Capturing Gibraltar I

Charles Holloway, the engineer, is amongst the principal officers recorded in the commemorative painting of the Siege of Gibraltar by George Carter.

Chevalier D’Arcon’s ‘floating batteries’ (Unknown 1781)

At the start of the siege in 1779, King Carlos III had asked for ideas on capturing Gibraltar. Of the sixty-nine replies, most were too outlandish to consider seriously. One that came to the fore was presented by Pedro Pablo Abarca de Bolea, the Count of Aranda, who proposed a massive Franco-Spanish invasion of England in order to force the British government to concede to various demands, including Spain taking possession of Gibraltar. This plan was received favourably, but shrank in size and scope after being discussed, amended and agreed with the French, resulting in the invasion attempt that had failed so dismally.

When the sustained bombardment of Gibraltar also failed to bring the garrison to its knees, the other plans were considered once again, and in July 1781 that of the forty-seven-year-old French military engineer, Jean-Claude-Eléonor Le Michaud d’Arçon, was chosen. His suggestion was for a combined attack from land and sea, relying especially on a bombardment from formidable floating gun batteries. There had been few previous attempts to build and use such vessels, and d’Arçon’s planned attack against Gibraltar would be the first to employ elaborately designed and constructed floating batteries as the main thrust of an attack. Warships were effectively floating batteries, because their main purpose was to carry as many cannons as possible to counter enemy warships, but they did not have a great deal of protection against cannonballs fired at them. At close range, solid shot could smash through both sides of a warship, and they were particularly vulnerable to red-hot shot, which might burn right through the bottom of a ship, set it on fire or ignite the gunpowder magazines. They could not withstand prolonged artillery fire from batteries on land and had no chance of making a dent in strongly built masonry defences, such as those on Gibraltar. D’Arçon therefore wanted to create gun batteries that floated on the sea, but had the resilience and firepower of land batteries.

By April 1782 he had been working on his plan for several months and had spent a considerable time surveying the coastline and defences of Gibraltar. From time to time suspicious activity was noticed, as on one occasion when Horsbrugh recorded: ‘At five in the morning the Vanguard and Repulse prames fired each a shot at a small boat they supposed to be sounding or reconnoitring.’ Using such a small boat in the dead of night, d’Arçon avoided being wounded or captured while he took soundings close to Gibraltar, but the surveying was only the beginning, because the major work was in the preparation of the floating batteries, which started in Cadiz and then shifted to Algeciras.

British newspapers also published other details they had learned about d’Arçon:

His plan has been adopted, and requires only 18,000 men. He is now at Algesiras, busy in the construction of boats, which are so formed as not to be overset or burnt. It is supposed that the principal attack will be made by sea, towards the New Mole … and the advanced works, which are daily encreasing, will unite in the general onset, the success of which, if not beyond doubt, appears at least very probable to those who are acquainted with the abilities of the engineer.

The attack on the Rock would be a battle between engineers: d’Arçon and his staff, who were devising novel methods of assault, pitted against William Green and his engineers, who were doing everything they could think of to defend Gibraltar.

News of d’Arçon’s scheme soon reached the garrison, and on 11 April one soldier wrote in his diary:

By letters from Portugal, by a boat this morning, we learn that the enemy are fitting up a number of ships, at Cadiz, intended for floating batteries to come against the walls: it is said they are to be lined with cork and oakum, and rendered shot and shell proof; that the Duke de Crillon is to have the command of the army in camp, and that, as soon as he arrives with the conquering troops from Minorca, the regular siege against this place will commence.

Having suffered so much for nearly three years, the soldier was appalled by the arrogance of the suggestion that, up to now, it had not been a proper siege. ‘In the name of all that is horrible in war,’ he raged, ‘what is meant by a siege, if bombarding, cannonading, and blockading on all sides … is not one?’ The idea that the French would now start a ‘regular siege’ probably emanated from their disdain for the Spanish military effort.

D’Arçon’s plan was to convert a number of merchant ships into floating batteries. The work had already begun at Cadiz, where the internal frames of each ship were strengthened and the hull covered with cork and oakum. The unpicked fibres from lengths of old rope were called ‘oakum’, while ‘junk’ was the old rope itself. On Gibraltar, the floating batteries were not only referred to as battering ships, but also as ‘junk ships’ because of the old rope used in their construction. Over this flexible layer of cork and oakum, a complete hull was built of new timber, resulting in a triple-thickness hull designed to absorb the impact of cannonballs, in the same way that worn-out rope made into mats was used by the garrison to absorb the impact of cannonballs fired at their gun batteries. In March one batch of ships had been brought to Algeciras for the next stage of conversion into floating batteries, and more arrived in early May, but Ancell heard that onlookers were not impressed: ‘The eight large ships that arrived over the way the 9th instant [9 May] are hauled close to the shore, and are unrigging, and those that arrived on the 24th March have proceeded to the Orange Grove. It is currently reported that they are lined with cork, and are to be converted into batteries, but most people think that they are more fit for fire-wood, than attacking a fortress.’

This work was taking place within sight of Gibraltar, and the progress of the ships was a subject of constant interest, with Horsbrugh recording what was happening only a few days later: ‘in the Bay of Algaziras they are begun to cut down the quarter deck and poops of the two ships lately hauled in shore, on which work a number of boats and men appear to be employed’. They were being prepared for one or two specially strengthened gun decks within the hull that could support large cannons. Towards the end of May, it became obvious that the ships were also being given additional protection. ‘This forenoon we had a tolerable good view of the Enemy at work on their shipping at Algaziras,’ wrote Horsbrugh. ‘They are covering their larboard [port] sides with timber or planks, which is no doubt intended as a defence against our shot &c.’ Speculation was rife, and another soldier commented: ‘The enemy have been fully employed these ten days past on two very large ships at Algesiras, thickening the larboard side with light materials. They have cut out eleven or twelve ports between decks, and shortened the larboard waist. I suppose they intend to make the upper deck splinter proof, as well as the sides shot proof. From every appearance, they will be snug batteries on the water.’

Because the starboard side was not being reinforced, the assumption was that the floating batteries were intended to fire only from their port side towards the garrison. They would therefore need to be towed into position by boats and be securely anchored, which would make them stationary targets. There was widespread scepticism, and Ancell remarked that ‘most of the garrison are of opinion, from their construction, that they will be found of very little use when they attack our walls, as they never will be able to tow them near enough to do any material execution, for should they daringly come on, their boats will be inevitably cut off by the grape shot from the garrison’.

Progress on the siegeworks slowed down while every effort was concentrated on the floating batteries. The Spanish firing also began to be aimed much more at the garrison’s upper batteries – including Koehler’s guns – that overlooked the isthmus, as Drinkwater saw: ‘The cannonade from the Enemy was now principally directed at our upper batteries. The rock-gun, mounted on the summit of the northern front, was become as warm, if not warmer than any other battery, and scarcely a day passed without some casuals [casualties] at that post.’ Most of the guns at the northern front were positioned on a series of terraces at the western side of the Rock, allowing gun batteries to be ranged in lines to face Spain. On the eastern side of Gibraltar at the north front, the terrain was too steep to establish many gun batteries. Although the sheer cliff face made an assault impossible, the lack of guns able to cover the eastern approach meant that the Spaniards could get very close this way. One legend is constantly repeated about the search for a solution:

the Governor, attended by the Chief Engineer [William Green] and staff made an inspection of the batteries at the north front. Great havoc had been made in some of them by the enemy’s fire, and for the present they were abandoned whilst the artificers were restoring them. Meditating for a few moments over the ruins, he said aloud, ‘I will give a thousand dollars to anyone who can suggest how I am to get a flanking fire upon the enemy’s works.’

At this point, Sergeant Major Henry Ince apparently proposed a tunnel, though there is no evidence that a reward was ever paid or even offered. After discussing such an idea in detail with Colonel Green, Eliott had in fact issued official orders for a tunnel a few days earlier than this supposed conversation, on 1 May: ‘To carry on a cannon communication by means of a souterrain gallery six feet high and 6 feet broad cut thro’ the solid rock beginning … above Farrington’s Battery, proceeding round towards the North East to a very favourable Notche in the Rock, nearly under the Royal Battery, in a commanding situation, being about 640 feet above the Isthmus, and will admit to form a level for a well shouldered establishment of two guns at least.’

The plan was to drive a tunnel eastwards, behind the cliff face, emerging at what they called ‘the Notch’ or ‘the Hook’, a projecting part of the rock face that was topped by an inaccessible platform nearly halfway up the cliff face, which it was hoped would be suitable as a gun emplacement, rather like a bastion, giving a wide field of fire over the area that they were currently unable to reach. It would then be possible, Eliott said in his orders, to respond to ‘any attack or approaches the Enemy may endeavour to push from the Devil’s Tower towards the pass of the Inundation at Lower Forbes, and will flank in an eminent degree any works they may advance towards the outer line … and may also command the access to, as well as the anchorage behind the mountain, all between the north east and south east quarters’.

It took until 25 May to start the tunnel: ‘This morning Sergt. Major Ince of the Artificer Company with 12 miners and labourers begun a new work at Greens Lodge above Willis’s to cut a dreft or subterraneous passage through the Rock to a declivity where a battery is to be made to annoy the enemy.’ Gibraltar nowadays has over 30 miles of tunnels and chambers, but tunnelling had never been attempted before Ince began his work. The mining was done using basic hand tools, with gunpowder for blasting, and the resulting debris was cleared away by hand. It would be a slow process, and time was pressing considering that an assault on the Rock was imminent.

D’Arçon’s plan was that after the floating batteries, gunboats and some warships had battered the garrison into submission, backed up by the gun batteries of the Spanish Lines and the advance works, thousands of troops would invade the Rock in several places, rather than a single massive assault against the strongest defences at the north end of Gibraltar. The attack would be supported by numerous warships of the combined French and Spanish fleet, as well as by every available smaller boat from the locality. Many of the troops were to be transported in small landing craft that had been specially designed by him so that they could attack weaker points in the defences to the south.


Capturing Gibraltar II

A projected assault upon Gibraltar.

The build-up of forces ranged against Gibraltar was increasing daily, and just as the tunnelling started, one soldier noted: ‘above ninety sail of Spanish transports arrived this evening, with a bomb-ketch, from the east, with troops and stores for the camp’. A few days later, he observed: ‘the number of vessels that have arrived at Algesiras exceeds a hundred: about ten battalions of troops have been landed from them’. Horsbrugh was more precise: ‘the enemy are pitching tents for a regiment in white to the right of the Catalan Camp on the south west face of the Queen of Spains Chair, and for the regiment in blue uniform on the west of Bona Vista Barracks’. This was a massive reinforcement of French forces who were no longer needed on Minorca.

The floating batteries were being monitored from Gibraltar, with increasing concern as more and more of the old merchant ships were converted. Although the garrison now had gunboats – some completed, others nearly so – to cope with the menace of the Spanish gunboats, it was difficult to see how they could withstand an attack by floating batteries. Spain was pouring everything into the scheme, and in Boyd’s journal it was acknowledged that Gibraltar’s inhabitants were in a state of terror: ‘The Enemy have now, about two hundred sail of vessels between Algaziers and the Orange Grove … This show of shipping before us puts our inhabitants and women in a great panic. They are hourly gathering up the little remains that devastation has left them, and carries it to caves, creeks and corners in the Rock, in order to save what they can of their remaining substances, as we daily expect a very heavy attack and storm both by sea and land.’ The inhabitants were still in makeshift huts and tents in the south, as were many of the soldiers, and after coming off guard duty, William Maddin from the 12th Regiment raised his musket, ‘making believe to shoot a girl in camp’. He had forgotten to unload his weapon and shot nine-year-old Maria Palerano, an inhabitant, through the head. She died instantly. Towards the end of May, Maddin was put on trial for murder and acquitted.

In spite of the anxiety of waiting for the attack, unexpectedly good health was recorded within the garrison at the start of June: ‘The Doctors reports does not show one man in the scurvy, and the fever brought here by the 97th Regiment is almost spent (as the men recovers very fast), neither has it been very fatal, so that we are at present, in general, in a much better state of health through the Garrison than we’ve been in since the Siege begun.’ It probably helped that supplies were managing to reach the garrison from Leghorn, Algiers and Portugal, and one Portuguese boat recently obtained thirty thousand oranges and a few casks of oil at Tetuan by the captain claiming the cargo was for Cadiz, then bringing it undetected to Gibraltar. Although the most effective remedy for scurvy was known to be fruit and vegetables, other ideas were still being pursued, and the Garrison Orders in early June said: ‘One quarter and half of a pint of vinegar to be issued to every ration, till further orders. The surgeons of the different corps are of opinion that this will be a great preventative in the sad effects of the scurvy.’

One asset to the garrison was the completion of the gunboats, with the final one being launched on 4 June, the king’s birthday. There were twelve in all, bearing suitable names such as Dreadnought and Vengeance. The day was celebrated with a royal salute of forty-four guns, the age of the king, all directed towards the Spanish siegeworks, while the ‘Governor honoured himself this morning with a captain’s guard and a standard of colours of the 73rd Regiment of Highlanders dressed in their tartan plaids’. There was also another glimmer of hope – that red-hot shot or heated cannonballs might deal with the floating batteries. Although known for decades as a theoretical technique, this dangerous procedure had until now been rarely used. It also required a great deal of fuel, which was in short supply. Solid cast-iron cannonballs were heated in a furnace and were fired by placing a cartridge into the gun, ramming down a well-soaked wad, followed by a heated cannonball. Another wet wad was rammed in on top of the red-hot shot if the cannon was to be fired while pointed downwards. Experiments at the beginning of the siege had established that a cannonball took about twenty-five minutes to heat and was still hot enough to ignite gunpowder after fifty minutes. On hitting the target, the intense heat made red-hot shot extremely difficult to deal with, and it set fire to anything combustible.

The technique of using red-hot shot was difficult to master. Early on, some equipment for heating shot had been set up, with Captain Paterson noting that ‘a detachment of artillery ordered to practise the motions of firing red hot shot daily’. These ‘motions’ were probably done with cold shot, but now that an attack was imminent, the gunners needed to be able to use the real thing. The red-hot shot furnaces, sometimes called grates or forges, comprised a strong iron framework to support a grid or rack to hold the cannonballs, with a fire of wood, coal and coke underneath. The heated shot was manhandled with specially made tools such as tongs and two-handled shot carriers, which were all made on Gibraltar by blacksmiths from the artificers.

The loaded cannons had to be aimed and fired quickly before the shot burned through the wad and fired the gun prematurely, which is what occurred at a practice session in early June: ‘On the 7th, our artillery practised from the King’s Bastion with red-hot shot against the Irishman’s brig.’ A few weeks earlier, this brig had sailed towards the Old Mole, but ran aground when fired on by the Spaniards. After being rescued, the captain was severely rebuked, but he explained that before leaving Cork in Ireland he had heard about the successful sortie and was told that the Old Mole, his old anchoring place in peacetime, was open. The garrison gunners were now using his vessel for red-hot shot practice: ‘In the first round, one of the artillery-men putting in the shot, the fire by some means immediately communicated to the cartridge, and the unfortunate man was blown from the embrasure in some hundred pieces. Two others were also slightly wounded with the unexpected recoil of the carriage.’

By now, the tunnel being cut by Ince was progressing steadily, but on the same day as this accident, Horsbrugh said that two miners were injured: ‘two men of the 72nd Regiment had the misfortune to lose each a leg by the blowing up of a mine in the communication we are making through the Rock to get at the Notch on the North Front, and one of them died soon after being carried to the Hospital.’ Because they were mercifully rare, such accidents were more newsworthy than the commonplace casualties caused by the Spanish bombardment, but an incident a few days later, on 11 June, turned out to be the worst single day for casualties in the last three years. Garrison working parties were making considerable improvements and repairs to the defences while the Spaniards were focused on the floating batteries and their guns remained fairly quiet, but during a random episode of firing, a single shot caused havoc. An emotional description was set down in Boyd’s journal:

Between 10 and 11 o’clock this forenoon a large shell from the enemy fell in the door of one of the small magazines at Willis’s, on Princess Ann’s Battery (where a great working party were repairing the fortification there); the shell on its explosion blew up the magazine which contained about 96 barrels, or, 9,600 pounds of powder, killing 13 men and wounding 12 more. This has been the most fatal day since the beginning of the siege. How horrid and dreadful to behold the terrible blast and explosion! To feel the town and the Rock tremble, and to see men, stones, timber, casks, mortar and earth flying promiscuously in the dark smoky cloud far above the surface, in the air; and on their coming down are dashed to pieces on the craggy rocks, some thrown headlong down the dreadful precipice into the Lines, a most shocking exit! having not time to offer up to God a single prayer preparatory to their acceptance in an everlasting state.

The huge explosion was clearly visible to those at the Spanish Lines, who were heard cheering at the sight of the disaster. Their firing continued to concentrate on the same spot, in the hopes of another spectacular hit: ‘The enemy poured in shot and shells upon that part as thick as hail, so that it was night before all the killed and wounded were gathered up.’ Because a mixture of soldiers had been drafted into the working party doing the repairs, the final casualty list was thirteen rank-and-file soldiers and one drummer killed, with many more injured.

Over at Algeciras, tents were now visible for the workmen who were converting the old warships into floating batteries. Even with powerful telescopes, though, observations from the Rock could yield only a limited amount of information about what the Spaniards and French were preparing, and all kinds of rumours circulated. Definite information at last arrived on 21 June from two former Genoese inhabitants, who had been captured when bringing a cargo to Gibraltar from Algiers. They had been taken to Algeciras, from where they had just managed to escape in the prison-ship’s boat. From them, it was learned that French reinforcements had indeed arrived, that ten ships were being converted into floating batteries, though a shortage of carpenters was causing delays, and that the Spaniards were in high spirits.

On the same day, the French troops finished landing, and it was said that there were now thirty thousand men in the camp. The commander of the Minorca siege, the Duc de Crillon, had also arrived to take over command of the siege of Gibraltar, and the two Genoese, Drinkwater said, ‘informed us that the grand attack was fixed to be in September, but that all, both sailors and soldiers, were much averse to the enterprise’. If they were correct, then the garrison still had at least two more months to prepare.

Four Brothers in a Conquest: The Alvarados and Guatemala I

These heady theological uncertainties in Seville seemed far away from the practical politics of New Spain. For another remarkable expedition mounted by Cortés was led by the brilliant, brutal, unpredictable, fascinating, and brave Pedro de Alvarado, an Extremeño from Badajoz, to the Tehuantepec peninsula and subsequently to Guatemala. Far away Guatemala may seem, yet the Spaniards were conquistadors from Extremadura. In November 1522, Alvarado had obtained a large encomienda in watery Xochimilco, just to the south of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, and then one in Tututepec in Tlaxcala. He had been used by Cortés since the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan in August 1521, in a variety of ways: in Veracruz, in relation to Cristóbal de Tapia, the King’s representative (or the bishop of Burgos’s), sent improbably in December 1521 to seize command from Cortés; then in Pánuco in 1523 to deal with Francisco de Garay. But this complex and usually successful Extremeño now wanted a theater of conquest for himself.

In December 1523, Cortés gave Alvarado the mission to go to Guatemala to see if indeed, as he had been told, there were there “many rich and splendid lands inhabited by new and different races.” Presumably Cortés had also been informed that the region was fertile, that it produced both cotton and cacao, and that it had once contained the wild forebears of such plants as maize, tomato, avocado, and sweet potato. Cortés was always anxious to give his close friends a chance to fulfill themselves. With Alvarado in particular, he was always generous, for he had known him since their childhood together in Extremadura and throughout the conquest of Mexico. Alvarado’s reckless valor (with his own life, as well as those of others) and insolent pride impressed Cortés, who was prudent, cautious, cultivated, and patient: it was the charm of opposites. Alvarado, sometimes known as Tonatiuh (Son of the Sun) or sometimes just El Sol (Sun), to the native Indians because of his fair hair, height, good looks, and blue eyes, was the most popular of the many brave men whom Cortés had in his army. Bernal Díaz wrote that Cortés had asked Alvarado “to try and bring the people [of Guatemala] to peace [with Spain] without waging war and to preach matters concerning our holy faith by means of the interpreters which he took with him.” He took the opportunity to say that Alvarado was “very well made and active, of good features and bearing, and both in appearance and speech so pleasing that he seemed always smiling.” He was an excellent horseman, liked rich clothes, always had round his neck a small gold chain on which hung a jewel, and he wore also a ring with a good diamond. Díaz del Castillo´s criticism was that he talked too much and sometimes cheated at totoloque. Others would complain that he was insensitive to the feelings of Indians, whom he treated as beneath contempt. Several of his soldiers in this journey to Guatemala later testified to his brutality.

Alvarado set off. The distance was, of course, considerable. Even now to travel by land from Mexico to Guatemala is a challenge. Aldous Huxley wrote of the journey from Oaxaca to Chiapas with awe. But he did not travel by foot or on a horse, as Alvarado did, seeing for himself the long line of the Pacific coast.

Alvarado took with him about 330 men, of whom 120 were horse, the rest infantrymen. He had four pieces of artillery, which he arranged to be pulled by Indians, and he had a strong force of crossbowmen and musketeers. It was a family expedition from the beginning. With him rode his brothers—Jorge, Gonzalo, and Gómez—all of whom had accompanied Cortés on his dramatic journeys, as well as two nephews, Diego and Hernando de Alvarado, and his future son-in-law, Francisco de la Cueva. He had a chaplain in the shape of Fray Bartolomé de Olmedo, the Mercedarian who had been with Cortés: He was responsible for 2,500 conversions before the end of 1524, when he died. All these friends and relations worshipped Pedro de Alvarado. In addition, Alvarado had with him a substantial number of “natives” from central Mexico—perhaps six thousand or seven thousand men, according to Antonio de Luna, in an inquiry of 1570—including, it would seem, both Mexica and people from Tlaxcala, the Spaniards’ chief allies. There seem also to have been a prudent number of black African slaves.

Alvarado took a month to reach Soconusco, a territory well known for its chocolate and, then as now, for its beautiful, large women. Jorge de Alvarado was allocated that place as an encomienda by his brother, Pedro (Cortés himself had had it for a year or two). It had been fully conquered by the Mexica only in the early years of the century, in the days of Montezuma, but it had been sending semiannual tribute to the Mexica in Tenochtitlan for forty years before that. It was known for its supply of beautiful green feathers from the quetzal bird. Probably the plumage in the famous headdress in Vienna derived from birds from here.

The Alvarados were now on the verge of entering present-day Guatemala. At that time, three dominant peoples lived there: the Quichés, the Cakchiquels, and the Tzutúhil. All were close in social structure to the Mexica, and their priests said that they and their leaders originally came from Tollan and Teotihuacan. Beyond were a warlike tribe called the Mam. Archaelogists argue that there had been three waves of invasion from the north. These northern invaders had brought with them the idea of cremation rather than burial, they used caves (in which they deposited deities) for worship, they had a cult of war, they had good metallurgical traditions, they had experimented with a bicephalous system of government in the style of Rome or Sparta, they had sunken ball courts with vertical walls, they preferred tortillas to tamales, and they had regular commercial relations with Tenochtitlan. They fought with grenades of pottery sometimes filled with fire, sometimes with wasps or hornets: they decapitated prisoners; and they had bark on which to write painted genealogical trees. Their people wore cotton clothing: the women sarongs, the men loincloths. They had above all brought down from old Mexico the god of rain, Tlaloc, and some of his companions in the pantheon of Mexican deities such as Xipe Totec, the terrifying flayed fertility god, and Xolotl, the evening star who was Quetzalcoatl’s half-brother. Their calendar contained, as did that of Tenochtitlan, a sacred cycle of fifty-two years. They did not celebrate human sacrifice on anything like the scale that was practiced in the sixteenth century by the Mexica, which makes one see that the legends suggesting that the practice had much increased in the last generations before the arrival of the Spaniards were probably right. Famous opponents were the only ones to be routinely killed.

Though the Quiché and the Cakchiquels were plainly related, they had fought one another for years over possession of cacao and cotton fields. That was what marked them. Had the Spaniards not come, the region would probably have been eventually conquered by the Mexica. The land, Alvarado reported to his leader, Cortés, was so thickly populated that “there are more people than Your Excellency has governed till now.” Like all comments at that time on populations, or the size of armies, that was an exaggeration. But archaeologists have found pyramidical mounds of old Guatemala in which there were fifteen million shards, perhaps from about half a million vessels, suggesting that the mounds must have been built in the early Christian era by ten to twelve thousand laborers.

The country included the Cuchumatan highlands, the most sensational nonvolcanic region of Central America. The name may signify “that which has come together with great force,” but it can also mean, in Nahuatl, “place of the parrot hunters.” There are also the jungle lowlands of Petén and a chain of active and geologically young volcanic peaks, which can be seen from the sea and which inspired Disraeli’s famous comment about the aging Whig cabinet of 1868.

Guatemala was also the land of Popol Vuh, a poem composed in the fourth century A.D. about the creation of the world. By 1500 it probably had as many versions as there are dialects of Maya, but the one that has survived is that of one of the leading clans of the Quiché. The book that contained it was traditionally said to have been obtained as a result of a journey to the Atlantic or Caribbean coast and would be consulted by the lords of Quiché when they sat in council. The Quiché referred to the volume as “The light which came from near the sea.” Other names for it were “Our place in the shadows” or “The dawn of Life.”

The existence of this remarkable poem along with high-class pottery, elaborate ball courts, and dance platforms for the performance of religious and historical music dramas, as well as the Annals of the Cakchiquel, made Guatemala one of the most sophisticated countries the Spaniards set out to conquer. Repetitive, contradictory, and often incomprehensible to the modern reader, Popol Vuh has about it an unquestionable profundity, which makes it a landmark of indigenous literature.

Once beyond Soconusco in January 1524, Alvarado sent messages to the lords of Guatemala asking them not to impede his progress but to submit themselves to him as the representative of Charles the Emperor. If they resisted, he declared, he would make war on them. He understandably received no reply. Such communications were relatively easy, since Nahuatl was understood in many Quiché and Cakchiquel towns. So Alvarado’s mercenaries from Tlaxacala or Tenochtitlan could talk together easily and secure supplies at least of maize made into tortillas, or into drink (atole), or even boiled in a leaf (tamale), as today.

Alvarado moved on, passing Zapotitlán, the land of the sapodilla plum. Afterwards, the journey became more difficult since they were obliged to continue along the coastal plain, the llanura costera, between the sparsely populated Sierra Madre de Chiapas, which rises to about 4,000 feet at its border with Oaxaca and to 10,000 feet on the southeast frontier into Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean. The mosquitoes never left the Spaniards, who suffered thereby more than if they had met ferocious enemies. These, too, they encountered, though on a small scale. On February 19, they struck inland and up the hillside. This was the first time that any European had seen, much less visited, these Pacific-facing hills.

The pueblos of the mountains were small clusters of twenty-four to thirty-six mud-walled houses with palm-leaf roofs. The only certain item in these houses was a tripodal stone for grinding corn—a rounded or rectangular slab of hard igneous rock whose grinding surface would have been worn in the center. The villages were usually undefended, there were no avenues or fine plazas, nor, indeed, any kind of urban planning. What they did have, though, was much superb monochrome or bichrome pottery made into bowls, pots, and incense burners with three legs, as well as figurines and whistles.

Popol Vuh seemed to have forecast the Spaniards’ arrival: “And it is not clear how they crossed the sea, They crossed over as if there had been no sea. Where the waters were divided, they crossed over.” The Quiché people were, therefore, on a war footing. They fell on Alvarado’s indigenous mercenaries with pleasure. Their temporary success was set back by Alvarado’s horsemen. But the Quiché had heard of the menace of the horsemen and recovered to attack the Spaniards from above, in a valley under the volcano Santa María, approximately where there is now the city of Quezaltenango (Xela in Maya). The attack was eventually held and pressed back, the Quiché leader Tecún Umán being killed, perhaps by Alvarado himself. The Maya insisted that Tecún Umán immediately became a god, in the shape of an eagle with quetzal plumes. The legendary ability of many Quiché to become animals impressed even Alvarado.

After the battle, the Spaniards rested several days, only to receive yet another attack by another Quiché army, numbering, so Alvarado grandly put it, twelve thousand. This was also defeated by a clever Spanish combination of artillery and cavalry. After this, the Quiché agreed to seek peace and invited Alvarado to negotiate with them at Utatlán, their main city, a characteristic hilltop fortress town, known for the legend of the so-called “marvellous Kings,” Gucumatz, who died in 1425, and Quicab, who died in 1475. Those mythical individuals have reminded some learned archaeologists of the great god Quetzalcoatl in Mexico (Ehecatl, in Guatemala) and there were in Guatemala certainly the circular temples with which that deity had been associated in Tenochtitlan. There were ceremonial plazas and buildings that served as tombs, painted temples, and good avenues alongside pyramids as in Teotihuacán. The fine pottery from here included many figurines. The Spaniards duly went there in March, by then knowing of the tribal hatreds between the Quichés and the Cakchiquels, with the last-named of whom Alvarado had just made an alliance and who were said to have provided him with four thousand men.

Four Brothers in a Conquest: The Alvarados and Guatemala II

Alvarado found the city closed. Rightly afraid of being trapped with his horses and all his followers if he went inside, he camped outside the walls. There he received a visit from two lords who emerged from inside Utatlán. The discussions went badly, and Alvarado imprisoned them. This infuriated the other Quiché leaders, who ordered an attack. Alvarado responded by putting the city to the torch and, in the fire, amid sporadic fighting, the leaders whom he had captured were burned.

Alvarado was later accused of inhumanity in this instance: A number of Spanish witnesses were asked in interminable later lawsuits in Spain if they knew that when “the said Pedro de Alvarado was the captain … at Utlatan [sic] and at Guatimala [sic] … certain lords came in peace and said Pedro de Alvarado seized them and burned them for no good reason other than that he wanted to know if they had any gold.” The accusations never ended, but Alvarado was never charged.

In April 1524, Alvarado turned on the Cakchiquel who, from their capital at Quahtematlan, had observed with pleasure the defeat of their Quiché enemies. All the same, they were fearful of the Spaniards with their guns, their horses, and not least, their terrifying war dogs. They urged Alvarado to take his army against the people of Atitlán, another town of the Cakchiquels, who had already shown their hostility to Spaniards by killing four messengers who had come to propose a pact. So on April 17, 1524, Alvarado led a detachment of sixty horse, 150 foot, and a large unit of Cakchiquels toward Atitlán. After a skirmish with Tzutu Indians by a lakeside, they reached their destination with ease. But the city was deserted, for the people were justifiably terrified. Alvarado did, however, find some Indians and sent them to tell their lords that he would make peace with them if they returned and declared themselves vassals of the King of Spain. The lords soon accepted these conditions, but whether they understood what they had undertaken is doubtful. The word vassal is not easily comprehended.

In May, Alvarado embarked on a new journey to the south of Guatemala to Panatcat (Escuintla), where some of Alvarado’s indigenous allies, especially some who had come with him from Texcoco, were caught off their guard and slaughtered. Alvarado punished the town by burning it. He continued onward, passing through Atepac, Tacuilulá, Taxisco, Moquisalco, and Nancintla, and across the river now known as the Río Paz, into what is now El Salvador. Everywhere the meeting between the Spaniards and the naturales was similar: The former were received in peace; the naturales then abandoned the town and fled to the hills, where they planned a resistance. The only serious battle was at Achiutla, the gateway to El Salvador, where about six thousand fighters launched a serious attack and killed many of Alvarado’s indigenous allies. No Spaniards died, but some were wounded, including Alvarado himself. An arrow went through his leg and left him for a time crippled, one leg seeming for a long while shorter than the other. Alvarado’s life was for several months at risk because of infection.

Alvarado eventually continued into El Salvador, putting up with further attacks at Tlacusqualco and halting at Cuzcatlán, the most important of these towns, where the Spaniards would shortly found a settlement that they named San Salvador. One of Alvarado’s soldiers, Román Lópes, would testify later that, on the way to this city, the population of all the towns en route “came out in peace and Alvarado then burned them and made slaves of the people and branded them.” Pedro González de Nájera, who had come to New Spain with Narváez, said the same: “This witness was with Pedro de Alvarado and was present when those concerned were burned because they desired to burn them.” The lords in this last place offered food, fruit, cloaks—and obedience. But they then fled to the hillside as usual. After two and a half weeks, the Spaniards moved on to Ixmide, which they reached on July 21, and where soon, because of the date, they decided to found Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (the day of Saint James, Santiago, is July 25). It would become the main city of the colony, though it suffered several changes of site (one can still see the narrow causeway that Alvarado and his men used to storm the old city). Alvarado gave this new city several municipal councillors or alcaldes ordinarios (Diego de Rojas from Seville and a son of Leonora de Alvarado, Baltasar de Mendoza) while his brother Gonzalo became the alguacil mayor (chief constable). Thus, the ways of Spain were once again transferred to a new site in an unknown country.

Here, eight months after leaving Mexico, Alvarado and his men rested. All his surviving indigenous troops except the loyal people of Tlaxcala made their way homeward. But “Tonatiuh” himself imposed on his Cakchiquel allies a tribute in gold, which he said that they had to pay even though they were helping him so substantially. The lords of the Cakchiquels refused and recommended all their people to abandon the cities and take refuge in the hills. The friendship between Alvarado and these people was thus broken.

But once again old hatreds were the best allies of the invaders. The Quichés and the people of Atitlán were happy to fight against their Cakchiquel enemies, even under new circumstances. The Cakchiquels had, however, learned new tactics from their months of alliance with the Spaniards, whom they forced to return to Quetzaltenango. Diego de Alvarado, nephew of Pedro, took two years reducing Cuzcatlán, while Gonzalo, his uncle, conquered the territory of the Mam between Chiapas and the Quiché. Gonzalo de Alvarado was named by his brother to conduct this campaign after it became evident that an abortive plan to burn the Spaniards at Atitlán in 1524 had been suggested to the Quiché leader, Chugna Huincelet, by the Mam, Caibil Balam. Chugna was killed, but his son Sequechul wanted to avenge him. Sequechul offered to guide Gonzalo to “the great and rich territory” of the Mam, which boasted what he explained was an abundant treasure.

For a year or so the initiative for further conquests lay with Gonzalo de Alvarado, not Pedro, who took many months to recover from the wound in his leg. Gonzalo had been in the Indies since 1510 and had been with Cortés throughout the great campaigns of conquest. He was devoted to his famous family and had even married into it since his wife, Bernardina, was his niece, being the daughter of Jorge de Alvarado (who himself had married Luisa de Estrada).

In July 1525, Gonzalo de Alvarado left Tecpán-Guatemala for the country of the Mam with forty horse, about eighty infantry, and two thousand or so Mexica and Quiché Indians, who acted either as porters or warriors in the early stages of the battles. He was delayed by the onset of rains. They went first to Totonicapán, on the edge of the Mam land, then to what they named the Río Hondo, “the deep river,” and seized the town of Mazatenango, which they re-christened San Lorenzo. Marching beyond that pueblo toward Huehuetenango, they met a Mam army from Malacatán. But Gonzalo de Alvarado charged it with his horsemen, and the Mam leader Cani Acab was killed by the Spanish commander himself with his lance. As so often after the death of a leader, the native resistance collapsed, and Gonzalo occupied Malacatán, whose inhabitants swiftly accepted to become vassals of the King of Spain.

The next Mam town to be occupied was Huehuetenango, where fine birds such as the quetzal, parrot, and cotinga could be found, with feathers for headdresses and cloaks, and whose inhabitants fled first to the fortress town of Zaculeu with ravines on three sides. This had been an important center of Mam culture for one thousand years. It had been captured by the Quichés in the early fifteenth century. But recently it had asserted what seemed to have been independence.

Gonzalo de Alvarado demanded its peaceful surrender: “Let it be known [to Caibil Balam] that our coming is beneficial to his people because we bring news of the true God and of the Christian religion sent by the Pope, the Vicar of Jesus, as of the Emperor King of Spain so that you may become Christians peacefully of your own free will. But if you should refuse our offer of peace, the death and destruction which will follow will be your own responsibility.” Gonzalo gave his opponents three days in which to consider his offer. No answer came. Instead, a Mam army came from the north to relieve Zaculeu. Gonzalo left his deputy, Antonio de Salazar, to continue the siege (Salazar had been with Narváez in New Spain and had subsequently been in most of Cortés’s battles round the lake of Tenochtitlan). He turned on the relief force, though by now his men were hungry, without much hope of food until Zaculeu was taken. The Spanish mercenaries were as usual held by the Indians, who were forced into defeat by the horsemen. Gonzalo returned to Zaculeu with starvation threatening. His surviving Indian auxiliaries were forced to the Indians, who were forced into defeat by the horsemen. Gonzalo returned to Zaculeu with starvation threatening. His surviving Indian auxiliaries were forced to eat dead horses. But then Juan de León Cardona, whom Pedro de Alvarado had made captain of the conquered Quiché territory, sent a substantial shipment of food. Zaculeu surrendered in September 1525, and Gonzalo assumed the command of all the western Cuchumatans.

By then, Pedro de Alvarado had recovered adequately from his wound to be able to contemplate a new expedition of his own, this time into Chiapas, seeking to meet his old commander and comrade Cortés, who was then en route for Higueras to punish the willful Cristóbal de Olid. Chiapas, it will be recalled, had some years before been conquered by Sandoval. Alvarado wanted Cortés’s support for his claim formally to become governor of Guatemala. But the dense jungles, the colossal rivers, and the wonderful mountains made any thought of meeting Cortés impracticable.

Alvarado returned to Guatemala, where he found that several of his settlements, such as San Salvador, had been destroyed. All the same, he had become attached to Guatemala and its people, even though he had treated them so harshly. Perhaps the landscape counted for him, improbable though it may seem. Relentless men have soft sides. The range of altitude, climate, and vegetation along the Pacific coast is astonishing. Perhaps he liked the cypresses, the high fertile valleys, the temperate climate, the volcanic stone for grinding maize and sharp knives, the availability of lime for mortar. The narrow coastal plain is very well watered. There was obsidian for weapons and iron pyrites with which to make looking glasses. There was a little gold in the streams, as well as copper, and also abundant fresh fish, and shellfish at the coast. There was bark for making paper, silk and cotton for quilted armor, tobacco, pumpkins for music, bees for honey. Some Spaniards were impressed by the diversity of gods in Guatemala, as by the ritual invoked on all occasions of celebration and by the speed with which Catholic saints were identified with local gods. Certainly this was a territory much richer than Alvarado’s hometown of Badajoz in Extremadura.

Hearing that Francisco de Montejo, a comrade of his in the early days of the campaign in New Spain, had been granted the governorship of Yucatán, Alvarado determined to return to Mexico-Tenochtitlan and then to Spain to obtain a similar nomination for himself in Guatemala. He had by then taken “such a fancy to this land of Guatemala and its people that he decided to stay there and colonise. So he laid the foundation for Santiago de Guatemala and prepared a cathedral.” He also established encomiendas and a town council for his new city, from whose members he went through the motions of requesting permission, as acting governor, to leave for Spain. His brother Jorge then became acting governor from August 1526.

Though the conquest of Guatemala was far from complete, Alvarado had made his mark there, and as Tonatiuh, Son of the Sun, he would be remembered in his absence. The Quiché lords would perhaps echo the prayer of the lords in Popol Vuh: “Heart of Sky, heart of earth, give me strength, give me the courage, in my heart, in my head, for you are my mountain and my plain.”

Significance of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar by Clarkson Stanfield

Artist’s conception of the situation at noon as Royal Sovereign was breaking into the Franco-Spanish line.

The gloss of the victory was taken off for the British ships with the news of Nelsons death. It is hard now to appreciate the effect of this news on the ships crews and on the nation as a whole, although Nelson is still regarded as a national hero in Britain, in 1805 he was THE national hero, and to lose him at the moment of his greatest victory was a bitter blow.

Nelson himself would have been bitter had he known the treatment his beloved Lady Hamilton and his daughter would get from a grateful nation. They were almost completely ignored. Instead the country decided to make Nelson’s brother, William, an earl, and voted him £99,000 with an annual pension of £5,000 a year. Frances, still formally Nelson’s wife, was granted £2,000 a year. Emma and Horatia got nothing. Without the pension from a grateful nation that Nelson had foreseen for her, and always famous for her extravagance, Emma eventually sank into poverty, even spending some time in prison for debt. After her release she went to live with Horatia in Calais and died there in January 1815.

Of the Combined Fleet, Bucentaure, Algeciras, Swiftsure, Intrepide, Aigle, Berwick, Achille, Redoubtable, Fougueux ( French), Santissima Trinidad, Santa Anna, Argonauta, Bahama, San Augustino, San Ildefonso, San Juan de Nepomuceno, and Monarca ( Spanish) were taken by the British. Redoubtable sank, Achille blew up, San Augustino and Intrepide burned, the British scuttled Santissima Trinidad and Argonauta, and in the gale that followed the battle Monarca, Fougueux, Aigle, and Berwick were wrecked. On the 23rd of October a sortie by French Commodore Julien Cosmao from Cadiz with Pluton, Indomptable, Neptuno, Rayo, and San Francisco de Asis attempted to recapture some of the British prizes. Santa Anna and Algeciras were recovered, but Neptuno, Indomptable, and San Francisco de Asis were wrecked and Rayo was taken by the Donegal and then wrecked.

On the 3rd of November, Admiral Strachan, with Caesar 80, Hero 74, Courageux 74, Namur 74, and four frigates defeated and captured the force of four French ships which had escaped at Trafalgar under Dumanoir: Formidable 80, Duguay-Trouin 74, Mont Blanc 74, and Scipion 74. All four are taken into the Royal Navy, with Formidable renamed Brave, Duguay-Trouin renamed Implacable, and the other two keeping their names. The Victory was towed into Gibraltar her masts and sails shot to pieces. The casualties were high, as might be expected in such a close fought action. The British lost 449 men killed and 1241 wounded (some of whom subsequently died), the French and Spanish fleets lost 4408 men killed and 2545 wounded, ( figures are from Lewis ‘A Social History of the Navy’).The ultimate outcome of the victory was to secure the supremacy of the British navy on the high seas for the next hundred years, and the end to any threat of invasion from France. It lead Napoleon to his Continental strategy, and possibly to his disastrous campaign against the Russians in 1812.


The time was approaching noon on October 21, 1805; the place was an expanse of open sea off Spain’s Atlantic shore between Cadiz and Gibraltar. Two fleets of warships, each sailing under clouds of white canvas, were slowly converging. It was not a mutually agreed-upon convergence: one fleet was desperately trying to escape, the other determinedly intent on overtaking. Weather-and superior seamanship on the part of the latter fleet-decreed that the escape attempt would fail and that two fleets would meet a few miles off a little-known inlet on the Spanish coastline called Trafalgar Bay.

The fleet that was fleeing was a combined Spanish and French force com manded by Admiral Pierre Villeneuve. The ships were part of an intricate plan developed by the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to give him naval supremacy in the English Channel for the four days he deemed necessary to transport the 100,000 troops Le Grande Armee from Boulogne to the English shore at Dover and accomplish the conquest of Great Britain. Consequently, Villeneuve was under orders to avoid an engagement with the Royal Navy, instead bringing his command intact into the Channel. Villeneuve did not have to be told twice to avoid a fight, for he had no stomach for facing the murderous, close-range broadsides of the British ships of the line. His crews, he knew all too well, were pitifully trained, poorly motivated, and woefully inexperienced; they would be no match for the veteran officers and ratings of the Royal Navy. Now, as he pressed to the northwest under all possible sail, Villenueve saw that a battle was inevitable. Even before the first gun fired, he knew the battle was lost.

The overtaking fleet was, of course, British, under the command of Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, the most enigmatic and charismatic officer ever to tread a Royal Navy quarterdeck. He was also the most tactically gifted commander “the Andrew”-as the lower-deck ratings called the Royal Navy-had ever known. For more than two years Nelson had worked to bring about the battle that was just moments away. The whole strength of the Royal Navy, from the Admiralty in London, where the guiding hand of Admiral Sir John Jervis, Earl St. Vincent, positioned the squadrons of the fleet, to the small, swift frigates and sloops that patrolled the waters off the European ports where the components of Bonaparte’s navy took shelter, had been bent toward this day, this hour. The battle that was about to be fought was the very reason for being for the Royal Navy.

The role of the Royal Navy has traditionally been defensive: rarely used as an instrument of colonial expansion, its primary mission was to protect the British Isles, Britain’s overseas possessions, and the sea-lanes that connected them. While France had for centuries been England’s enemy, the two nations had rarely openly threatened each other’s sovereignty or territorial integrity. Now, with the rise of Bonaparte, all that had changed. Determined that all of Europe must accede to his will, Napoleon had introduced the “Continental System,” a primitive form of Common Market, which compelled the nations of Europe that were under French domination, a condition that encompassed most of the Continent, to trade among themselves, at the same time forbid ding any imports without the express permission of the Emperor himself.

The idea behind the Continental System was to drive the economy of Great Britain, which Bonaparte scorned as “a nation of shopkeepers,” into ruin, compelling the British to accept Napoleonic suzerainty. Great Britain resisted with great success, in the process expanding her overseas markets and her overseas possessions, as France’s former colonies, all but cut off by the Royal Navy, fell like plums into London’s lap. Bonaparte decided that the obstinate English could be brought to heel only by force, and so decided on invasion.

But to invade England his army had to cross the English Channel, and to be able to do so required naval supremacy-a preponderance of naval power in the Channel that the Royal Navy could not hope to defeat in time to prevent the Grande Armee from making its crossing. Drawing ships from Holland and Spain, and combining them with the French fleet, Napoleon believed he could accomplish exactly that. Thus Villeneuve’s orders were given to avoid any action with the British until his ships had reached the Channel and rendezvoused with the rest of the gathering French fleet.

They were orders with which Villeneuve was more than prepared to comply: his ships had spent months, sometimes years, tied up at their moorings in French and Spanish harbors, where their crews’ morale decayed, their sailing skills eroded, and their gunnery declined. The French admiral was painfully aware that the Royal Navy’s men-o’-war were, ship for ship, easily the equal of two, three, or even four French or Spanish warships of equal size. Spending endless months at sea-before Nelson had returned to England for what was to be the last time earlier that autumn, he had spent more than a year aboard his flagship, HMS Victory, without setting foot on land-the British crews practiced their gunnery drills relentlessly, while simply keeping station off the French and Spanish coasts had honed their sailing skills to the point of perfection. Knowing that a straightforward fight with Nelson’s fleet was folly, Villeneuve hoped to be able to evade the British, but the winds that morning favored the Royal Navy, and so Victory and her 26 consorts were able to close with the fleeing French and Spanish warships.

Disdaining complex evolutions or a long-range artillery duel, Nelson trusted his seamen’s skill and courage, following his own dictum that “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of an enemy.” Setting a course that would take Victory into the very heart of the opposing fleet, cutting it in two and then drawing up alongside the nearest enemy vessel, Nelson was determined to fight the battle muzzle to muzzle, battering the French and Spanish ships into submission, confident that neither their officers nor crews could endure the cannonade of the British broadsides and return them in kind.

In little more than four hours it was over. One by one the British warships followed Victory into the van of the enemy fleet and began remorselessly pounding it to pieces. Often able to rake their enemies-systematically firing a broadside in a foe’s relatively vulnerable bow or stern-before drawing alongside them, the British gun crews were able to get off three, sometimes four, rounds for every one the French or Spanish returned. The sheer volume of fire quickly took its toll, as the cannon balls, some weighing as much as 32 pounds each, smashed bulwarks, upended gun carriages, and tore into decks. Grapeshot, which turned the huge muzzle-loading cannons into titanic shotguns, cut bloody swaths across the gun decks, while up above sharp shooters stationed in the mast tops took careful aim at enemy officers.

Solid shot thudded into hulls, or tore apart railings and gangways, releasing flurries of lethal splinters. Masts creaked, cracked, and toppled, yardarms crashed onto decks below, and rigging coiled and twisted about the wreckage. The great guns kicked and rolled back against their restraining tackle, as the crewmen went through the carefully rehearsed and endlessly drilled routine of sponging out, ramming a fresh charge of powder down the barrel, driving home another round shot, priming the gunlock, and firing it. Many sailors would permanently lose their hearing as a consequence of this day’s action, but they fought on with an almost superhuman endurance. It would prove too much for their French and Spanish foes.

When the smoke had cleared and the thunder rolled away, the British had all but annihilated the French and Spanish fleet. It was the greatest of all of Nelson’s victories, but it came at the price of his life. Struck down earlier by a sharpshooter’s bullet, Nelson died just as the battle was reaching its climax, moments after being told of the extent of his triumph. Of the 33 ships of the line under Villeneuve’s command, 18 had struck their colors and surrendered, a 19th had caught fire and had blown up, while most of the survivors were heavily damaged. Not one British ship had been lost. The cost was high: nearly 1,700 British officers and seamen were casualties, a quarter of them killed; for the French and Spanish it was a horrible toll: nearly 7,000 casualties, 4,000 of them dead, with another 7,000 captured. For all practical purposes, the French and Spanish navies ceased to exist. Villeneuve himself would become a belated casualty of the battle, taking his own life within a matter of months as undeserved charges of cowardice were laid against him.

The threat of invasion was dispersed with thunderous finality: the day before Nelson’s annihilation of Villeneuve’s fleet, the Grande Armee had won an amazing victory over a combined Russian and Austrian army at Aus terlitz. The French had marched from their camp at Boulogne more than a month before the clash at Trafalgar, but the crushing French defeat there meant that even should the Grande Armee return to its Channel encampment, the French would never be able to assemble the numbers of ships required to seize control of the Channel and bring the troops across. The war against Bonaparte would go on, but Great Britain would never again be confronted with the threat of a hostile army barely 20 miles from her shores, waiting to make the leap across the Channel. As Admiral the Earl St. Vincent observed, “I don’t say they can’t come, I only say they can’t come by sea.”

But the war would go on: Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar would make it possible to continue the war, but by itself it would not be enough to topple the Emperor. Abdication, Elba, the Hundred Days, and St. Helena all lay nearly ten years in the future. Yet, while before Trafalgar the fall of the First Empire was dimly perceived as inevitable by only a few, after the battle it no longer seemed impossible. The myth of French invincibility had been broken. A decade would pass before the road to Austerlitz would finally lead Bonaparte to Waterloo, but it began on the Spanish shore, at Cape Trafalgar.

More than a century would pass before Great Britain again faced a challenge as grave as that posed by Bonaparte, and again the Royal Navy was called upon to be the instrument of Britain’s salvation.

Moors of Granada

We can see from this that Boabdil’s life as sultan in the Alhambra was luxurious and pleasurable from a material point of view, but his political landscape was less attractive. Although he ruled exclusively in his capacity as emir, the policy, actions and affairs of state were conducted and influenced by divergent groups and individuals, the most prominent of whom was the vizier, or wazir. Since the emir was above all a military leader whose mission was to defend Granadan Muslims from danger, the military government of territory was more important than civil government. To maintain his personal power Boabdil had to spend a good part of his income on maintaining the garrison and troops on a salary, and he needed to rely on his vizier to act on his behalf in civil matters, although the minister had to obey the superior jurisdiction of the emir, could not interfere in the decisions of religious authorities and did not have any right of succession. The appointment or dismissal of the vizier was the will of the emir, and many of those appointed to the post became personal friends of their masters, such as Boabdil’s vizier Aben Comixa, who served him loyally to the end, in contrast to the viziers of some earlier rulers who were notoriously vicious to their enemies. The vizier had a virtually all-embracing power derived from the trust and friendship of the emir. He conveyed and fulfilled the emir’s orders, organised all administration, drew up decrees and official correspondence, as well as being head of diplomacy and leader of the Granadan part of the army, although the emir held overall jurisdiction and power as military commander.

The qadis, or judges who reviewed civil, legal and religious matters according to Islamic law, were trained in theology at the madrasa in the city, and were entirely independent of the emir. In the late fifteenth century they had all the power of the doctors of Muslim law, the fuqaha, behind them. Both groups could dictate policy on the strength of their opinions, and they were both ferociously opposed to any emir who countenanced concord with or subjection to Castile, which did not augur well for Boabdil. Religion was inseparable from the administration of justice, and the existence of a civil, secular judicial body was unthinkable. So Boabdil ruled surrounded in theory by friendly collaborators in the vizier and the qadis, to which we should add the ever-present pressure groups and unions of interest formed by the lineages, including the Abencerrajes who had supported both Aixa and Boabdil, and also the military who were the masters of physical force. The uniqueness of existence in Granada rested on this social and political edifice.

Looking out from the belvederes of the royal apartments, an abundant city of gardens, groves of trees and private orchards surrounding its walls was laid out before Boabdil , with the inimitable vega beyond. This fertile plain acted as a natural defence for the city as it was a barrier between Granada and the mountains. It was also vital for providing food, and flourished at the hands of Muslims expert in horticulture and irrigation. In common with other Nasrid cities, Granada had intimate contact with its rural surroundings. This was in strong contrast with its Christian conquerors, who scorned the local countryside. City dwellers went to the country for harvest celebrations and festival days, while there was a constant flow of Granadans from the vega entering at the city gates to sell their vegetables and fruit.

Beyond the vega lay the omnipresent frontier. This area of land, known to the Castilians as the banda morisca, the Morisco border, was a vital factor in the material and psychological life of the Granadan state. It is one of the most fascinating features of the war between Christian Spain and Muslim Granada. The Spanish historian Miguel Ángel Ladero Quesada makes a telling point when he writes that this frontier was unusual because it divided a place that had a previous history and identity as Hispania, and separated populations mostly descended from natives of Hispania on both Christian and Muslim sides. In that sense it could not be compared to other medieval frontiers between Christianity and Islam such as Byzantium or the Crusades in areas of the Mediterranean. It was not officially a border between two countries, but in all other respects it might just as well have been, as it separated two cultural systems, two religions, two societies. No independent new culture ever emerged as there was little possibility for coexistence or mixing. The frontier was a precise one, a line or strip marked out by towers and fortresses, a line of demarcation not only geographically but also symbolically. As L. P. Harvey puts it, it was also a frontier of the mind. It was the tangible manifestation of an ancestral confrontation between two worlds which opposed each other from ideological and religious positions that were reciprocally exclusive.

The land frontier that delimited the territory of the Granadan emirate consisted of about 11,600 square miles (30,000 square kilometres) of what is now eastern Andalusia, and it had existed for nearly 250 years when Boabdil became sultan in 1482. The territory was a paradoxical place of peace and also of hostility. There, truces were fulfilled and goods exchanged, while daily hostilities and confrontation created a permanent need for both defence and attack along the border. The truces helped to suspend and defuse large-scale hostilities and ease the pressure of the intense life of frontier coexistence, where at times relations were peaceful and even neighbourly, but mostly consisted of rivalry, violence and reprisal. There were some measures in place for maintaining peaceful coexistence on a daily basis in the form of the juez de frontera, or frontier judge, a kind of arbitrator between Moors and Christians, and usually there was one representative from either side, both of whom resolved the petitions of the opposing group. There were also special frontier police, the fieles de rastro, and exeas, or interpreters, who were indispensable for commerce, in the exchange of captives between the two parties, and as guides for merchants. Often a Christian interpreter let his beard grow and wore Muslim clothes in order to be better accepted by the Granadans. Direct evidence of the vital role played by interpreters is brought to light in a letter written by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to Boabdil much later, in June 1488, regarding a number of Moors, as they describe them, who managed to infiltrate the province of Malaga, under Christian command by that time, and who committed some unspecified crimes. The monarchs command Boabdil to make public announcements stating that no Moors should visit these areas without a Christian interpreter, otherwise they would be taken captive.

Castile was perennially the counterpoint to Granada, and nowhere more so than on the frontier. The attitude of the Castilian Christians to the Muslim emirate speaks of a fundamental difference in perception between the opposing sides. Castile perceived Granada as a vassal kingdom whose emirs held illegitimate power because the creation of the Muslim state by Muhammad I was in their eyes an act of vassalage. Granada naturally took a different view, and never accepted its subservience to the Christians. The social and political aspirations of the Christian noblemen of Andalusia largely revolved around the frontier, where many died or were wounded; these showed in their chivalric ideals and in the poetic memory of that unique time recorded in the famous Spanish frontier ballads then and later. The pattern of violence and reprisal provided the opportunity for heroism on the frontier, through the kind of hostility that did not break any truce in force, such as surprise assaults and horseback raids on fortresses and other local places, with the intention of seizing booty, wearing down the enemy and capturing a frontier outpost. These sorties fed a desire for fame and for fulfilment of the ideal of fighting the infidel.

For the Granadans, ribat, which was the obligation to fight on the frontier, was a religious one, and their involvement in frontier warfare was essentially defensive since there was little hope of them ever being able to expand their territory significantly owing to its geographical location. Yet, however seriously both sides might have taken their obligation to fight for their God and for their people, the immediate aim was often the commandeering of a herd of cattle or a recently harvested crop. The frontier fighters developed a way of life which was transferred to the New World discovered by Columbus, where cattle raiding and hard riding formed part of the myth of how the West was won, and was also echoed in the life of the Argentinian gauchos.

The major preoccupation of Boabdil’s life up to the time he became sultan was the inner discord in Granada and in his own family. But the Christian threat on and beyond the frontier that lurked constantly in the background began to come to the fore in 1482. The Granada campaign now started in earnest. In 1479 the Warrior Pope Julius II had issued a crusading bull calling for war against Granada. This chilling order from the head of the Catholic Church was reissued in 1482, reinforcing the ingrained idea that the war against the Moors was part of the culture of the fighting and ruling classes of late medieval Spain. The popularity of great novels of chivalry such as Tirant lo blanc (Tirante the White) and Amadís de Gaula (Amadeus of Gaul), whose world of valour and often superhuman strength of arms reinforced traditional values, proclaimed the need to restore chivalric ideals among the knights of Spain. The Muslim preoccupation with lineage was to an extent mirrored by the Christian anxiety over limpieza de sangre, or purity of blood. Aristocratic families were desperate to assert their unsullied bloodline going back to the ancient Visigoths. In Castile in particular, being the son of someone of note, an hijodalgo – from which the word hidalgo comes – was an important distinction.

The Christian chroniclers of the war emphasised the idea that their campaign could be vindicated as a reconquest of territory lost a long time ago to the Moors. It was a taking back, a restoration of what was rightly theirs, the overcoming of a wicked political enclave and a holy war against the unbeliever. It was also a positive way of channelling the violence among the aristocracy of Castile which had threatened to ruin the kingdom in recent years. The accounts of those historians are inevitably biased towards the victors, and we have to take this into consideration when we attempt to build up a picture of what really happened. With the exception of the anonymous Arabic Nubdhat and al-Maqqari’s long history, nearly all the accounts of the Granadan war were written by Christians, though it is true to say that they often present the Muslim enemy in a respectful light, and even with admiration at times.

As life on the frontier continued with its raids, skirmishes and minor victories on both sides, the event took place which proved to be the catalyst for a final, focused Christian campaign against Granada. While Boabdil and his supporters were in Guadix in early 1482 plotting the next moves in their plan to set the prince on the Granadan throne, the Christians made the surprise assault on the fortified town of Alhama, when Abu l-Hasan so boldly defended its people against the odds. The success of the Christians in this battle moved the war into a new phase and, as we have seen, Abu l-Hasan was quick to retaliate in successfully defending Loja. But this did not deter King Ferdinand for long. He regrouped his men and resorted to a strategy known as the tala, which consisted of burning and destroying crops. It was a ploy he had used before, except that this time it was in the vega of Granada, very close to the city, and in an area which provided much of its essential grain, fruit and vegetables. It was a dreadful, slow and devastating process, against which the Granadans could do nothing. If their food supplies were destroyed, there could be no hope of survival.

In his territory of the now divided kingdom of Granada, Abu l-Hasan carried on doing what he did best – raiding and attacking frontier outposts. By early 1483, the Christians had decided to try to capitalise on their success at Alhama and invade the large and beautiful coastal area east of Abu l-Hasan’s territory of Malaga, known as the Ajarquía. Their strategy was not entirely clear, other than perhaps to boost their morale, and that lack of clarity of intention was matched by an equal indecisiveness regarding which way they should go. A council of war assembled in the town of Antequera and a long discussion took place. Fears were expressed about the rough mountainous terrain and steep drops which favoured the enemy, and which would be little use to the Christians if they did capture it. In the end they did decide to make a raid, but their fears proved to be well founded, since the local inhabitants led them into a disastrous trap. Pulgar tells us what happened:

The scouts who were entrusted with guiding them along the safest route took them across a mountain track so high and steep that a man on foot would have found it difficult. According to their custom, the Moors kept fires lit all day and all night on the tops of mountains and other high points, as a way of summoning those who lived in those areas. They lay in wait for the Christians and inflicted heavy casualties by raining rocks down on them and firing arrows from the side and rear. As the Christians struggled to extricate themselves, night fell. Fearing they would suffer even greater casualties if they kept on the track, they went back down a deep river valley under a high mountain which the Moors had already climbed. When they saw that the Christians had taken this route they threw rocks and stones down on them, killing many. Some who tried to escape by climbing the cliffs fell to their deaths because in the darkness they couldn’t see any of the footholds. They could hear the war-cries of the Moors, and terrified by the darkness of the night and the rugged terrain, they lost heart and did not know how to escape.

The experienced soldier Rodrigo Ponce de León managed to escape only by taking another man’s horse. Many Christians gave themselves up rather than face the mountainous ravines around them, and quite a number were captured in the countryside by brave Muslim women who came out from Malaga to hunt for them. More than 1,000 prisoners were taken. Pulgar naturally blamed the scouts, although he also criticises the excessive pride of the Christians. Abu l-Hasan did well out of the victory, as the booty won was sent to Malaga to be shared out, but it inevitably ended up in the hands of his officials.

Back in Granada, the news of the Christians’ demoralising defeat reached Boabdil, and his advisers and other noblemen felt that on the back of this, the new sultan should make some kind of sortie into Christian territory to please his people and show his mettle. So Boabdil and his troops left the Alhambra with a great display of power and aplomb, and passed through the towns of Luque, Baena and other areas before returning to Granada, where he was welcomed back joyfully. It was a successful PR exercise, and gave Boabdil a sense of his own strength and responsibility. The mood was high. From the shelter of the palatine city he could survey his domain, the still prosperous city below him. His father was out of the way in Malaga, and in spite of the ruined crops in the vega, supplies still arrived from outlying towns and villages. The enemy was demoralised and the sultan, aged twenty-one or twenty-two at the time, was persuaded to undertake a more daring plan for his next military outing. Little did he know that he was to meet his nemesis.

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.