Three British Wars with Funny Names and Some Importance

Article II. Three British Wars with Funny Names and Some Importance


Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (Cartagena). This fortress was integral to Spain’s effort to maintain the link with its colonies via the Atlantic sea lanes. It was part of major British operations in the Caribbean Sea during the War of Jenkins’ Ear

The War Itself:
The first British attack was on October 22, 1739, on La Guaira, Venezuela [founded in 1577], the capital city of the Venezuelan state of the same name and the country’s main port as an outlet for Caracas, 18.5 miles to the southeast. The Royal Guipuzcoan Company of Cara-cas [modern spelling variant Gipuzkoan, known also as the Guipuzcoana Company, Spanish: Real Compañia Guipuzcoana de Caracas; Basque: Caracasko Gipuzkoar Errege Konpainia] was a Spanish Basque trading company in the 18th century chartered by the Spanish Crown, operating from 1728 to 1785. The Guipuzcoana Company was the only body entitled to sell European goods in Venezuela/or Caracas Province and to export Venezuelan agricultural products to Spain.
Admiral Vernon sent three ships commanded by Captain Thomas Waterhouse to intercept Spanish ships between La Guaira and Porto Bello. He decided to attack a number of vessels that he observed at La Guaira, which was controlled by the Royal Guipuzcoan Company. The company was given extensive commercial privileges to promote officially sanctioned trade and thus to prevent smuggling. It also constructed naval vessels for the government. Named for the Basque province where it was headquartered, the company encouraged the production of such crops as tobacco, indigo, cotton, and cacao, in Venezuela. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear [1739-1748], the company’s private army helped to defend the Venezuelan coast from British attacks. The company’s sometimes high-handed methods resulted in a revolt among colonists in 1749 that took three years to put down.

The governor of the Province of Venezuela, Brigadier Don Gabriel de Zuloaga, had prepared the port defenses; and Spanish troops were well-commanded by Captain Don Francisco Saucedo. On October 22, Waterhouse entered the port of La Guaira falsely flying the Spanish flag. Expecting attack, the port gunners were not deceived by his ruse; they waited until the British squadron was within range and then simultaneously opened fire. After three hours of heavy shel-ling, Waterhouse ordered a withdrawal. The battered British squadron sailed to Jamaica to under-take emergency repairs. Waterhouse argued that the capture of a few small Spanish vessels would not have justified the loss of his men as his later argument to his superiors.
Prior to 1739, trade between mainland Spain and its colonies was conducted only through specific ports; twice a year, outward bound ships assembled in Cadiz and the Flota escorted to Portobello or Veracruz. One way to impact Spanish trade was by attacking or blockading these ports; but since many ships carried cargoes financed by foreign merchants, the strategy also risked damaging British and neutral interests—bad for PR.

During the previous 1727 to 1729 Anglo-Spanish War, the British attempted to take Porto-bello but retreated after heavy losses from disease. On November 22, 1739, Vernon attacked the port with six ships of the line; the port city fell within twenty-four hours; and the British occupied the town for three weeks before withdrawing after having destroyed its fortifications, port, and warehouses.
After the destruction of Portobello the previous November, Vernon proceeded to remove the last Spanish stronghold in the area. He attacked the fortress of San Lorenzo el Real Chagres, in present-day Panama on the banks of the Chagres River, near Portobello. The fort was defended by Spanish patrol boats, and was armed with four guns and about thirty soldiers under Captain of Infantry Don Juan Carlos Gutiérrez Cevallos.

The Portobello victory was widely celebrated in Britain; the song Rule Britannia was written in 1740 to mark the occasion. The suburb of Portobello in Edinburgh and Portobello Road in London are among the places in Britain named after this success, while more medals were awarded for its capture than any other event in the eighteenth century.
However, taking a port in Spain’s American empire was considered a foregone conclusion by most Patriot Whigs and opposition Tories and of no great significance by itself. They now pressed a reluctant Walpole to launch larger naval expeditions to the Gulf of Mexico. In the longer term, the Spanish replaced the twice yearly Flota with a larger number of smaller convoys, calling at more ports and Portobello’s economy did not recover until the building of the Canal nearly two centuries later, making the victory hollow.

Following the success of Portobello, Vernon focused his efforts on the capture of Cartagena de Indias in present-day Colombia—the main point of the West Indian fleet for sailing to the Iberian Peninsula. Both Vernon and Edward Trelawny, governor of Jamaica, considered the Spanish gold shipping port to be a prime objective. Since the outbreak of the war, and Vernon’s arrival in the Caribbean, the British had made a concerted effort to gain intelligence on the defenses of Cartagena. In October, 1739, Vernon sent First Lieutenant Percival to deliver a letter to Blas de Lezo–who was initially known as Patapalo [Pegleg] and later as Mediohombre [Half-man] from the sequential loss of his left leg, right arm, and left eye in battle–and Don Pedro Hidalgo, governor of Cartagena. Lt. Percival was to use the opportunity to make a detailed study of the Spanish defenses. This effort was thwarted at its inception when Percival was denied entry to the port.

On March 7, 1740–in a more direct approach–Vernon undertook a reconnaissance-in-force of the Spanish city. Vernon left Port Royal in command of a squadron including ships of the line: two fire ships, three bomb vessels, and transport ships. Reaching Cartagena on March 13, Vernon landed several men to map the topography and to reconnoiter the Spanish squadron anchored in Playa Grande, west of the city. Five days later–having not seen any reaction from the Spanish–Vernon ordered the three bomb vessels to open fire on the city. He intended to provoke a response that might give him a better idea of the defensive capabilities of the Spanish.
Understanding Vernon’s motives, Blas de Lezo did not directly respond. Instead, Lezo ordered the removal of guns from some of his ships, in order to form a temporary shore battery for the purpose of suppressive fire. Vernon next initiated an amphibious assault–but in the face of strong resistance–the attempt to land 400 soldiers failed. The British then undertook a three-day naval bombardment of the city. In total, the campaign lasted 21 days. Vernon withdrew, leaving HMS Windsor Castle and HMS Greenwich in the vicinity, with a mission to intercept any Spanish ship that might approach.

On March 22, 1740, the British squadron–composed of 12 ships under command of Vernon–began to bombard the Spanish fortress. Given the overwhelming superiority of the British forces, Captain Cevallos surrendered the fort after resisting for two days. Following the strategy previously applied at Porto Bello, the British destroyed the fort and seized the guns along with two Spanish patrol boats.

During this time of British victories along the Caribbean coast, events taking place in Spain proved to have a significant effect on the outcome of the largest engagement of the war. Spain replaced Don Pedro Hidalgo as governor of Cartagena de Indias. But, the new governor-designate, Lieutenant General of the Royal Armies Sebastián de Eslava y Lazaga had first to dodge the Royal Navy in order to get to his new post. Starting from the Galician port of Ferrol, the ves-sels Galicia and San Carlos set out on the journey. Hearing the news, Vernon immediately sent four ships to intercept the Spanish. They were unsuccessful. The Spanish managed to circumvent the British interceptors and entered the port of Cartagena on April 21, 1740, with the new governor and several hundred veteran soldiers.

In May, Adm. Vernon returned to Cartagena de Indias aboard the flagship HMS Princess Caroline in charge of 13 warships, with the intention of bombarding the city. Lezo reacted by deploying his six ships of the line so that the British fleet was forced into ranges where they could only make short or long shots that were of little value. Vernon withdrew, asserting that the attack was merely a manuever.

In his third attack on Cartagena de Indias [March 13-May 20, 1741] Vernon launched an amphibious attack against the colony of New Granada [today’s Colombia]. In preparation, the British gathered in Jamaica one of the largest fleets ever assembled. It consisted of 186 ships–60 more than the famous Spanish Armada of Philip II–bearing 2,620 artillery pieces and more than 27,000 men. Of that number, 10,000 were soldiers responsible for initiating the assault. There were also 12,600 sailors, 1,000 Jamaican slaves and macheteros, and 4,000 recruits from Virginia. The latter were led by Lawrence Washington, the older half-brother of George Washington.

Vernon’s expedition was hampered by inefficient organization, his rivalry with the commander of his land forces, and the logistical problems of mounting and maintaining a major trans-Atlantic expedition. Vernon ordered direct assaults on the walls of the city which failed. The Spanish thwarted any British attempt to land another ground assault force. The British troops were forced to remain aboard ship for a month, without sufficient reserves. With supplies running low–and with the outbreak of disease (primarily yellow fever), which took the lives of many on the crowded ships–Vernon was forced to raise his siege on May 9, and return to Jamaica. Six thousand British died while only one thousand Spanish perished. The strong fortifications in Cartagena and the able strategy of Spanish Commander Blas de Lezo were decisive in repelling the attack. Heavy losses on the British side were due in large part to virulent tropical diseases–primarily an outbreak of yellow fever–which took more lives than were lost in battle, the largest in the entire war. It was a resounding loss for the piratical British fleet.
Edward Vernon carried on, successfully attacking the Spanish at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. in 1742, with the help of reinforcements from Europe. In 1742, Vernon was replaced by Rear-Admiral Chaloner Ogle and returned to England, where he gave an accounting to the Admiralty. He learned that he had been elected MP for Ipswich.
News of the defeat at Cartagena was a significant factor in the downfall of the British Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Walpole’s anti-war views were considered by the Opposition to have contributed to his poor prosecution of the war effort.

The new British government shifted its away from the Americas and into the Mediter-ranean. Spanish policy also shifted to a European focus, to recover lost Spanish possessions in Italy from the Austrians. In 1742, a large British fleet under Nicholas Haddock failed to block Spanish shipping. With the arrival of additional ships from Britain in February 1742, Haddock successfully blockaded the Spanish coast failing to force the Spanish fleet into an action.
Lawrence Washington survived the yellow fever outbreak, and eventually retired to Virginia. He named his estate Mount Vernon, in honor of his former commander.


I chose to use a pseudonym for personal reasons. I’m a retired neurosurgeon living in a rural paradise and am at rest from the turbulent life of my profession. I lived in an era when resident trainees worked 120 hours a week–a form of bondage no longer permitted by law. I served as a Navy Seabee general surgeon during the unpleasantness in Viet Nam, and spent the remainder of my ten-year service as a neurosurgeon in a major naval regional medical center. I’ve lived in every section of the country, saw all the inhumanity of man to man, practiced in private settings large and small, the military, academia, and as a medical humanitarian in the Third World.