When Havana Was Taken by the ‘Red Coats’

English sailors enter the bay of Havana after its capitulation. (Engraving by Dominique Serres based on the drawings of Lieutenant Philip Orsbridge, in 1762)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yunior García Aguilera, Madrid, 1 August 2023 — On June 6, 1762, Captain General Juan del Prado Portocarrero saw an impressive English fleet approaching Havana from El Morro. At first he did not believe that it was an attempt at conquest; he assumed it was a mercantile convoy and even sent the soldiers back to their barracks. The mail that came with the news had been intercepted and gripped the partying habaneros. The clumsy Juan del Prado would show that the defense of the Great Antille was, in fact, too great for him.

It was foreseeable that the English would try to take Havana after declaring war on Spain. They had already occupied Martinique, and the Cuban capital constituted a geographical point of great strategic importance. Twenty years earlier, they had unsuccessfully sought to establish a colony in Guantánamo. To top it off, in 1756 the governor of Jamaica had been invited to go for a walk in Havana, as a gesture of goodwill, and returned to London offering detailed plans of the city and its fortifications.

Much has been discussed about whether Havana at that time was uncivilized, impoverished and miserable. Some have maintained that the capture by the English brought, at last, a little progress. Historian Ramiro Guerra dedicated several articles to Francisco José Ponte trying to deny those statements. Guerra strives to show us a French Havana, much more gallant than other capitals of rich viceroyalties, such as Lima and Mexico. The aforementioned sources showed that both wealthy and poor, white, black or mulatto, they were able to ruin their haciendas and their economies in order to show off the latest fashion. As for its population, Guerra tells us that Havana was more populous than any of the thirteen colonies of North America, even doubling New York.

In any case, Havana was a valuable possession for the Spanish crown. And the battle to try to defend it would highlight the mediocrity of some and the heroism of others. Among Juan del Prado’s blunders was that of disabling three ships of his squadron, seeking to block the entrance to the bay. The operation was disastrous. Not only did some men drown during its execution, but they lost their best warships and prevented other ships from going out to fight from the sea.

However, there is still talk in Cuba of a Creole like Pepe Antonio. The fifty-year-old Cuban, mayor of Guanabacoa, became legendary by carrying out reckless actions, which could be considered machete charges, long before Gómez and Maceo. In a month and a half he inflicted several casualties on the enemy and captured a good number of prisoners. His natural leadership and his unorthodox maneuvers aroused the envy of the inept Spanish colonel Francisco Caro, who dismissed him in a humiliating way. And the legend has it that Pepe died of disgust, a few days later.

Unfortunately, the chauvinism of our historical memory has made us ignore or relegate other brave defenders of Havana to the background. The most notorious case is that of Luis Vicente Velasco de Isla, who died defending El Morro. When the Spanish monarch learned of his feat, he had a statue of him made in Cantabria and minted several medals with his bust. He also ordered that in his royal Navy there should always be a ship with the name of Velasco and created a new noble title: the marquisate of Velasco del Morro, granted to his brother.

But the greatness of a soldier is more noticeable when it is his own enemies who show their admiration. The English were so impressed by his determination and expertise that, after his death, a 24-hour ceasefire was decreed, to bury him with the dignity he deserved. In addition, a monument was erected in his honor in Westminster Abbey itself. And they say that every time the British Navy passed in front of his hometown, salvos were fired in his honor.

Today there is a very small street in Havana that bears his name, parallel to San Isidro. I remember that, in my school texts, Pepe Antonio and his men were highlighted as “the true heroes of the defense,” while they limited themselves to recognizing Velasco as “one of the few Spanish officers who showed courage.” I think that, without minimizing in any way the heroism of the Creole, it is fair to recognize the indisputable prominence of Velasco in that episode of our history.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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