What was the Battle of La Guaira (1743)?

Introduction

The Battle of La Guaira or La Guayra, took place on 02 March 1743 in the Caribbean, off the coast of La Guaira, present day Venezuela. La Guaira was a port of the Royal Gipuzkoan Company of Caracas, whose ships had rendered great assistance to the Spanish navy during War of Jenkins’ Ear in carrying troops, arms, stores and ammunition from Spain to her colonies, and its destruction would be a severe blow both to the Company and the Spanish Government.

A British expeditionary fleet under Sir Charles Knowles was defeated, and the expedition ended in failure. 600 men were killed, among whom was the captain of HMS Burford, and many of the ships were badly damaged or lost. Knowles was therefore unable to proceed to Puerto Cabello until he had refitted.

Background

The British Admiralty had decided to prosecute the Ear Jenkins war against the Spanish settlements, though on a different scale from that of the great expeditions of 1741 and 1742.

Sir Chaloner Ogle, who had replaced Admiral Edward Vernon after the defeat at the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741, prepared an invasion of another important commercial port on the Spanish Main. Believing La Guaira to be not well defended, Sir Chaloner Ogle wanted to take advantage and attack. On 22 February 1743, Sir Charles Knowles sailed from the island of Antigua with 19 ships:

  • HMS Suffolk 70-gun third rate.
  • HMS Burford 70-gun third rate.
  • HMS Norwich 50-gun fourth rate.
  • HMS Advice 50-gun fourth rate.
  • HMS Assistance 50-gun fourth rate.
  • HMS Eltham 40-gun fifth rate.
  • HMS Scarborough 24-gun sixth rate.
  • HMS Lively 20-gun sixth rate.
  • HMS Otter 14-gun sloop.
  • HMS Comet 8-gun bomb vessel (flagship).
  • Two transport ships with 400 militia under Colonel Dalzell.
  • Seven other ships.

Knowles underestimated the defences of La Guaira, believing it to be less well defended than Cartagena de Indias had been. He arrived at La Tortuga island on 27 February. It is said that the Spaniards had two months warning of the attack recruited extra defenders and obtained gunpowder from the Dutch. Whether this be true or not cannot definitely be stated.

The Battle

At first light of the day, Knowles’ squadron was 15 miles (24 km) east of the port of La Guaira and Otter was sent ahead to reconnoitre the inner harbour. Spanish lookouts lit signal fires at 6:30 am, alerting the people at both La Guaira and Caracas and bringing Governor Gabriel de Zuloaga 25 miles (40 km) down to the coast with a large body of militia that had been recruited from Colonel Dalzell’s regiment in the West Indies. The commander of the Spanish garrison Mateo Gual and Captain José Iturriaga prepared for an impending assault supplied with gunpowder by the Dutchs. About midday HMS Burford stood into the roadstead, followed by HMS Eltham, Norwich, Suffolk, Advice and Assistance.

Despite the hail of rounds from six batteries the English man-of-war anchored in a double line by 1:00 pm and began a furious exchange. The Spanish counterfire proved unexpectedly heavy and accurate and this combined with a heavy swell prevented any British disembarkation. The Spanish had been forewarned of Knowles’s intentions to capture La Guaira.

After three and a half hours, Burford cut the anchor cable and moved out of range; the frigate Eltham had also been damaged. Both accidentally ran afoul of Norwich, and all three ships left the action, reducing Knowles’s overall effort.

Shooting ceased at sundown, around 8:00 pm, with the battered HMS Burford seeking shelter to leeward, escorted by HMS Norwich, Otter, and Assistance which could not anchor. The English resumed a rather desultorily bombardment at dawn the following day with the bomb vessel Comet. De Zuloaga was obliged to return to Caracas his capital on 04 March to reassure an uneasy populace that the enemy had not come ashore. At 3:00 am on 05 March Knowles sent boat parties into La Guaira’s roadstead, they boarded a French merchantman before being discovered and driven off.

Aftermath and Legacy

Having suffered 97 killed and 308 wounded over three days, Knowles decided to retire to west before sunrise on 6 March and attack nearby Puerto Cabello. Despite instructing his captains to rendezvous at Borburata Keys – 4 miles (6.4 km) east of Puerto Cabello – the detached Burford, Norwich, Assistance, and Otter proceeded to Curaçao, compelling the commodore to angrily follow them in.

On 28 March he sent his smaller ships to cruise off Puerto Cabello, and once his main body had been refitted, went to sea again on 31 March, only to then struggle against contrary winds and currents for two weeks before finally diverting to the eastern tip of Santo Domingo by 19 April.

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