British Attacks On Puerto Rico - Siege Of San Juan By Sir Ralph Abercrombie


The entente cordiale which had existed between England under Charles

I and Spain under Philip IV ceased with the tragic death of the

first-named monarch.

Immediately after Cromwell's elevation both France and Spain made

overtures for an alliance with England. But the Protector well knew

that in the event of war with either power, Spain's colonies and

treasure-laden gal
eons offered a better chance for obtaining booty

than the poor possessions of France. He favored an alliance with Louis

XIV, and ended by signing a treaty with him in 1657.

The first result of the hostilities that ensued was the capture by the

English Admirals Blake and Stayner of several richly laden galleons.

From that time to the end of the eighteenth century England's attempts

to secure the two most-coveted Antilles (Cuba and Puerto Rico)

continued with short intervals of peace.

In 1768 an English fleet of 22 ships, with a landing force under the

command of the Earl of Estren, appeared before San Juan and demanded

its surrender. Before a formal attack could be made a furious

hurricane wrecked the fleet on Bird Island, and everybody on board

perished excepting a few soldiers and marines, who escaped a watery

grave only to be made prisoners.

It is certain, however, that on August 5, 1702, an English brigantine

and a sloop came to Arecibo and landed 30 men, who were forced to

reembark with considerable loss, though the details of this affair, as

given by Friar Abbad, and repeated by Mr. Neuman, are evidently

largely drawn from imagination.

In September of the following year (1703) there were landings of

Englishmen near Loiza and in the neighborhood of San German, of which

we know only that they were stoutly opposed; and we learn from an

official document that there was another landing at Boca Chica on the

south coast in 1743, when the English were once more obliged to

reembark with the loss of a pilot-boat.

These incessant attacks, not on Puerto Rico only, but on all the other

Spanish possessions, and the reprisals they provoked, created such

animosity between the people of both countries that hostilities had

practically commenced before the declaration of war (October 23,

1739). In November Admiral Vernon was already in the Antilles with a

large fleet. He took Porto Bello, laid siege to Cartagena, but was

forced to withdraw; then he made an ineffectual attack on Cuba, after

which he passed round Cape Horn into the Pacific, caused great

consternation in Chile, sacked and burned Payta, captured the galleon

Covadonga with a cargo worth $1,500,000, and finally returned to

England with a few ships only and less than half his men.

The next war between the two nations was the result of the famous

Bourbon family compact, and lasted from 1761 to 1763.

Two powerful fleets sailed from England for the Antilles; the one

under the orders of Admiral Rodney attacked the French colonies and

took Martinique, Granada, Santa Lucia, San Vicente, and Tabago; the

other under Admiral Pocock appeared before Havana, June 2, 1762, with

a fleet of 30 line-of-battle ships, 100 transports, and 14,000 landing

troops under the command of the Earl of Albemarle. In four days the

English took "la Cabana," which Prado, the governor, considered the

key to the city. For some unexplained reason the Spanish fleet became

useless; but Captain Louis Velasco defended the Morro, and for two

months and ten days he kept the English at bay, till they undermined

the walls of the fort and blew them up. Then Prado capitulated (August

13), and Havana with its forts and defenses, with 60 leagues of

territory to the west of the city, with $15,000,000, an immense

quantity of naval and military stores, 9 line-of-battle ships and 3

frigates, was delivered into Albemarle's hands. It was Puerto Rico's

turn next, and preparations were made for an attack, when the

signing of the treaty of peace in Paris (February, 1763) averted the

imminent danger.

By the stipulations of that treaty England returned Havana and

Manila to Spain in exchange for Florida and some territories on

the Mississippi; she also returned to France part of her conquered


In 1778 Charles III joined France in a war against England, the

motives for which, as explained by the king's minister, were frivolous

in the extreme. The real reason was England's refusal to admit Spain

as mediator in the differences with her North American colonies. This

war lasted till 1783, and though the Antilles, as usual, became the

principal scene of war, Puerto Rico happily escaped attack.

Not so during the hostilities that broke out anew in consequence of

Charles IV's offensive and defensive alliance with the French

Republic, signed in San Ildefonso on the 18th of August, 1796.

In February, 1797, Admiral Henry Harvey, with 60 ships, including

transports and small craft, and from 6,000 to 7,000 troops under the

orders of Sir Ralph Abercrombie, appeared before the island of

Trinidad and took possession of it with but little resistance from the

Spanish garrison. On the 17th of April the whole fleet appeared before

San Juan.

The capital was well prepared for defense. The forts, as now existing,

were completed, and the city surrounded by a wall the strength of

which may be estimated by the appearance of the parts still intact. On

these defenses 376 pieces of cannon of different caliber were planted,

besides 35 mortars, 4 howitzers, and 3 swivel guns. The garrison was

reduced to about 200 men, part of the troops having been sent to la

Espanola to quell the insurrection of the negro population led by

Toussaint L'Ouverture. There were, besides these 200 veteran troops,

4,000 militiamen, about 2,000 men from the towns in the interior

(urbanos) armed with lances and machetes, 12 gunboats and several

French privateers, the crews of which numbered about 300.

Abercrombie landed on the 18th at Cangrejos (Santurce) with 3,000 men,

and demanded the surrender of the city. Governor Castro, in polite but

energetic language, refused, and hostilities commenced. For the next

thirteen days there were skirmishes and more or less serious

encounters on land and sea. On the morning of the 1st of May the

defenders of the city were preparing a general attack on the English

lines, when, lo! the enemy had reembarked during the night, leaving

behind his spiked guns and a considerable quantity of stores and


The people ascribed this unexpected deliverance from their foes to the

miraculous intervention of the Virgin, but the real reason for the

raising of the siege was the strength of the fortifications. "Whoever

has viewed these fortifications," says Colonel Flinter, "must feel

surprised that the English with a force of less than 5,000 men should

lay siege to the place, a force not sufficient for a single line along

the coast on the opposite side of the bay to prevent provisions from

being sent to the garrison from the surrounding country. Sir Ralph's

object in landing, surely, could only have been to try whether he

could surprise or intimidate the scanty garrison. Had he not

reembarked very soon, he would have had to repent his temerity, for

the shipping could not safely remain at anchor where there was no

harbor and where a dangerous coast threatened destruction. His

communication with the country was cut off by the armed peasantry, who

rose en masse, and to the number of not less than 20,000 threw

themselves into the fortress in less than a week after the invasion,

so that the British forces would, most undoubtedly, have been obliged

to surrender at discretion had the commander not effected a timely


The enemy's retreat was celebrated with a solemn Te Deum in the

cathedral, at which the governor, the municipal authorities, and all

the troops assisted. The municipality addressed the king, giving due

credit to the brilliant military qualities displayed during the siege

by the governor and his officers. The governor was promoted to the

rank of field-marshal and the officers correspondingly. To the

municipality the privilege was granted to encircle the city's coat of

arms with the words: "For its constancy, love, and fidelity, this city

is yclept very noble and very loyal."