 tons) compared to the 1134 tonnes (1250 tons) of a comparable British ship. This tradition of size and strength gave the builders of 1769 confidence to construct the largest warship of the time. Ships of this size were rarities: between 1750 and 1790 the British Navy had only six ships of 100 guns. The French also built a few very large ships. In 1788 the French Commerce de Marseille exceeded Santísima Trinidad in size, being 63.5m (208ft 4in) long, with a beam of 16.6m (54ft 9in), but carried fewer guns, 118 on three decks (captured by the British in 1793, it was broken up in 1802), and Océan and Orient, of 1790 and 1791, carried 120 guns.

Years of action

In its first years the ship was probably not in commission but held in readiness. With the declaration of war by Spain on Great Britain in July 1779, it entered service as flagship of the Spanish fleet, under Admiral Luis de Cordoba y Cordoba, operating with allied French ships in the English Channel and the western approaches. In August 1780 it led an action which resulted in the capture of 55 British merchant vessels from a convoy. In 1782 it participated in the second siege of Gibraltar, as flagship of a combined fleet 48-strong of Spanish and French ships, but failed to intercept a British relief convoy.

Increased firepower

In 1795, in a bold enhancement of its gun-power, a fourth deck was installed, joining the forecastle to the quarter-deck and raising the number of cannon carried from 112 to 136. This made Santísima Trinidad by some way the most heavily-armed ship of its time. Back in service in 1797, it was the Spanish flagship at the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February, and suffered major damage, partially dismasted and with over half the crew killed or wounded. Santísima Trinidad struck her colours to HMS Orion, but before the British could take possession, they were signalled away, and the ship was rescued by Pelayo and Principe de Asturias, and limped back to Cadiz for repair.

Particularly after the construction of the fourth deck, giving the ship a very high freeboard exposed to sidewinds, Santísima Trinidad did not have good sailing qualities and gained the nickname ‘El Ponderoso’. Unlike contemporary French and British naval ships, its hull was not copper-sheathed. A further disadvantage, according to French observers, was a poorly-trained crew and the poor quality of many of the guns. With the greater part of the Spanish fleet, the ship’s home base was Cadiz.

In the course of its 38-year plus career, the Santísima Trinidad was careened or refitted three times, and spent almost 20 of those years out of service. This last was typical of ships in other navies: if there was no war on, crews were discharged and the ship held ‘in ordinary’. Ships in reserve had their guns removed, to reduce strain on the innumerable joints and brackets of the hull and gun-decks.

Surrender at Trafalgar

At Trafalgar, captained by Francisco Javier Uriarte and carrying the pendant of Rear Admiral Baltasar de Cisneros, it was flagship of the Spanish squadron, painted dark red with white stripes. In line just ahead of Admiral Villeneuve’s Bucentaure, it was in the thick of the central battle, heavily raked by broadsides from HMS Neptune.

After four hours, by 2:12pm, all three masts were gone; an eyewitness wrote: ‘This tremendous fabric gave a deep roll, with a swell to leeward, then back to windward, and on her return every mast went by the board, leaving it an unmanageable hulk on the water.’ The ship was compelled to surrender (as painted below in the Surrender of the Santísima Trinidad to Neptune, The Battle of Trafalgar, 3 PM, 21st October 1805 by Lieutenant Robert Strickland Thomas).

After the battle it was taken in tow by HMS Prince, but in the storm which followed, the tow could not be held, and Santísima Trinidad was scuttled on 22 October.

Specification (1768)

Dimensions Length 60.1m (200ft), Beam 19.2m (62ft 9in), Draught 8.02m (26ft 4in)

Displacement c4309 tonnes (c4750 tons)

Rig 3 masts, square-rigged

Armament (1768) 30 36-pounder, 32 24-pounder, 32 12-pounder, 18 8-pounder guns

Complement 950

WAR OF JENKINS’ EAR (1739–1742)


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 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.

Operational History

The hostilities against Spain that commenced in October1739 were primarily fought out in the Americas. This was wholly appropriate, as the conflict, though the product of Anglo-Spanish tension on a variety of issues, was principally about British access to trade with the Spanish colonies in the New World. The Spanish had taken a tough line on illegal commerce, notoriously lopping off the ear of Robert Jenkins, the captain of a merchant vessel. British commercial interests lobbied for protection, the parliamentary opposition pressed for the Government to take a firmer line, and public opinion became increasingly outraged. In London, particularly, the agitation for war was vociferous. Sir Robert Walpole’s ministry reluctantly accepted the need for hostilities when negotiations with the Spanish broke down. The first major action was Admiral Vernon’s capture of Porto Bello, only a matter of weeks after the formal beginning of the conflict. Vernon’s victory fed absurdly optimistic expectations of easy pickings at the expense of the decaying Spanish empire, and a large expeditionary force was sent to the West Indies in 1740, employing both regular troops from Britain and soldiers raised specifically for the purpose in the North American colonies.

The Affair in the Windward Passage on December 27, 1740

The affair in the Windward Passage on December 27, 1740, in English accounts, which would be January 7, 1741, in the calendar being used by the French and Spanish. Britain and Spain were at war but Britain and France were not. Ogle sighted a battle squadron and chased it. During the chase, the leading British ships got the idea that the chased vessels were Spanish ships masquerading as French. There was a similar incident in the Mediterranean.

British, Rear-Admiral (of the Blue) Sir Challoner Ogle
Boyne, 80
Chichester, 80
Norfolk, 80
Princess Amelia, 80
Princess Caroline, 80
Shrewsbury, 80
Torbay, 80
Orford, 70
Prince Frederick, 70
Suffolk, 70
Defiance, 60
Deptford, 60
Dunkirk, 60
Jersey, 60
Montagu, 60
Tilbury, 60
Rippon, 60
York, 60
Litchfield, 50
6 fireships
This list does not include 4 ships of 60-80 guns that parted company as a consequence of storm damage soon after the fleet left England, on October 31/November 11, 1740.

Ardent, 64
Mercure, 54
Diamant, 50
Parfaite, 46

The success at Porto Bello was not to be repeated, however. 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.

Cartagena de Indias 15 March-20 May 1741


Order of battle of the British forces to attack over Cartagena de Indias (today in modern-day Colombia)

Vice admiral Sir Edward Vernon – Commander in Chief
Rear admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle – Second in command
Commodore Lestock – Third in command

37 ships of line: 8 tree deckers 80 guns, 7 two deckers 70 guns, 16 of 60 guns, 5 of 50 guns. Besides 12 frigates, 9 fire ships and 100 transport ships.
Crew warships: 17,000 seaman

Land forces: General Lord Cathart Death voyage England-Jamaica
General Thomas Wentworth Second, assumed command the land forces compound:
12,000 soldiers:
two regiments – infantry of line 2,000 men
six regiment – marines 6,000
two regiment – Americans 2,500
artilleryman 1,000
armed slaves 500

Total: 29,000 soldiers and seamen.


City governor – Don Sebastian Eslava
Commander Naval forces – Liutenant-General(vice admiral)Don Blas de Lezo.

Ships of His Catholic Majestic:
GALICIA 70 GUNS Capt Don Juan Jordan. Flagship of Lezo – Captured and burnt
SAN CARLOS 70 GUNS Capt Fuentes Scuttled in Bocachica (in the bay)
AFRICA 70 burnt
SAN FELIPE 70 burnt
DRAGON 60 Capt Don Francisco Obando
CONQUISTADOS 70 Capt Don Felix Cedran
The two last was scuttled and today his rest has been recovered and some parts are the Naval Museum.
Crew 2,000

Bay Castles at entrance to the port and Bocachica:
San Luis 85 guns
Santiago 21
Baradero Battery 15
San Jose 21
Total 142 guns

Land Forces
two regiment -infantry 2,000
artillerymen 400
militia 2,000

Total 6,500 soldiers and seamen


The English were defeat by the Spanish guns and the illness as malaria and others.
The English burnt 6 ships that could not sail again.
9,000 soldiers and seamen dead
8,600 wounded and sick

Spanish casualties were 600 dead

A Spanish squadron with 12 ships of line was the Habana and another 12 French ships in Haiti, but these never jointed in for the Cartagena.

NOTES: This was a great British defeat. They came to Cartagena with the commemorative medals for the victory and had go home with them.

In opening battle of Bocahica 18,000 canon shot were fired in 21 days of combat, day and night between the fortress, Spanish squadron and the English warships.

The British troops, after having remained inactive on Jamaica for some months, were ordered home at the end of 1742. Thereafter, only limited operations took place in this theatre while the Spanish were Britain’s only enemies. Some attempts were made to foment native rebellion on the mainland from British bases on the Mosquito Shore of Nicaragua, and an attack was made by a Royal Navy squadron on Spanish ports on the Caracus coast in early 1743. By this time, the war on the North American mainland had similarly run out of steam. Georgia, the southernmost British continental colony, had been a source of irritation to the Spanish since its foundation in 1732, though from the British perspective one of the virtues of the new settlement was that it could act as a buffer to protect valuable South Carolina, and its lucrative rice trade, from Spanish incursions. Unsurprisingly, therefore, as soon as hostilities began in 1739, there was sporadic skirmishing on the frontiers of the colony. James Oglethorpe, the governor, led an expedition of troops from Georgia and South Carolina against the great Spanish fortress of San Agustín in Florida the following year. The defences were too strong for Oglethorpe’s force to make any impact, and the siege was lifted. In 1742 the Spanish attacked Georgia, only to retreat in the face of stiff resistance. Desultory raids were carried out by both sides into 1743, but effectively the war on this front had settled into a stalemate.

In the Pacific Ocean, meanwhile, Capt. George Anson was engaged in his famous circumnavigation. The original intention was that Anson would sail to the Pacific coast of Central America to attack Panama while Vernon was taking Cartagena. However, his ships and crews suffered terribly in rounding Cape Horn. Anson raided Paita (now in Peru), and then decided to set out across the Pacific for home. By the time he reached Canton, the expedition had been reduced to one ship only. The captain’s fortunes then brightened: on 20 June 1743 he captured the Nuestra Señora de Covadonga, a Spanish treasure ship carrying much gold and silver to Manila from Spanish America. Anson and his tiny band of surviving sailors reached England, to a hero’s welcome, in June 1744. When the Spanish war began, there was some anxiety about a landing in Britain or Ireland. But no such attack was launched, despite the precedent in earlier Anglo-Spanish conflicts, most recently in 1719, when a small Spanish expeditionary force reached Scotland with the intention of supporting an uprising on behalf of the deposed Catholic Stuart dynasty, which had been removed from the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1689-90. Nor did the outbreak of fighting in 1739 lead to the dispatch of British troops and ships to attack the Spanish mainland, which again was at odds with the experience of previous eighteenth-century wars. In the Spanish Succession struggle, some 29,000 British or British-paid troops were serving in the Iberian Peninsula by 1707, and were to remain there until near the end of the conflict. Although operations inland were difficult and ultimately unsuccessful-which might have deterred repetition-there were some spectacular successes on the coastal fringes of Spain: Gibraltar and Minorca were seized in 1704 and 1708, respectively, remaining as British possessions after the war. Even in the brief Anglo-Spanish conflict of 1718-20, there had been a raid on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, in which Vigo’s fortifications and shipping were destroyed. But if there were no landings on the Spanish coast, the port towns of which were judged to be too strongly defended to risk an attack, a British fleet under Adm. Nicholas Haddock was supposed to blockade Cadiz and prevent Spanish troops from being deployed in Italy. British efforts in the Mediterranean were no more effective than in the Americas: the Spanish and French fleets successfully transported a Spanish army to Italy in November 1741. Adm. Thomas Mathews, the new commander of the British naval forces in the Mediterranean, began a loose blockade of Toulon the following April, and in February 1744 there was an indecisive engagement with the Franco-Spanish fleet, which resulted in an acrimonious (and highly political) dispute between Mathews and his subordinate, Vice Adm. Richard Lestock.

Facts stranger than fiction: the story of Don Blas de Lezo

Isabel Barreto de Castro

During the time of the discovery of America, most of the conquerors were males. However, there were also women, who for years they went unnoticed for the official historiography. Among them, there stands out Isabel Barreto de Castro. According to the chronicles, she was born in Pontevedra in 1567 – she was baptized in the parish of Santa Maria la Mayor. Since she was a young girl, she stood out for her restless spirit, and ended up embarking on the adventure of the New World. She left for the City of Reyes (present Lima) together with her family in 1585 and there she met the elderly Alvaro de Mendaña, with whom she got married.

The islands have been inhabited for thousands of years. In 1568, the Spanish navigator Álvaro de Mendaña was the first European to visit them, naming them the Islas Salomón.

Mendaña planned to travel again to archipelago to take possession of it, setting out in 1595 they went there from the port El Callao. During the trip, Alvaro of Mendaña died from malaria and Isabel Barreto took charge of the expedition. According to the chronicler, fleet pilot, Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, who traveled with them, “(Mendaña) left by universal and named heiress by Governor to Isabel de Barreto, his wife, because of His Majesty he had commission with power to name whoever wanted to. ”

This is how Isabel de Barreto became the first female admiral of the Spanish Navy, as owner and mistress of the Santa Isabel galleon. According to documents of the time, the cruelty of the new admiral cost the hanging of several sailors that had contravened her orders. Again, in words of Quiros, was “of manly character, authoritarian, untamed, will impose her will despotic to all who are under her I send”. Isabel, accused of cruelty by the crew, demonstrated a strong personality with great leadership and great determination. She had an uncompromising attitude and managed to maintain severe discipline of the crew of tough and adventurous men, always willing to conspire and mutiny.

Subsequently, Isabel set course to the Philippines, where he contracted second marriage before returning to the viceroyalty of Peru. She remarried to general Fernando de Castro, again crossing the Pacific Ocean to Mexico, and then settled in Buenos Aires, where they lived for several years, before returning to Peru.

It is said that Isabel crossed the Atlantic Ocean for the last time to Spain to defend her rights over the Solomon Islands, because the King had granted the right to colonize the islands to Pedro Fernández de Quirós. She may be buried in Castrovirreyna (Peru) or in Galicia (Spain), in 1612.

Route of Mendaña/Barreto/Quirós 1595 expedition:

    El Callao, April 9, 1595.

    Paita (Perú), June 16.

    Las Marquesas de Mendoza (Marquesas Islands), July 21 – August 5.

        Magdalena (Fatu Hiva)

        Dominica (Hiva Oa)

        Santa Cristina (Tahuata)

        San Pedro (Moho Tani)

    San Bernardo (Pukapuka, Cook Islands), August 20.

    La Solitaria (Niulakita, Tuvalu), August 29.

    Solomon Islands:

        Tinakula, September 7.

        La Huerta (Tomotu Noi), Recifes (Swallow Islands), September 8.

        Santa Cruz (Nendö, Santa Cruz Islands), September 8 to November 18. They attempted to found a colony, where Álvaro de Mendaña died, October 18.

    Guam, January 1, 1596.

    Manila, February 11.

Spanish 60-gun Heavy Escorts

SLR0436; Warship (1730-40); Spanish; 60 guns, stern view

While the Royal Navy stagnated in the age of the establishments, the French and Spanish were building bigger and better ships. In style this model of a Spanish ship has much in common with British practice, and British shipwrights were employed in the Spanish dockyards, especially Irish Roman Catholics who were forbidden employment under the British crown. The decoration however is rather different, with a horse as figurehead and a heavy carving on each quarter of the stern. This model cannot be positively identified but it bears an eagle and snake on the stern, from the coat of arms of Mexico. It may be the Spanish 60-gun ship Nueva Espana, built in Havana in 1740. It has oar ports between the lower deck gunports, a feature only found on much smaller British ships, but one which might have proved useful in the lighter winds of the Mediterranean, where it might still be necessary to fight galleys in calm weather.

The increase of European corsair attacks on the Spanish West Indies and Main (north coast of South America) from the 1520s required improved defensive measures, but especially from the 1540s when American shipping peaked during the richest discoveries of silver in Peru. These attacks, in peacetime and war, transcended international law just as the religious struggles of the Mediterranean did, especially as Spain in the late 1530s forbade foreign entry into American waters. The Spanish crown thus had to accept, reluctantly, the realization that local militias, inadequate fortifications and private armed patrols in the Caribbean were no substitute for regular, systematic transatlantic convoys, escorted by regular navy galleons and protected at the points of departure and arrival by permanent coastal patrols of galleys and small sailing warships. Such a system took several decades to evolve and in the face of perhaps 100 enemy corsairs operating yearly-70 off Spain and 30 in the Caribbean. Between 1535 and 1546, most of the attacks occurred off the Atlantic coast of Spain, and the colonists in America generally had to fend for themselves. But the arrival of many corsairs on plundering as well as smuggling ventures in the Caribbean during the 1550s caused the crown to experiment with countermeasures that became permanent after 1560. These came in the form of direct government regulation of Spanish America’s maritime defenses, embodied in an annual escorted convoy sporadically from 1553 and permanently from the 1560s. The major tool became the escort for this convoy, the Armada Real, two to twelve galleons, created in 1568 and commanded by Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Two plate (silver) convoys sailed annually, the spring voyage to the Antilles and Vera Cruz, the late summer expedition to Cartagena on the Spanish Main and Nombre de Dios at the Isthmus of Panama. Both wintered in the Caribbean, then rendezvoused at Havana the following March for the return voyage to Seville.

Expensive though the Armada Real was, it achieved for Philip II the desired effect of acting as a deterrent to corsair attacks on the plate fleets. To be sure, the Real could not stop corsair depredations of coastal settlements, especially as they intensified along the Spanish Main from the late 1560s. French, English and Dutch even began to cooperate in common cause against the Spanish imperial monopoly, sometimes in small squadrons of twelve ships or more off the Spanish coast and in the Caribbean. Such dangers could only be thwarted by largely ineffective galley patrols in both places, or by more successful Spanish and (from 1552) Portuguese galleons between the Iberian coast and the forward island base in the Azores. The Ottoman naval offensive of the 1560s also brought Turkish and Barbary corsairs in squadrons of six galliots or more into the Atlantic to join in the assault. Indeed, a Turkish corsair squadron entered the anchorage of Cadiz during the late summer of 1568 and burned three of Menendez de Aviles’ original twelve galleons preparing for the first sortie of the Armada Real. But the Moslem danger diminished as the Ottomans pulled back to their Central Mediterranean defense perimeter during the 1570s, and the Armada Real assumed its permanent escort role. Even following Menendez’ departure to lead an expedition against Holland in 1574 (when he died), the system continued with unqualified success for over two centuries. Stragglers from the convoy occasionally fell prey to corsairs, but the Armada Real was rarely intercepted by any formidable enemy force over the ensuing decades, the first time not coming until 1628.

Looking for something else, I recently found the following in ‘Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy’ by John D. Harbron (it documents the Spanish SOL from early 18th Century) about the armament of early Spanish SOLs:

4th Rate and fast sailer, 60 Gun Ship (Service Year 1717)–24 x 18#, 26 x 12#, 10 x 6#

Harbron indicates that the these 60’s were not designed to fight in a line of battle against the capital ships of their time but were heavy escorts, intended to defeat British and French privateers and pirates in the Caribbean and elsewhere. They were used to escort the Gold and Silver convoys from the Caribbean across the Atlantic to Spain. One voyage was also made during the early 1730s around the Cape of Horn to the Pacific to escort in the great Manila galleons.  This was only on their last leg of sailing into Panama.

Manila Galleons: what a target for your large well organised Pirate! Alas somewhat out of the league your average pirate, as would be the Spanish convoys escorted by those special anti-pirate 60-gunners.

Nostra Senora de Covandonga 50-guns 1731-1743

Nostra Senora del Pilar de Zaragoza 50-guns 1732-1750

This is from an article published in Warship 1991 ‘The Last Manila Galleon’ In the article they describe the last Spanish Galleon’s that sailed between Manila in the Philippines across the Pacific to Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico.

One of the last Manila Galleon’s were the Covandonga captured by Anson in 1743, the Pilar which broke up on the voyage to Acapulco in 1750 and the ships built to replace Covandonga and Pilar at Manila the

Nuestra Senora del Rosario y los Santos Reyes 60-guns 1746-1762

Santisima Trinidad y Nuestra Senora del Buen Fin 70-guns 1750-1762

These were enormous ships; Rosario was 188 ft overall with 156 ft keel, 56 ft beam, and a 26 ft depth in hold and was pierced for 60 guns the Santisima Trinidad was even larger. For comparison the Spanish navy at that time had designed a 60 gun 4th rate as the best ship for their needs, these commonly measured 143 ft in length and 39 ft in breadth.

The Rosario and Santisima Trinidad were terrible sailers; they had enormous upper works and could only sail in a following wind. In 1756 Santisima Trinidad took over 7 months to make the voyage from Manila to Mexico, 82 passengers died on the voyage including the former governor of the Philippines returning to Spain.


Navío Nuestra Señora del Pilar de Zaragoza, 50-guns 1732-1750. A Manila Galleon of the eighteenth century.

Pacific Routes-Manila Galleons

After the discovery of a sea route from the Philippines to Mexico in 1565, the Spanish began employing a highly profitable, though dangerous, trade route. Ships especially outfitted to carry large cargoes set sail from Acapulco, carrying silver mined in the Americas, and headed to Manila, where the metal was exchanged for Chinese silks, porcelains, and ivory, as well as for fragrant goods from the Spice Islands and jewels from Burma, Ceylon, and Siam. The galleons then returned the much sought-after Asian goods back to Acapulco, where they were carried overland to Mexico City and then sent across the Atlantic to Spain. The first Manila galleon set sail for Acapulco in 1573.

Twice each year the Spaniards dispatched the fabled Manila galleon from Acapulco with silver bullion bound across the Pacific to the Philippine Islands, claimed by Spain upon their discovery by Ferdinando Magellan in 1521. On its return passage the galleon found the favorable westerlies at the latitude of Japan and then sailed down the California coast with the current to Mexico, bringing back rich cargoes of silk goods. Spain’s Atlantic trade was also highly regulated. A fleet of vessels sailed from Spain to the Caribbean each spring and returned home the following winter. Spanish naval vessels protected the flota, as it was called, from the warships and privateers of European rivals as well as from the pirates who infested the Caribbean and Bahamian waters. Fortified harbors at Cartegena on the Spanish Main and Havana on the island of Cuba gave further shelter to the fleet. In 1565 Spain had also established a settlement in Florida at St. Augustine to protect the strategic Straits of Florida, through which its plate fleet sailed on its passage home late each winter.

Whereas the wind-aided passage from Acapulco to Manila took only eight to ten weeks, the return trip from Manila to Acapulco took between four and six months. Navigating the treacherous Philippine archipelago with an overloaded galleon often took over a month, and many ships that did not complete the journey before typhoon season began perished in the rough weather. Because the profits from the Manila galleon trade averaged 30 to 50 percent, adequate provisions were often rejected in favor of loading more goods on the galleons. Consequently, many ships saw 30 to 40 percent of their crews perish, with losses of 75 percent not uncommon in some years. Despite these risks, however, the Manila galleon trade continued for nearly 250 years, remaining an important source of income for Spanish merchants.

In the absence of any other centre of settlement in the whole Pacific, the Manila galleons were the only lifeline between New Spain and the Philippines. With the whole economy of Spanish Manila depending on them, they braved the winds and made the voyage once every year from Acapulco to Manila, and back again to Acapulco. In the last decades of the sixteenth century, as many as three or four ships might sail together. In 1593 the Spanish government, responding to years of protests from traders both in America and in the peninsula, restricted the sailings to two ships a year, with a limit on the amount of goods they could carry. Later, in 1720, a decree established that two ships should be the rule, though it remained normal for only one ship to do the crossing.

The sailings were unique in world history. The first galleon crossed the Pacific in 1565, the last sailed in 1815: for two and a half centuries the ships maintained, almost without a break, their perilous and lonely voyage across the vast ocean. Vessels sailed from Cavite in Manila Bay in June or July, helped by the monsoon winds out of the southwest. They drifted for five or more months across the Pacific. When they arrived in Acapulco a fair was held at which the goods were traded. At Acapulco they loaded up with silver and passengers, then returned in March to catch the northeast trade winds back across the Pacific.

The trip from Manila was the ‘longest continuous navigation in the world’, lasting an average of six months, though there were ships that did not make it in less than nine. The voyage was always accompanied by high mortality, without counting the extreme risk from storms. A witness in Mexico reported how one vessel, the Mora, ‘left China on the first of July 1588 and arrived in Acapulco on the third of February, after forty-three people had died on the voyage’. There were many terrible cases, like the Santa Margarita in 1600 which was beaten about by storms and in eight months was only able to reach the Marianas, by which time a mere fifty of the two hundred and sixty on board had survived; of the survivors all were killed by natives save one who escaped to tell the tale. In 1603 the San Antonio, which carried the richest cargo known till that date, as well as many of the Spanish élite fleeing from the Chinese uprising in Manila, was simply swallowed up by the sea somewhere out in the Pacific. In 1657 one ship reached Acapulco after more than twelve months at sea: all on board were dead. Laden with fabulous treasure and the coveted prey of all, the vessels succumbed to the enemy only four times and always to the English: in 1587, 1709, 1743 and 1762. Many more, unfortunately, to a total of well over thirty, fell foul of storms or simply disappeared at sea. The return from Acapulco was shorter, an average of four months.

The conditions of life on so long a crossing are fully documented by an Italian apothecary, Francesco Gemelli, who made the voyage in 1697:

There is hunger, thirst, sickness, cold, continual watching, and other sufferings, besides the terrible shocks from side to side caused by the furious beating of the waves. The ship swarms with little vermin bred in the biscuit, so swift that in a short time they not only run over cabins, beds and the very dishes the men eat upon, but fasten upon the body. Abundance of flies fall into the dishes of broth, in which there also swim worms of several sorts. In every mouthful of food there went down an abundance of maggots. On fish days the common diet was rank old fish boiled in water and salt; at noon we had kidney beans, in which there were so many maggots that they swam at the top of the broth.

Anson’s Cruise (1740–1744)

George Anson’s capture of a Manila galleon by Samuel Scott.


PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): West coast of Spanish America and Manila, Philippines

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Britain hoped to launch a preemptive strike against Spain in anticipation of the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe by cutting off Spain’s supply of wealth from the Americas.

OUTCOME: Britain failed to prevent Spain from entering the European war or to do much damage at all strategically, though Commodore George Anson’s diminished fleet did manage to harass Spain’s West Coast outposts in America, to capture one treasure-laden Spanish galleon, and to pave the way for British expansion in the Pacific.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Britain, slightly in excess of 1,000; Spain, unknown

CASUALTIES: Britain, around 1,000 dead, mostly from illness and shipwreck

When the tangled web of European alliances appeared to be leading Britain into what would become the War of the AUSTRIAN SUCCESSION in 1740, the English Crown dispatched Commodore George Anson (1697–1762) to raid Spain’s Pacific coast possessions—Chile, Peru, and Mexico— and to attack Spanish galleons on the high seas. Embroiled in the machinations of Prussia’s Frederick the Great (1712–86) against the presumptive heir to the Austrian throne, Maria Theresa (1717–80), Britain’s royal command hoped to avoid a head-to-head conflict with Spain on the Continent by cutting off its supply of income at the source, Spain’s American colonies.

Given the commission in 1739, Anson was unable actually to begin his mission until mid-September of 1740 because of compounded delays in provisioning and in finding enough men—the mission, after all, required by its very nature that he circumnavigate the world. The tardy departure, however, cost Anson the element of surprise on which he had counted. Though the Spanish had become aware of British intentions and Spain’s colonies had been warned to prepare for attack, Anson nevertheless set sail with a fleet of six warships—his flagship Centurion, plus Gloucester, Severn, Pearl, Wager, Tyral—and one supply vessel, Anna Pink. All were poorly manned, since the entire squadron boasted only 977 sailors, mostly untrained. There were some 200-plus marines among them, but they were fresh recruits with only minimal knowledge of the sea. Anson was lucky to have even them—an urgent request from Anson for more soldiers before shipping out had netted him a contingent of patients from a local hospital. Leading an ill-trained force in a late start against a ready enemy made many, including Anson himself, believe the mission was doomed from the start.

Once at sea, matters only grew worse. Another effect of starting in September was that Anson would have to approach Cape Horn in the autumn, when the westerlies were at their peak. By the time Anson’s fleet began to be battered by gale-force winds, the ships’ crews were all suffering from a severe outbreak of scurvy. Whipped about by storms and manned by sailors debilitated with scurvy, only three ships in Anson’s fleet—Centurion, Gloucester, and Tyral—survived the passage round the Horn. Anson’s fleet was cut in half, his fighting force, such as it was, reduced by some two-thirds, and his original mission effectively dead in the water. But Anson was a capable and imaginative commander, and he simply redefined his objectives. He set sail for Acapulco, fighting his way up the coast and hoping to ambush the famed “Manila Galleon,” a Spanish treasure ship—the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga—before it left the Mexican port homeward bound to Manila. Anson missed the Spanish ship by two weeks, arriving at Acapulco in September 1741.

For two years after rounding the Horn, Anson ravaged the western shores of the Americas, working his way up the coast first to Mexico and then beyond. After he had lost two more ships, Anson, determined to continue around the globe, decided to make a north Pacific crossing to China. When he reached the Portuguese settlement of Macao (near modern-day Hong Kong) on November 13, 1742, he arrived only with his flagship and some 210 men. Nevertheless, the Centurion was the first British warship to sail into Chinese waters, and its arrival created an uproar. The Portuguese, worried about the precarious trade agreements and protocol arrangements they had made with Chinese leaders in Canton, initially refused Anson’s request for provisions and repairs despite pressure from Britain’s East India Company. After careful negotiations with the Chinese, Anson secured his provisions and— recruiting more men—set sail in the spring of 1743, once again hoping to intercept and capture the Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga.

Sailing with a reinforced crew fueled by dreams of immense wealth, Anson departed Macao heading south toward the Philippines. In the South China Sea Anson lay in wait for the Manila-bound treasure ship. Greatly outnumbered but with superior weaponry and a greedy crew hungry for loot, the Centurion captured the Cavadonga after a fierce battle on June 20, 1743. Victory was sweet for the beleaguered Englishman. The booty came to somewhat more than 1.3 million pieces of eight and some 35,000 ounces of silver, worth a total of about £400,000. Thus fortified, Anson and his crew continued on their voyage around the world, arriving in London in June 1744 to a conqueror’s welcome as the treasure they had captured was paraded through the streets in 32 wagons.

Anson may have failed at his mission, meeting none of the objectives set for him by the Royal Navy command, but his world cruise, highlighted by the sailing of the first British warship into Chinese waters and by the capture of the Manila galleon, became one of the more famous voyages in naval history. Despite the loss of all but one ship and more than 1,000 men, Anson returned a national hero, and his cruise sparked a wave of British expansion into the Pacific. Anson, a man of some imagination and initiative at a time when the Royal Navy was known for anything but the vision and pluck of its officers, not only became George, Lord Anson, the leading admiral of his day, but also went down in history as the “Father of the Modern British Navy.”

Further reading: W. V. Anson, Life of Admiral Lord Anson, the Father of the British Navy, 1697–1762 (London: J. Murray, 1912); S. W. C. Pack, Admiral Lord Anson: The Story of Anson’s Voyage and Naval Events of His Day (London: Cassell, 1960); L. A. Wilcox, Anson’s Voyage (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970).