Gooch’s Colonial Marines

First, some background …

As everyone knows, the British and Spanish have been at one another’s throats since Moby Dick was a minnow, so we’ll just fast-forward to the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713.  The Treaty of Utrecht gave the British a 30-year right of access to supply slaves to Spanish colonies and up to five hundred tons of goods per year.  The effect of this arrangement was that it gave British merchants (and smugglers) inroads to previously closed markets in Spanish America.  In spite of the treaty, however, Great Britain and Spain continued to be at odds during this period, including such conflicts as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the Blockade of Porto Bello, and the Anglo-Spanish War, which ended in 1729.

Following the Anglo-Spanish War, Britain accorded Spanish warships so-called visitation rights —which is to say the right of Spanish vessels to inspect British trading vessels, operating along the Spanish Main, for smuggled cargoes.  Over time, Spain began to suspect that British traders were abusing certain tenets of this treaty (with some justification).  Stepping up their inspections, Spanish coast guard authorities began confiscating British cargoes.

In 1731, Spanish officials boarded the British Brig Rebecca off the coast of Florida looking for contraband.  At some point in this confrontation, a Spanish customs officer sliced off the ear of the ship’s captain, a man named Robert Jenkins.  While the incident proved somewhat traumatic to Captain Jenkins, no one back home in England really cared about Captain Jenkins’ ear. In fact, Sir Robert Walpole [1] gave his support to Spain during the War of Polish Succession (1733-1735).

In seeking greater access to Spanish markets, however, political and trading interests began to exert pressure on Walpole to take a more aggressive stance with Spain.  Walpole initially remained reticent, but as opposition to Walpole increased, so too did anti-Spanish sentiments among the British public —and the British South Sea Company [2].  Quite suddenly, Captain Jenkins’ ear became the focus of anti-Walpole political factions. Eventually, owing to these public sentiments, Walpole succumbed to public pressure and approved sending troops to the West Indies and a navy squadron to Gibraltar.  The Spanish monarchy responded by seizing all British ships in Spanish harbors.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear [3] thus began in 1739 —but it was little more than a continuation of the grab for America’s resources by the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish.

Vernon 001One of the first major actions of the war was the British capture of a silver-exporting town on the coast of Panama on 22 November 1739.  The purpose of this operation was to damage Spain’s economy and weaken its maritime capacity.  The poorly defended port was attacked by six ships of the line under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon.  The port was quickly captured and within three weeks, British forces successfully destroyed its fortifications, port facilities, and warehouses.  At the completion of these depredations, the British withdrew leaving Portobelo’s economy was so damaged that it did not fully recover until construction of the Panama Canal two hundred years later.

The Vernon action caused Spain to change their trade practices.  Rather than conducting commerce at centralized ports with few large treasure fleets, they employed a larger number of convoys and increased the number of port facilities.  The Spanish also devised new trading routes, including navigation around Cape Horn to establish trading facilities along South and Central America’s western coast.

Meanwhile, back in Great Britain, Admiral Vernon became the man of the hour and his victory was widely celebrated by folks who weren’t even sure where Panama was located.  In 1740, at a dinner in Vernon’s honor the song “Rule Britannia” was performed for the first time.  Patriotism was widespread in London; Robert Walpole was pressed to launch an even larger naval expedition to the Gulf of Mexico.

Nevertheless, Admiral Vernon and the governor of Jamaica, Edward Trelawny, believed that rather than focusing their attention in the Gulf of Mexico (Cuba, for example) they should give their attention to Spain’s gold coast and this became Vernon’s primary objective.  Admiral Vernon planned a major assault on the city of Cartagena de Indias (in present day Columbia) because it was the location of the Spanish Viceroyalty and the main port of the West Indian fleet sailing for the Iberian Peninsula.

Admiral Vernon launched three assaults against Cartagena between 13 March 1740 and 20 May 1741.  Requiring information about Cartagena, Vernon’s first assault was limited to a reconnaissance in force.  He needed coastal surveys, and he needed to understand Spanish naval routines near Playa Grande.

The purpose of his second assault on 18 March 1740 was to provoke a Spanish response.  By bombarding the city, Vernon hoped to be able to evaluate Spain’s defensive capabilities.  In Cartagena, Admiral Blas de Lezo [4] anticipated Vernon’s intentions.  Rather than responding to the naval bombardment, Lezo ordered the removal of cannon from ships and placed them as coastal defense batteries at likely avenues of a British approach.  When Vernon initiated his anticipated amphibious assault, Lezo was waiting for him and the landing force was defeated.  Vernon then commenced a naval bombardment that lasted twenty-one days, after which he withdrew the bulk of his forces.

Vernon returned to Cartagena with thirteen ships of war intending to re-initiate a bombardment of the city.  This time Admiral Lezo reacted; he deployed six ships of the line so that the British fleet was kept beyond the firing range of the port city. Vernon, now frustrated, again withdrew leaving Admiral Lezo with confidence in his defensive capabilities.

So, what happened …

It was at this point that Admiral Vernon began to formulate plans for a third assault of Cartagena.  To achieve this goal in terms of manpower, however, Great Britain was forced to urge its North American colonies to raise 3,000 soldiers to participate in the expedition [5].  There was no shortage of volunteers as thousands of men stepped forward to serve King and Country [6].  In total, the British raised 40 companies forming four battalions within an American regiment—paid for by the British taxpayer.  Of significance, the regiment’s officers were granted the right to half-pay [7].

Sir William Gooch
Sir William Gooch

Appointed to command the Colonial regiment was Alexander Spotswood, a lieutenant colonel of the British Army and a former lieutenant governor of Virginia [8].  Spotswood, a noted explorer, also established the first colonial iron work in North America. He gained political standing for his skill in negotiating acceptable treaties with the Iroquois Nations.  After Spotswood’s death in 1740, Sir William Gooch was appointed to replace him.  At the time of his appointment, Sir William was the serving lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Lawrence Washington 001
Lawrence Washington

All of Gooch’s field officers were detailed to the American regiment from the British Army; his company grade officers (excepting one lieutenant and one sergeant from the British Army in each company), were all appointed from among the colonial elite.  Of these, the best known was a Lawrence Washington [9] (pictured left), who was George Washington’s older half-brother.  When formed, the colonial regiment contained one colonel, four lieutenant colonels, four majors, thirty-six captains, seventy-two lieutenants, four adjutants, four quartermasters, one surgeon, four surgeon’s mates, 144 sergeants, 144 corporals, 72 drummers, and 3,240 privates (then called sentinels).  Colonel Gooch’s immediate superior was Admiral Edward Vernon, Royal Navy —and for the purposes of this account, Gooch’s superior is relevant because Admiral Vernon intended Gooch’s regiment to perform as Marines, rather than as land infantry.

Lord Charles Cathcart
Charles Cathcart, 7th Lord Cathcart

The British home contingent, under the command of Lord Cathcart, was delayed by four months —finally sailing from England in November 1740.  After joining the fleet in Jamaica in January 1741, Admiral Vernon commanded one of the largest fleets ever assembled.  He commanded 186 ships, 3,000 pieces of artillery, and 27,000 men: 12,000 sailors, 10,000 soldiers, 1,000 Jamaican slaves, and the 4,000 troops of the American regiment.  On paper, the numbers seem impressive, but the reality was another matter. Sickness and scurvy [10] were epidemic among the troops; Lord Charles Cathcart, the British army commander died from this disease.

Goochs Marines 001
Uniform of the American Regiment, War of Jenkins’ Ear

The American regiment went ashore in Jamaica, but it was far from ready for combat service.  Lacking sound officer and NCO leadership, the troops were ill-disciplined and inefficient in the art of war.  Making things worse, the British government made no effort to pay or feed the colonials, which brought the colonial troops near to mutiny.  Sickness was even more rampant within the American ranks than it was in the British. Yet, in spite of this, by 11 March Vernon positioned his fleet off the coast of the Spanish Main [11].

In order to reach Cartagena, Vernon had to force entry through a small passage at Boca Chica, which was defended by three forts; he had to defeat each of these fortifications.  Accordingly, Vernon landed his troops —exempting the American Regiment [12]— and opened the critical passage.

In late April, Lieutenant General Thomas Wentworth, having replaced Lord Cathcart, led an attacking force to the outskirts of Cartagena.  During this assault and owing to their lack of esprit de corps and overall tactical incompetence, Wentworth relegated the Americans to the menial task of carrying scaling ladders and woolpacks.  During the assault Americans threw down their ladders and fled the battle.  British forces were now left without the means to carry the walls of the city.

When a Spanish counter-attack threatened to isolate British forces from their ships, Wentworth was forced to withdraw.  To make matters worse, yellow fever was now epidemic among the troops —American and British alike. Half of the landing force was incapacitated, which forced Admiral Vernon to withdraw his fleet to the coast. There, soldiers lay dying without medical attention by the hundreds.  In early May, Vernon embarked the survivors of his land forces and returned to Jamaica. The sickness could not be contained, however, and the British force was soon reduced to around 2,700 men (roughly 1,300 English, 1,400 American).

In August, having decided to invade Cuba, Vernon’s fleet entered the Gulf of Mexico.  On 29 August 1741 the British fleet anchored at Cumberland Bay, 90 miles from Santiago de Cuba.  Troops and supplies were landed, but the sickness continued unabated.  Vernon kept his soldiers in camp until November when they returned to their ships and the fleet sailed back to Jamaica. Three-thousand reinforcements arrived from England in February 1742, but they too fell ill.  In October 1742, Gooch’s regiment was disbanded, and the officers and men were discharged.  Of the 4,163 officers and men in the American regiment, only 10% survived.  The regiment’s surviving officers did receive half-pay for the rest of their lives, but not before they appeared before a board of general officers in London to plead their case.

By succumbing to their natural fears and running away in the face of battle, Gooch’s regiment disgraced itself —but having said that, we cannot say that their training was adequate to the purpose of producing effective soldiers.  Moreover, British treatment of these troops was equally outrageous.  While it is true that Wentworth’s army distrusted these colonial marines, there were plenty of reasons for the Americans to distrust and feel betrayed by their British officers —even discounting the onset of disease.  The Americans were inadequately clothed, fed, and cared for and they served without pay. At Cartagena, the Americans were relegated to work alongside Jamaican slaves.  They were placed on ships and forced to work as seamen —a breach of the terms of their enlistments.  Aboard ship, the colonials were refused berthing spaces or hammocks, assigned to do the work that ship’s crew didn’t want to do, and they were often moved from ship to ship without their own officer’s knowledge.

The men who formed the colonial regiment may have been detailed to serve Admiral Vernon’s fleet as marines, but there is no way to equate them with modern day American and British Royal Marines [13].

Notes:

[1] Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford (1676-1745) was Great Britain’s first prime minister.

[2] The South Sea Company was a joint-stock company formed in 1711, created to consolidate and reduce the cost of national debt.  The company was granted a monopoly to trade with South America and nearby islands—the genesis of its name.

[3] Robert Jenkins was called to testify before the Parliament in 1738, and according to some accounts, he produced his severed ear as part of his presentation.  This account has never been verified.  The Jenkins incident was considered along with various other examples of Spanish depredations upon British subjects and the incident, some eight years later, was popularly perceived as an insult to British honor.

[4] Admiral Blas de Lezo y Olaverrieta (1689-1741) was a Basque officer in service to the King of Spain.

[5] Until 1740, North America’s military contribution to Great Britain had mostly come from privateers[5], who were sanctioned by the British government during time of war.  At other times, the British referred to such endeavors as piracy.  Traditionally, colonial militia in North America were recruited and paid for by local governments to protect local jurisdictions; the British Army and Navy handled international conflicts.  Thus, British expeditionary operations during the War of Jenkins’ Ear opened a new chapter in an old story —but with a significant shift: the employment of colonial ground forces.  The use of American colonists as British ground forces had not been previously attempted —and, as it turns out, was never attempted again.

[6] Virginia was the only colony having to rely on impressment to meet expected quotas.

[7] Half-pay was a term used in the British Army and Royal Navy referring to the pay and allowances an officer received when in retirement, or not in active duty service.

[8] Spotswood was appointed lieutenant governor under the nominal governorship of George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney in 1710.  As Hamilton never ventured to the American colonies, the lieutenant governor, upon appointment, became the de factoCrown authority within the colony.  Owing to his adversarial relationship with the Virginia Council, and with James Blair in particular —a very powerful adversary, Spotswood was recalled in 1722.

[9] Lawrence Washington (1718–1752) was an American soldier, planter, politician, and prominent landowner in colonial Virginia. As a founding member of the Ohio Company of Virginia, and a member of the colonial legislature representing Fairfax County, he also founded the town of Alexandria, Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River in 1749.  Lawrence was the first of the family to live at the Mount Vernon estate, which he named after his Commanding Officer in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, Admiral Edward Vernon. When Lawrence Washington became ill with tuberculosis, he and his brother George travelled to Barbados, expecting that the warm climate would alleviate his ill health.  Lawrence died at Mount Vernon the following year.

[10] Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C.  Early symptoms include weakness, tiredness, and soreness in the arms and legs. Without treatment, affected individuals experience decreased red blood cells, gum disease, loss of hair, and bleeding from the skin.  If conditions worsen, poor healing of wounds occurs, personality disorders appear, and finally death from bleeding and infection.

[11] Spain’s mainland coastal possessions.

[12] In the entire regiment, Gooch trusted only 300 troops to perform their duties ashore.

[13] The Royal Marines were formed in 1755 as the Royal Navy Infantry.  However, these Marines can trace their origins to the formation of the British Army’s Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of foot on 28 October 1664. The Royal Marines have close ties with allied marine forces, particularly the United States Marine Corps and the Netherland’s Marine Corps (Korps Mariniers).  Today, although have undergone many substantial changes over time, the Royal Marines remain an elite fighting force within the British armed forces.

 

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.