In the Spring of 1741, a massive British force led by Edward Vernon attempted to take Cartagena, Colombia. He hoped to deal a crucial blow to Spanish power and trade in the Caribbean. Outnumbered by as many as 4-1, the city’s defenders succeeded in repelling the English invaders in the largest and most famous battle in Cartagena’s colonial history. Read on to learn more about the history of the Battle of Cartagena de Indias.
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Background to the Battle of Cartagena de Indias
Cartagena’s Importance as a Military Target
Cartagena was a seat of Spanish colonial military and economic power. One of only a handful of ports that held a monopoly on trade, the city was a key link in the web of trade between Spain and its colonies in the Caribbean and South America. Cartagena was the site of export of much of the gold and silver mined in South America and, by the 1700s, the increasingly important tobacco and sugar crops. It was likewise the site of import of African slaves and goods from Spain and the other colonies.
It was this rich trade that had made the city a target for attacks since its founding. With the frequent outbreaks of conflict between the colonial powers, it was common for each to employ privateers to harass the trading routes of the others. Privateers were basically pirates operating with licenses from their governments. Privateers had earlier sacked Cartagena twice, once in 1586 by Sir Francis Drake, and in 1697 by the Frenchman Baron de Pointis.
These attacks had prompted the construction of Cartagena’s colonial walls and the building of numerous other fortifications to protect the city and its important bay. Among these fortifications was the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, first constructed in 1657. This fort would be the site of Cartagena’s defenders last, triumphant stand during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias.
The War of Jenkins’s Ear
You read that right, the conflict that led to the fighting of the Battle of Cartagena de Indias is in fact named the War of Jenkins’s Ear. Robert Jenkins was a Welsh trader who, in 1731, was detained by a Spanish privateer and accused of smuggling. The Spanish captain cut off his left ear as punishment. According to legend (but not clear if it actually happened), the Spanish captain told Jenkins to show his ear to the English king and tell him he would do the same to him.
However, the war would not begin for 8 more years, and in fact the incident received little attention at the time, even after Jenkins had returned to England and presented his story to the king. During this period, relations between Spain and England had been relatively calm, with England’s Prime Minister Robert Walpole looking to avoid conflict.
However, trade tensions primarily related to English smuggling and Spanish boarding of ships to prevent that smuggling continued to grow. Earlier, the Spanish had given the English the exclusive right to import slaves to Spanish colonies but with a strict limit on the trade of other goods in what was called the asiento system. Intrepid English traders had sometimes abused the system by trading other goods in addition to slaves. This abuse led to increasing Spanish boardings and searches of English ships, like that of Jenkins’s. With English public opinion turning against Spain, the opposition to Walpole’s government began calling him soft on Spain.
Finally, the opposition to Walpole’s government recalled Jenkins to testify in front of Parliament in 1738. According to legend (again, not clear if it really happened), Jenkins supposedly displayed his pickled ear during his testimony. With public opinion at a fever pitch and Walpole under increasing pressure from the opposition to his government, England declared war on Spain in October 1739.
Vernon Scouts Cartagena’s Defenses
The English’s goal at the start of the war was to attack and seize the major Spanish trading ports of the Caribbean in order to wreck Spain’s finances and ability to wage a longer war. A large fleet was sent to the Caribbean from England to do so. Its original goal was to be an attack on Havana, Cuba.
While this fleet was still in route, the first major engagement of the war took place. English Admiral Edward Vernon succeeded in sacking Portobello, another important Spanish colonial port on the coast of Panama. Afterwards, Vernon decided to focus his efforts not on Havana but on Cartagena. The plan was to take it and then proceed to Havana and elsewhere.
Vernon arrived off the coast of Cartagena first in March and again in May 1740 with smaller fleets, in both cases taking pot shots at the city and its defenses. His main purpose here seemed to be a probe of the defenses of the city. Nearly a year after his first scouting mission, Vernon would return with a massive fleet in an attempt to take the city. It was this force that initiated the Battle of Cartagena de Indias.
The Battle of Cartagena de Indias
Vernon Arrives with a Massive Force
On March 13, 1741, the people of Cartagena awoke to see a massive fleet amassed on the horizon. Sources on Vernon’s fleet put his strength at 120-186 ships, and between 20,000 and 27,000 men, including at least 12,000 infantry. Among the English forces were 1,000 slaves from Jamaica and 4,000 recruits from the colony of Virginia, including George Washington’s half-brother Lawrence.
Meanwhile, sources on Cartagena’s defense put the city’s defenders between 3,000-6,000, at least half of which were non-regulars, including 600 indigenous archers. The city also had only 6 ships of war to defend against the massive English fleet.
In charge of the city’s defense was Admiral Blas de Lezo, who was already a legend in the Spanish navy. He had scored numerous earlier victories and had suffered injuries that left him with a missing arm, leg, and eye. Often referred to as “half-man,” Lezo is often viewed as the inspiration for the modern portrayal of the appearance of pirates in literature and film today.
De Lezo Prepares for a War of Attrition
Knowing he was so heavily outnumbered, de Lezo’s plan to defend the city hedged on two factors. The first was that a fighting withdrawal from the city’s outer defenses would be able to weaken the English forces as they approached the city. The second was that tropical diseases such as yellow fever, typhus, dysentery scurvy, and malaria would wreck even more havoc on the English than his own men. If he could slow the English advance until the start of the heavy rains at the end of April, the conditions would make it extremely difficult if not impossible for the English to continue their attack.
Even before Vernon’s arrival, the latter half of this strategy was working. While gathering their massive fleet, the English immediately began to feel the effects of disease. By January 1741, they had already suffered as many as 500 dead and 1,500 sick, including the overall commander of the expedition Lord Cathcart. This left many of the soldiers meant to be part of the landing force during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias to have to take up positions on the crews of the ships to replace the sick and dead.
Cathcart’s death also led to a lack of central command and dissension within the English leadership. Unclear who was actually in charge, decisions were left to councils of war between the ranking officers. Vernon in particular often found himself at odds with the infantry commanders.
Also working in de Lezo’s favor were recent repairs and the strengthening of Cartagena’s defenses. The declaration of war and Vernon’s earlier probing of the defenses had prompted preparations for an attack on the city. In particular, the fort of San Felipe de Barajas was fully repaired and a new battery was added. It should be noted that the fort was just a square approximately 50 feet high and only a small fraction of the eventual fortress that can be seen today. Still it would prove to be the site of de Lezo’s decisive and victorious final stand during the Battle of Cartagena de Indias.
Furthermore, the Spanish had succeeded in sending a small number of reinforcements to the city, along with a new viceroy, Sebastian de Eslava. De Lezo and de Eslava also did not see eye to eye, but de Eslava ultimately deferred to de Lezo and his plans for defense. The Spanish soldiers also suffered from disease, but not being cooped up on ships prevented the suffering of epidemic proportions that beset the English.
The City’s Outer Defenses Fall
Part of what made Cartagena such a formidable city to take is its geography. The city’s walls along with rough waters made landing an attack force from the ocean difficult if not impossible. The city’s bay technically has two entrances, but a sandbar in the larger Bocagrande channel made it risky for large warships to enter there. Therefore, Vernon would have to sail through the narrower Bocachica channel.
This channel was well defended with the Fort of San Jose on one side and the Fort of San Luis on the other, at the end of the island known as Tierra Bomba. De Lezo planned to carry out his war of attrition against Vernon by executing a fighting withdrawal there. By offering resistance and delaying the English, he hoped mounting casualties and disease would stop the invaders from taking the city proper.
Vernon focused at first on the smaller defended points around the entrance to the bay, but met resistance at each. He eventually turned his attention to taking the strong point of the Fort of San Luis. Land forces came ashore and built a battery to wear down the fort’s defenses. After several weeks of siege with fire coming from some of the fleet and the newly constructed battery on land, the English succeeded in punching a hole in the walls.
On April 5, the British conducted a final combined sea and land assault on the damaged fort. However, de Lezo had already withdrawn his forces under the cover of darkness to prevent further losses. He had also scuttled 2 of his ships and set his flagship on fire before the British succeeded in capturing it.
The English seizure of the defenses at Bocachica had come only at a high cost. Over 100 men had been killed in the fighting, another 250 by disease, and as many as 600 were injured or sick. With the dead thrown overboard during the fighting, the bodies in the water only added to the spreading of sickness.
Still despite these losses, Vernon remained confident he would succeed in taking the city. He sent word to English colonial authorities in Jamaica that his victory was imminent. When word reached England, there were commemorative medals, china, and even a song produced. The medals showed a kneeling de Lezo surrendering the city to Vernon. You can see replicas of some of the medals on display today on a visit to the Castillo San Felipe Fortress.
De Lezo Makes His Stand at the Castillo San Felipe
It would be the Castillo San Felipe where de Lezo would concentrate the majority of his remaining forces and score the victory of the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. With the outer defenses fallen, he knew the fort was vital to defense of the city. If the British succeeded in taking it, they could use it as a base from which to bomb Cartagena into submission.
Vernon, despite his confidence, was also growing impatient. He know the longer it took to take the city, the more he would have to worry about mounting sickness among his men. Already April, he also knew a protracted siege of the city would drag into the coming rainy season. Likely due to this worry along with a not so healthy dose of arrogance, Vernon conceived of a desperate plan for a frontal attack on the fort.
With the only English engineer killed during the fighting to take Fort San Luis, there was no one with the expertise to build another land battery to weaken or breach Castillo San Felipe’s walls. Therefore, the British planned to go medieval and storm the walls by ladder.
De Lezo had a trench dug around the fort, which stood at the top of a large hill and had a little over 1,000 of his men ready at the defenses. The British landed their attack force on April 16. They made the decision to attempt their storming of the fort from the south, where the walls were shortest. However, this also put them at risk of being fired upon by the cannons from Cartagena’s walls. Therefore, they planned a night assault.
However, keeping with the theme of the entire campaign, the assault was delayed and only began around 4 a.m., not long before dawn, on April 20. Some of the force were separated from the main group and the ladders they carried were not even tall enough to reach the top of the fort’s walls.
The attack was an utter disaster. The Spanish defenders hit the oncoming English with volley after volley of musket fire. Once the sun came up, artillery from Cartagena opened fire, catching the English in a deadly crossfire. An infantry force also set out from the city to encircle them, forcing them to abandon their reckless attack and return to the ships. As much as a quarter of the 2,000 men that landed ashore were lost in the battle, and the already weakened and ailing English forces were left in an even more precarious position.
Vernon’s Withdrawal and Aftermath
De Lezo’s grand plan paid off, as the rains began in earnest a few days later. The English, licking their wounds, debated what to do. Ultimately, they decided to withdraw, having failed to take their prize. They sailed away in early May, and 67 days had suffered as many as 18,000 casualties due to the combination of death and injuries from the Spanish resistance and disease.
According to legend, Vernon wrote a letter to de Lezo saying he would return after getting reinforcements from Jamaica, and de Lezo responded by telling him to return to Cartagena the English king would have to build a better fleet as Vernon’s was now only good for transporting coal from Ireland to England. This exchange probably didn’t actually happen as contemporary sources don’t mention it, however it would have been quite the burn by de Lezo if it did.
The Battle of Cartagena de Indias proved to be an unmitigated disaster for the English war effort. With Vernon’s force so significantly weakened, the plan to take the other major ports of the Spanish Caribbean never really got off the ground. Although he did get some reinforcements in Jamaica, he never returned to Cartagena or seriously threatened any other Spanish strongholds in the Caribbean. Vernon was eventually called back to England and by the time the campaign ended a year later, as many as 90% of the soldiers originally deployed had died.
The defeat at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias led to the downfall of Walpole’s government in England and helped contribute to the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession as England withdrew a guarantee to support Austria’s claim to Silesia, prompting France and Spain to support Prussia in war against Austria.
For the Spanish, the victory helped prevent the disrupting of trade in the Caribbean. De Lezo added to his already impressive military record, although initially de Eslava criticized him for the decision to scuttle his ships, which were costly to replace. However, “Don Blas” later received the credit he deserved and is remembered as a hero in both Cartagena and Spain today for his exploits at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias.
He himself succumbed to disease shortly after the battle. The fabled “half-man” has a statue commemorating his victory outside the Castilo San Felipe Fortress today as well as a neighborhood, avenue, and numerous restaurants named after him today.
Interested in learning more about the Battle of Cartagena de Indias and the history of Cartagena, Colombia?
- Check out this article on the history of the Castillo San Felipe, recounting the entire history of the fort, including Vernon’s attack.
- Check out this visitor’s guide to the Castillo San Felipe, where you can walk in the footsteps of the Spanish defenders of the city.
- Check out this visitor’s guide to the excellent Cartagena Naval Museum, where you can learn more about the 1741 Battle of Cartagena de Indias as well as other battles in the city’s history.
- Check out our primer on the history of Cartagena or out more detailed comprehensive history of Cartagena.
- Check out the following books: The Fortifications of Cartagena de Indias: Strategy & History covering the city’s colonial military history (available in English and Spanish on Amazon) and Breve Historia de Cartagena (only available in English on Amazon). They can also both be picked up at local book stores.