Skip to main content

A Day in History, Wednesday 11th August 1762

The 11th of August 1762 was the day that British armed forces marched into Havana, Spanish Cuba’s capital. The attack on Havana was one of the Seven Years War’s most important military operations which had entangled most of Europe, dragging along its American and Asian empires into the conflict. The surrender was the result of an assault ordered by London in January 1762, which had taken the British navy and army months to accomplish and came at great cost. Of the fifteen thousand men and two hundred ships that besieged the fortified city almost 3000 would be killed or rendered unfit for future combat.(1) Casualties mounted even before the battle had started due to illnesses like yellow fever, which ravaged militaries in the Caribbean. Cuban forces lost over ten thousand men. These losses came not only in battle, but again through sickness from blockade and the British diversion of the city’s water supply. Consequently, even though the Spanish military forces were well-protected behind the city walls and the massive El Morro fortress, the blockade and vastly superior force overwhelmed them. For their part, the British took such an expensive gamble in a last attempt to rapidly force peace negotiations in the face of its fledgling Prussian allies on continental Europe and depleted finances. The city was the only foothold Britain was able to keep in Cuba, since the harrowing siege had exhausted its forces. Yet, this conquest was decisive to the conflict’s outcome, and its effects would reverberate throughout Europe and the Americas for years later.

The Lancashire Infantry Museum, Painting of ‘El Morro Fortress, Havana’, [Online] http://www.lancashireinfantrymuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/El-Morro-Fortress-Havana.jpg
With Havana occupied, Spain effectively lost the battle for naval preeminence that had been raging for over 200 years. Between 1725 and 1740 thanks to their expanded shipyard in the Cuban capital, the Spanish fleet expanded from 16 to 43 warships.(2) During their 8 month stay from the 11th of August 1762, the British made sure that these facilities were destroyed. Considering British maritime hegemony in subsequent centuries, it is difficult to appreciate what a risk such an assault on Havana was and yet how much of a prize it was to control the city. Vice-admiral George Pocock, the commander in charge of the assault, noted that

the loss of the Spanish fleet will leave all its settlements in this part of the world exposed.(3)

However, he also reported that after the siege of Havana, his forces would be unable to carry out any other operations. This must have been worrying news to the British admiralty, considering that the Peace of Paris was not signed until 1763. Prior to the invasion, Spain had been eager to stall talks in order to consolidate its gains in Portuguese America. The loss of Havana turned the tables as Spain sued for peace, even if it was forced to relinquish Florida to the British. Accordingly, Spain conceded naval superiority in the Gulf of Mexico and the control of the illicit trade that came with it. Sugar was particularly favoured by Cuban smugglers who had sold copious amounts to the British before the invasion. After the fall of Havana, with the Caribbean virtually in the Royal Navy’s hands, which was immensely profitable for contrabandists, Spain was subsequently, forced to renegotiate the commercial relations with all its American colonies.

The lead up and subsequent occupation of Havana allowed for unprecedented commercial exchange between the Cuban capital and the British Empire. This would seem counterintuitive in the protectionist climate of the Seven Years War, yet the taking and surrendering of ports and cities all around the Americas gave resident merchants a chance to alternately sample trade with colonial or occupying forces. Up until the invasion, trade from Spanish America was conducted under mercantilist monopolies where even inter-colonial trade was restricted.(4) The contacts forged during the occupation of a capital cut off from Spanish domination, and the rest of the island, marked the beginning of non-smuggled exchange. What would have previously been considered contraband became the status quo for the duration of Britain’s occupation. These months were not precisely ones of free trade, but the increased diversity of partners with which traders associated with, disassembled Spain’s simplistic commercial dichotomy. The official connections made following the British stay in Havana were exploited thereafter through enhanced contraband, and later, through legitimate means.

The great geo-political and military shift in power caused by the shocking fall of Havana, forced the Spanish to completely rethink the way they defended their American holdings. During previous decades the weakening hand of Spain in the Americas had not been immediately clear. In fact, Governor Juan de Prado, in charge of defending Havana, used the military plans used by officers during the siege of Cartagena, a battle which the British had lost against Spain’s tough colonial defenses. However, the tactic of entrenchment by blockading the bay and cutting of the city allowed for the British to progressively neutralise Havana’s supplies and defenses. Prado’s strategy in fact allowed two waves of assault to take each Cuban position one at a time without much room for the Spanish forces to maneuver. Thereafter, the Count of Ricla argued that,


The true strength to foil the conquest of a country does not lie in its walls, nor in the worth of its arsenals, but in the capacity of that country to call on everything for its defense, be it… the production of goods, the means to requisition and transport them, as well as the division of its people into classes, so that each one can be of service to the Fatherland in case of war…(5)

What in effect this reformer was calling for was the autonomy of Spain’s American colonies. Spanish America became increasingly self-aware of the distance by which it was separated from the metropolis, and of its own capacity to independently serve the empire in times of war. The Ricla Plan was a progressive military reform. It formed mobile, colonial militias specialized in their own regional terrain. Though practically minded, Ricla was unwittingly instituting the regionalism that would become the national consciousness of each colony. No longer would troops stationed in places like Havana or Cartagena be the defenders of cities, but of entire national colonies instead.(6) What followed was the increasing independence of Latin America, arising not from a desire for self-determination, but from the will to remain part of the Spanish Empire in the face of aggressive imperial rivals.

Ironically, this increasing sovereignty had a different effect in Cuba. The island’s socio-economic situation was rapidly changed due to the sugar-based industrialization that took place thanks to the British occupation. The fortification of the city and the island to prevent another invasion strengthened the hold of the crown over Cuba. Moreover, Cuban traders who had come into contact with the merchants of Liverpool and New York, hitherto blockaded by the Spanish crown, focused their efforts on the high demand for sugar.(7) The political upheaval of the Thirteen Colonies and the French Revolution in Haiti amply rewarded the Cuban sugar economy. The former opened new markets to the island’s exporters and the latter closed down Cuba’s main Caribbean competitor. Sugar was the commodity that allowed Cuba’s history to diverge from the rest of Spanish America’s.

Consequently, Cuba would remain a loyal Spanish colony for decades after the mainland’s wars of independence.
Cuba’s loyalty in contrast to its mainland neighbours growing dissent, rippled from the British fleet’s hard won victory over Spanish colonial forces in Havana on the 11th of August 1762.

By Alejandro Gonzalez-Ormerod

A Third Year BA History and Politics student, whose dissertation will focus upon Indian identity. The Mexican poet Ocatvio Paz and his views towards India will be of crucial importance.

References

(1)Kuethe, Alan J., Cuba, 1753-1815: Crown, Military, and Society (Knoxville, 1986), p. 17.

(2)Harding, Richard, ‘Sea-Power: The Struggle for Dominance, 1650-1815’, Early Modern Military History, 1450-1815, ed. Geoff Mortimer (Houndmills, 2004), p. 185.

(3) G. Pocock quoted in Greentree, David, A Far Flung Gamble: Havana 1762 (Oxford, 2010), p. 66.

(4) Tarragó, Rafael E., Experiencias políticas de los cubanos en la Cuba española, 1512-1898 (Barcelona, 1996), p. 24.

(5)Count of Ricla in Kuethe, Allan J., ‘La introducción de milicias disciplinadas en América’, Revista de Historia Militar, 47, 1979, pp. 99-100.

(6) Parcero Torre, Celia María, La pérdida de la Habana y las Reformas Borbónicas en Cuba, 1760-1773 (Valladolid, 1998), p. 229.

(7)ibid, p. 171.

Bibliography

Greentree, David, A Far Flung Gamble: Havana 1762 (Oxford, 2010).

Harding, Richard, ‘Sea-Power: The Struggle for Dominance, 1650-1815’, Early Modern Military History, 1450-1815, ed. Geoff Mortimer (Houndmills, 2004).

Kuethe, Alan J., Cuba, 1753-1815: Crown, Military, and Society (Knoxville, 1986).

Kuethe, Allan J., ‘La introducción de milicias disciplinadas en América’, Revista de Historia Militar, 47, 1979, pp. 99-100.

Officer, An authentic journal of the siege of the Havana by an officer; to which is prefixed, A plan of the siege of the Havana, shewing the landing, encampments, approaches, and batteries of the English army; with the attacks and stations of the fleet (London, 1762).

Parcero Torre, Celia María, La pérdida de la Habana y las Reformas Borbónicas en Cuba, 1760-1773 (Valladolid, 1998).

Tarragó, Rafael E., Experiencias políticas de los cubanos en la Cuba española, 1512-1898 (Barcelona, 1996).