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The gigantic military disaster of the English in the Spanish Caribbean that does not appear in history books

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César Cervera

Updated:04/24/2020 01:41

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If, as the British nationalist account assumes after the invincible Navy, England assumed the trident of the seas to the detriment of Spain, it seems that the Neptune instrument weighed heavily on him. In 1625, both countries fought a brief but intense war where the monarchy of Philip IV He came out triumphant. Under the protectorate of Oliver CromwellYears later, there was another defeat in the Caribbean of Dantesque dimensions. Both British setbacks barely occupy a few lines in traditional historiography …

As Spain entered a declining phase in the Thirty Years’ War, the two powerful Atlantic countries collided again in a warlike conflict because of trade rivalry in Cromwell’s time. The accusation, so many times repeated, that the Spanish monopoly was a focus of delay for the entire globe, served as a trigger for the conflict. It is still paradoxical that England, which always justified its wars and its pirate attacks against Spain in the need for global trade, was enormously restrictive in its colonies. Only English ships (neither Scottish nor Irish) could dock in American ports.

Cromwell’s messianic plan

Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant politician and military man who beheaded Charles I, started a real shipbuilding project in the second half of the 17th century. As the historian explains Esteban Mira Horses In his book “The Armies of the Empire” (The Sphere of Books 2020), it was at that time and not before when England began to rise as “an indisputable naval power.” By 1652 it is estimated that they already had a fleet of 180 ships. Spain, by contrast, experienced a moment of total fragility with assaults, looting and fires in more than 18 cities, four towns and 35 villages between 1655 and 1671.

Oliver Cromwell portrait

Immersed in several long and painful wars, Philip IV he was forced to fight with England in 1655 a conflict that he did not want and that surprised the Spanish ambassador in London, Alonso de Cárdenas, negotiating an alliance offer that even included freedom of worship for the English in Spain. The King habsburg he could at least be content that the first phase of Western Design, Cromwell’s messianic plan to wrest Spain’s American empire, failed miserably.

Without a prior declaration by the English, Cromwell organized a foray into the Spanish Indies. On December 26, 1654, he set sail from Portsmouth for the Caribbean. western design an expedition made up of 18 warships and twenty transport ships under the command of Admiral William Penn, with 2,500 infantry soldiers, with the aim of occupying one or more islands and taking over the Spanish treasure fleet. In Barbados they recruited another 5,000 men, who far from joining forces subtracted them due to their indiscipline and the impossibility of feeding so many mouths.

As in past and future expeditions to America, British logistics failed to adapt to the peculiarities of the terrain and the climate, so they were exposed to epidemics of all kinds. Inexperience, disease and hunger were too much for an army that was already ill equipped and worse fed on its departure, there was even a shortage of brandy. Most of the recruiting was carried out by Cromwell’s brother-in-law, Major General John Disbowe, who drummed up inexperienced people from London’s slums, joined by farmers without military training from the English possessions of Barbados and St. Kitts.

Three days of marching under the scorching sun on a dry and sandy area did not distract the Spaniards at all

The relationship between the admiral William Penn, in charge of the fleet, and the general Robert Venables, in charge of the army, was not the best possible either. When they opened, upon arrival in the Antilles, the secret instructions by which they were ordered to attack Santo Domingo, each one proposed his own strategy and, in the end, a mixture of both with the worst of each was assumed.

On April 14, 1655, the squad took control of the southwest coast of Santo Domingo. A small detachment landed near the city, whose defense was led by Governor Bernardino de Meneses, and the bulk of the British forces, led by Venables, made it 40 kilometers in order to distract the Spanish and divide their forces. Three days of marching in the scorching sun on dry, sandy ground did not distract the Spaniards at all. Rather it strengthened them.

Jamaica, a minor dam

As soon as both armies managed to meet, on April 18, the English suffered a first ambush. Although the Spanish could not gather more than a thousand valid soldiers, concentrated in the Primate City, Bernardino de Meneses knew how to play with the advantage that the rugged terrain gave him and he raised a resistance using wooded areas and caves.

The English lacked the most basic knowledge of the geographical situation and characteristics of Santo Domingo. It is told, between myth and reality, that the noise caused by the crabs on the beaches at night kept the English in a state of permanent tension, making them think that the Spanish were landing more troops on the island. The soldiers spent the nights shooting into the darkness, believing that the insects’ luminosity was flint sparks produced by the enemy.

William Penn portrait

On April 25, 6,000 soldiers finally made their way to the capital, being attacked by a cavalry of 120 horsemen who ambushed them in a narrow passage. When arriving in front of the walls, a new Spanish attack caused the definitive collapse of English discipline. Spanish troops led by the governor Bernardino de MenesesAlong with the black and mulatto slaves, they harassed them in their retreat in what was a whole lesson on guerrilla warfare and in which at least one woman, Doña Juana de Sotomayor, participated, who “reported having fought in the campaign dressed as a man with weapons ».

The English fleet tried in vain to bombard the city during the retreat, but eventually the army re-embarked again and withdrew from the scene in mid-May, leaving behind a thousand deaths and 200 prisoners. Many of the officers, including the Cromwell commissioner, died during the flight or in the weeks dozing on ships infected with misery. The seafarers continued to mock the actions of the ground soldiers, which in turn increased hostility between William Penn and Robert Venables.

A few Spaniards continued to live in the interior of the island as if there was such a thing waiting for help that finally never came.

Following this setback conveniently erased from the history books, the expedition marched against the neighboring island of Jamaica, which defended itself with a scorched earth strategy. The few defenders preferred in this way that the English went into the interior of the island, whose economic importance was nil, and wasted away by hunger. A few Hispanics continued to live in the interior of the island as if they were waiting for help that finally never came. The English stayed with Jamaica more out of boredom and Spanish laziness than out of their own merits.

Even when a brief peace was reached with the English and their possession over Jamaica, the former Spanish governor, was recognized, Christopher Sasi ArnoldoHe tried to fight back knowing how weak British control was on the island. However, his little out-of-invasion from Cuba crashed with colonel doyley’s resistance and he was unable to shake hands with the Spaniards in the interior. Nor could it be achieved in 1660, with even fewer troops, so that the survivors of the interior finally abandoned their posts.

The collapse of the Habsburg empire

The British commanders, in open discord, returned in 1655 to the british isles each on their own, where they would be charged for leaving their post and sent to the tower of London. Only time, and propaganda, revalued what sounded like a miserable conquest. Jamaica was a minor dam. That same summer, the English admiral Robert Blake He kept the Strait of Gibraltar blocked with an army of 28 ships, hoping to catch the Fleet of the Indies off guard, which was to return to Cádiz. Warned of the English threat, the Spanish fleet wintered in the Caribbean, forcing Blake to return to England without having established contact with her.

That year the British arms left empty.

Robert Blake's St. George, in the attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1657.
Robert Blake’s St. George, in the attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1657.

Despite the British failure in 1655, the Duke of Medina Sidonia warned Felipe IV of the precarious position of the Atlantic trade: “You cannot believe that the English have to break the public faith and the peace that exists between this and that Crown, and thus there is no need to prevent anything, but to send to raise the four vessels and patache and hurry to the dispatch of the fleet ». And indeed, a year later, luck would favor Blake in one of the few captures that the Fleet of the Indies suffered in its entire history. Almost within sight of Cadiz, Blake intercepted a first fleet returning from Tierra Firme. He took the captain and a merchant ship, which reported loot of two million pesos.

The New Spain fleet, who was behind, took refuge in the Canary Islands at the notice that Blake was waiting in Cádiz. It was not enough. Most of the ships were destroyed, although at least they were able to land the silver from their warehouses in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

In the following years, Cromwell’s alliance with France placed Spain in both the Netherlands as in the Caribbean on the verge of collapse. The Battle of the Dunes in June 1659 staged the lowest moment of the Habsburg Kings’ arms.

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