In April 1797, dozens of English ships carrying thousands of troops anchored along the coast off Loíza, at Punta Cangrejos (Piñones). The fleet was under the command of General Ralph Abercromby and Admiral Henry Harvey, two of the most distinguished military chiefs of the period. The 68 English ships were carrying 14,000 soldiers and sailors; of 3,000 troops disembarked to fight on land. Despite the great size of the invading force, in two weeks the English forces were defeated and forced to flee. The victory over the English was proof of Puerto Rico’s loyalty to Spain and was also a decisive episode in the formation of Rican criollo society.
The West Indian and Atlantic Context
The invasion of 1797 occurred in a context that was convulsed by war between European powers, principally France and England. Spain was an ally of Great Britain until 1795, when it became an ally of France. The French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802) took place in the Caribbean and centered on the Haitian Revolution and its campaigns on the island of Hispaniola.
The English were serious about the attempt to conquer Puerto Rico. The island offered clear potential for England, which had converted other Caribbean islands much smaller than Puerto Rico into great sugar producers. More important for the English in the short term was suppression of Puerto Rico’s role as the headquarters of the corsairs that were harassing English maritime movement between nearby islands.
In 1796-97, Abercromby had commanded several successful military campaigns in the Eastern Caribbean. In Granada, Saint Vincent and Saint Lucia, his regiments overcame local resistance from Black Caribs, the descendents of runaway slaves and Caribs. The English considered them brigands to be reduced and pacified. The brigands were supported by French revolutionaries, as criollos were to be in Puerto Rico in 1797. In the Eastern Caribbean, resistance to conquest by the English was under the command of the legendary Victor Hugues. When they were victorious, the English carried out massive deportations of Black Caribs to the coast of Honduras and Belize, where they were the basis of what are the Garifuna communities of today.
On all the islands of any economic importance, the English had internal allies among those favoring slavery. In Martinique, the English went in by invitation from the French landowners, who saw English domination as a guarantee for slave-holding. The English conquest of Trinidad, in February 1797, was facilitated by such internal support. The great historian of Jamaica, Bryan Edwards, wrote at the beginning of the 19th century that Abercromby invaded Puerto Rico with a relatively small contingent (remember that a force of much greater size remained on board the ships) because local support for the invasion was expected. It must have been a great surprise to the English that in Puerto Rico the burden of slavery and its supporters was very different from that on nearby islands.
Another possible motive for the English interest in Puerto Rico was that the island was an attractive destination for thousands of slave-holding landowners who were seeking to flee the Haitian Revolution. In Jamaica, in Martinique, and in other West Indian islands, they were not welcome because they arrived with slaves who had been “contaminated” by the revolution.
If the English had conquered Puerto Rico, it is possible that they would have decreed massive deportation of insurrectionist criollos as they did with the Black Caribs. Puerto Rico would have been converted into one more English colony, and a sugar colony, as happened with Trinidad. Slave-holding in Puerto Rico would have developed more than it did (along with indenture of Asian laborers) at a time when Puerto Rico’s development as a nation was so much more fragile. On the other hand, England would have been in a position to take Cuba, and even Central America, from Spain.
The English defeat at Cangrejos was the last episode of the “Caribbean War” between England, France and Spain. After that defeat, England attacked no other Spanish colony in the region.
In April 1797, almost all of the Spanish garrison had been sent to Santo Domingo and there was no communication with Spain. England had established an effective blockade of the Spanish peninsular fleet. Local military forces amounted to approximately 7,000, in two large components. The milicias disciplinadas in San Juan (about 600) were trained, equipped and uniformed. Within the micias disciplinadas there was a group of black militiamen. The milicias urbanas, which were present in allil the towns of the island, were much more numerous. The milicias urbanas were civilians armed only with machetes, knives, and hoes to confront the invasion, and they had had little military training.
The English fleet anchored off Cangrejos Point. The troops disembarked under the protection of the fleet’s guns. They immediately encountered resistance. At the Cangrejos Arriba beach (today the Balneario de Carolina), criollo troops attempted to resist the disembarkation, but without success. The English crossed Martín Peña lagoon (today San José Lagoon) and the Martín Peña channel to Cangrejos.
There was resistance when the English troops entered the Martín Peña channel, but again the English troops prevailed. Abercromby established his headquarters on the Loma del Olimpo (in Miramar). From there, and from the Condado, the English tried to force their way onto the islet of San Juan, bombarding the forts of San Antonio (which has since disappeared) and San Gerónimo. Both forts resisted, aided by an ardent contingent of artillery from revolutionary France.
The English fleet began a blockade of San Juan by sea, so that they had the islet of San Juan surrounded, by sea and by land. The only line along which provisions could reach San Juan was across San Juan Bayfrom Palo Seco and Toa Baja. Spain had no warship near the Caribbean. Abercromby demanded that San Juan and the whole of the island surrender, but Governor Ramón de Castro refused.
On April 20, the English tried to disembark at Punta Salinas, to the west of San Juan, to close the circle around the islet of San Juan, but the criollos of Toa Baja, largely mulattos and blacks like most of the population on the periphery of San Juan, prevented them from doing so. The next day, the criollotroops took the offensive. Under brothers Vicente and Emigdio Andino, and Commandant Lara of Río Piedras, the criollos briefly retook the bridge over the Martín Peña channel. This offensive obliged the English to protect their rear, and that prevented a massive attack by the English against the islet ofSan Juan.
The second criollo offensive, once again against the rear, took place on April 24: it was carried out by 50 prisoners and 20 members of the Milicias Disciplinadas, all volunteers. They were under the command of Sergeant Francisco Díaz of the milicias disciplinadas. It was a huge success: the criollos disembarked at Cangrejos, which was occupied, and took 14 English prisoners. Reacting to the surprise attack, the English intensified the bombardment, which cost the lives of many criollos.
The English were at risk of being trapped between the walls of San Juan and the forces that were arriving from the rest of the island. They quickly realized that they would have great difficulty in retaining control of Cangrejos and Boca de Cangrejos. On April 25, the English took the island of Miraflores (which has since disappeared) in San Juan Bay, so that they could set up their guns there. That made it possible for them to attack San Juan from the rear, as well as interrupt the lines of communication with Palo Seco. The next day, 70 volunteers from the black company, in canoes, attempted to clear away the English position on Miraflores; but more than 300 English troops forced them to withdraw, causing 14 casualties. Even so, that attack prevented an advance by the English against the islet from that side.
At the same time, groups of paisanos vecinos del territorio de Loíza (Compatriots and Neighbors of Loíza) under the command of Francisco Andino were very active against the rearguard of the English. Mulatto and black combatants slipped through the mangroves of the Martín Peña channel and carried out surprise attacks against the advance positions of the English, costing numerous lives. The criollo groups kept the English preoccupied that there might be a massive attack on that flank, which obliged them to use troops for surveillance of the whole area along the channel. These groups also captured German spies who were in the English service.
On April 29-30, a criollo counteroffensive managed to defeat the English. To the south of Cangrejos, criollo troops advanced, again under Lara, against the English positions along the Martín Peña Channel. Those troops included many of the militiamen who had arrived from other parts of the island. This action, in which Sergeant Pepe Díaz was killed, was the best known phase of the final counteroffensive. On this occasion, troops advanced from Cangrejos and Loíza under the command of Canales. These troops again included many mulattos and free blacks from Cangrejos, Loíza and San Antón, which is today part of Carolina. In the area of Fort San Gerónimo, the criollos closed off the escape route offered by the Laguna del Condado to prevent the English from withdrawing from Olimpo directly to the sea. This obliged them to flee by land, through Cangrejos.
On April 30, after a third battle along the Martín Peña channel, the English fled in virtual rout. They took ship through Punta Las Marías, in Cangrejos Arriba. The embarkation began on the night of April 30. On May 1, the English cannon, which had hardly ceased to fire for 17 days, fell quiet. The English ships weighed anchor on May 1 and 2.
In their haste, the English left behind a great amount of equipment, including cannons that were melted down years later to make a statue of Ponce de León, which stands today on Plaza San José, in the Old City.
Author: Dr. Juan A Giusti
Published: September 12, 2014.
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