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The Battle of Cartagena de Indias was the decisive battle of a massive amphibious expedition by the forces of Britainmarker under Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon against Spain under Admiral Blas de Lezo, taking place at the city of Cartagena de Indiasmarker, in present day Colombiamarker, starting in March 1741. It is the most significant battle in the War of Jenkins' Ear and one of the largest naval campaigns in British history, though it is now largely forgotten by the British. The war later blended into the greater conflict of the War of the Austrian Succession. The battle ended in a major defeat and heavy losses for the British: 50 ships lost and 18,000 casualties.

Background

Sir Robert Walpole
The War of Jenkins' Ear was a conflict between Great Britainmarker and Spain that lasted from 1739 to 1748. Under the 1729 Treaty of Seville, the British had agreed not to trade with the Spanish colonies except under extreme conditions restricted to the Annual Ship and the Asiento slave trade. The commercial class in Britain demanded access to the lucrative Spanish markets of the Caribbean Basin and Spanish colonists desired British-made goods so a burgeoning Black Market had developed. By the terms of the treaty, the Spanish were permitted to board British vessels in Spanish waters. After one such boarding in 1731, Robert Jenkins, captain of the ship Rebecca, claimed that the Spanish coast guard had severed his ear. Jenkins exhibited his pickled ear to the House of Commonsmarker. This only served to heighten the "war fever" now developing against Spain which was also driven by the desire of commercial and military domination of the Atlanticmarker basin. To much cheering, the British Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, reluctantly declared war on 23 October 1739. Vice-Admiral Vernon was an active and ardent supporter of war against Spain and spoke for offensive action both in Parliament and before the Admiralty.

Spanish Caribbean

The Spanish Caribbean basin trade had a network of four main ports: Vera Cruzmarker, Cartagenamarker, Porto Bellomarker (now Portobelo) and the main port through which all the trade of those three came through, Havanamarker. On 22 November 1739 one of the first actions of the War was the British capture of Portobelomarker which was part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada. The attack was part of an attempt to damage Spain's finances. The poorly defended port was attacked by six ships of the line under Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon. The relative ease of this capture, although it was quickly recaptured by the Spanish after Vernon's fleet departed, caused jubilation in Britain and resulted in Vernon being given command of a very large naval contingent consisting of one fourth of the British Royal Navy in ships and sailors of a major land and sea amphibious expedition under the overall command of Lord Cathcart. Unfortunately for British hopes Lord Cathcart died en route and it remained unclear who was then in command overall. Lord Cathcart's untimely demise would result in dissensions in the British command which would prevent the necessary coordination needed for this complex operation.

The despatch of the large fleet and troop contingent was primarily for political reasons as the government wished to gain credit for Vernon's hoped for future successes by supplying him with an overwhelming force. Vernon, himself, was not convinced that a large-scale attack on a heavily fortified city would be successful as his smaller Portobello assault had been, fearing particularly a prolonged siege would lead to heavy attrition from disease. However, he could not refuse the orders to attack a major port when he had such a large force at his command.

Objectives

Britain's objective was to capture and permanently retain Spain's four ports of the Caribbean basin and thereby acquire Spain's American empire. However, Britain had no place to build and refit ships in the Caribbean as Spain did with the dockyards at Havana and without a dockyard no fleet could remain in the area for any length of time without breaking down. Quick capture was imperative but England's divided ministry left the course of the campaign up to Vernon and others at a Council of War held in Jamaica. They decided on Cartagena as their initial objective as it was a good port and to windward of Britain's existing Caribbean bases.

The Battle

The battle of Cartagena pitted a British invasion force of at least 26,400, 12,000 of which were infantry, in 186 ships including: 29 Ships of the Line; the rest of all types armed with 2,000 cannon against a force of 3,000 Spanish and colonial regulars, an unspecified number of sailors and armed townsmen and 600 Indian archers, perhaps up to 6,000 combatants, fighting from six frigates and massive fortifications — under the command of the Viceroy Sebastián de Eslava, Don Melchor de Navarrete, Don Carlos Des Naux, and Don Blas de Lezo.

The British expedition arrived off Cartagena on March 4 and after a couple of weeks bombardment the initial attack made by land and sea at Boca Chica, the Little Mouth, on April 5. This channel ran between two narrow peninsulas and was defended on one side by the fort of St. Louis, Boca Chica Castle, with four bastions having some 80 cannons, on the other side of the channel an earthwork battery of 15 cannon all supported by redoubts. A boom stretched from the island of La Bomba to the southern peninsula on which was Fort St. Joseph with 21 cannon. Also supporting the entrance were the 6 Spanish line ships. The British army forces on land established a battery and made a breach in the main fort while part of the fleet assisted and another part of the fleet engaged the Spanish ships which, ultimately, Lezos tried to scuttle and set on fire. Two Spanish ships partially blocked the channel and one was captured by the British before it could sink. An advance was made on the breach, however the Spanish had already retired to fortifications in the inner harbor on the March 24. The landing force re-embarked and the harbor then entered. The next council of war decided to attempt to isolate Cartagena from the land side by an assault of Fort St. Lazar. The assault failed with a loss of 600 casualties.
Don Blas de Lezo's plan was that, given the overwhelming force against him, he hoped to conduct a fighting withdrawal and delay the British long enough until the start of the rainy season at the end of April. The tropical downpours would effectively end campaigning for another 2 months. Also, the longer the enemy had to remain mostly at sea and in the open the more likely it would become that insufficient supply, discomfort and especially disease would become his allies and the deadly enemies of the British. De Lezo was aided in this by the contempt that Vernon and Wentworth had for each other which prevented any further cooperation after the initial landing. Wentworth was goaded by Vernon into an ill-considered, badly planned assault on Cartagena which Vernon refused to support with the fleet making specious excuses about the depth of the harbor.

An experienced, wily and tenacious Spanish Naval commander, de Lezo, whose previous career was as daring and spectacular as any naval officer of his day, made use of every advantage, strategy and tactic available to him. Cartagena's defensive fortifications had been repaired and improved over the past year. Although De Lezo was pressed to the limit, his plan bore the hoped for fruit. The rains came and the British had to board their ships, where close quarters made disease even more deadly, and by April 25, Vernon resolved to retreat to Jamaica and by mid-May they were gone.

The battle lasted 67 days and ended with the British fleet withdrawing in defeat, with 18,000 killed and wounded , half of them to disease. 50 ships were sunk or abandoned for lack of crew. Most of the American colonists who had volunteered, lured by Vernon's promises of mountains of gold, died of yellow fever, dysentery, and outright starvation, and those who returned home injured, including Lawrence Washington (who renamed his Virginiamarker plantation after Admiral Vernon) had little to show for their efforts.

In the middle of the battle, when the Spanish forces had retreated from different defense points to regroup in the larger Fortress of San Felipe de Barajas, the British dispatched a messenger, Captain Laws, to England. He informed the King of their victory on May 17. A special medal was even minted in London to commemorate this "victory" with a drawing of Admiral Vernon looking down upon the "defeated" Spanish admiral, Don Blas de Lezo who appears kneeling down. A contemporary song was composed by a sailor from the Shrewsbury that prematurely celebrated the victory:

VERNON'S GLORY; OR, THE SPANIARDS DEFEAT.

Being an account of the taking of Carthagena by Vice-Admiral Vernon...

"...and the town surrender[ed]

To Admiral Vernon, the scourge of Spain".

Aftermath

When the embarrassing news of the outcome reached London some weeks later, the British government removed these medals and prohibited the news from being disclosed and published. Following the news of the disaster Robert Walpole's government soon collapsed and Spain retained control over its very lucrative colony, and over a strategic port in the Caribbean that helped secure the defense of the Spanish Main. News of Britain's defeat reached Europe at the end of June, 1741 and had immense repercussions. It caused George II of Great Britain, who had been acting as mediator between Frederick the Great of Prussia and Maria Theresa supporting Austria over Prussian seizure of Silesia in December of 1740, to withdraw its guarantees of armed support for the Pragmatic Sanction. That encouraged France and Spain, the Bourbon allies, revealed to also be allied with Prussia, to move militarily against a now isolated Austria. A greater and wider war, The War of the Austrian Succession, was now taking shape.

The failure to take Cartagena caused what was left of the naval forces assigned to Vernon to remain in the Caribbeanmarker longer. This resulted in the weakened Mediterranean squadron being unable to prevent the Spanish from twice convoying troops totalling 25,000 to Italy in November and December of 1741. It was not until Commodore Richard Lestock, commander of one of Vernon's divisions at Cartagena, returned to Europe with ships from the Caribbean fleet, that Britain reinforced its presence in the Mediterranean.

References

  1. The defeat is considered by some historians to be comparable to that suffered by the Spanish Armada at the hands of the British Navy. And, as with the Spanish Armada, the lost opportunity did no actual damage to the strategic position, the importance of the defeat is more in a loss of an opportunity for immense gain rather than actual damage to Britain's strategic position. David Hume, The History of England, London, 1825, pp.108-113, "The conjoined squadrons consisted of nine and twenty ships of the line...The number of seamen amounted to 15,000: that of land forces...12,000." Arthur Michael Samuel, The Mancroft Essays,1923, pp.236-242, 'Admiral Vernon, "...now reinforced by twenty-five ships of the line and 9,000 soldiers...of the six thousand that had been landed more than half were either dead or dying..". At Cartagena the British casualties are ultimately estimated at over 18,000 troops and 50 ships while the Spanish Armada lost about 10,000 troops and 63 ships. Strategically, Spain prevented British invasion and conquest of their American possessions. The British fleet and bad weather prevented the Armada's invasion and conquest of England.
  2. Reed Browning The War of the Austrian Succession, New York, 1993 ISBN 0-312-12561-5, p.21, The Asiento allowed Britain to supply 5,000 slaves a year to Caribbean colonies and one yearly trading ship to Porto Bello.
  3. Douglas Ford, Admiral Vernon and the Navy: A Memoir and Vindication, London, MCMVII, p.124, "Destroy their settlements in America, and Spain falls. My opinion is that a strong squadron be sent to the West Indies, to distress the enemy in their very vitals, to destroy their mines, to seize their treasures, to take their ships, to ruin their settlements. Let them be attacked in as many places as possible at the same time...If once Porto-Bello and Cartagena were taken, then all will be lost to them." Vernon at the Admiralty meeting.
  4. Robert Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783, London, 1804, Appendix p. 17, 3 70 guns, 2 60 guns, 1 50 guns.
  5. Reed Browning The War of the Austrian Succession, New York, 1993 ISBN 0-312-12561-5, p. 22, "They (the British) had over 120 ships of the line in their fleet, while France had but 50 and Spain 40. In Mitch Williamson's article, British Naval Supremacy: Some Factors Newly Considered 2002, he states the Royal Navy's War Establishment Manpower at the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748 is 44,861- so Vernon's total of over 15,000 sailors represents at least 25% of Royal Navy manpower.
  6. N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, 2004, page 236
  7. Cartagena, Caribbean Jewel - New York Times
  8. Robert Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783, London, 1804, Appendix pp.25-26. List of ships of the line under Vernon is 8 of 80 guns, 5 of 70 guns, 14 of 60 guns, 2 of 50 guns and 22 frigates and other warships. Additionally, the list gives a detail breakdown of the 12,000 troops: the 15th and 24th regiments of foot, 2,000; 6,000 marines; 2,500 American and some others. Ship of the Line crews total 11,000+, no numbers are given for the frigate and transport crews on that page. On the following page a list of frigates and their crews is given for the Cartagena expedition that corresponds to that of Vernon's fleet list with a few minor variations. The total for Royal Navy sailors then (at least as paper strength, full complements) is: 15,398. This total does not include the 12,000 soldiers, nor any civilian seamen, nor the crews for the over 120 transports.
  9. David Hume, The History of England, London, 1825, p.109,"...with an equal number of frigates, fire ships, and bomb ketches...". When compared with a nearly contemporary amphibious expedition described in James Pritchard, Anatomy of a Naval Disaster: The 1746 French Expedition to North America. Montreal and Kingston, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1995 ISBN 978-0-7735-1325-9 as: 10 Ships of the Line, 45 troop transports and some 10,000 sailors and soldiers it can be seen that Vernon's fleet has nearly three times as many Ships of the Line and nearly three times the soldiers and sailors and that by analogy Vernon's fleet would have around three times the total ships or more, i.e. at least 165 ships.
  10. Douglas Ford, Admiral Vernon and the Navy: A Memoir and Vindication, London, MCMVII, p.153.'
  11. Facts stranger than fiction: the story of Don Blas de Lezo :: Cartagena Colombia
  12. Don Blas de Lezo
  13. Navy Records Society (Great Britain) Publications of the Navy Records Society Vol. XXXIII, Naval Songs and Ballards,1907, pp.181-184, a must read, absolutely hilarious in context, it also has specific details about the fleets that correspond to other sources such as "Thirty ships of the line...", "Don Blass with six ships...".
  14. For a good account of the mood of London and Vernon's enmity to Walpole see: Douglas Ford, Admiral Vernon and the Navy: A Memoir and Vindication London, MCMVII, pp.141-145,"The debate in Parliament was one the most exciting and memorable ever heard...the climax lay in Walpole's alleged misconduct in relation to the war, and that, in turn, practically meant his failure to give proper support to Admiral Vernon....But Walpole's victory was of the sort that presages ultimate defeat."; p. 147, "In January, 1742, Pulteney again marshalled his forces, and moved for the appointment of a committee to examine papers capable of affording evidence as to the conduct of the war with Spain." Walpole would resign the first week of February, 1742.
  15. Reed Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession, New York, 1993 ISBN 0-312-12561-5, pp.58-66, " 'now America must be fought for in Europe', Britain's Lord Hardwicke. If Britain could not prevail where it could muster all its maritime advantages, what fatality might await it when it engaged-as now it must-under severe disadvantages?"
  16. Reed Browning, The War of the Austrian Succession, New York, 1993 ISBN 0-312-12561-5, pp.80-81.


Bibliography

  • Tobías Smollet (Tobias Smollett), Authentic papers related to the expedition against Carthagena, by Jorge Orlando Melo in Reportaje de la historia de Colombia, Bogotá: Planeta, 1989.
  • Quintero Saravia, Gonzalo M. (2002) Don Blas de Lezo: defensor de Cartagena de Indias Editorial Planeta Colombiana, Bogotá, Colombia, ISBN 958-42-0326-6, in Spanish
  • Victoria, Pablo (2005) El día que España derrotó a Inglaterra : de cómo Blas de Lezo, tuerto, manco y cojo, venció en Cartagena de Indias a la otra "Armada Invencible" Áltera, Barcelona, Spain, ISBN 84-89779-68-6
  • Pembroke, John (1741) True Account of Admiral Vernon’s conduit of Cartagena, by James A. Michener in Caribbean, Maryland (USA): Fawcet, 1990. ISBN 0-449-21749-3
  • Browning, Reed. The War of the Austrian Succession St. Martin's Press, New York, (1993): ISBN 0-312-12561-5
  • Duncan, Francis. History of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, London, 1879, Vol.1.
  • Douglas Ford, Admiral Vernon and the Navy: A Memoir and Vindication, London, MCMVII.
  • Beatson,Robert. Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783, London, 1804.


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