Thursday, February 13, 2014

April 17, 1797 – British Seize San Juan

Time and again the British had tried to seize the valuable Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, claimed by the Spanish since its discovery on Columbus’s second voyage in 1493. In 1595, Sir Francis Drake led a force that attacked the Spanish capital there, ultimately being able to do no more than sack San Juan. The English returned three years later under Sir George Clifford. This time they captured San Juan, but a plague of dysentery drove them off the island.

As the French Revolutionary Wars dragged on in Europe, Spain grew weary of fighting France and made a separate peace in 1796. Britain was outraged and war began anew with Spain, their old nemesis and sometimes ally. Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby was dispatched with an armada of over sixty ships packed with British troops and German mercenaries to at last break Spanish hegemony in the Greater Antilles.

Abercromby was determined to use the sheer size of his army to his advantage with a quick frontal assault, but his German allies learned intelligence from a treacherous citizen of the reef that guarded the inlet. Hidden underwater, it allowed only the passage of small frigates and transport ships. Abercromby reconsidered his plan and decided to send a contingent of soldiers in under the cover of darkness.

The strategy worked, throwing San Juan into chaos even though the British soldiers were quickly surrounded and pinned down. The rest of the fleet began a bombardment that prevented the Spanish from manning their defenses, and more British troops poured into the city from the inlet. Brigadier General Ramón de Castro ordered the evacuation of the city into the island proper to begin a guerilla campaign, but the day was seen as lost by most. In the following weeks, the British mopped up dissenters and formally claimed Puerto Rico as Port Richard.

Abercromby was hailed as a hero in London. Although some suggested his recall to Britain to be placed in command of the home armies, it was determined to continue Britain’s fortune in the Caribbean. When Puerto Rico was appropriately pacified, Abercromby assembled a new armada and sailed on Havana. The third-largest city in the Americas had briefly belonged to Britain after being captured in 1762 during the Seven Years’ War. Sugar merchants in London were suspicious of the island’s impact on their trade, so they leaned on diplomats at peace talks in Paris to trade Cuba for Florida. Many were disgusted by what was seen as an uneven trade, and even the short time of rule in Havana had begun a blossoming trade that linked the island increasingly with North America rather than Spanish holdings. When Abercromby’s forces arrived, islanders sympathetic to the British joined him in quickly overthrowing the city. The eastern end of the island stood with the Spanish, and war raged for months until Britain had claimed the whole island.

Next Abercromby was suggested to sail onto Hispaniola, which had been colonized in the west by France and ceded completely to them by Spain in recent treaties. Abercromby anticipated a strong resistance by the recently freed slaves and was relieved from what he believed would be an unwinnable campaign when he was called back to Europe to fight France in Egypt after the disastrous Campaign of 1799 in the Netherlands and struggles with Irish rebellion. Abercromby was given command of land forces while the younger Horatio Nelson led the navy. Their landing of troops under fire at Abukir became famous for boldness and genius in military history. While the French were driven out of Egypt successfully, Abercromby was killed in the fighting in Alexandria. A monument was raised in St. Paul’s in his honor, and his widow given the title of baroness with a £2,000 pension.

Britain eventually came to peace with Spain through guerilla warfare opposing Napoleon’s invasion, though the Caribbean would continue under British rule. Postmortem, Abercromby was proven right about the difficulties of conquering Hispaniola. Napoleon’s attempted reinstitution of slavery was rebuffed with more than 24,000 of the 40,000 French troops dispatched there killed by battle and Yellow Fever.

Over the nineteenth century, British holdings in the Caribbean grew wealthy through international trade, attracting the interest of expansionistic Americans. American ships raided Cuba in the War of 1812 using Spanish Florida as a haven, but they were unable to gain a foothold. While America purchased Florida and spread westward, the Monroe Doctrine threatened against further British colonization in the Western Hemisphere. Rich lands attracted British trade interests, however, especially with new markets opening in the liberated former Spanish colonies. Tensions remained high, not only in the south but on the northern border. The two nations nearly went to war in 1837 in the Caroline Affair when the Canadian Rebellion spilled over into New York.

War finally did come, beginning in the south as the US annexed Texas and Mexico, a long British ally, declared war. When the US seized Vera Cruz and marched on Mexico City, Britain feared total annexation and left its neutral position. Naval battles and raids dragged on for years until the two finally came to peace talks. Many in Britain wanted to support the Confederacy when the American Civil War began, but the British maintained a Southern-favored neutrality with secret donations of supplies and loans.

Uneasy peace continued until the beginning of the twentieth century when Britain nearly halted American plans of a Panama Canal and even suggested America revoke its annexation of Hawaii. Although war did not break out, it devastated relations. Americans refused to grant the British any aid as the Great War began in Europe, and the US grew closer ties with Germany, who respected the Monroe Doctrine as it had eyes for Africa and the Pacific. Over the course of the twentieth century, Germany and Britain allied against the threat of the Soviets, while America remained steadfastly isolated in the Western Hemisphere, gradually outpacing British authority.


In reality, Abercromby’s fleet was hung up by the underwater reef as it attempted to sail into the inlet. The Spanish had spotted them and took up strong defensive positions, holding firm despite naval bombardment. After more than a week of bloody clashes leading to a stalemate, Abercromby withdrew. Puerto Rico would continue under Spanish control until the Spanish-American War a century later.

1 comment:

  1. on the Today in Alternate History blog we revisit a related scenario with our article British Seize Cuba.


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