The Battle of Havana in 1762 - How Cuba's capital became British for 11 months

13 August 1762, Spanish Havana surrendered to a large British invasion force under General George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle, after two months of siege.

"It would require a greater philosopher and historian than I am to explain the causes of the famous Seven Years' War in which Europe was engaged; and, indeed, its origin has always appeared to me to be so complicated, and the books written about it so amazingly hard to understand, that I have seldom been much wiser at the end of a chapter than at the beginning“ (William Makepeace Thackeray “The Luck of Barry Lyndon”)

HMS "Stirling Castle", "Dragon" and "Cambridge" in action during a first attempt to take the fortress in a combined land and sea attack -
Richard Paton (1717 - 1791): "Bombardment of the Morro Castle, Havana, 1 July 1762" (around 1770)

It was a world war. Quite in contrast to the other conflicts after the Peace of Utrecht in 1713, the Cabinet Wars fought for minor territorial gains and strategic advantages on isolated theatres with a minimum of civilian suffering, at least on paper, the Seven Years’ War meant carnage from the Ohio Valley, India and Central Europe to the Russian border, involving all of the Old World’s powers, gathered either in the camp of France and Austria, the bitter Bourbon and Habsburg enemies from the War of the Spanish Succession, or in that of Great Britain and her continental allies, chiefly Prussia. After the “annus miriabilis”, the wonderful year of 1759, it seemed that King George III, who had just succeeded his grandfather on the throne, was winning, even though most of the combatants and politicos probably had long since forgotten what the war was all about in the first place. During the last stage, it was a catch-as-catch can, especially in the European colonies across the globe. In 1761 then, King Louis XV of France had mobilised the rest of the Bourbon rulers, both Sicilies, Parma and Spain. Charles III, the fourth Bourbon ruler on the Spanish throne since Utrecht, actually had troubles enough to maintain his crumbling overseas empire, but something along the lines of Bourbon Nibelung loyalty and the worry the British might attack his possessions next anyway after they had finished with the French finally brought him into the war alongside his cousin. The British, ruling the waves since their decisive naval victories at Lagos and Quiberon Bay, promptly mobilised against Bourbon Spain and moved towards key positions in Manila on the Philippines in the Pacific and Cuba in the West Indies. Back in the day, the colonies in the Caribbean usually were the crown jewels among the European colonial possessions and sugar islands like Guadeloupe or Martinique, just recently conquered by the British from France, generated more income than the whole Eastern American seaboard. Cuba, however, was a Spanish domain since the days of the Conquistadores and her capital Havana was considered to be impregnable with fortifications established and improved since more than 250 years. In 1762, Havana’s harbour was guarded by the star fort Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the Fortresses San Salvador de la Punta at the western and Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, the Morro, at the eastern entrance, besides somewhat treacherous currents and winds, by and large a death trap for a fleet under sails. Nevertheless, a squadron under Sir George Pocock sailed in March of the year from Spithead to carry General George Keppel’s 12,000 troops across the broad Atlantic to take Havana.

Dominic Serres (1719 - 1793): "The British Fleet Entering Havana, 21 August 1762" (1775) - to the right is Pocock's flagship HMS "Namur" (90), flying the Blue Ensign along with the Union flag

Hurricane Season had already begun when Pocock’s fleet of 23 ships-of-the-line, 11 frigates and almost 200 smaller vessels, transports, bomb ketches and what not, finally arrived off Havana. The Spanish commander Juan de Prado Mayera Portocarrero y Luna had 9 sail of the line at anchor under the guns of his fortresses and about 5,000 men to defend the city. And time was on his side. Besides hurricanes and Spanish steel and shot, a far more deadly enemy lay in wait for Keppel’s troops. Yellow fever and other tropical diseases, known to kill European troops by the thousands as soon as they set foot on a Caribbean island. In fact, there were regiments who rather preferred to get court martialled and shot than to serve out there in the West Indies. Basically, all Juan de Prado had to do was to hold out until the British besiegers began to die like flies and a hurricane shatter their fleet. Keppel knew that as well, of course, bottled the Spanish squadron in the harbour of Havana by sinking three of his own no longer seaworthy battleships in the harbour entrance and prepared to take the Moro double quick. Unfortunately for him and his men, the fortress was built on solid rock, making the usual undermining operations of its walls virtually impossible and its works and batteries sat high enough to keep them out of range of the hundreds of pieces of naval artillery of Pocock’s ships of the line. Thus, the time-consuming process of reducing the fortifications by land began. The British dug in beyond the fortress and over the next six weeks, more than 500 shots hit the Morro from field artillery, siege guns, mortars, howitzers and the heavy 32-pounders taken ashore from the battleships. A last Spanish sortie was repulsed on 20 July, the British siege works were now close enough to risk a direct assault and allowed the undermining of some bastions, Keppel offered terms for surrendering the fortress, the proud Spanish commander refused and a week later, a mine exploded under the right bastion of the Morro and in the night of 31 July, the British rushed into the breach and finally took the fortress. Keppel now controlled the eastern shore, with the guns on the Moro overlooking the city and batteries placed up to La Cabana Hill and still the city refused to surrender. On 11 August, the bombardment began, the guns of La Punta, the last fort on the eastern shore, were silenced and the British soldiers, marines and seamen were about to storm the city. Juan de Prado finally gave up. The Spanish garrison was allowed to abandon Havana with all military honours, keeping their arms and flags.

Joshua Reynolds (1732 - 1792): "General William Keppel, Storming the Morro Castle" (around 1770)

feared tropical diseases caught up with the British, though. Until October 1762, “Yellow Jack” got 5,000 of Keppel’s men and Pocock’s sailors, along with the 3,000 killed in action about one third of the force sent to take Havana was lost. By then, Manila had fallen as well and the good people of Havana, allowed to keep their Catholic faith actually began to prosper under their new British masters, especially since the trade restrictions of all Spanish colonies in regards to engaging in business with heretic foreigners were over and done with. At least until the end of the Seven Years’ War and the Peace of Paris in 1763. Both Manila and Havana were returned to Spain, for a considerable compensation and the shock of having lost quite bit of status as top rate overseas empire and one fourth of its high seas fleet during the capture of the city. Somehow Admiral Don Gutierre de Hevia y Valdés had neglected to burn the nine ships of the line when Prado surrendered the place. Both grandees were court martialled, stripped of their rank and sentenced to ten years of fortress detention. Spain got off quite lightly, though. Florida remained in British hands, Minorca was ceded and that was that. France, however, was ruined, having lost almost all of her vast American and East Indian possessions while the state of Louis XV’s national finances was, in a nutshell, a disaster. The stepping stone of the revolution his son had to face some 25 years later, but not without squandering what was left during France’s intervention in the coming American War, basically to reclaim the losses of the Seven Years’ War. Not to mention the cost of about a million lives, both military and civilian, from all warring powers. On the other hand, Havana, along with the rest of Cuba and Puerto Rico, became the place that would see the eclipse of Spanish colonialism in the Americas in 1898, despite being British for some eleven months.

Dominic Serres: "The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762" (1775)

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