Why Did The English Take Over Havana?

In early June 1762, an extraordinary English fleet, the largest that ever crossed the ocean began one of the most important warfare events in Cuban colonial history: The Taking over of Havana by the English.

Mildrey Ponce

In early June 1762, an extraordinary English fleet, the largest that ever crossed the ocean began one of the most important warfare events in Cuban colonial history: The Taking over of Havana by the English. It was an extension of scenarios of the American Seven Years War (1756-1763) that was waged by the main European powers. In this war, first France and later its ally Spain, fought against England.
The English planned to attack their enemies at their most vulnerable point and with this in mind, they revived an old ambition: to gain control over the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, a key factor in dominating trade with the New World.
The Cuban capital did not seem an easy prey. By mid-18th century the city had a population surpassing the 30 thousand inhabitants and was converging point of Spanish ships. Therefore, the Spanish government provided the city with multiple defensive means, on account of which it was considered the best-fortified site in America. Except for the unprotected La Cabaña hill, a zone lagging behind in fortification works due to the negligent attitude of the Spanish authorities, the city was strongly safeguarded. The Havana Port entrance was defended by the cross fire from El Morro and La Punta castles. On land, however, the port was shielded by a great stone wall extending from sea to sea, from the interior margin of the bay to a zone near La Punta castle.
In view of these facts, the British Crown organized a powerful naval fleet formed by 53 war ships, over 200 transportation means and some 20 000 men to storm Havana. Spain was bound to counterattack with the 14 ships berthed at port and some 9 000 men, including soldiers and local militiamen. In other words, Spain’s defensive means only amounted to 40% of the enemy’s forces.
In reaching Havana, the English fleet followed an unusual route: the Old Bahamas Canal, thus contributing to make their arrival more of a surprise.
The English appeared in front of the port entrance on June 6, 1762. Having caught sight of the English squadron from the city, the Spanish governor of the Island, Juan del Prado Portocarrero, however, insisted in that it was the Jamaican convoy despite the ships had appeared on a course opposite to the usual one. The enemy’s first canon shots over the city cleared up his ideas very soon. Church bells gave the alarm, and panic took over the population. All men available got ready to defend the city immediately. The governor stood at the head of the Military Board that tried to devise an effective plan to avoid a confrontation. Barracks at La Punta and El Morro castles were reinforced and placed on the alert; trenches were dug and artillery units set up at the heights of La Cabaña; and militiamen from the city and its surroundings were urgently recruited.
Portocarrero’s ineptitude during the entire defensive process was clearly evident. However, militiamen and voluntary groups led by criollos quickly got together to participate in the battle, this is the case of José Antonio Gómez y Buñones (a.k.a. Pepe Antonio), councilman of Guanabacoa, one of the first in volunteering to fight.
Shortly after the battle had begun and at the lead of a group of 60 peasants armed with machetes and a few rifles, Pepe Antonio carried out a successful ambush, for a toll of 20 casualties, 23 prisoners and the confiscation of 50 rifles among a 200-men British column.
It took the invaders over two months of confrontations. With the collapsing of La Cabaña, a zone lacking fortifications, the English took over the city. Shortly after and despite the heroic resistance of those fighting there, El Morro was taken by assault. The position of this site allowed the besieging forces to turn all their artillery against the city and fire their canons at it.
The capitulation was signed on August 12 despite the opposition of the heads of the militias. The difference between the Spanish military chiefs and those of the militias was in that the former and their Spanish advisors saw everything from a European military point of view, thus leading them to commit regretful warfare mistakes. Meanwhile, the Havana militia chiefs showed unmatched attitude of boldness and courage in defense of their territory, of their homeland.
The differences were noted in multiple occasions. One day, the regular army Colonel Carlos Caro insulted the hero of Guanabacoa, Pepe Antonio. He then ordered Pepe Antoio to remove his 300 militiamen from the place they were occupying. Luis de Aguiar, the most combative of all criollo chiefs, was given an unconceivable order of retreat. But, like many other criollo leaders, he refused to participate in the capitulation. It is also worth noting that the battalions of mulattos and “free Negroes” as well as of free slaves that joined the militia represented an important sector for the defense of the city.
The women of Havana were heroic just as well. They wrote the first document ever known accusing the Spanish military chiefs for their negligent attitude, and extolling, however, the great capacity of the criollos who felt profoundly insulted by the way the city had surrendered.
The English domination lasted eleven months and it extended to Pinar del Río, La Habana and Matanzas, the Island’s western region. However, its effects were only felt in the capital. The eastern region of the island continued under the Spanish colonial ruling, whose central government had established in Santiago de Cuba.
England’s industrial and commercial development, which was by far superior to Spain’s, gave a significant boost to the economic activities in Havana during the English short term taking over of the city.
Vast commerce activities were established with England and its colonial possessions , mainly with the Thirteen Colonies and Jamaica. Large amounts of English merchandise and slaves were introduced in the city.
Cuban export products, mainly sugar and tobacco were also favored and their productions were boosted.
Though the population rejected the presence of the English in Havana, it was economically obvious that the foreigners’ permanence resulted in benefits with a more extensive and intensive commercial regime as compared to the economic limitations imposed by the Spanish metropolis on its colonies. The signing of the Versailles Treaty on February 10, 1763 put an end to the Seven Years War. As agreed in the document, Havana was returned to Spain by England, that in turn England received Florida, a Spanish colonial possession bordering with the Thirteen Colonies.
Two-hundred and forty five years later it is concluded that those actions were an expression of the intensified hostility in the struggle for the control of the Caribbean region. For this reason, Spain was forced to implement a strategic readjustment once its control over the island was reestablished. On July 6, 1763, the Count of Ricla, Ambrosio de Funes y Villalpando, on behalf of His Majesty Carlos III took office as Governor of Cuba. Meanwhile, France was no longer power nation on American territory, and the Anglo-Saxon and Spanish empires were constituted only abiding by the existing frontiers. Based on this situation, a comprehensive study of the island’s society was conducted in the 1763-1765 to the purpose of introducing profound changes that would lead to the modernization of the island’s defensive system in the context of a new socio-economic policy.
In addition to the aftermath of the English adventure on Antillean soil, the most significant outcome was the emergence of a mature sense of Cuban nationality. This was evidenced in the way the so-called “criollos”, learned to stand up with pride for the land in which they had been born.
*The author is journalist on historical topics.
*Translation by Gilda Gil.

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