Military history


The Intersections of Empire, Trade, and War HAVANA


AS LORD LIGONIER had expected, Spain invaded Britain’s vulnerable ally Portugal, but not until May 9. This gave him time enough to dispatch officers to Portugal to organize a kind of peasant militia, which hindered the advance of the Spanish army in the northern part of the kingdom while he raised men and shifted regiments to form an expeditionary force. In early July six thousand redcoats under Lord Loudoun arrived from Belleisle and joined with perhaps two thousand more from Ireland to block a Spanish attempt on Lisbon. The Spaniards tried again in August, sending a second army westward toward the capital through the central province of Estremadura. This force, together with thousands of French reinforcements, seized the important city of Almeida on July 25, but that would prove to be the limit of their advance. A flamboyant young British brigadier, John Burgoyne, counterattacked by striking deep in the enemy rear to destroy a major supply depot on the twenty-seventh. In October, Burgoyne staged another raid, wiping out a second critical magazine: an operation led by a subordinate who exceeded even Burgoyne in intemperance and daring—Charles Lee, lately arrived from America and newly promoted to lieutenant colonel. Immobilized by supply shortages, unable to secure their lines of communication, and suffering disastrously high rates of desertion, the Bourbon armies withdrew, in early November, to bases across the Spanish border.1 With that, all active military operations in Europe ceased and the diplomats of the belligerent powers were left to work out the formalities of peace.

Financial exhaustion was not, in the end, what made the Bourbon courts willing to negotiate an end to the war. Rather it was financial exhaustion compounded by news from America of two more British victories. The smaller of these was most significant for the French, because it frustrated their last hope of gaining a strategic asset to bargain back in return for some major British concession. In the single exception to the Royal Navy’s success in bottling up the French Atlantic fleet after the Battle of Quiberon Bay, a small squadron had slipped out of Brest in May under cover of fog and carried eight hundred troops to Newfoundland. Since Amherst had assigned only about three hundred infantry and artillerymen to defend the island, the French had no trouble taking it in late June. Embarrassed, Amherst patched together an expedition from about a thousand regulars from New York, Halifax, and Louisbourg, added another five hundred Massachusetts provincials from Nova Scotia, put his brother William in charge, and sent them off to recapture the place. This they did, with light casualties and little evident difficulty, between September 12 and 18.2

The news that the British had reconquered Newfoundland, coming in October as Spain was pulling its troops out of Portugal, completed the despair of French and Spanish diplomats, for it arrived on the heels of the other report from the New World—one that heaped military disgrace on the political disaster that the Spanish intervention had already become. On August 13, after a siege of two months, the British army had seized Havana, the crown jewel of the Spanish Caribbean.

As we have seen, Ligonier and Anson had set their sights on Havana even before the formal declaration of war. Beyond its considerable significance as the point of departure for Cuba’s exports of tobacco, sugar, and hides, this city of 35,000 was the entrepôt of the Spanish Caribbean, the major port for ship repair, and the chief magazine of naval supplies and provisions for Spain’s transatlantic trade. As this would suggest, Havana had enormous strategic importance; so much so that the imperial administration had stationed a permanent regular garrison there and fortified it more strongly than any other American port. A bastioned wall surrounded the city proper, and two stout forts, the Punta on the west and Morro Castle on the east, guarded its seaward approaches. Secure on a promontory overlooking the best deepwater harbor in the Caribbean, Havana—the “key to the New World”—had stood as the symbol of Spanish maritime power for more than a century.3

Havana’s location had made the city a target irresistible to Anson and Ligonier. Britain had thousands of troops in the West Indies, and thousands more in North America, in addition to the provincials who could be raised for an expedition that promised to yield mountains of plunder. Even though Havana would have to be invested during the summer months, when disease would exact a heavy toll from the invaders, there was every reason to believe that a quick expedition could arrive before the garrison could prepare for a siege. And to a degree remarkable for the eighteenth century, the British did move rapidly against Havana. The expedition’s commander, George Keppel, earl of Albemarle, received his preliminary orders only three days after the declaration of war and was able to sail from Portsmouth on March 6 with four regular regiments, a train of siege artillery, and a corps of French Protestant prisoners of war who had enlisted in British service. 4

Despite adverse winds, Albemarle’s force reached the West Indies on April 20. Within a month General Monckton had brought his command from Martinique to rendezvous with them off Hispaniola’s Cap Nicolas. At this point, although the troops from North America had not yet arrived, Albemarle had about twelve thousand soldiers on hand and felt sufficiently confident to proceed. On June 7 the British landed about six miles east of Havana. By the next evening they had scattered a screen of Spanish defenders and secured a position on high ground from which they could invest Morro Castle. Under the direction of such veterans of American operations as Colonel Guy Carleton and Colonel William Howe, the redcoats efficiently isolated city from hinterland and on the tenth opened a siège en forme. With the Royal Navy in possession of the sea approaches and the eighteen warships in Havana’s squadron trapped within the harbor, it should have been just a matter of time, and back-breaking work, to bludgeon the city into submission. 5

But overexertion, heat, disease, scarcity of drinkable water, and the evident impregnability of Morro Castle’s walls took such a toll on the besiegers that it soon became clear they would succeed only if they could win a race with death. A month after the siege had begun, Albemarle had lost a third of his force: a thousand men were dead from wounds, yellow fever, malaria, and gastrointestinal disorders, and three thousand more were too sick or badly wounded to serve. Albemarle could see that the guns of his siege train and the fleet were steadily reducing the number of Spanish guns able to reply; but would he have men enough left to storm the fort, once they had breached the Morro’s defenses? He ordered sappers to tunnel beneath the castle’s walls, in order to detonate a mine and hasten the day of battle; but the miners soon hit solid rock, and their work proceeded by inches. Meanwhile the redcoats sickened and died at an appalling rate, and the survivors had to work harder than ever to keep up the siege. When there were no longer enough men to sustain three eight-hour shifts in the lines and underground, the troops worked twelve hours on and twelve off, with disastrous effects. “The fatigues on shore were excessive,” wrote Ensign Miller, who had endured other horrors in the Québec winter of 1759–60. “The bad water brought on disorders that were mortal. You could see the men’s tongues hanging out like a mad dog’s; a dollar was frequently given for a quart of water[.] In short, by dead, wounded or sick the army was reduced to two reliefs and it was supposed that we should be obliged to re-embark without taking the place.”6


The Siege of Havana, June 8–August 13, 1762. This fine engineer’s rendering shows British siege lines and battery positions on the lower right. Morro Castle appears to the east (right) side of the channel into the harbor; the Punta on the west. The straight lines projecting from the batteries indicate trajectories of individual cannon; dotted, curved lines depict mortar (“bomb”) trajectories. Unlike Québec, the interior buildings of which suffered badly from British bombardment, the city of Havana itself remained comparatively undamaged by shellfire. Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

Only the arrival, between July 28 and August 2, of about four thousand troops from North America—half of them regulars of the 46th and 58th Regiments and the New York independent companies, the other half provincials from New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Connecticut—enabled Albemarle to bring his siege to a successful end. Using the fresh units to replace four battalions wholly wasted by disease, he ordered the mine under Morro Castle to be blown on July 30, then stormed the fort. Once that great obstacle had been taken all fires could be concentrated on the Punta and the walls of the city proper, across the ship channel. By nightfall on August 11 the Punta’s guns had been silenced, and the commandant of Havana requested a truce to work out terms of capitulation. He formally surrendered the city, with all the honors of war and with guarantees that rights of property and religious observance would be secure, on August 14. With the “Key to the New World” in hand, the British also laid hold of three million pounds in gold and silver and most of Spain’s Caribbean fleet: twelve ships of the line and several frigates—a quarter of the Spanish navy. The whole of the Floridas and eastern Mexico now lay exposed to British assault. 7

Or would have, had not the land forces suffered so badly during the siege and afterward that there was no realistic hope for the British to do anything but cling to their conquest. A total of 1,800 men had been killed or had died of disease during the siege, and another 4,000 had fallen ill. Within six weeks after the surrender, 560 more soldiers and sailors had succumbed to their wounds, and 4,700 were dead of yellow fever and other maladies. Taken together with the four battalions of regulars who had been evacuated to New York (where most of those who survived the passage died in the hospital), it seems likely that at least half of the regulars who shipped out on the expedition died. The provincials seem to have fared as badly, or perhaps even worse.8

The British could retain Cuba not because they had the military strength to control its population but because the merchants and planters of the island, like those of the French West Indies, quickly discovered the advantages of trading within the British empire. Cuba had always traded more freely within the Caribbean than with Spain itself, for commerce with the metropolis was variously restricted by monopolies, taxation, and the flota system, by which transatlantic cargoes traveled in huge annual convoys. Now British and colonial merchants offered a more profitable market and more flexible marketing for Cuban tobacco, sugar, and cattle hides than any that the habaneros had ever known. During the eleven months of occupation as many as seven hundred British and colonial ships would swarm into Havana harbor, bringing in thousands of tons of English manufactures and at least seventeen hundred Africans to satisfy the planters’ twin hungers for consumer goods and slaves. When they sailed away, they carried to British markets twenty thousand cattle hides and warehousefuls of sugar and tobacco that had been awaiting transportation to Cádiz, the monopoly destination of Spain’s American trade.9

Thus the last great British conquest of the Seven Years’ War demonstrated, with the greatest clarity of them all, the paradoxical relations between empire, trade, and military power. In proportion to the losses sustained by the conquerors, the occupation brought prosperity to Cuba; and the prosperity of the British empire, not the power of its army and navy, secured the cooperation of vanquished peoples as surely as it had gained the goodwill of Anglo-American colonists. Where British arms reaped costly laurels, the merchants, the colonies, and the conquered harvested profits. The war’s prolongation had delayed the day when the costs of victory would have to be reckoned, but the return of peace would require those who had seemingly profited from the war to shoulder some of the burdens of glory.

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