Admiral Vernon & Porto Bello

(1684 - 1757)

During the seventeenth century, the Spanish exerted a lot of control over her colonies in the Americas. She prohibited their ability to trade freely. The only trade allowed was with Spain. All manufactured items had to come via Spain. The colonies were restricted as to what they could trade between themselves. In the treaty of Seville, of 1670, England was wanted possession of her colonies in North America, and the West Indies. It also prohibited all British ships from trade with the Spanish Colonies in America. Only in emergencies, were English ships permitted to sail into Spanish ports, or after being granted special permission from Spain. Over the years, many English ships would sneak into Spanish ports, for trade; but, they ran the risk of being caught, boarded and losing their cargo. They also carried on the old practice of the Buccaneers, raiding towns, plundering, attacking Spanish Merchant ships.

The Treaty of Seville, of 1729, re-emphasized  the fact that the English could not trade with the Spanish Colonies, and gave the Spanish the right to search any English ship found in their waters. The Spanish would board the English ships they encountered near their colonies. The English seamen would complain of the treatment given them by their Spanish capturers. By 1939 the English were upset that the Spanish were mistreating the English seamen captures, and Sent Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon to the Caribbean and Porto Bello for the indemnification of losses sustained by English merchants. Vernon's squadron consisted of six ships. The Spanish rejected the English claims, and war was declared  on October 10. 1739. In 1740, Sir Chaloner Ogle, with a fleet of twenty-seven ships of the line, and a number of frigates, fire-ships, bomb-ketches, tenders, hospital-ships and store-ships, was sent to Jamaica. There, they were joined by four battalions raised in the British American Colonies. The object of this force was to join with Vernon,  to attack the Spanish Colonies in the Americas. A fleet was sent to the Pacific Ocean, under the command of Commodore Anson, to attack Peru and Panama, capture Spanish Treasure Ships. The English expected to overthrow the dominion of Spain in America. Edward Vernon, a member of Parliament, declared while they were in session, that "with six ships only", he could take Porto Bello. The English government took him at his word, and commissioned him as an admiral and a fleet of ships, sending him to attack the Spanish in the West Indies. On July 20, 1739, he sailed from England with nine men-of-wars and one sloop.

Obtaining additional supplies at Jamaica and an additional 240 infantry men, he sailed from Port Royal on November 5, 1739, bound for the Isthmus of Darien and Porto Bello. Admiral Edward Vernon in command and Commodore Charles Brown, second in command. His ships were the HMS Burford (70 guns and 500 men) under command of Captain Thomas Watson, HMS Hampton Court (70 guns and 495 men) under command of Captain Digby Dent, HMS Princess Louisa (60 guns and 400 men) under command of Captain Thomas Waterhouse, HMS Stratford (60 guns and 400 men) commanded by Captain Thomas Trevor, the HMS Worcester (60 guns and 400 men) under command of  Captain Perry Main, the HMS Norwich (50 guns and 300 men) commanded by Captain Richard Herbert, and HMS Sherness. Admiral Vernon was on his Flag Ship, the HMS Burford, while Commodore Brown was aboard HMS Hampton Court. Since he had stated that he could take Porto Bello with six ships, he sent the HMS Sherness to patrol the waters off Cartagena.

Vernon, with his fleet of six ships, 2,735 men, 370 pieces of ordnance, arrived in sight of Porto Bello on the evening of November 20, 1739, and anchored some six leagues off shore for the night. At dawn on November 21, 1739, and his fleet entered the harbor in line of battle. They were led in by James Rentone, captain of a merchant ship that was chasing some Spanish Guarda Costa (coast guard) ships, that were protecting the entrance to the harbor. The Spanish were so sure that the English would not enter the harbor and face the deadly fire of the Iron Fort (San Felipe), they sent the coast guard ships as an enticement to the English. Admiral Vernon lead his fleet aboard his flag ship, the Hampton Court, with a blue flag on the fore mast, and the bloody red flag on the main mast. Due to the channel, he was forced to sail within half a cannon shot of San Felipe. The fort was equipped with 100 guns and a garrison of 300 soldiers. Soon after entering the channel, the wind died and Vernon was forced to anchor in the channel. In about 25 minutes,  the Hampton Court fired more than 400 cannon shots at San Felipe. Shortly there after, the Norwich entered the channel to join the bombardment, followed by the Worcester in 28 minutes and then followed by the Burford. The English bombardment was  so intense, that the Spaniards could not approached their guns to fire back. Admiral Vernon then ordered Mr. Broderick with 40 sailors and a company of Royal Marines to land in front of the fort and take the Lower Battery, with comprised 22 canons. The Burford was the closest ship to San Felipe, and was being hit by some of the  Spanish guns, but she had command of the lower shore battery and offered protection to the landing party. Captain Downing, leading a company of Marines, tried to order his men to advance in an orderly manner, but one of the sailors, yelled, "Never let us halt before we are lame", and with great effort, climbed the first battery, taking down the Spanish flag, and raising the English Jack on the lower battery.

The Spanish Guarda Costa boats, that were driven into harbor, were unable to confront the superior English Men-of-War, and it men were sent to San Felipe, to help the defenders man the guns. As they approached the fortress, they found that the defenders were running away, and soon after, a while flag was flying from the ramparts. At this point, the HMS Stratford entered the channel to take part in the bombardment, but the major battle was over. The Commandant of San Felipe, with 5 officers and 35 men tried to offer a last heroic defense in a room that they had barricaded themselves in. But Mr. Broderick fires a couple of cannon shots at the door, blowing it down. Then the Spaniards ceased fighting at San Felipe. Vernon was able to take the Iron Fort after 2 hours of intense fighting.

During this battle, el Castillo Santiago, referred to by the English as the Gloria Castle, located directly across the channel from San Felipe, was also firing on the English ships. The Hampton Court, used her lower tier of guns to fire at Santiago. With a lucky shot, it shot down the flag pole from Santiago, causing it to land in the town. The cannon shots that missed Santiago, continued on an struck the town, with a couple of shots hitting the house of the governor. The English were also able to sink a Spanish sloop that was anchored near el Castillo de San Jeronimo, referred to by the English as Fort Geronimo. At night fall, the fighting ceased, to be continued the next morning. 

The next morning, there was no wind, and the English ships could not move. It was decided that they would disembark the men and continue on land that evening. This became unnecessary when the Spaniards raised a white flag over Santiago, surrendering the fortress. A Spanish boat approached the ships, containing articles of surrender, signed by the Spanish governor, Don Francisco Martinez de Retez and Don Francisco de Aboroa, commander of the Guarda Costa. With the surrender of Porto Bello, Vernon allowed the fort garrisons to march out of the forts with military honors, in honor of their gallant defense. The Jamaican Captain Newton was ordered to take possession of the fortresses with an infantry company of 120 men. All of the cannons as well as the Spanish ships in the harbor were seized as spoils of war. Most of the sailors of the Spanish ships, had abandoned their ships on the first night of the battle, and proceeded to plunder the town, and the Spanish authorities had to ask the English for protection from the renegade sailors.

After the surrender of Porto Bello, the rest of the English ships entered the harbor and started the demolition the fortifications that had not been destroyed by their bombardment.  They removed all ammunitions found in the town and took the best cannons they found to retro fit on their ships. Those cannons that they did not want were destroyed. Vernon sent a letter to the governor of Panama, demanding that they release the ships, merchandize and men of the South Sea Company. He demanded the immediate release of Mr. Humphrey and Dr. Wright, officers of the South Sea Company, and all of their servants. Their arrest by the Spaniards was one of the reasons that Vernon was sent to capture Porto Bello.

The inhabitants were not molested, nor was the town pillaged, but some 10,000 pesos intended for the pay of the garrison, was found and distributed among the English sailors and troops. That was the only monetary booty taken by the English.  After holding the town for several weeks, they then sailed back to Jamaica. 

Vernon's attack on Porto Bello

In February, 1740, Vernon, left Port Royal with six Men-or-Wars, two bomb-ketches, two fire-ships, and three tenders and proceeded back to Panama. First he dropped 350 bombs into Cartagena, and then went back to Porto Bello. In the afternoon of March 22, 1740, he arrived at the mouth of the Chagres River, and proceeded to bombard the Castillo de San Lorenzo. He continued firing through the night and into the next day. By 11:00 AM, the Spaniards ran up a white flag, and surrendered the Castillo. Captain Knowles went ashore and returned with the commandant, Don Juan Carlos Gutierrez Zevallos, captain of infantry. The Spanish troops were allowed to march out of the Castillo at 3:00 PM, and Captain Knowles with 120 took formal possession of the fortress. In the town of Chagres, they raided the Kings Customs House and found a lot of merchandize, which they took before burning the town down and some Guarda Costas that were docked near by. They took several excursion up and down the Chagres River in search of Spanish troops and booty, but were unable to find any. On March 29, 1740, Vernon proceeded to blow up the Castillo de San Lorenzo and departed the next day, March 30th.  By April 1, 1740, he was back in Porto Bello. He amused himself by attacking towns up and down the coast of Tierra Firme before returning to Jamaica. 

In 1741, he joined Ogle's and Catheart's forces at Jamaica, and was then in command of the greatest armada seen in these waters. He had 30 ships of the line, 90 support vessels, 15,000 sailors, 12,000 soldiers. He intended to cross the Isthmus of Panama, and capture the city of Panama. This was to be done inconjunction with Admiral George Anson, who was to sail through the Strait of Magellan, and attack Spanish shipping in the Pacific. They were to meet at the city of Panama, Vernon attacking overland, and Anson by sea. He proceeded first to capture Cartagena, giving enough time for Anson to sail around South America. Towards the end of March, 1741, the British force, attacked Cartagena.

The Spanish commander, Blas de Lezo had been in the navy for 39 years and had a very illustrious career. Lezo was also, sight to behold, as he stood, commanding his forces in battle. He only had one leg, have lost his other leg in battle, he only had one eye, loosing the other in another battle, and he only had one arm, the other lost in a third battle. The English were very cautious of de Lezo and respected him highly; but, Vernon misjudging him, wrote de Lezo a letter and a challenging him. He answered Vernon's letter in Cartagena: "If I had been in Portobello, you would not have assaulted the fortress of my master, the King, with impunity because I could have supplied the valor the defenders of Portobello lacked and checked their cowardice..." Vernon had taken Porto Bello with relative ease because there were very few soldiers stationed there and the population consisted mostly of civilians. De Lezo's forces were much smaller and only totaled, 6,000 troops and had a  much smaller fleet protecting the harbor. 

The Spanish ships at the entrance to the harbor were destroyed and the fortifications on Boca Chica, were captured after heavy fighting by the British forces. When they sailed into the main harbor, they found the Spanish were fighting back, unlike their previous experience. The batteries on the fortifications on the Castillo Grande, kept the British ships at bay; but the land battle was fierce and the British were stopped by the Spanish. After heavy losses, the British suspended the attack, sparing the city of Cartagena, and sailed back to Jamaica. So over confident was Vernon that he was going to defeat De Lezo,  that he had medals made in England, showing De Lezo (who only had one leg, having lost the other in battle years earlier), kneeling in front of Vernon, handing him his sword. Malaria and dysentery set in on both sides during the siege and decimated this men and caused more casualties than the battle, and the 1,200 soldiers had been reduced to 3,000. On October 28, 1741, the English held a war council on board the Boyne, and decided that it would be impractical to transport cannons across the Isthmus, and to call off the planned invasion of Panama City. Vernon refused to admit that he had been defeated by a much smaller Spanish force. Admiral Anson, hearing the Vernon had failed to capture Cartagena, called off his assault on Spanish shipping in the Pacific, and proceeded to sail back to England, circumnavigating the world. 

In July, he sailed to Cuba, and attacked the towns along the coast, but failed to take Santiago where he again encountered Blas de Lezo, protecting the city. In 1742 he sailed back to Panama, intending to land in Porto Bello, and crossing the isthmus by land to attack the city of Panama. Here, they landed during the rainy season, and sickness and mortality, prevented him from accomplishing anything. 


Admiral Vernon's letter to his wife after the Battle of Cartagena

"Princess Caroline, in the Harbour of Cartagena, 31 March 1741

"After the glorious success it has pleased Almighty God so wonderfully to favour us with, Whose manifold mercies I hope I shall never be unmindful of, I cannot omit laying hold of the opportunity of an express I am sending home to acquaint you of the joyful news, though in my present hurries I have no leisure to enter into many particulars....

"The first attack was by three of my 80-gun ships on the forts of St. Jago and St. Philip, lying without Boca Chica Castle, to secure a descent; and we drove the enemy out of them in less than an hour, and secured a descent to the army, and without their having so much as a single musket-shot fired at them. And my gallant sailors twice stormed and took two batteries on the opposite side of the harbour; the one of fifteen, the other of five 24-pounders, which the general complained of to me galled his army; they having remounted guns and repaired it after our first destroying it, as it lay well to play on our land battery.

"On the propitious 25th March, the day I took charge, the General sent me word he intended to storm Boca Chica Castle; upon which, before the time he proposed, I sent all my boats manned and armed to land at those destroyed batteries a third time, for making a diversion on that side, to favour their storming it. But the enemy was under such consternation, that our troops marched into the castle over the breach without having a single shot fired at them, and about ten at night my gallant sailors stormed St. Joseph's fort without the ceremony of a breach, from whence, all the first of the night, the enemy had been firing partridge-shot at our men through the bushes, but with little injury to them; but they would not stand the assault, but deserted the fort, leaving only three drunken Spaniards behind them. Flushed with this success, my officers finding the Spaniards burning and sinking their ships, part of the boats were detached, to try what could be saved; and they boarded and took the Spanish admiral's ship, the Gallicia, with the flag flying, and in her the captain of the ship, the captain of the marines, an ensign, and 60 men, who, not having boats to escape, gave us the opportunity of saving this ship, which they had orders to sink likewise. Besides the admiral's ship taken, of 70 guns, they burnt the St. Philip, of 80 guns, and sunk the St. Carlos and Africa, of 60 guns each, across the channel; and they have this day sunk the Conquistador and Dragon, of 60 guns each, the only remaining men-of-war here, as they have done all the galleons and other vessels lying above Castillo Grande near five leagues higher up the harbour.

"I have only time to add, it has pleased Almighty God to preserve me in good health, to go through all these glorious fatigues, and in a full disposition to push this beginning with all possible vigour, to humble the proud Spaniards, and bring them to repentance for all the injuries and long-practised depredations on us.

"I have only time to send you my sincerest love and affection for you and blessing to our dear boys; and with services to all our good neighbours, and honest Will Fisher."


English Seaman's Letter to His Wife After the Taking of Porto Bellow


"When I left you heaven knows it was with an aching heart to be hauled from you by a gang of ruffians but, however, I soon overcame that when I found that we were about to go in earnest to right my native country, and against a parcel of impudent Spaniards, by whom I have often been ill treated and god knows my heart I have longed these four years past to cut of some of their ears, and was in hopes I should have sent you one for a sample now, but our good Admiral, God bless him, was too merciful. We have taken Porto Belo with such courage and bravery that I never saw before; for my own part my heart was raised to the clouds and would have scaled the moon had a Spaniard been there to come at him, as we did the battery. Jack Cox is my messmate; you know he was always a heavy-assed dog and sleepy headed, but had you seen him climb the walls of the battery, you would never forget him, for a cat could not exceed him in nimbleness, and so in short it was with all of us. I belief I myself could now overcome ten Spaniards for I remember when I was in Spain that the Spanards called the English Galen den mare, but we shall now make them know that we are the Cox of the Seas for our Admiral is of true game breed. Had you seen us English sailors, now what alteration, what countenances, what bravery can exceed us? They tell us we shall meet a French squadron by and by, but I wish it may be so. And by g-d we'll jerk them. Our dear cox of an Admiral has true English blood in his veins; and thank God all our captains and officers have to a man. Now we are in earnest, but lying in harbours and letting our timber rot and our provision to be devoured with rats; was bad as I have seen. When our cannon had left off firing by order, our men coud hardly forbear going on. My dear, I have got some token of success to show you; I wish I could have sent some of them to you. Our dear Admiral ordered every man some Spanish dollars to be immediately given, which is like a man of honour, for I had rather have 10 dollars in hand than to have 100 for seven years together, and perhaps compound it at last. I am and so is every man of us resolved either to lose our lives or conquer our enemies. True British spirit revives and by g-d we will support our King and country so long as a drop of blood remains. Jo Wilks is as good a sailor as the best of them, and can now bear a hand with an able sailor and has vowed never to take the shuttle in hand till we have reduced the pride of Spain. Help them who will the more, the better true blues will never flinch. I can't help mentioning the soldiers we took with us from Jamaica who were as hearty cox as ever took musket in hand and behaved with glorious courage, but all for the honour of England. I wish we could see one of those plunderers, the garda costas, especially him by whom I was once met with when I lost 16 months wages. If I did not cut off the captain's ears may I be damned. My dear, I am well, getting money wages secure, and all revenge on my enemies, fighting for my King and Country"

In ending this historical  note, the defeated Admiral Vernon was given a heroes burial later with other British heroes at West Minister Abby. The victorious Basque from Spain, Blas de Lezo, has no known grave. He died on September 7, 1741, in Cartagena, and his body was laid to rest, in the sea.

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December 4, 2002