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Gibraltar for America? When Great Britain chose to defend Gibraltar and, as a result, lost the American colonies.

Photos by Johnny Bugeja

By Clive Finlayson
Director, Gibraltar National Museum

It was the morning of 19th October, 1781, in Yorktown, Virginia. The British Army under Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis had been defeated by a combined American force, led by General George Washington with the support of the Marquis de Lafayette, and the French Army led by the Comte de Rochambeau. The victors had the critical offshore support of a French naval force commanded by the Comte de Grasse. The siege of Yorktown was the last major land battle of the American Revolutionary War and it prompted the British government to negotiate an end to the war. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the French and the Spanish had been besieging Gibraltar for two years and the conflict had no end in sight.

Gibraltar was vital to British interests in the late eighteenth century. Its location, coupled with its topography which allowed for its defence, was the key. This was the first time that the British had to face a united House of Bourbon, which had no other distracting conflicts, at sea. Situated between the two French naval bases of Toulon (in the Mediterranean) and Brest (in the Atlantic), and between Toulon and the Spanish base in Cadiz, Gibraltar made it difficult for the ships of the Bourbon alliance to concentrate and be deployed. Gibraltar’s location on the Iberian mainland also kept part of the Spanish naval force permanently occupied. In addition, Gibraltar also offered a first port of call for water, supplies and repairs, and provided flank protection, to trading ships headed for South Africa and India. At certain times of the year Gibraltar also supported trading ships heading for the Caribbean and New York, as these passed close as they sought the favourable trade winds.

It had become clear, in January 1781, that the garrison and inhabitants at Gibraltar were under severe stress. There was sickness, a lack of stores and general discomfort. The Admiralty decided to put huge resources to send a relief convoy to Gibraltar. The decision was taken in spite of the huge consequences that it would have elsewhere, particularly across the Atlantic. The relief convoy would require a great naval force as escort, given that Spain would be determined to stop it and intelligence indicated that the Bourbon aim was to join the Spanish and French fleets. In taking the decision, the Admiralty considered that its forces in New York and the Caribbean were enough to counter any French threat. Today, we are used to instant messaging and transmission of information but in those days messages across the Atlantic would take months and hindsight showed that this assessment of strength in the Americas was incorrect.

The Admiralty could not stretch its resources to provide a relief convoy to Gibraltar, while at the same time sending more ships to Admiral Rodney in the West Indies, and maintaining the blockade of Brest where Admiral de Grasse was assembling and fitting a fleet to sail to the Caribbean. Focusing exclusively on Gibraltar was a calculated risk. The only force that was capable of taking on the Spanish fleet at Cadiz or the French squadron in Brest was the Western Squadron, commanded by Vice Admiral Darby. So it was that on the 31st January, 1781, Lord Sandwich (First Lord of the Admiralty) ordered Darby to make immediate preparations to sail for Gibraltar and deliver a large convoy of merchant vessels. The risks were huge. The blockade of Brest had to be abandoned; the French were preparing to put out to sea and an attack on Darby, hampered by the merchant ships, could have proved disastrous; and the English Channel was left defenceless. Such was the importance attached to the relief convoy and Gibraltar.

As often happens in life, chance events played out to get Darby to Gibraltar. Darby had sailed to Cork to await the victuallers; apparently the prevailing winds made this a better meeting point than Portsmouth. On his way to Cork, Darby passed Brest around the 18th March, after de Grasse had left port. By the time Darby reached Cape Clear, on the Irish coast, on the 23rd of March, de Grasse was well on his way to the West Indies. A major factor influencing de Grasse’s early departure was unrest among his men: he thought that keeping them busy at sea would help resolve these problems. At the same time, making the rendezvous point Cork instead of Portsmouth had delayed the departure of Darby’s convoy until March. The encounter had been avoided by chance.

This late departure also meant that Darby avoided Admiral de Cordova’s Spanish fleet. The Spanish ships had put out to sea from Cadiz on the 6th February, 1781, and were lying in wait off Cape Saint Vincent. The delay in Darby’s departure meant that the Spanish fleet had been forced to return to port because of lack of supplies. Darby sailed past unchallenged and reached the Rock on the 11th April, 1781. De Grasse also crossed the Atlantic unchallenged and his superior force eventually reached Chesapeake Bay where its blockade of Yorktown was vital to the success of the Americans and French over the British. Gibraltar had been saved but the American colonies had been lost. Shortly after, the United States was born. Gibraltar remains British.

This year marks the 240th anniversary of the end of the Great Siege of Gibraltar. These and related topics will be the subject of talks at this year’s Calpe Conference (21st-24th September) by leading international and local historians.

Three relief convoys kept Gibraltar in British hands during the Great Siege (1779-83). The first was in December 1779 under the command of Admiral Rodney (in the Caribbean in 1781); the second described in this article; and a third (depicted here) by Lord Howe in October 1782.

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