According to Andrew Jackson O’ Shaughnessy, the San Juan Expedition was among “the most ambitious enterprises of the American Revolutionary War.” In 1779, after Spain’s formal entry into the war, the British aimed at striking Spanish interests in Central America. They would invade by first securing control of the San Juan River in present-day Nicaragua. Their operation sought to protect against attack the most popular overland route through Central America to the Pacific Ocean. The San Juan River was conveniently situated in the middle of New Spain, the Spanish Empire in the Americas. The British plan, if successful, would split the Spanish Empire in two. The construction of forts along this route would be used to invade surrounding territory and plunder the wealth of the Spanish empire. British invasions into Central and South America would eventually, Whitehall hoped, put pressure on Spain to make peace and exit the war.
The conflict in the Caribbean produced an entirely different war than the American Revolution’s northern and southern theaters and the conflict west of the Appalachian Mountains, albeit one that is still part of the overall American War for Independence. Fighting in the West Indies was not between dissatisfied, rebellious provincials pitted against their former King and country. The revolution in the West Indies was fought between empires. And yet there is far less literature about the conflict in the West Indies compared to other aspects of the American Revolution, and the San Juan Expedition is barely mentioned.
In Whitehall, the British secretary at war, Lord George Germain, was aware of the strengths of Britain’s enemies in the Americas. Spain was weaker than France. The San Juan River campaign would, ideally, force Spain out of the fight. Germain wanted to take New Orleans, but after learning of Don Bernardo de Galvez’s preparations and his amassment of troops and supplies aimed at capturing British West Florida, Germain realized that Central America proved to be a promising opportunity to surprise Spain by attacking a region that did not boast a heavy concentration of troops bent on invasion.
The plan of invading Spain’s possessions in Central America was hatched by Maj. Gen. John Dalling. A veteran of the French and Indian War, Dalling was governor of Jamaica from 1777 through 1782. Dalling fancied ideas of conquering Honduras after a successful plundering of Spanish-controlled Omoa situated in the Bay of Honduras in October 1779. The treasure captured from the Spanish garrison was valued at over two million dollars. His interest piqued, Dalling leafed through Thomas Jeffrey’s West-India Atlas, published in 1775, which contributed even more to his already whetted appetite. Among its contents, Jeffrey’s atlas outlined the riches of New Spain: “the Spanish mines [in the Americas] have sent into the metropolis, from 1492 to 1740, that is, in the space of 248 years, more than nine millions of millions of piastres . . . We ought to add to these riches those which are not registered, in order to avoid paying the duty, and which may amount to be a fourth more.” In addition to astounding gold and silver reserves, Spanish America boasted a wealth of valuable trade goods such as cochineal, indigo, logwood, cacao, and sugar. Dalling’s decision to invade New Spain was no doubt influenced by the wondrous riches described in his personal copy of West-India Atlas.
Reports from Maj. James Lawrie, superintendent of British settlers on the Mosquito Shore, assured Dalling that he could raise thousands of volunteers, including Blacks and Indians, in addition to furnishing plenty of small boats for an expedition up the San Juan River. Encouraged by Lawrie’s reports, Dalling arrogantly wrote to London claiming that if he was given a force of “no great extent,” he would be answerable to give the entire Dominion of Spain in the Americas to the home government. Dalling truly believed that with a force of fifteen hundred troops supplemented by Indian and volunteer forces, he could conquer Central America. The plan was simple: a force would ascend the San Juan River and capture El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción, a fort located near the mouth of Lake Nicaragua. After that, one or more vessels patrolling Lake Nicaragua coupled with the capture of the city of Granada on the north end of the lake would grant Britain control of the entire region. Garrisoned outposts could receive supplies from the San Juan, Bluefields, and Matina rivers. From Lake Nicaragua, an invasion force would secure the towns of Leon and Relaejo on the western coast of the isthmus before the establishment of a naval squadron would grant Britain access to the Pacific Ocean. With New Spain cut in two, the British would utilize the western squadron to plunder New Spain’s west coast possessions. Simultaneously, British agents would destabilize Spanish colonies by fomenting rebellion among the local populace before invading with ground troops. The result would provide Britain access to the resources of Central and South America which would then be open to exploitation and British trade.
Back in Whitehall, Germain was initially apprehensive of supporting Dalling’s plan, but after some deliberation he changed his mind and in January 1780 he informed Dalling that he not only supported the venture but was also sending 3,000 additional soldiers to defend Jamaica and partake in the expedition. Eager to get on with the campaign, Dalling did not wait for Germain’s reinforcements.
As early as 1779, Dalling sent a small expeditionary force to “capture control of the San Juan River.” On November 19, Major Lawrie wrote to Dalling from Black River on the Mosquito Shore requesting arms and ammunition for not only the defense of the shore but also to use as presents for local Indian tribes who conducted open negotiations with the Spanish. Presents would help prevent and deter Native friendship with the Spaniards and entice the locals to join British efforts. Lawrie also informed Dalling of his attempts at recruiting volunteers consisting of Mosquito men, Indians, and “Trusty Negroes.”
Dalling, in preparation for an expedition up the San Juan River, placed Capt. John Polson of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment in command. Polson was instructed to bring with him ship-carpenters with materials needed to assemble a vessel on Lake Nicaragua for the purposes of “securing command of the Lake.” The vessel went with the expedition, in pieces, to be assembled on site. Horatio Nelson was placed in charge of the naval force that escorted the expedition’s troop transports. Nelson’s orders were to safely deliver the expedition ships to the Mosquito Shore and the mouth of the San Juan River, then to protect the expedition’s back and maintain secure supply lines. To recruit more men, Dalling, in 1779, published a proclamation by the English king calling on Jamaica volunteers. Anyone who signed up would “easily Acquire Riches and Honor, and be of Essential Service to their Country.” They would be outfitted, formed into companies, paid the same wages as soldiers, receive rations, and divide plunder equally.
The expedition set out to sea at six in the morning on February 3, 1780. Several transports, approximately six vessels, set out from Jamaica carrying 300 to 400 regulars from the 60th and 79th regiments, the Loyal Irish Corps, sixty sailors, roughly two hundred Jamaican volunteers, sixty to seventy Irish, and a mix of foreigners, Blacks, and Indians. Provided with six months worth of provisions, the force first landed on the British-held island of Providence off the coast of Nicaragua before sailing on for Cape Gracias a Dios on the Honduran coast. The expedition planned on meeting up with Lawrie at the cape, who promised to provide the campaign with significant local support, pick up his force of volunteers, and sail south along the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula before making for the mouth of the San Juan River and proceeding inland.
On February 14, the expedition arrived at Cape Gracias a Dios—and Lawrie was nowhere to be found. Instead, a lone officer offered news that Lawrie was still recruiting somewhere on the Black River. This setback, while minor, was the first of many difficulties to come. Unwilling to proceed without Lawrie and his “considerable force,” the expedition set up camp on the marshy wetlands known as Wank’s Savannah. While there, they reached out to local Indian groups bearing presents in an attempt to enlist their manpower. The vessel that was brought in pieces was assembled and called the Lord Germain. On February 22, Lawrie finally arrived with 200 or so men, in poor health, and thirteen Black River craft. This was hardly the promised “sizeable” force, and the expedition lingered at Wank’s Savannah for another week before setting sail for San Juan on March 7. Between March 7 and 24, local Indians were recruited along the Yucatan coast.
On March 24, the fleet arrived at the mouth of the San Juan River to a shanty village called Greytown. A base was immediately set up on shore while men and cargo were unloaded from the ships. The boats ferrying soldiers and supplies to the shore were overloaded and many capsized. Badly needed supplies were lost and one man drowned. Eventually, the British had set up a defensible base at Greytown and, in no time, preparations were made to advance up the San Juan. Polson, accompanied by Horatio Nelson, split his forces in two. The advance force was composed of disciplined regulars while the second force followed behind. Prior to setting out, a letter from Dalling in Jamaica dated March 17 informed Polson that reinforcements of 300 regulars and 300 volunteers were on their way from Kingston under the command of forty-six-year-old Lt. Col. Stephen Kemble of the 60th Regiment. According to the letter, Kemble would assume command of the expedition.
The following morning Polson advanced up the half-mile wide river. Initially the forward party advanced only six miles a day; shallow water grounded boats, causing crippling delays. Mosquitos, heat, and humidity tortured the expedition members as they waded deeper and deeper into the unforgiving jungle. Eventually, the advance force reached an outpost manned by fifteen to eighteen Spanish regulars and guarded by anywhere from four to nine or even ten swivel guns. The outpost was called “Platalorma,” and was situated on Bartola Island in the middle of the river. Careful not to raise an alarm, the British encircled the outpost. Nelson led a naval assault while ground forces under the command of Lt. James Mounsey of the 79th Regiment attacked by land, blocking a Spanish retreat through the jungle.
On April 9, the British advance force descended upon the outpost. In no time, the Spanish were defeated. Prisoners were taken. Only one Spaniard escaped. One British soldier was injured when a snake fell from a branch and bit him in the eye. He died shortly after his eye dissolved, his body swelled up, and his skin turned a deep yellow. Following its capture, the outpost was converted to a British base. According to Spanish prisoners, they were only five miles from El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepcion. The castle was spotted by a British scouting party on April 10.
El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción proved to be a formidable obstacle for the British. Situated on a hill, its walls were four feet thick and fourteen feet high. Bastions rested on each corner of the castle and the Spanish flag flew above a fifty-foot keep. A ditch enclosed it. Timber was cleared around its perimeter providing a field of vision for defenders. It was commanded by Don Juan de Ayssa and garrisoned by a force of twenty cannons, twelve swivels, a mortar, and 149 armed defenders (half of which were regulars and the rest a collection of unprofessional fighters). In order to proceed up the San Juan River, the British needed to take control of this fortress. Unfortunately for them, de Ayssa had been notified of their advance from the Spaniard who escaped the assault on Platalorma. The Spanish were ready. In preparation for a siege, de Ayssa hoarded freshwater, stockpiled food, brought in cattle from the fields, and sent two messengers, accompanied by his wife, away to Granada to get help.
On April 11, British troops made camp along a bend in the river, hidden from view a few miles below the fort. Four 4-pounders accompanied them. Late at night on April 12, cannon were placed on a ridge overlooking the fort. On the morning of April 13, British bombardment of the castle began, commencing the siege which lasted much longer than the British had expected or wanted. Despite their superior numbers, they did not easily conquer the Spanish castle. Throughout the entire siege, ammunition for the artillery was constantly in short supply. Boats bearing supplies and ammunition capsized in the river, losing much-needed provisions. Sometimes British resupply ships would go up the wrong river and fail to deliver their cargo on time. At one point a Spanish sally, armed with machetes, engaged in fierce hand-to-hand combat against British bayonets.
Ever since the siege started, rain poured down on the attackers almost every day. Tempests were a common occurrence in the region. The British camp became muddy and miserable. Soldiers fell ill from malaria, dysentery, and typhoid fever. In an attempt to bring down the wall, a mine was dug at the foot of the hill. It was for naught; after seventeen yards they hit rock and the mine was abandoned. Eventually, after sixteen days, the castle surrendered. The Spaniards had run out of water, ammunition, and space to put their wounded.
On May 15, Colonel Kemble arrived at El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción and took command of the surviving British forces. He brought reinforcements with him, intending to proceed up the river to secure the mouth of Lake Nicaragua. Kemble immediately noticed the poor state of the expedition. Everything in disorder, the soldiers weak and no relief for men standing guard. The Indians deserted, angry for not being allowed to plunder the castle and take slaves. Without the assistance of local Indians, the British were further weakened despite the arrival of Kemble’s reinforcements. Sickness plagued the men, tents failed to keep out water, and supplies were constantly in want. Some of the more unfortunate men went without blankets, shoes, or stockings. Heavy rains continued to pour down, and supplies sent from the San Juan River Harbor were regularly late, lost, or destroyed from rain or eaten by worms. Survivors were forced to eat bananas and monkeys. The men were convalescent and, as a result, progress in all departments was slow, if they progressed at all. Despite these setbacks, Kemble had to surge on.
On Friday, July 7, 250 soldiers finally advanced up the river after delays by heavy rain. On July 8, Kemble made his way up the river to join the advance party, leaving behind Sir Alexander Leigh in command of the castle. Progress up the river was slow. Boats were regularly grounded, violent rain prevented the expedition from lighting fires at night, soldiers were left without tents, and supplies were always badly needed. A corporal drowned attempting to deliver supplies upriver. All of this contributed to the general fatigue of the force. Eventually, the expedition arrived at the mouth of Lake Nicaragua where the Spaniards, anticipating the British invasion, had fortified the lake entrance. According to a report issued by Edward Marcus Despard, a fort called Fort St. Carlos offered views of the lake and river and was capable of containing 200 to 300 men; two armed vessels, a sloop and a schooner, protected the lake’s entrance. During his reconnoitering, Despard was discovered by the Spanish who raised an alarm. This, coupled with the fatigue of his troops, poor supplies, and general sickliness of the men forced Kemble to turn back and avoid any assault on the mouth of the lake. Kemble concluded he was not prepared well enough for an assault, especially an extended one, on a fortified Spanish position. Instead of realizing his ambitions in capturing control of Lake Nicaragua, Kemble withdrew back down the river to the castle.
Kemble still sought to take Fort St. Carlos, but found himself busy managing the affairs of the campaign with no moves made to assault the mouth of the river. In the meantime, he gathered intelligence of the Spanish and even entertained alternative invasion routes other than the San Juan River from which an expedition, ideally, could launch an assault upon the Spanish country. In August, Francisco Yore, a Spanish Negro, brought information that the fort boasted twelve cannon, an abatis around its exterior, 50 regular soldiers, and 15 artillerymen with more reinforcements expected daily; the vessels on the lake each boasted two cannons and swivel guns; the sloop was maintained by 30 men and the schooner 50; two more vessels were being assembled on-site. (In reality, the Spaniards boasted a 500-troop garrison at the fort which was defended by double walls.) The intelligence continued to arrive, but no feasible alternative routes were discovered. Back in Jamaica, Dalling’s commitment to the expedition waned. Ever promising fresh reinforcements, of which none ever came, British leadership became anxious at rumors of a pending attack on Jamaica (a direct result of gains made in North America against Crown forces). Orders to prepare to withdraw were given to Kemble on August, 1780.
On November 24, Kemble received a letter from Dalling ordering him to blow up and abandon El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción. The fort was abandoned by the end of the year and the Spanish regained control of what remained in early January, 1781 with a force of 150 men under the command of Capt.Thomas de Julia. Between November and late January, the British made preparations to evacuate Central America. Kemble arrived at Port Royal, Jamaica, on Tuesday, February 27, 1781. By April 1781 the Spanish had pushed all British forces to the mouth of the San Juan River, effectively ending the British threat up the river.
In all, Britain lost roughly 2,500 men in its San Juan campaign. Of an estimated 1,800 soldiers dispatched on the campaign, only 380 returned. In addition, 1,000 sailors who accompanied the expedition lost their lives. The campaign not only ended in failure, it was a complete disaster. It was poorly supplied, lacked sufficient manpower, and failed to consider the impact the tropical environment would have on expedition members. Had British leaders such as Governor Dalling acquainted themselves with the British attempt at capturing Cartagena de Indias in 1741 during the War of Jenkins Ear, they would have been better informed and armed with the knowledge of the effects tropical disease and tempests would have on an invasion force. Careful preparation coupled with more manpower would have produced a much different result in Nicaragua in 1780.
In Whitehall, Germain groaned at the expedition’s failure, especially considering how it diverted much-needed men and supplies from the war effort on the North American mainland. Had the campaign been successful, it would have produced dramatic results. If Spain wanted to keep its possessions in the Americas, the Spanish crown would have had to divert resources from aiding the American revolutionaries and instead focus on fighting British invasion forces in Central and South America, possibly aided by disgruntled Indians, throughout the North American Southwest, Central America, and South America. Britain, if they ended up losing the war in North America, would have gained territory in Latin America rich in natural resources that they could colonize with loyalist refugees. Indeed, Dalling had planned on using loyalists to settle the lands conquered by Britain in the territories acquired from New Spain. He even sent a young officer to New York to encourage poor people to settle Nicaragua. In an ideal situation, a successful British invasion up the San Juan River could have prevented the Spanish capture of Pensacola in 1781, by diverting Spanish attention away from British West Florida. Assuming a successful British defense of West Florida, Britain could then use the province as a bargaining chip in peace negotiations.
As Thomas Chavez points out, the Central American theater of the American Revolution was significant not only for the mere fact that both sides, Spain and Britain, had committed large amounts of troops in the fighting; if the region was not important, “both sides . . . would have quit the area. Instead, after defeats, each side regrouped to counterattack or to take the offensive.” The Union Jack almost dominated Latin America and the American Southwest during the 1780s, but the British Nicaragua campaign was a failure, and with that failure British ambitions in the region never produced an alternate historical narrative.
Ibid., 179. Terry Coleman, The Nelson Touch: The Life and Legend of Horatio Nelson (London: Oxford University Press, 2002), 28. During this time, unrest within the dominions of New Spain arose from dissatisfied subjects in Popayan, Nuevo Reyno, and Peru .Robert Southey, The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1906), 15.
For further reading on the San Juan Expedition see: O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 178-185; Coleman, The Nelson Touch, 28-35; Southey, The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson, 15-20; John Sugden, Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758-1797 (New York: Holt, 2004), 150-175; Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson (New York: Basic Books, 2007), 55-59, 61; David F. Marley, Wars of the Americas: A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the New World, 1492 to Present (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1998), 325-326; Thomas E. Chavez, Spain and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 150-157; David R. Radell, “Exploration and Commerce on Lake Nicaragua and the Rio San Juan – 1524-1800,” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 12, no. 1 (January 1970): 123-125.
Thomas Jeffreys, The West-India Atlas(London, 1775), 7, www.loc.gov/resource/g4900m.gar00006/?sp=1. Cochineal was used for making the colors purple and scarlet
British settlers occupied the coast of the Bay of Honduras, later known as the coast of Nicaragua, since the late seventeenth century. They established a logging trade, exporting logwood and mahogany. Informal logging communities stretched along the coast at Black River, Rattan (Roatoan), St. George’s Key, and Cape Gracias a Dios. These settlers were not recognized by Spain. They were considered squatters and Spain attempted to discourage their presence through military force. Despite Spain’s hostility, these communities “thrived and became informal colonies complete with a local superintendent general who reported to the governor of Jamaica.” O’Shaughnessy, The Men Who Lost America, 181.
John Dalling Report, February 4, 1780, The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies, www.royalprovincial.com/history/battles/jamalet1.shtml.
James Lawrie to John Dalling, November 19, 1779, The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies, www.royalprovincial.com/history/battles/moslet1.shtml.
Sugden, Nelson, 154-155. The British were confident in enlisting Native support. The Spaniards had a history in the region of enslaving locals. This knowledge helped guide British expectations for amassing a large body of local support in Nicaragua.
Sugden, Nelson, 155-158. For further reading on local assistance to the British expedition see Matthew P. Dziennik, “Miskitu, Military Labour, and the San Juan Expedition Of 1780,” The Historical Journal 61 no. 1 (March 2018): 155-179. The soldiers who arrived with Lawrie had fevers and dysentery. In total, Lawrie recruited 12 whites, 60 African American slaves, and 220 Mosquito Men. His results did not match the expectations of substantial local support counted on by British leadership.
Sugden, Nelson, 158-160. Nelson refused to remain behind at camp and face boredom. Instead, he decided to leave the boats and head up river with Polson and his ground forces. Polson needed the help and Nelson offered to command the vessels heading up the river.
Sugden, Nelson, 165-167. Cannonfire had to stop on multiple occasions because they ran out of ammunition. More ammunition would arrive by boat, but sometimes they did not bring enough for any long-term cannonading of the castle.
Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, The Journal of Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, 1780-1783, ed. Francisco Morales Padron, trans. Aileen Moore Topping (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989), 40. Messengers from El Castillo de la Immaculada Concepcion warned Spanish officials in Granada who moved to fortify the mouth of the river.
John Dalling, John Dalling Report, May 21, 1780, from The On-Line Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies, transcribed by Todd Braisted, www.royalprovincial.com/history/battles/jamalet2.shtml.