Capture of Minorca (1798)
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In November 1798 a British expedition captured the island of Minorca from Spain. A large force under General Charles Stuart landed on the island and forced its Spanish garrison to surrender in eight days with only some bloodshed. The British occupied the island for four years, using it as a major naval base, before handing it back to Spain following the Treaty of Amiens.
The island had traditionally belonged to Spain, but was captured in 1708 by the British and was subsequently ceded to Britain by Spain under Article XI of the Treaty of Utrecht (1713). The British retained their possession until 1783 when it was returned to Spain at the Treaty of Paris. During their occupation the British had used it as a naval base, but it was extremely vulnerable to capture by Spanish or French forces as shown by two separate sieges in 1756 and 1781.
While Britain and Spain had initially entered the French Revolutionary War as allies, in 1796 Spain had switched to supporting France and had gone to war with Britain. The British attempted to assert their authority over the Mediterranean but had a shortage of usable bases. After the failure to establish a British presence in Corsica, other targets such as Minorca, Malta and Elba were considered. Once the French Mediterranean Fleet had been destroyed in Aboukir Bay, Earl St Vincent was determined to restore British hegemony in the Mediterranean. To ensure this, his fleet needed a base with a well protected deep water harbour that could not be assaulted by land. The best island harbour in the Western Mediterranean was at Port Mahon on Minorca, where a large modern dockyard included a careening wharf, extensive storehouses and a purpose-built naval hospital. At the end of October St Vincent decided to send an expedition against Minorca, which departed on 19 October 1798. The expeditionary force arrived off Minorca on 7 November.
On 7 November 1798 St Vincent detached three ships of the line, HMS Leviathan (1790), HMS Orion (1787), and HMS Princess Royal (1773) three frigates and several smaller vessels and transports to the island under Rear Admiral John Thomas Duckworth, carrying a small army under Colonel Charles Stuart. A force was put ashore at the Addya Creek and destroyed a Spanish artillery position and from there a Spanish attack was driven off. Over the next two days the army continued inland, a force of 300 men under Colonel Paget managed to gain control of Fort Charles allowing the British fleet to enter the harbour and anchor there while the main army received the surrender of town after town, including Fournella, which overlooked the island's principal protected anchorage and then Mercadal. On 11 November a Spanish squadron of four frigates attempted to disrupt operations, but a swift counterattack by Duckworth's ships drove them off.
Stuart had moved his army to harass Ciudadella by the 14th. On the 16th the town of Ciudadella capitulated and control of the island was ceded to British forces. Around 4,000 Spanish troops fell into British hands, as well as a large amount of supplies and weaponry. In addition, four Spanish frigates, Flora and Prosperine (40 guns) and Cazilda and Pomona (38 guns), were captured along with their crews.
The British converted the island into one of their principal Mediterranean bases. Many expeditions were launched from the island, and Thomas Cochrane, in particular, used the island as a base for his operations along the Spanish Coast. Charles Stuart served as the Governor of Minorca between 1798 and 1800, with Henry Edward Fox taking over the post thereafter.
The Treaty of Amiens agreed in 1802, called for the return of Minorca to Spain as a condition as what was hoped for a lasting peace in Europe. The return of Minorca and other Mediterranean bases was bitterly opposed by many officers, including Horatio Nelson who appeared in the House of Lords to speak against the prospect. In spite of this opposition, the Treaty was concluded, and the British commander Richard Bickerton oversaw the British evacuation.
The peace rapidly broke down, but no effort was made to recover Minorca as major bases had been established in other ports.
- James, p. 196
- Clowes, p. 378
- Knight p.203
- Harvey p.32-40
- Knight p.441
- Knight p.442
- Harvey, Robert.Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain. Constable & Robinson, 2000.
- Knight, Roger.The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievements of Horatio Nelson. Penguin Books, 2006.