Exit Britannia

By Janet Sloss


Chapter 5


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 5

Although granted home leave for health reasons, Sir Charles Stuart did not go straight to England. When two regiments from Ireland arrived in Mahon harbour at the beginning of March, 1799, Stuart sailed with them to Sicily, leaving them there to defend the harbour from the French while he went around the island on horseback, mixing with the mountain people. He found them very independent, hard-working and anti-French. He signed up 2,000 men immediately as British recruits and recommended that Sicilians should be formed into “partisan or guerrilla groups to defend their properties as more useful than corps of soldiers.” This was a highly unusual insight into military strategy at the time.

He then sailed to Malta to assess its situation. He found them strongly pro-English and thought that 4,000 men would be enough to beat off the French. Back in Palermo, he got the fuel necessary for the works on Menorca and returned to Mahon on April 13th. “He had done more in six weeks to shape a good military policy for England than the whole of the cabinet in six years” said the historian, J. W. Fortescue. Stuart sailed for England at the end of April 1799, leaving explicit orders for the island’s government and its defence with St John Erskine as lieutenant governor. On board the Cormorant, on May 5th, he wrote a long and detailed report to the War Office in London on the improvements he had made to the governing of Menorca and its defence.

Admiral St Vincent was told to give Stuart the insignia of the Order of the Bath, England’s highest honour, but Stuart wanted to return it “as it would be attended with a considerable degree of inconvenience to me in my military as well as private capacity.” Like Richard Kane, he was a very modest man. Back in England, he continued to correspond with Erskine on the problems of Menorca and his last message came from the spa town of Bath where he hoped to be cured. It concerned changes to be made in the Admiralty Board in Mahon. Charles Stuart died in Richmond, Surrey, two years later.

No sooner had Erskine taken over than he received news from Majorca and Barcelona that the Spanish were making great military preparations, presumably for the re-capture of Menorca. Privateers brought the news that 21 French ships of the line, several frigates and other small vessels, making 35 ships in all, had passed the straits of Gibraltar on the 5th of May, and several days later, that the fleet was 30 miles north of Majorca. They were to be joined by another French fleet from Toulon. Battalions of Spanish troops were being shipped to Majorca, where ammunition and stores were arriving from Barcelona. Rumours swelled. Commander Duckworth's fleet was in Mahon harbour and Admiral St Vincent's squadron arrived on May 20th, making a total of 20 ships of the line.

Erskine followed Stuart's orders to place one regiment inside the new line at St Philip's and two more regiments three miles out on Kane's Road. Part of another regiment formed the garrison at Ciudadela and the rest were stationed at Alaior. In July, however, it was clear that the combined French and Spanish fleets had passed Menorca and were still sailing east. Admiral Keith, joined by a squadron under Sir Charles Cotton, put to sea again with a force of 31 ships of the line, having been asked by Nelson to help him in taking Naples. By the beginning of August they were back in Mahon but, on August 6th, reliable intelligence from Barcelona said that a Spanish capture of Menorca was set aside.

Erskine wrote to ask Nelson to send back to Menorca the two British regiments at Messina if possible, but Nelson had his own plans. “When the scoundrels of French are drove out of the kingdom (of Naples), I shall send immediately a part of this squadron to Lord Keith, as I hope to get Porto Ferrajo, Civita Vecchia, etc., with only a part of this squadron.” Erskine found this over optimistic. “I shall be very happy if Lord Nelson succeeds in all his present and future projects, but… the very wide extent of his plans may prove far beyond his means.”

Privateers brought other news. Menorcan sailors when caught at sea by the French were not being treated as prisoners of war ought to be. Erskine wrote to the Captain General of Catalonia complaining of this, and saying he would send a ship with a flag of truce to bring them back in exchange since they were His Britannic Majesty's subjects. The Captain General replied that he wouldn't hand them back but would treat them humanely.

It was an extremely busy summer for Erskine since the daily sea traffic in the Port of Mahon needed constant surveillance and instant decisions. A powerful English squadron of 32 warships, 12 frigates, transports and smaller vessels like the Menorcan privateers, or cutters dashing out with urgent signals - all these sailed in and out of harbour daily to put stores and fresh water on board, to have masts and riggings mended or replaced, and to offload prisoners of war. So many ships of every size arrived in the harbour that drinking water nearly ran out, and a new spring was opened at Cala Padera.

In August, almost 8,000 soldiers of different services arrived. Soon there were new faces around the island: French royalists fleeing the Republican terror at home, Corsicans, Sicilians, Italian and British troops. Erskine had to direct not only the refitting and victualling of ships, the transfer of men from one ship to the other, but also the off-loading of sick and wounded men, women and children who had to be cared for in the hospital or housed and fed. The hospital and quartermasters were kept busy. Menorcans watched in silence as soldiers in multi-coloured uniforms marched to their quarters, among them prisoners “starving and in rags”. The citizens of Mahon had a bird’s eye view, looking down from their bow-windowed balconies.

Erskine enlisted a corps of 100 troops from Corsica, thinking: “the Corsicans are peculiarly adapted for the service of light troops, not only from their skill and constant practice as marksmen, but from their activity and general habit of life… I am convinced they will make excellent soldiers, and be most useful in opposing the progress of an enemy on this island where the surface of the country is so much broken and intersected with walls and ravines.” Sounds of their constant target practice could now be heard in the hills.

Frightening news came that summer. The Plague had broken out in Morocco, Algeria and Gibraltar. In July, the English consul in Algiers wrote to Erskine that the Plague was raging in the west of the country and that mortality in Oran was 70 people every day. Immediately, a fifteen day quarantine was imposed in Mahon, including ships from America. Neither Stuart nor Erskine had been happy about the organisation of health regulations in the port of Mahon. In May, Erskine had written to the Mahon jurats: “I am informed that the most scandalous and disgraceful negligence prevails in the administration of the Department of Health in this port, and apprehensive of the very fatal consequences with which it may be attended with respect to the safety of the people, and the consequences that such misconduct must bring upon the commerce of the country, I must call upon you to exert yourselves without delay to some dire regulations …and to appoint one or more of your number to superintend that branch and be responsible for the strict execution of the law; and I require that you do report upon the matter to me within twenty four hours.” 15

There was no immediate improvement. English ship captains complained constantly of their quarantine treatment, or lack of it. Throughout the autumn, Erskine tried to enforce regulations, but without success. When Fox arrived in December, one of his first letters to the jurats of Mahon complained of the irregularity in carrying out quarantine regulations. “When I entered the harbour in the frigate, and the Pratique master, having come off from George Town in a small boat with only one pair of sculls, after being on the ship's deck, instead of making the necessary enquiries as bound by his office, his only object was asking what would be given to him as a pilot. I mean strongly to recommend a man of more consequence and respectability to be appointed to that duty with a sufficient salary to enable him to support the importance of his office with becoming propriety, and if any military assistance, such as a guard, or an orderly sergeant be thought necessary, on application, it shall be granted.” 16

Clean ships were not his only health preoccupation. When he moved into the governor's house in Mahon, he was disgusted by the state of the street outside his door. His secretary, Charles Viale told the magistrates: “His Excellency orders me to tell you that he has noted in various streets of Mahon that there are floods and dead animals which is an unacceptable state of affairs, and you must clean them up immediately.” But two days later, Fox told them in person that the alleyway beside his house, leading to the harbour, was a perfect dung heap, that the recent floodwater had deposited really filthy things in it, and that it must be cleaned immediately and kept clean.

When he saw pigs in the street, Fox threatened fines or confiscation of the pig and ordered that every householder should sweep in front of his house at least twice a week. This practice continues to the present day. 17

There was no repetition of the century’s earlier problems of a shortage of barracks and food during this third British occupation. Erskine either had the troops camped in the fields in tents or put in temporary quarters in St Philip’s. Others stayed in the Carmen convent, in San Antoni


15 Mahon archives, Universidad 147
16 For a description of the effects of the Plague, see “Richard Kane, Governor of Minorca”, pp. 181-182. Very fortunately, Menorca escaped the Plague at this time.
17 Mahon archives, Universidad 147

"A Broken Mast"
Courtesy of Hernandez Sanz Museum, Mahon.

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