Disaster on the Spanish Main
The Tragic British-American Expedition to the West Indies during the War of Jenkins’ Ear
Craig S. Chapman
Potomac Books, Lincoln, Nebraska, 2022, 426 pages
Book Review published on: December 30, 2022
Craig S. Chapman’s book Disaster on the Spanish Main covers the Anglo-Spanish War of 1739–1742 waged between the British, Spanish, and French governments in the East Indies. The author points out that this war was overshadowed by the war of Austrian Succession in Europe, in which all three countries would play a part on the heels of this conflict. The book unfolds with a contextual description of the background information leading up to the war, a detailed synapsis of the execution of hostilities and political machinations, and a postwar epilogue. The author’s analysis and accessible writing style makes the book a good read and easy to follow without having to be a history buff. The author delves into this topic with a lot of substantiating documents and a keen eye for detail.
The Anglo-Spanish War, also called the War of Jenkins’ Ear, occurred because the previous conflict between Spain and the British Crown was not settled in a manner that was to both parties’ advantage over time. Both the Spanish and English felt that they did not get a good deal so they began to deviate from the former arrangement. The Spanish government did not like the toehold that the treaty gave the British into their interests in the West Indies (Central and South America). At the time, Spanish colonies could only trade for Spain’s finished goods that were brought by ship to the colonies. The ships then returned to Spain laden with silver from the colonies’ mines. The British thought they should be able to trade with Spain’s colonies as they pleased so they began to smuggle finished goods to the colonists. In 1740, Spain was in decline after decades of high living due to an influx of silver from their East Indies colonies in modern day Mexico and Peru. Over the years, the Spanish crown failed to invest in its once formidable navy, and its citizens were decadent due to their financial windfall.
The British were the aggressors in the war, driven to declare war when stories of detained English ships and their countrymen, abused by Spanish privateers looking for smugglers, were made public in England. Spain had a monopoly on the trade of finished goods in the East Indies and derived their cash reserves from the mining of silver from a number of locations in South America and Mexico. The Spanish crown took the “quinto” or 20 percent of the value of goods in the form of a tariff on every sale.
The British were short of manpower and resources to put into the war because it was so far away. Spain and France, in a loose alliance of sorts, threatened England and its interests. All three of the listed major powers had to protect their respective states. The far-flung territories each country had in the East Indies constrained their ability to employ resources that might have been needed if war broke out in Europe. The War of Jenkins’ Ear was notable as the first large-scale military operation between the British and the American colonists. The Americans were a source of desperately needed manpower near the action, and served as foot soldiers for the endeavor. American colonists were motivated to join the cause to earn riches from the booty gained by plundering Spanish cities in the East Indies.
The author takes pains to detail the command structure between the British army and British navy. Driven by strong-willed leaders on both sides, each branch competed against the other for resources and glory. The British leader Adm. Edward Vernon oversaw the Navy while the Army contingent was led by Lt. Gen. Thomas Wentworth, an American. The inability of the ground and naval forces to cooperate in a concerted fashion during the amphibious operations to seize Spanish cities led to an inconclusive outcome. One third of Britain’s land forces and approximately 40 percent of its active fleet were committed to the fight. Despite the British’s better resources, having upward of four times the number of soldiers versus the Spanish defenders, they did not win the war.
The author details two other elements that were arrayed against the British and American colonists: disease and poor logistic support. Disease played a huge part in the conflict. Most physicians of the day did not understand the role that mosquitos played in the spread of deadly diseases in the tropics. Consequently, the various diseases such as dysentery and yellow fever wreaked havoc among the seamen and soldiers who were tightly packed within the warships and transports for months at a time waiting for action. Logistics and maintenance played a big role in the timing of operations because a tropical worm that resided on the hulls of the ships needed to be cleaned off, and the soldiers and sailors needed food and water. Soldiers who did not receive wholesome food or plentiful, clean water were very susceptible to succumbing to tropical disease.
The book is an engaging and easy read. It is a study in obscure yet interesting facts, challenges in leadership, and diplomacy gone awry. The author delves into this conflict with a lot of substantiating documents, and a keen eye for detail. The tale illustrates how difficult it can be to project power across the globe, overcome diseases with high mortality rates, and conduct a joint amphibious operation with uncooperative commanders. The book is relevant and highly recommended.
Book Review written by: Eric McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas