The Abercromby-Harvey Expedition 1796-1797
Dundas gave up all hope of subduing Guadeloupe and Saint Domingue- he simply didn’t have enough manpower. However, he believed the Spanish West Indian islands were vulnerable to attack, and he planned a new campaign against Trinidad and Puerto Rico. Once again, Abercromby was put in charge of this expedition.
In order to gain enough men for the 1796-7 campaign, Britain hired a number of foreign regiments such as the Loewenstein Fusiliers from Germany. Around 4,500 men were gathered, but Abercromby had reservations as to whether this would be enough. The assembly of this force was somewhat chaotic, and it departed for the West Indies in a piecemeal fashion. Abercromby set sail on the 15 November, but a number of troop transports were unable to depart until early January just as the British Commander-in-Chief was arriving in Martinique. There, he met the station naval commander Admiral Harvey, who he found to be affable and understanding. They decided that they would first assault Trinidad, and then move for Puerto Rico.
The invasion of Trinidad was a risky operation. Spain had sent three warships and 750 men to the island the previous September, and the island appeared to be well defended. However, the morale of the Spanish soldiers and sailors was very low. They had been blockaded by the Royal Navy for a number of months and were surviving on meagre rations. Abercromby and Harvey prepared to attack the Gaspar Grande fortification on the 17th February, but during the night the Spanish burnt two of their ship’s so they couldn’t fall into British hands and retreated behind the defences of Port of Spain. The Spanish commander, Chacon, was paralysed by the British attack and he surrendered on the 18th. More reinforcements arrived from Britain in March, and the two commanders determined that they were in a strong enough position to a invade Puerto Rico.
A considerable strike force of around 4,000 men was gathered, and the troops were extremely confident given the Spanish capitulation on Trinidad. However, the Spaniard who commanded the island, Don Ramon de Castro, was a wily old campaigner. The main Spanish fortress, San Juan, was an imposing obstacle and de Castro quickly prepared its defences when he spied approaching enemy ships. The British faced little opposition when they landed on the 18 March, but they soon realised that Puerto Rico was a very different proposition to Trinidad. Most of the Spanish defenders retired behind the walls of San Juan, but the fort could not be easily assailed. Its weakest point was probably its harbour, but the entrance to the harbour was well guarded. A number of batteries surrounded San Juan, and the city walls themselves were protected by the heavily armed castle San Cristobel. Abercromby didn’t have enough men to encircle the entire position, so he attempted to bombard the fortress with artillery. The Spanish responded, and blasted the British positions with superior firepower. Some soldiers began to desert, and local militia started to harasses the British force. With summer fast approaching, Abercromby decided to call off the attack, and left with the remainder of his army on the 1 May.
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