The following is a guest post by Silvia Lopez, who served as a fall 2021 remote intern transcribing and researching documents in the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress.
One treasure from the Herencia collection of Spanish legal documents for the 15th -19th centuries is the Brief of Jose Antonio Manso de Velasco versus the Fiscal Prosecutor of the War Council, concerning the defense and surrendering of the city of Havana to the British forces in the year of 1762. Havana was at that time the most important city in the Americas for Spanish trade. The capture of Havana during the Seven Years’ War represented an extraordinary victory for the British, who occupied the city for 11 months until Spain agreed to cede Florida in exchange for Havana as part of the peace treaty at the end of the war.
Havana is located over the Gulf Stream, the fastest route for ships sailing from America to Europe. For this reason, Havana’s port was established as the meeting point of the treasure vessels from Mexico and Peru and the ships bringing trade goods from Asia for their annual return together to Spain (Schneider, 27). By the 1750s, Havana was the third-largest Spanish city in the Americas, more populated than Boston or New York. Havana was the base for a strong Spanish naval company, and its defenses were considered almost impregnable.
José Antonio Manso de Velasco arrived in Havana in January 1762 on his way back to Spain, where he had planned to retire after his terms of service to the Spanish Crown in South America ended. He was born in La Rioja province, Spain, in 1689. In 1705, he began his successful military career, participating, among other conflicts, in the War of the Spanish Succession. In 1736, he was assigned to the post of governor and captain-general of Chile. He then traveled to Lima from Santiago de Chile in 1745, after he was appointed viceroy of Peru. Two years later, he received the title of Count of Superunda (Superunda means “over the waves”) for his efforts in rebuilding the city of Lima and its port, which had been destroyed by an earthquake and a tsunami in 1746 (Mas et al., 10).
Manso de Velasco requested his relief of service in 1758. On October 12, 1761, he handed over power to his successor and began the journey from Lima to Spain. On December 20, he left Portobelo, Panama, for Havana and arrived on January 24, 1762. On June 6, 1762, when he was preparing to continue the last stage of his journey, the British fleet’s blockade of the Havana port began. The British forces included a combined naval and military organization. Admiral Sir George Pocock commanded the Royal Navy fleet of warships, and Lieutenant General Lord Albemarle commanded the British land troops. The force was one of the largest in the history of the Americas. It included approximately 12,500 soldiers, 10,000 sailors, and 2,400 enslaved people from Africa. Around 3,500 additional troops arrived in July from North America, for an approximate total of 28,400 men (Schneider, 6).
The number of Spanish troops at Havana on the arrival of the British is not known precisely and varies with the number of local militia available. It is estimated that the Spanish corps numbered 1,500 regular troops, 4,000 sailors, and 2,100 militiamen (Schneider, 69). Both the Spanish and the British forces suffered considerable losses before and during the siege from disease, especially yellow fever. The British planned to surround the city and approach it by land because they had received intelligence that a naval attack through the bay’s mouth was too dangerous. Their attack would be focused on the Morro fortification, as controlling it would allow them to fire cannons directly down into the city and force its surrender.
As soon as the British ships arrived offshore, Havana’s governor, Juan de Prado, called together a war council of experienced commanders to conduct the city’s defense. The council members included the admiral of the Spanish fleet in the Americas, the Marqués del Real Transporte; six naval captains; the former governor of Cartagena de Indias, Diego Tabares; and the Count of Superunda (Guiteras, 18). The latter was selected as the council president because he was the highest-ranking officer in the group. One of the first orders of the war council was to sink three Spanish warships at the harbor’s mouth to make it impassable to British ships. They also had a strong boom chain placed across the entrance to the bay. These tactics were designed to block or slow British entry into the port. However, they would also make the Spanish fleet useless during the siege, although nearly one-third of the entire Spanish navy was in port at the time (Schneider, 122).
Across the bay from the city, the hilltop behind the Morro fortification, known as La Cabaña, was one major weakness in Havana’s defenses (Guiteras, 17). At the arrival of the British ships offshore, the governor quickly made an order to occupy and fortify this site. However, the war council considered it impossible to defend La Cabaña hilltop because the fortification work would take a long time to complete. Thus, the council decided to abandon it, leaving only a small group of militiamen to defend the hill, which the British overpowered a few days later (Schneider, 125). Once the British forces occupied La Cabaña hilltop, they began the city’s siege. Prado offered enslaved people their freedom to come to Havana and defend the city, while many residents fled. Thanks to this decision and the black militias, Havana had enough combatants and workers to stop the British attack for 65 days (Schneider, 140). Because of the city’s extended resistance, Lord Albemarle decided to take the extraordinary measure of blowing up the Morro. However, by the time of the explosion, the British forces had been reduced to half due to yellow fever and the persistent Spanish defense (Schneider, 160).
Since the loss of the Morro, the city had suffered merciless cannon fire, and the war council saw no other option than to capitulate. The Count of Superunda attended the surrender of the Plaza and the city’s occupation by the British on August 2, 1762. Then the count was exchanged for English prisoners and taken to Spain with other military and civil officials, where they were court-martialed (Schneider, 227). The main charges against Prado and 11 other military and civil officials included: having failed to fortify La Cabaña hill properly and to have abandoned it too quickly, having disabled the Spanish fleet by sinking three ships at the bay’s mouth, and having surrendered the remaining fleet untouched rather than burning it. Also, they had not mounted any important counterassaults; they had not removed the royal treasury before the surrender, and they had not evacuated the city, but rather had handed it over.
The Count of Superunda’s defense, which is laid out in the brief, was based on four points: First, despite being the president of the war council for the city’ defense, he did not make any final decisions because he was only in the city by chance , was ill, and could not have usurped the authority of the commanders appointed by the king for defense. In particular, he claimed that he did not intervene in the decision to sink the three Spanish ships nor was in charge of La Cabaña hilltop’s fortification works. Second, the British forces had great superiority over the defending forces. They had more artillery and more veteran soldiers. In contrast, the local militias were not trustworthy and had no training or weapons. Also, the troops had been significantly reduced by disease. Third, regarding the abandonment of La Cabaña hilltop, the count claimed that there was no other option because the necessary works for its defense had not been built in time. Because the loss of La Cabaña hill was inevitable, the war council unanimously decided that it was best to use the few available veteran soldiers to defend the city. Fourth, the Count affirmed that he made efforts to safeguard the royal treasure. However, since the enemies took the roads to get the remittances out of the city, the treasure could only be evacuated in small quantities.
After an extended public trial, the count was sentenced to being left unemployed for 10 years, being exiled 40 leagues from the court, and having his assets seized to repair the damage caused to the Royal Treasury. He died on January 5, 1767, in the province of La Rioja, at the age of 78, without reestablishing his innocence and honor.
- Schneider, Elena A. (2018). The Occupation of Havana: War, Trade, and Slavery in the Atlantic World. The University of North Carolina Press.
- BritishBattles.com. Capture of Havana. Accessed on 12/11/21. https://www.britishbattles.com/frederick-the-great-wars/seven-years-war/capture-of-havana/
- González De Posada, Francisco (2017). Diario de Cádiz. La América Española: 250 Años del Conde de Superunda. Published 01/10/17. https://www.diariodecadiz.es/opinion/analisis/america-espanola-anos-Conde-Superunda_0_1098490527.html
- Peralta Ruiz, Víctor. Real Academia de la Historia. Diccionario Biográfico electrónico (DB~e). Accessed 12/04/21. https://dbe.rah.es/biografias/12819/jose-antonio-manso-de-velasco-y-sanchez-de-samaniego
- Mas, Erick, Bruno Adriano, Julio Kuroiwa and Shunichi Koshimura (2015). Reconstruction Process and Social Issues After the 1746 Earthquake and Tsunami in Peru: Past and Present Challenges After Tsunami Events. In Post-Tsunami Hazard: Reconstruction and Restoration, 97-109. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-10202-3_7.
- Guiteras, Pedro (1856). Historia de la conquista de la Habana (1762). Perry and McMillan.
- Martínez Martín, Carmen (2006). Linaje y Nobleza del Virrey Don José Manso de Velasco, Conde de Superunda. Revista Complutense de Historia de América, no. 32: 269-280. https://revistas.ucm.es/index.php/RCHA/article/view/RCHA0606110269A
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