The engagement was an overwhelming naval success for the Allies: the entire French escort fleet, under the command of Château-Renault, together with the Spanish galleons and transports under Manuel de Velasco, had either been captured or destroyed. Yet, because most of the treasure had been off-loaded before the attack, hopes of capturing the bulk of the silver cargo had eluded Rooke. Nevertheless, the victory was a welcome boost to Allied morale and had helped persuade the Portuguese King, Peter II, to abandon his earlier treaty with the French, and join the Grand Alliance.
The naval campaign of 1702 was therefore played out in two distant theatres of America and Spain, linked together by the trail of the Spanish treasure ships across the Atlantic. The American theatre became a scene long remembered in popular English tradition following Admiral Benbow’s running battle in August off Santa Marta. However, the Royal Navy’s main effort was not off the Spanish Main, but off the Spanish coasts in Europe. Under the leadership of King William III the Maritime Powers – England and the Dutch Republic – had resolved upon a Mediterranean strategy for the Allied fleets, a policy continued under William’s successors following his death in March 1702. Their allies, the Austrians, were also clamouring for a naval presence in the Mediterranean to assist them in achieving their own primary ambitions – the capture of Spain’s provinces in Italy. To meet these ends, the Anglo-Dutch fleets would first need to seize a port in the Iberian Peninsula from which their ships could operate. The Allies, therefore, resolved upon an expedition, led by Admiral George Rooke, to capture the southern Spanish port of Cádiz, and at a stroke cut off Spain’s transatlantic trade.
On 11 June 1702, the silver fleet from New Spain left Veracruz under escort of a French squadron commanded by Admiral Château-Renault. The Spanish vessels were commanded by Manuel de Valesco in his armed galleon, the Capitana de Barlovento, one of three ships forming the Armada de Barlovento whose task it was to protect the fleet. The whole convoy arrived at Havana on 7 July; on 24 July they struck out across the Atlantic. The fleet comprised 56 vessels: 22 were Spanish, the rest French. Many of the French ships were not warships but merchantmen which, by the end of the voyage, had sailed for France as soon as their safety across the Atlantic had been assured. At 30° latitude Velasco sent ahead one of the smaller Spanish ships off to Seville to warn the consulate and traders that the fleet was on its way; this vessel put in a San Lucar on 13 September.
When Château-Renault had set out for the Caribbean in 1701, war between France and the Maritime Powers had not yet been declared, but as the convoy sailed home, news arrived of the outbreak of hostilities; this was shortly followed by reports of the Anglo-Dutch blockade of Câdiz, the usual destination of the silver fleet from America. It was clear a new harbour would be needed: Valesco considered the small port of Los Pasajes, but Château-Renault favoured Brest or La Rochelle, or even Lisbon. A compromise was put forward, and on 23 September the Franco-Spanish fleet entered Vigo Bay in Galicia. There was, however, considerable delay in unloading the cargo; the whole administrative apparatus normally present was in Seville and Cádiz: inspectors, valuers, royal officials, etc., had to be awaited before anything could be put ashore. Due to lack of transportation, priority was given to the silver, which was unloaded first and despatched inland to Lugo.
Under consideration of the intelligence brought to Captain Hardy of the Pembroke … It is resolved that we make best our way to the port of Vigo, and insult them immediately with our whole line, if not by such detachments as shall render the attempt most effectual.
Rooke sent ships to explore the mouth of Vigo Bay. A landing party had gleaned information from a captured friar that King Philip’s part of the treasure had already been landed, but that much wealth was still left on board the Spanish vessels.
Aboard the Royal Sovereign, an Allied council of war discussed the options for the attack. The plan was to destroy the boom with English and Dutch ships whilst the troops from the fleet would attack the shore defences. The encounter would not be a conventional line-of-battle engagement; Vigo Bay allowed no room for the deployment of a battle line, so Rooke had to adapt his tactics to the exigencies of the situation. Rooke recorded in his journal:
Upon consideration of the present position of Monsieur Château-Renault’s squadron … and in regard the whole fleet cannot, without great hazard of being in a huddle, attempt them where they are: it is resolved to send in a detachment of fifteen English and ten Dutch ships of the line of battle with all the fireships, to use their best endeavours to take or destroy the aforesaid ships of the enemy …
Early in the morning on 23 October, Vice Admiral Hopsonn in the Torbay led the attack on the boom, closely followed by a strong squadron of his English ships, and of Dutch vessels under Vice Admiral Van der Goes. Near each end of the boom Château-Renault had moored one of his largest men-of-war, the Bourbon at one end, and the Esperance at the other; within the boom he had moored five other large men-of-war, with their broadsides bearing upon the entrance. Meanwhile, Ormonde and some 2,000 men, landed on the shore near Teis, and marched for Fort Randa. (See map). Ormonde sent Lord Shannon with the vanguard of grenadiers to assault the position, defended by several hundred troops. The wall enclosing the outer ward was stormed, and the seaward battery silenced in time to assist the breaking of the boom by the ships. The tower, defended by approximately 300 Franco-Spanish troops, held out a little longer, but this also fell to the Allied grenadiers. As the southern shore guns were being assailed by Ormonde's men, the 90 gun Association attacked and silenced the smaller northern battery on the other side of the bay.
The Torbay, favoured by a breath of wind, crashed at the boom; it cracked, and the ship floated through in amongst the French squadron beyond. However, a sudden drop in the breeze prevented any other Allied vessel following, and Hopsonn found himself temporarily outnumbered. A fireship was laid alongside the Torbay, setting it alight. Fortunately for Hopsonn the fireship, laden with snuff from the Spanish Indies, suddenly blew up, and a great cloud enveloped the English vessel, partly extinguishing the flames thus enabling the crew to control the blaze. According to Rooke’s journal 53 men were drowned in the incident, but as the breeze picked up, the other Allied ships managed to traverse the boom and engage with the enemy.
With the boom broken, and the forts silenced, the Franco-Spanish fleet was lost. Offering little resistance, Château-Renault’s men set fire to their own ships in the harbour, and sought safety on shore. The Allied seamen worked throughout the night to save their prizes; by morning there was not a single French or Spanish vessel that had not been either captured or destroyed.
Spanish naval losses meant a total dependence on the French navy to keep up communications with the Americas. Yet the Spanish government hardly felt the financial blow: it owned only two of the three large galleons, and none of the trading vessels. Those who suffered the most, not just from the losses of the ships but also from the immense merchandise on board, were the private traders. The tons of pepper, cochineal, cocoa, snuff, indigo, hides, etc. were not owned by the government; what the government did own was the silver, the majority of which had already been unloaded from the ships long before the Allied attack, and ultimately deposited in the castle of Segovia. Although it is impossible to estimate exactly how much silver the English government received, it is far less than often supposed. The Master of the Mint, Isaac Newton, stated in June 1703 that the total metal handed in to him by that date was 4504 lb 2 oz of silver, and 7 lb 8 oz and 13 dwt of gold, estimated at a value of just £14,000.
The news that the treasure fleet had got safely to Vigo had initially been a cause of celebration to the merchants in Holland, but the subsequent reports of the battle were received with mixed feelings in Amsterdam; the wealth captured or destroyed belonged as much to the English and Dutch traders as it did to the Spanish. In February 1703, Philip V issued a decree, by way of reprisal, to confiscate all the silver that had come with the treasure fleet belonging to the English and Dutch, totalling four million pesos. In addition, the King decided to borrow two million pesos from what had come for the Spanish traders and the Consulate of Seville. In total, Philip managed to keep nearly seven million pesos, representing over half the silver from the fleet, amounting to the biggest sum in history obtained from the American trade by any Spanish king. The result was a financial windfall for Philip.
In May 1703, the Portuguese signed the Methuen Treaties with England. "The preservation of our overseas colonies makes it indispensable for us to have a good intelligence with the powers which now possess the command of the sea," commented José da Cunha Brochado, the Portuguese minister in London, "the cost is heavy, but for us such an understanding is essential." It was an Allied triumph to detach Portugal from her French alliance: with Lisbon as a base the Allied fleet could dominate the Strait of Gibraltar and cripple French action in the Mediterranean. But the alliance with Portugal forced a major change in Allied strategy: the Maritime Powers now found themselves committed to extensive campaigning in Spain, with one army based in Lisbon, another based to the east in Catalonia. The policy was ultimately to prove a heavy burden and the cause of a disastrous campaign in the peninsular, but in the long term, the commercial provisions of the treaties were to prove an essential component of Britain’s wealth. The naval victory at Vigo, therefore, made an indirect but powerful contribution to Britain’s 18th century prosperity.
|Anglo-Dutch – Rooke|
|Mary||60||Edward Hopson||Phoenix (fireship)|
|Grafton||70||Thomas Harlowe||Vulture (fireship)|
|Torbay||80||Andrew Leake |
Vice Admiral Thomas Hopsonn
|Seven Provinces||90||Vice Admiral Vandergoes||One fireship|
|Berwick||70||Richard Edwards||Terrible (fireship)|
|Essex||70|| John Hubbard|
Rear Admiral Stafford Fairborne
|Somerset||80|| Thomas Dilkes|
Admiral George Rooke
|Bedford||70||Henry Haughton||Hunter (fireship)|
|Holland||Admiral Calemburg||One fireship|
|Unie||Rear Admiral Wassenaer|
|Northumberland||70|| James Greenway|
Rear Admiral Graydon
|Alkmaar||Vice Admiral Pietersen||One fireship|
|French – Château-Renault|
|Le Fort||76||Admiral Château-Renault||Burnt|
|Le Prompt||76||Admiral Beaujeu||Captured by the English|
|L’Assuré||66||d’Aligre||Captured by the English|
|L’Espérance||70||Gallissonnière||Taken, but run ashore and bilged|
|Le Bourbon||68||Montbault||Captured by the Dutch|
|Le Sirène||60||Mongon||Taken, but run ashore and bilged|
|Le Ferme||72||Beaussier||Captured by the English|
|Le Modéré||56||L’Autier||Captured by the English|
|Le Superbe||70||Botteville||Taken, but run ashore and bilged|
|Le Volontaire||46||Sorel||Taken, but run ashore|
|Le Triton||42||de Court||Captured by the English|
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