An 18th-Century Hero versus the Deep State
I have always prided myself on being an amateur historian, knowing far more than most people. So you can imagine my surprise when I found out, about ten years ago, that I knew nothing about one of the most important battles in world history, whose ramifications echo down to this day.
This is the Battle of Cartagena de los Indias, fought between the Spanish and British empires off the coast of present-day Colombia in 1741. It was part of the War of Jenkin's Ear, a war where Britain's ultimate aim was to break the Spanish empire and impose a British hegemony over the Western hemisphere.
The war went poorly for the British and is usually considered a bit of a draw – with a reversion to the status quo ante. Actually, the British were forced to make concessions to the Spanish, including the loss of slave trading rights (called the Asiento) in Latin America.
How often do we hear about Latin victories in America, where it is usually assumed that the English or Americans always won such engagements?
However, when examined more closely, the War of Jenkin's Ear was a complete disaster for Britain. Britain suffered casualties two to three times greater than the Spanish, with a loss of over twice as many ships. Moreover, the British Navy was humiliated, which had great ramifications for European affairs.
The signal event in the war was the British attack on Cartagena, South America, where the British launched a fleet even larger than the Armada that Spain had hurled against Britain a century and a half earlier. In fact, it would be the largest naval armada in history until the Normandy invasion.
After Great Britain declared war on Spain in 1739, Cartagena quickly became the British forces' top target. [Vice] Admiral Edward Vernon soon embarked with what was then the largest transatlantic amphibious fleet ever assembled: a massive train eventually totaling some 150 ships, carrying 8,000 British soldiers and 4,000 reinforcements from the American colonies, the largest contingent the colonies ever had sent from the mainland.
Actually, the National Geographic figures are low. They do not include other British forces. The British were so sure of their upcoming conquest that they struck medals celebrating their anticipated victory.
The British outnumbered the Spanish roughly five to one or more, depending on which source is used. Wikipedia lists the British forces to include:
29 ships of the line
80 troop ships
50 merchant ships
Against the British were:
2,700 Spanish regulars
400 Spanish marines
600 native archers
6 ships of the line
numerous shore-based guns
Other sources give similar numbers (as this video). What is clear is that the Spanish stood no chance.
Worse yet, the commander of the Spanish forces was Blas de Lezo, a Basque with one leg, one arm, and one eye, due to wounds he had received in wars, often against the British.
But de Lezo, who had lost his leg to British cannon in 1704, was prepared.
To shorten a long story, de Lezo sank the few ships he had to prevent the British from entering the port harbor. He dug a zigzagged trench around Cartagena to withstand British fire. He sent out two Spanish soldiers to feign a surrender and give false information to the British troops. De Lezo then sent out Spanish troops to sneak attack at night. (Click here for a short video.)
British forces made it to the outer defenses of Cartagena before disease and poor supplies took their inevitable toll. The British were forced to retreat. Amazingly, de Lezo had won. One can get a sense of de Lezo's life and the disaster that befell the British from this video.
The fighting had lasted 68 days, ended with the British Royal Navy withdrawing in defeat, after losing 9,500 dead, 7,500 wounded, 1.500 [sic] guns and 50 ships either sank [sic] or badly damaged by enemy fire or disabled or just abandoned for lack of crews. There were nineteen ships of the line damaged, four frigates and twenty-seven transports lost. Of the 3,600 American Minuteman [sic], who had volunteered lured by promises of land and pillage of mountains of gold, only 300 returned; most died of yellow fever, dysentery, and outright starvation. Lawrence Washington, George's brother, was a privileged one who returned back home to renamed [sic] his Virginia plantation Mount Vernon, after Admiral Vernon.
The Spanish casualties were: 800 dead, 1,200 wounded, 6 ships lost. The forts and castles of Bocachica, Castillo Grande Castle and Manzanillo battery were completely destroyed.
This was horrific for the English, they were completely humiliated. The largest operation of the Royal Navy so far resulted in the greatest defeat of her history.
Vice Admiral Vernon would go on to recapitulate this defeat with a subsequent botched conquest of Cuba.
When news of the gigantic British defeat got back to Europe, Britain was humiliated. Suddenly, Britain's enemies during the War of Austrian Succession were given a respite. Eventually, the British had to accept a rough draw.
British plans for the conquest of Spanish America were thwarted. Lawrence Washington – George's older half-brother – was one of the few colonial troops to survive. Lawrence had to have brought back to the colonies that news that Britain was not as invincible as formerly thought. This no doubt must have consoled George Washington in his darker moments during the Revolution.
It is claimed – and also disputed – that King George II prohibited the publishing of the British defeat, and therein may be a story about the 18th-century British Deep State. The losing naval commander, Vice Admiral Edward Vernon, was treated as a hero and later promoted to a full admiral, while finally being given full burial honors at Westminster Cathedral, with this engraved on his tomb:
He subdued Chagre, and at Carthagena conquered as far as naval forces could carry victory[.]
With such a denial of history, one has to wonder if Edward Vernon was a progenitor of some Democratic politicians.
On the other side, de Lezo would succumb to typhus a few months later. Unbelievably, the Spanish government blamed him for sinking his ships without engaging the English Navy directly. Apparently, humiliating the British was not enough.
De Lezo's grave would be forgotten and lost.
The victory secured American trade to Spain over 60 years. Britain never returned, neither [sic] appeared in front of Cartagena de Indias Bay. Spanish rule of the seas was so hegemonic that not only the Caribbean Sea but the Atlantic Ocean itself became a Spanish lake again. The Spanish could freely fly their flag on the Atlantic Ocean for 60 years.
This would not be the same after Trafalgar, when the British became the Lords of the Sea.
But victors write history, and the British who were ascendant in the 18th and later 19th century must have made little note of the battle – as demonstrated by Vernon's tomb. The British Deep State – which had worked to suppress the news – had won. This is why few Americans know of it.
Blas de Lezo's forces, who should go down in history as the equivalent of the men at the Alamo or the Spartans at Thermopylae – even more so, as they won the battle – are barely known outside Colombia. Again, this is no doubt due to British ascendancy in the 19th century.
A similar effect can be seen regarding present American histories of the Napoleonic Wars, where American historians seem to adopt the British view of Napoleon rather than understanding him from the contemporary American viewpoint, which was to view Napoleon with disdain but to remember that Britain, not France, was the enemy.
The Spanish gave de Lezo begrudging recognition over time. His son inherited a peerage. A bust of de Lezo was raised in San Sebastián in the Basque country, and a frigate was named after him. However, it was only in 2014 that Madrid finally gave de Lezo the honor that was due him with a full statue in the Plaza Colón.
What brought de Lezo's memory back was the internet. Videos started appearing, and the world rediscovered the incredible triumph of this preternatural Basque. Slowly, the word is getting out.
Do not kid yourself: de Lezo's victory weakened the British, and probably distantly contributed to the American victory in the Revolution. It also contributed to the failure of the British to lay a full claim on the Falkland Islands until the 19th century, which is why Argentina counter-claims the islands. The British were famous for grabbing major ports on every continent, except South America, where all they got was the backwater of British Guiana...thanks to Blas de Lezo.
What is more important is how we allow official sources to control our view of history and of the world. Since American Thinker readers are an educated lot, I have to assume that some of you knew of Blas de Lezo, but I also have to assume that for some of you, this is the first time you have heard of him. So it was for me, a few years earlier.
This should not be so. Blas de Lezo is actually a giant of history, who was almost forgotten, thanks to Deep States in both Britain and Spain. Consider what else is being hidden from you!
Mike Konrad is the pen name of an American who wishes he had availed himself more fully of the opportunity to learn Spanish better in high school, lo those many decades ago. He runs a website about the Arab community in South America at http://latinarabia.com and a website about small computers at http://thetinydesktop.com.