Exit Britannia

By Janet Sloss


Chapter 2


Britain’s Last Conquest of Menorca 1798 - 1802

© 2002 Bonaventura Press

  Chapter 1 Chapter 5 Chapter9
Introduction Chapter 2 Chapter 6 Chapter10
Acknowledgments Chapter 3 Chapter 7 Chapter11
Bibliography Chapter 4 Chapter 8 Chapter12

Chapter 2

And now the Mediterranean was fast filling with naval activity. Warships, troop carriers and frigates, admirals, generals and troops of many nationalities were sailing in different directions. The chase was on to re-capture Napoleon’s conquests and free the Mediterranean for British trade. England now needed a port in the Mediterranean and quickly chose Menorca and its fabulous harbour of Port Mahon where its whole fleet could safely anchor. This was against the advice of Nelson who had written to the Admiralty in July, “I have no scruple in deciding that it is better to save the kingdom of Naples and risk Minorca, than to risk the kingdom of Naples to save Minorca.” 2

Admiral St. Vincent, after a successful career in Gibraltar, Sweden, Canada, and the West Indies, and after having defeating the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent the year before, was now, at 63, admiral and commander in chief of the English navy in the Mediterranean. When the Secretary for War, Viscount Henry Dundas, asked St. Vincent whether the English forces in Gibraltar and Lisbon were adequate for the capture of Menorca, St. Vincent agreed and recommended Sir Charles Stuart to command them. In July that year, he had advised London: “We can take possession of Minorca without awaiting the finale of Sir Horatio Nelson's exploit. Two line of battle ships and a few frigates will achieve it by pushing the transports at once into Fornells. I feel the importance of General Stuart being at the head of them. No man can manage Frenchmen so well as him and the British will go to Hell for him.”

Sir Charles Stuart, fourth son of distinguished and politically important parents, was then in charge of 6,000 mixed nationality troops defending Portugal against a French/Spanish attack. Although these troops were largely unmanageable, and he himself was under the command of three independent Portuguese commanders, Stuart quickly turned the men into effective soldiers, defended Lisbon, cultivated the friendship of the Portuguese and impressed Lord St. Vincent with his talents for strategy and command. Dundas appointed Stuart in August, telling him optimistically: “From the good correspondence which subsisted between His Majesty's troops and the inhabitants of Minorca during the time that island was under the dominion of this country (1763-1782), His Majesty hopes and expects that no material opposition will be made by them to your gaining a footing on the island, and that every practicable measure will be adopted to secure to His Majesty the possession of that very important island.” 3

Leaving Lisbon, Stuart sailed for Gibraltar at the end of September, collected three regiments and embarked with them at the end of October, heading for Menorca. And Rear-Admiral Duckworth was ordered to go with the Powerful, the Majestic, the Vanguard and the Swallow corvette to Mahon, followed a week later by two more ships of the line, the Bellerophon and the Zealous.

On the mainland of Spain, a severe lack of money had reached crisis proportions. The nobility and the church owned two thirds of the land, but did not cultivate it. Farming was considered a demeaning activity. A startling royal decree was sent to all districts in June, 1798: “Two subscriptions will be opened: one a voluntary donation in coinage or valuables in gold or silver; and the other a patriotic loan without interest, to be repaid at the end of the ten years following the first two counting after the day that peace is declared, to meet the grave emergencies of the monarchy.” 4

Spain was bankrupt and the Balearic islands, like everyone else, felt the pinch.

Since the British had surrendered Menorca to Spain in 1782, life for Menorcans had gone miserably downhill. A despotic Spanish rule replaced a liberal British government; their language was forcibly changed from Catalan to Castillian, they were highly taxed, imports and exports were disastrously controlled, work in the harbour stopped; they no longer had English protection for their own boats; their men were jailed without relief on the peninsula; and they were not able to defend themselves since the forts of St Philip's at Mahon and St Nicholas at Fornells had been destroyed after the Spanish take-over. The military had no pay, no rations or munitions, no adequate billets. And again, the people were starving. Poor harvests, armies of rats, fear of the Plague that was then spreading through Mediterranean countries, a rise in the price of every basic commodity, all contributed to the death toll almost exceeding the birth rate. 5 That spring, Governor Quesada asked the magistrates for surpluses of fruit and cheese to hand out to the poor, but none was given. There was not a snail to be found along the lanes.

Brigadier Juan Nepomuceno Quesada had become governor of the island on the death of Governor Anuncivay the year before. Now threatened with imminent invasion (English convoys were frequently sighted from Monte Toro and the Minister for War had warned of an imminent English assault), he was faced with problems of defence that he couldn't possibly resolve. He had less than 2,000 troops from the Valencia regiments and mercenaries of the San Gall regiment. They had not been paid for months and had inadequate billets and food. Many were ill and all of them quite undisciplined. In May, Field Marshal Cristobal de Rutiman disbanded the San Gall regiment and formed another made up of 1,500 mercenaries, who could not be depended on. In July, Colonel Carlos Yann arrived in Mahon with 1,500 Swiss troops. These men had been conscripted in Switzerland for the Austrian service, then captured in Italy by the French, who sold them to Spain at a (Spanish) dollar a head. They could not be depended upon either. Instead of the 5,000 to 6,000 men that Quesada considered adequate to defend Menorca, he had under 3,000 men who were not loyal to the Spanish crown, had not been paid, and many of whom were ill. 6

Apart from the lack of forts to defend the harbours, the old guns had not been maintained and were mostly unserviceable. Without St Philip's Castle, Mahon was now undefended and the walls of Ciudadela were crumbling. Desperate requests to Madrid for help went unanswered.

Quesada did what he could. It had always been thought that the north coast of the island was too risky for enemy landings, that the southern bays of Galdana, Alcaufar or Mesquida would be attacked. He therefore repaired the roads leading to these and stationed his unpaid and ill fed men in Es Castell, Alaior, Ciudadela and Mahon. He had a chain laid across the entrance to the harbour of Mahon to prevent enemy ships entering. He could do no more.

Meanwhile, the civilian population remained passive and seemingly indifferent to yet another foreign invasion. As the noted Mediterranean historian, Ernle Bradford, says: “The inhabitants of small islands, ports, or bases that are constantly coveted by superior powers must necessarily learn to weigh the odds and judge accordingly.” Not one man came forward when Quesada issued a proclamation calling for volunteers “for love of their king.” Menorcans saw themselves as belonging first to their village or town, then to their island, and last of all to their country. This was how they had always survived and maintained their independence.


2 “Memoirs of the Life of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson,” T.J. Pettigrew, Vol.1, 1849, p.283
3 WO1/297
4 Mahon archives, Universidad 165. «19 June 1798 - Real Cedula de S.M. y Senores Del Consejo. Por la qual se mandan abrir dos subscriptiones: la una a un Donativo voluntario en moneda o alhajas de oro o plata: y la otra a un Prestamo patriotico sin interes, reintegrable en el termino de los diez anos siguientes a los dos primeros que se contaran desde el dia de la publicacion de la Paz, para atender con estas sumas a las graves urgencias de la Monarquia. En Madrid, en la Imprenta Real.»
5 Mata, “Conquests and Reconquests of Menorca”, p.220
6 The men of the Swiss regiment willingly changed sides and were recruited by Sir Charles Stuart as the Minorca Regiment. They took part in Abercromby’s expedition to Egypt in 1801, with 40 officers and 1,052 other ranks, and gave excellent service in the Battle of Aboukir. After the Egyptian campaign, the Minorca Regiment became the Queen’s German Infantry and later, in England, the 97th Foot, under which title they saw action in four Peninsular battles.

Soldier in Ruttiman’s Swiss Infantry Regiment, 1801. Rene Chartrand collection

King Charles IV of Spain. Rene Chartrand collection.

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