Sunday, November 2, 2014

A Prince's Polemical Plaque

British ships attack Cartagenas in 1741. (Image from
In early March 1741, a massive British colonial fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 men, including 12,000 infantry, attacked the port city of Cartagena, defended by only 6 ships and 6,000 men, as well as its famous forts and shore batteries.

Cartagena Mayor Dionisio Vélez, on left, and Prince Charles,
on right, unveil the polemical plaque.
(Photo from the prince's website.)
Spanish Admiral Blas de Lezo, who
commanded the defense.
(Image from
Spanish Admiral Blas de Lezo chose to make a fighting retreat. During the next two months, the British troops, commanded by Admiral Edward Vernon, took one Spanish defensive fortification after another. But they were losing men at a horrific rate, to both Spanish guns and to tropical diseases.

In May, the humiliated British withdrew, having lost 18,000 men killed or injured, as well as their goal of wresting the fabulously valuable Caribbean colonies away from Spain. Spain's South American empire would survive another 70 years.

Meanwhile, back in London, the government believing that its forces had won, and had already issued coins celebrating the 'victory.' When news of the disaster arrived, King George ordered the coins removed from circulation and prohibited anyone from talking or writing about the defeat.

British Admiral Edward Vernon.
(Image from
Today, the British are no longer mum about one of their greatest naval defeats. During Prince Charles' visit last week, he and the mayor of Cartagena unveiled a plaque 'In memory of the valor and suffering of all those who died in combat attempting to take the city and the fort of San Felipe, under the command of the Admiral Edward Vernon in Cartagenas de Indias in 1741. Presented by the Corporación Centro Histórico de Cartagena de Indias'.

During the ceremony, the Cartageneros were blinded by the prince's star power. But by the next day, they were complaining. After all, why had the city spent public funds to pay tribute to foreigners who attacked it? How about commemorating the Cartageneros who died courageously defending their city (and the Spanish empire)?

Coins minted to commemorate the
great British 'victory' in Cartagena.
(Photo: Wikipedia)
They have a point, but could profit by looking at the ironies of history. After all, the Cartageneros were fighting so heroically to preserve the Spanish empire, which less than a century later they would be fighting against for Colombia's independence. During that 1810 - 1820 war of independence the British would return - this time fighting on the Colombians' side against the Spanish. There's another plaque on Plaza Bolivar commemorating the help of the British Legion, which fought alongside of Simon Bolivar.

In neither case, of course, were the British being altruistic. In both wars, the Brits wanted to weaken

Spanish control on the Americas and open the New World to British trade.

Another irony: Amongst the British imperial soldiers were many men from its north American colonies, including Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George Washington, later to become of the United States' revolution against Britain. Lawrence Washington so admired Adm. Vernon that he named the family estate Mt. Vernon in his honor. A generation later, many of these same men, or their sons, would change uniforms and fight against Britain.

The Cartageneros' complaint is valid. But they also might stop a moment and reflect that the British invaders didn't want to control Cartagena as much as to free it from Spain in order to be able to trade with South America.

So, if the British invasion had succeeded, Colombia's independence might have come a half-century sooner.

Update: Cartagena officials are discussing redoing or replacing the plaque. But, meanwhile, someone attacked it with a hammer.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


Miguel de Avendaño said...

Actually the British government never minted coins. It was the souvenir industry (ie, private merchants hoping to make a killing) who produced medals, china and trinkets. Certainly the King did not order the 'coins' removed from circulation or gave any order forbidding historians from writing about the matter. There are plenty of books by English historians dealing with the affair. As you say it was a matter of opening up Spanish colonies to trade. In fact, 20 years later a similar British force captured the more powerful Havana (in 1762), presumably having learnt some more about amphibious operations.

Miguel said...

Hi Miguel,

Thanks for your note. I'll have to take your word for it about the coins. Wikipedia says that many commemorative medals were minted, but doesn't say who minted them.

However, Wikipedia does say that 'all the medals were ordered to be removed from circulation, and king George II forbade to talk or write about the defeat.'

Miguel de Avendaño said...

King George II did not forbid anyone from talking or writing about anything (probably beyond his power anyway). In cases like these, the burden of the proof is on those who say he did: where is that order? What did it say? Why was it disobeyed? History is based on evidence.

Miguel de Avendaño said...

By the way, the largest collections of Vernon Medals are at the British Museum, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the American Numismatic Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, Yale University and the United States Naval Academy.