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Ever since Sir Francis Drake had snooped his way around the coastline of Cuba in the 16th century, the British had had a keen eye on Havana. Almost 200 years later, in an early fog-filled morning of March 1762, a British fleet sailed from Portsmouth to capture the Cuban capital.
This year, Cubans and Brits are commemorating the Taking of Havana (La Toma de la Habana) by the British some 250 years ago this month — an audacious assault on Cuba’s capital that changed the face of Havana.
The British Embassy in Havana has leant a beautiful and powerful painting by French artist Dominque Serres (1722-1793) who captured events as they unfolded. Titled ‘Taking of Havana by the English squadron, 1762’, the painting is on loan to the City Museum in the Captains Generals Palace until November. Also on display are a map of Havana made at the time of the invasion, coins and a sword.
At the Gabinete de Arqueología, English ceramics, found during excavations, are on display, as are other excavated finds at the Castillo de la Fuerza. At El Morro castle, however, a new and permanent display room of newly commissioned paintings by artist Villamil based on pictures by Dominque Serres, has opened.
The British fleet sailed from Portsmouth with 4000 men under the Commander in Chief Lord Albemarle. At Martinique, they picked up an extra 10,000 men before arriving off the coast of Cuba on June 6th 1752, where troops disembarked at Cojímar; Lord Albemarle sailed onto Havana.
The Spaniards’ principal fortress was El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro on the eastern headland of the bay which they defended along with cannons placed on the hill of La Cabaña. The Spanish had reinforced Havana by building El Morro (and the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta on the western headland of the bay) soon after Drake, the Terror of the Seas, was spotted hovering around Havana’s bay entrance in 1586. (Havana was the most important port in the New World in the 16th century — a safe haven for the Spanish treasure fleets before they sailed the Atlantic for the Spanish court with their plundered silver and gold).
The British bombarded El Morro from the sea eventually storming the castle on July 30 during which the Spanish commander Luis de Velasco was mortally wounded.
The Spaniards surrendered in the first week of August after taking account of their dwindling ammunition supplies. Spanish Captain General Juan de Prado was sent to Spain to face a military tribunal. He was sentenced to death; the sentence was later commuted and he died in disgrace.
Albemarle, who installed his barracks in the convent of San Francisco, declared himself the Captain General and governor of Cuba.
According to Cuba historian Hugh Thomas in his authoritative “Cuba” tome, the Duke of Cumberland wrote to Albemarle about the “Havannah”:
“You have made me the happiest man existing… you have done your king and country the most material service that any military man has ever done since we were a nation… all this I knew was in you but now the world sees it… Militarily speaking, I took your siege to have been the most difficult that has been since the invention of artillery…”
The attack had come in the last year of the Seven Years War (1756-1763), a flexing of military muscles by empire-building states. Peace was signed in February 1763 and the British left Cuba in July that year having swapped Cuba for Florida with Spain.
After the British left, Spain was incensed. King Carlos III ordered the construction of the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña — the largest fort in Latin America at 700m long. The Spanish King deemed the fort so expensive that he looked through his spyglass and apparently remarked that for the size of the dent in the royal coffers, he should be able to see the fort from Spain!