Review the reasons for Spanish participation in the American War of independence.
Determine the relevance of the alliance between the kings of France and Spain, and the possible reasons Spain had for not participating in the war
Spain played a signal role in the American Revolution as a supply source for munitions and other material for the Americans. After 1779, Spain’s military forces won significant victories against Great Britain, thereby helping to bring the war towards a conclusive defeat of the British. Spain, along with her ally France, had been a traditional and long-standing international rival of the British since the beginnings of the colonial era. These powers had fought a series of European intercolonial wars from the late 1680s until the 1760s. This heritage of warfare guaranteed that Spain would view the American Revolution as an opportunity to weaken, if not destroy, the British Empire.
However, as a major colonial power herself, Spain had no sympathy for the rebel goals. The Spanish king and his ministers absolutely did not support the concept of colonials who might revolt against the authority of a sovereign. Spain therefore adopted a bifurcated policy: she would support the American cause as a mechanism to damage the British Empire; but she would not form an alliance with the infant United States until after the American Revolution.
Given this policy, Spanish involvement in the American Revolution fell into two distinct eras. First, from 1775 until 1779, Spain secretly furnished badly needed supplies to the Americans in order to animate them in their revolt against British colonial authority, but in so doing refused to ally with the rebels. Second, after the summer of 1779, Spain entered the wider European war as a combatant against the British, but did not sign an alliance with the Continental Congress or coordinate her military campaigns with those of the infant United States.
Spanish Louisiana and Cuba served as important centers for Spain’s participation in the Revolution, especially regarding the respective cities of New Orleans and Havana. Spanish officials in both ports played significant roles at every stage of Spain’s involvement in the revolt.
Louisiana, along with its capital New Orleans, had only recently become a Spanish colonial possession when the French king transferred it to his Bourbon cousin at the treaty negotiations that occurred during the Peace of Paris in 1763. As part of this settlement, the Isle of Orleans which contained the province’s capital, along with all lands on the west bank of the Mississippi River, became part of the new colony of British West Florida after 1763, with its capital at Pensacola.
This meant that towns north of New Orleans, including Baton Rouge and Natchez, became British, along with Mobile and the other settlements along the Gulf Coast. Respective colonies in North America belonging to Spain and Great Britain thus touched as contiguous territories along the lower Mississippi for the very first time since the beginnings of European colonization in the New World.
This geographical reality would have profound implications for Spanish participation in the American Revolution. A Spanish governor based at New Orleans served as the civil and military commander of the colony, serving in that regard as the subordinate of the Captain-General of Cuba. Located at Havana, the Captain-General commanded all of Spain’s military forces throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, making him an important figure in Spain’s involvement in the American Revolution.
Both of these Spanish officials became aware of the governmental problems in British America during the late 1760s and early 1770s as controversy brewed between the English colonists on the Atlantic coast and the home government in London. The governor of Louisiana, Luis de Unzaga y Amezaga, routinely heard reports about events in America from his neighbors in West Florida.
He dutifully passed this news on to his superiors in Cuba and Spain, where the highest level of policy makers in the king’s inner circle of advisors considered this information. In addition, the Captain-General of Cuba regularly heard reports about the growing crisis in the British colonies from the maritime traffic in the region.
By 1770, these two officials had decided to create a secret intelligence network in the lower Mississippi valley, along the Gulf Coast, and in the Caribbean for the purpose of gathering news and information about the expanding crisis in the British colonies. They did so with the full approval of the Spanish court, where the king and his ministers were primarily concerned about the military defense of Spain’s colonies in the face of an open colonial war in British North America.
As part of this espionage network, the Captain-General routinely dispatched Cuban fishing boats to the South Atlantic coast in order to scout the sea-lanes and talk to the masters of ships sailing to and from ports in the British colonies. He also recruited two Spanish subjects who were living in British West Florida to provide regular intelligence about English naval and troop movements in the region. One of them, Father Pedro Camps, was a Roman Catholic Priest living at New Smyrna. While the other, Luciano Herrera, resided at St. Augustine.
Herrera, a Spanish merchant who continued to reside in East Florida after the British took it over, had many contacts among English officials and residents in the city. Both of these men proved to be fruitful sources for Spain about events in North American all during the course of the Revolution.
While the Captain-General was occupied with the sea lanes around East Florida, the governor of Louisiana continued to monitor events in West Florida while he routinely interviewed English ship captains passing New Orleans on the Mississippi about occurrences in the British colonies of the Atlantic coast. He also permitted Louisiana merchant vessels to call at Pensacola and Mobile under the guise of conducting illegal trade, with their true purpose to gather information of events in the British colonies.
In 1772, Governor Unzaga dispatched a confidential agent from Louisiana to New York and Philadelphia for the secret purpose of learning about recent events there. This person, Juan Surriret, was a prosperous merchant who had many commercial ties to mercantile houses in major ports of the Atlantic coast. Surriret employed these contacts as sources of information while he visited with them under the ruse of conducting private commerce. Returning en route to New Orleans from the east coast, he stopped at Pensacola, observing much British naval activity that proved useful to the Spanish. Surriret’s mission was a great success.
By the time of Lexington and Concord (April 1775), Spanish officials in North America and in Spain had become reasonably well-informed about the unrest in the British colonies. Governor Unzaga at New Orleans heard early reports of the outbreak of fighting in Massachusetts within weeks of the events while the Captain-General quickly confirmed these reports as both men continued to gather news about the revolt during the ensuing months and years.
By mid-1775, all of the information from the rebellious colonies had permitted the Spanish king and his ministers to craft a well-reasoned, official foreign policy and international response to the American Revolution. The Spanish would remain neutral in the ensuing conflict, and openly refused to engage in any action that might cause the British to turn their wrath against Spain or her new world colonies.
The king and his ministers did not believe that their military had been adequately prepared for war. They feared that the rebellious British colonies might well lose their revolt, thus freeing a mobilized English army and navy to attack Spain or her possessions, especially if Spain politically supported the rebel colonists. Neutrality would give Spain the opportunity to prepare her military for eventual participation, should the opportunity for open conflict with Great Britain later present itself.
At the same time, however, Spanish officials, including King Charles III, secretly wished for a rebel American victory, since such an occurrence would seriously damage the rival British Empire. For that reason, the Spanish decided to assist the rebels with all possible secrecy and confidentiality. The Spanish king’s resolve to follow this risky policy increased when he learned that France had also decided on a similar response to events in British North America.