Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Uruguay 1776

According to Hollywood, the late 1770s were all about a collection of farmers and militia rebelling against the might of the British Empire, but of course there was a lot more going on in the world. North America was only one front in a truly global war that saw Britain assailed on all sides by the French, Dutch and Spanish eager to carve up British territories. There were victories and losses, especially in North America, although Canada was held against overwhelming odds. And it didn't escape notice that Britain's ally Portugal was left without the support of her powerful partner.

Uruguay is maybe the Belgium of South America, having the great misfortune to lie on a geopolitical fault line, in this case between the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, or later their heirs, Argentina and Brazil. The small city of Colonia de Sacramento for example changed hands 12 times between 1680 and 1828, and even then was later conquered by Guissepe Garibaldi during the Uruguayan civil war. However, we are looking here at the events of 1776-7, whilst the British and Americans were fighting at Brooklyn Heights and Quebec.

The entrance to old Colonia de Sacramento

An earlier war (in 1763-5) had gone well for the Spanish, capturing Rio Grande (the present day Brazilian city), the fortress of Santa Tereza and several other key locations. Ever since the Portuguese had plotted their revenge. They assembled 6,000 men (against 1,450 Spanish in the area) and in February 1776 two Portuguese fleets arrived at the Spanish fortress of Rio Grande de São Pedro and opened fire. The Portuguese commanders were Robert MacDouall and Jorge Hardcastle, just two of many British, or British descended, officers in the Portuguese Navy. A Spanish fleet attempted to intervene but after an inconclusive naval battle withdrew, and the Portuguese invaders pressed on inland, forcing the Spanish out of the area. After 27 days of siege a force of 4 companies of grenadiers defeated a Spanish force of 8 companies at nearby Lagoa dos Patos (Duck Lake), also burring Spanish ships that could not escape against a strong head wind. Following this the fort surrendered.

Not Rio Grande de São Pedro, but Fort Santa Teresa, which is still standing open to visitors

Despite this apparent victory, the Portuguese had miscalculated badly. With Britain bogged down around the world Spain had little to fear, and the response was designed to be overwhelming. 9,000 men were assembled in Spain, with 6 front line warships, 8 frigates and about100 transports. As important, for once the Spanish put a capable commander in charge, Pedro Antonio de Cevallos, the Viceroy of the Río de la Plata (Argentina). He had local knowledge after winning several battles in the 1760s.

Pedro Antonio de Cevallos

The Spanish fleet arrived in South America in Feb 1777. They found MacDouall, but his much smaller fleet managed to escape, so they sailed for the island of Santa Catarina (site of the modern Brazilian city of Floionopolis). When the garrison saw the huge Spanish fleet they fled without firing a shot, so Cevallos sailed for his 2nd objective, recapturing Rio Grande de São Pedro. Here the Portuguese had a piece of luck, a storm so damaging the Spanish fleet that they had to go to Montevideo for repairs. Cevallos split his forces, personally taking all the artillery and 4,500 men by ship to Colonia del Sacramento to which he lay siege. Despite heavy rain they set up a mortar battery, an eight pounder battery firing heated shot and various other cannon. The Portuguese garrison of 1,000 men were already in dire straits after a Spanish blockade, and with little hope of relief they soon surrendered. Cevellos demolished the walls to prevent reoccupation, and sunk blockships in the harbour.

Meanwhile, the rest of his fleet, the heavier warships, he sent hunting for MacDouall´s squadron. MacDouall was too wily however, and even succeeded in picking off one of a reinforcing squadron just arrived from Spain, the San Agustin. This he added to his fleet under yet another Englishman, Arthur Philip.

Cevellos now sailed back to Rio Grande de São Pedro, joining forces with the Spanish garrison of Santa Tereza. But before he could capture it, he received word that peace had been declared.


In February 1777 the worsening military situation, and the accession of a new Spanish born queen (Maria 1), led to the Portuguese seeking peace, and signing the First Treaty of San Ildefonso. Spain returned the island of Santa Catarina to Portugal, and recognised Rio Grande de São Pedro as Portuguese territory, but kept Colonia del Sacramento, the Banda Oriental, and the Misiones Orientales. Except for the Misiones Orientales, a region near Paraguay, this more less remains the Brazilian/ Uruguayan border today.
Portugal had been disappointed by lack of British support, and so remained neutral when Spain and Britain declared war, leaving Spain free to concentrate on Florida, the Mediterranean and besieging Gibraltar, draining yet more British troops from North America.

Spanish Forces

Flag of the Regiment of Guadalajara


The Spanish invasion fleet consisted of the following....
(Poderoso, 70 guns, Santiago la América, 64, San Dámaso, 70, Septentrión, 70, Monarca, 70, and San José, 70), 9 frigates,Santa Ana, Santa Clara, Venus, Santa Floritina, Santa Tereza, Santa Margarita, Santa Rosa, Liebre,

The unfortunate San Agustin (74) was dispatched later intending to join the main fleet.


Cevallhos's expedition from Spain included 8,600 infantry, 640 dragoons and 150 gunners, organised in four brigades.

A captain in the Lusitania dragoons 1776

The regiments were as follows;

Dragones de Lusitania
Regimiento de Toledo.1 batt
Regimiento de Murcia.1 batt
Regimiento de Hibernia.1 batt. Formed mainly of Irish mercenaries, the "Wild Geese". Cevallos left William Vaughn of the Hibernia Regiment in command of the garrison in Santa Catarina.
Regimiento de la Princesa.1 batt
Regimiento de Cordoba.2 batt
Regimiento de Galicia.
Regimiento de Zamora.2 batt
Regimiento de Guadalajara.1 batt, who later formed part of the garrison of Santa Teresa.
Regimiento de Saboya.1 batt
Regimiento de Sevilla, 2 batt

Voluntarios de Cataluna.1 batt
Companies of grenadiers

Portuguese Forces

The Portuguese forces were under the overall command of Lt. Gen. Joao Henrique Böhm, a Prussian mercenary. It is much harder to get information of them than the Spanish, in part possibly because the Portuguese relied much more on local, less well documented, militia. This print is from the museum at Fort Santa Teresa, showing "Portuguese colonial troops of the 18th century".

Macdouall's fleet consisted of four ships of the line, including the Sao Antonio, 62, and four frigates, including the Nossa Senhora do Pilar. under Arthur Philip
Hardcastles little fleet had only 2 corvettes 2 brigs and 2 zumacas.

Further reading

Wars of the Americas by David Manley
Guerras entre España y Portugal en la cuenca del Río de la Plata.By Santiago Gómez.


The fort at Santa Tereza in Uruguay is open to the public. It is very well preserved and has an excellent museum, well worth a visit.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Last Stand at Bembridge

By 1860 French adventurism was causing concern all over Europe, if not the world. This also applied to England, especially when France started building new and advanced war ships, that could only have one conceivable opponent. The British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, called a committee , the Royal Commission on the Defence of the United Kingdon to investigate Britain's Home defence, and the results were not good. Even with the new Volunteer units, if an invasion could get past the Royal Navy, it stood a very good chance to succeeding. The British response took the form of a fortification building program.

There were 3 main priorities.
a) Protect London - if this fell, England fell with it
b) Protect the main Naval bases - any invasion would need constant supplies, keep the fleet in being and the invaders could be starved of supplies.
c) The Isle of Wight. This is not so obvious, but was a historical worry. Ever since the days of the Spanish armada there had been the fear that a hostile power would not invade the homeland, but seize the Isle of Wight as both a bargaining chip, and to disrupt the Royal Navy base at Portsmouth. Virtually defenceless, the IOW would require a much less imposing force to conquer, and was a much more plausible proposition.

Between 1855 and 1870 12 separate defences were built around the island. If these could be overcome, the last defence on the east side of the island, the final citadel, was designed to be the Fort at Bembridge.

Fort Bembridge was constructed on the high ground between the town of Sandown and the village of Bembridge, on Culver Down, at 320 ft above sea level the highest point on this side of the island. It was built between 1862 and 1867, at a cost of nearly £50,000.

Bembridge Fort from above. A brick built hexagonal structure set into the chalk hillside with a cannon at each corner, and parapets all round. The exit is across a drawbridge to the road on the bottom of the picture.

Bembridge Fort had 3 main functions.

a) It was the barracks for two nearby batteries covering the coast.

i) Redcliff - three 7" rifled breech loading (RBL) guns covering Sandown Bay and one facing towards Culver cliff, 100ft up a cliff and defended on the land side by a deep ditch.

ii) Yaverland - 8x 7" RBL guns facing to sea. 100ft up but the cliff was climbable and so had infantry defences and a ditch on both seaward and landward sides. Note the reason for so many 7" RBL guns was that the navy didn't want them! Their performance had been less than satisfactory at sea and a rearmament program was taking place.

b) To secure the high ground behind the Sandown Bay beach defences.

c) If the defences at Sandown Bay were stormed, or successful landings were made elsewhere on the island, Fort Bembridge was to hold out against the invader.

Bembridge had a peacetime complement of 1 officer, 5 NCOs and 78 men. Water was pumped from a well at Yaverland and stored in a 22,000 gallon tank, making the fort self sufficient in water at least.

Men of the Royal Artillery (New York Public Library)

In 1871 the fort was manned by the 103rd regiment of the Royal Artillery, and from 1872-1874 the 7th Brigade.

Attacking Fort Bembridge

So if Napoleon III had successfully landed troops on the Isle of Wight, what would his blue coated infantry have encountered as they prepared to storm Fort Bembridge?

The view up the hill towards the fort, the small mound at the top

Cliffs on the seaward side and it's position on the highest point on this side of the island meant any attack would be up hill. Also being dug deep into the chalk, and the use of bomb proof shelters gave as much protection from artillery as possible. Each corner of the hexagon had a 7" RBL cannon and the fort was well supplied with over 2,000 rounds, and 1,200 shells, whilst all the time attackers would be under fire from infantry manning the parapets.

Any enemy reaching the walls would have to cross a deep dry moat. the single entrance crossed only via a draw bridge. If they entered the moat they would be in a crossfire from the caponiers, brick built covered walkways crossing the ditch. If the French could scale the inner wall and take the central parade ground then, well, all was probably lost.

Thankfully, Prussia put paid to Napoleon and his plans, (although causing other worries!) and the fort was never needed.