Spanish Assistance During the American Revolution:

A Convergence of Interests

 

Phil Dove

University of North Florida

 

            Popular American perceptions of their War of Independence generally focus on images of the rebellious colonies fighting for political liberty and representation against a tyrannical and oppressive European monarchy.  The historiography of the period has focused on the ideological and social origins and impacts of the War.[1] Indeed, one of the most significant implications of the independence of Great Britain’s North American colonies has been the change in the ideological foundations of the political structure, in the United States and elsewhere, and in the social implications of these changes. 

            Much less discussion and focus has been on the American Revolutionary War in the context of the international situation, and how it was inextricably linked to the inter-play of the European power structure. The timing of the war, in the context of the contemporary international situation, played a significant role in its course and eventual outcome.  This was, in part, because of the critical assistance that the rebelling colonists received from major European monarchies. Most obvious is the direct involvement of French naval and land forces at the battle of Yorktown. Spain also played an important role in the United States War of Independence. Because its military never fought directly with the American Continental armed forces and its assistance was primarily covert, Spanish contributions are less often mentioned. However, Spanish material and economic assistance at critical junctures was significant in affecting the outcome. 

While lending significant material assistance to the North American rebels, the Spanish Crown did not enter the War on the side of the Colonists nor did they recognize the independence of the British colonies in North America until after the War’s outcome had been decided. This was very different from the other Bourbon monarchy, in France, which did both.   This paper will explore Spanish material and economic support to the rebel colonists during the American Revolution, and the motivations behind such support. What motivated the Spanish Crown to give such assistance but to withhold direct military and diplomatic support? As we will see, Spanish government policy was driven primarily by the potential of renewed threats by a former adversary, Great Britain, and by a desire to recover lost territory. However, the policy was limited by the potential precedent of colonial populations throwing off monarchial rule and the impact that may have among Spain’s own colonial territories.

At the same time, there were a number of individual residents of Spanish colonial territories who also contributed directly to the American cause and a similar question arises about what motivated this assistance. While taking similar action, it is not likely that each of these individuals had the same motivations and perspective as the Crown, and it may have been driven more by personal considerations and direct self-interest. The motivations of the individuals who contributed or loaned significant sums of money are more difficult to ascertain. Nevertheless, an examination of the actions and motivations of the Spanish Crown and government, and those of individual residents of Spanish colonial territories, gives an opportunity to examine the issue on multiple levels.

The reaction of the Spanish government to the discontent in Britain’s colonial empire must be placed in the context of international situation of the time. During the eighteenth century, an alliance had developed between Spain and France, culminating in the Family Compact of 1761—an agreement between the Bourbon monarchies of Spain and France. This alliance was fueled, in part, by both countries’ opposition to the growing power of Great Britain.  Only thirteen years before the United States declared its independence, the Seven Years War had ended with the Treaty of Paris. During the war, Great Britain had occupied Havana, seizing Cuba while raiding Spanish commercial shipping in the Caribbean, causing an estimated eleven million dollars in losses.[2] In the settlement ending the war, Spain lost control of Florida to the British, in return for the British evacuation of Cuba, and almost all the Spanish residents of Florida fled, the vast majority to Havana. Britain expanded its North American territories to the east bank of the Mississippi River and gained the right to navigate that waterway. Britain also gained the right to keep timber operations along the coasts of Spanish colonial holdings in Central and South America, and Spain was forced to agree to no longer interfere with the English settlements there. The Seven Years War saw a rollback of Spain’s colonial territory and power.  Spain and its allies no longer had complete control of the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. For Great Britain, the War had resulted in an expansion of its colonial empire at the expense of both Spain and France. However, the costs of the war, and the desire to share the burden of those costs with their American colonies, became a double-edged sword for Great Britain. To help pay its war expenses and the costs of maintaining a standing army in the colonies, the British government raised taxes on its North American colonies and tried to impose stricter controls on its commerce. Coming out of a war that eliminated much of the threat to their security, many colonial leaders could not see the need for increased taxes nor tighter controls from the government in London. Tensions over these issues rose until armed conflict between Great Britain and her American colonies seemed likely.

Support from the Spanish Crown and government to the colonial insurgents began at an early stage. In October, 1775, two Spanish ships sailing from Central America called at Charleston, SC and sold gunpowder and supplies to a local rebel leader. When the British government formally protested, one of the ships’ captains was put on trial, to maintain the appearance of neutrality, but was later acquitted.[3] In 1776, Captain Gibson of the Continental Army, who was under orders from General Charles Lee, appeared in Spanish New Orleans to meet with the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez. Gibson proposed that the rebelling colonists and the Spanish government work together against the British. In exchange for supplies, Gibson offered that the colonies were willing to help Spain recover the Floridas, either by direct colonial action and then turning over the territory to Spain, or by joint action with the Spanish against Pensacola. Although Gálvez did not issue a formal reply on behalf of his government, he did give one hundred quintals of gunpowder to Gibson to send north and immediately sought direction from the Spanish Minister of Indies in Havana, urging action to assist the rebels.[4]

Governor Gálvez was not stretching his authority or acting above the wishes of his government by giving supplies to Capt. Gibson. In May of that same year, unknown to Gálvez at the time, King Charles III (1759-1788) had given approval to a plan whereby the Spanish Crown and the government of France would finance a fictitious trading company, with seed money of one million livres each. The French company, Hortalez et Cie, would be a front for directing aid to the rebelling British colonies. Secretly run by Pierre A. C. de Beaumarchais, the author of The Barber of Seville, it initially funneled surplus French military supplies to the rebel colonists in North America. Thus, even before an American agent reached Europe, the governments of Spain and France had already put plans in motion to send aid. 

These early, somewhat ad hoc efforts to aid the rebellious British North American colonists came at an important time for the rebellion, when the Continental forces were just getting organized and an effective system of supply was not yet in place and developed. The Spanish government was aggressive in wanting to give material and economic assistance to the burgeoning rebellion, and soon began thinking of ways to do so in a more organized fashion.  The Spanish Foreign Minister, the Marqués de Grimaldi wrote to the Spanish Ambassador in Paris that Spain “was considering methods of furnishing direct assistance to the rebellious colonies”[5] and had begun to develop definitive plans to get aid to the American rebels. Within weeks of Grimaldi’s writing, a Royal Order, dated 24 December 1776, was sent to the Captain-General of Havana and Governor of Louisiana, directing them to supply the rebels with whatever guns and gunpowder that they could spare and, if necessary, to ship these supplies on available Spanish merchant ships.[6]

The policies and direction being formulated in Madrid were being carried out just as aggressively. By spring of the next year, lines of credit for the American rebels had been secured with several major European banking houses, backed by Spain, to the amount of 7.73 million livres.[7] Surplus resources from Spain’s other colonial holdings in the Americas were directed toward Havana and New Orleans, to, in turn, be made available to rebel forces. In line with Spanish government policy, the colonial administration went to lengths to keep the assistance covert. When the first shipment of supplies arrived, for example, local customs officials in New Orleans did not know about the royal order and, since the paperwork showed the Spanish government as the owner of the shipment, the cargo was sent to the government warehouse. In order to keep the government’s policy secret, the Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, declared the supplies a government surplus and, following normal policy, sold them at a public auction. The Governor then secretly gave money to a local merchant to buy the military supplies and have them forwarded to Continental officials.[8] Over the course of the war, it became much safer for shipments of supplies to be transported up the Mississippi River than by sea and the Spanish government increasingly used New Orleans as a staging point for aid shipments. 

Governor Gálvez also set up extensive intelligence networks along the Mississippi and worked closely with a local American merchant, Oliver Pollack, who became the representative of the Continental Congress to the Spanish administration in New Orleans. The lengths to which the Spanish government would go to assist the rebelling British colonials is exemplified in the close working relationship that Gálvez and Pollack developed. Throughout the war, the Continental Congress and Pollack continued to ask for direct aid and loans to buy military supplies. However, the repayment of those loans was not always timely. In another sign of the desire to aid the cause, Gálvez routinely modified repayment terms, even going so far as to allow Pollack to use his slaves to work on various public works projects as a means for paying back money the Spanish government had loaned.[9]

As the United States’ War for Independence progressed, material and financial aid from the Spanish government continued to expand. Supplies continued to be funneled to Havana and New Orleans for aiding the colonial rebels. The Spanish government worked through a trading company, Gardoqui and Sons of Bilbao, to send aid to the North American colonists from ports in Spain. After the jointly funded French trading company, Hortelez et Cie, was compromised as a potential front for aid to the rebellion, Gardoqui and Sons became one of the primary avenues for funneling aid and shipments of military supplies to North America. The Spanish Minister of the Indies also sent Juan de Miralles to Philadelphia as an observer at the seat of the Continental Congress. In addition to sending back information, he was given 31,000 pesos from government treasuries to promote trade between Philadelphia and Havana. In some cases, Miralles used this money to buy ships for American merchants, which were used to transport foodstuffs, the proceeds of which bought military supplies for the War.[10]  Spanish officials also relaxed Spain’s commercial policies, allowing unlimited importation of foodstuffs and made other significant changes that helped supply the British colonists with funds. Havana and New Orleans continued to be focal points for sending direct aid to, and facilitating trade with, the rebels, and coordinated assistance to the colonial forces fighting the British grew. Spain was anxious to recover lost territory and create a buffer between the British and its own colonial empire, which would secure ocean links between Spain and its holdings in the Americas. The Crown’s assistance to the British rebels was a part of this effort.

By contrast, support from the Spanish Crown was not nearly as clear-cut on the diplomatic front. Despite its sympathy and early aid to the rebelling British colonists, Spain was not ready to make its support public or formal. In February, 1777, responding to the U.S. representative sent to Spain, Arthur Lee, who was urging stronger Spanish support, Grimaldi replied, “You have considered your situation and not ours. The moment has not come for us.  The war with Portugal—France being unprepared, and our treasure ships from South America not being arrived makes it improper for us to declare immediately.”[11] Economic aid to the British colonists was part of an overall strategy, which had defined limits and goals. The Spanish government would not be pulled into the war between Great Britain and her colonies deeper than Spanish national-interest would dictate. Still reeling from defeat in the Seven Years War, Spain was very aware of the risk posed by Great Britain to its position and to trade in the Caribbean and the Americas. Grimaldi’s concern about the potential risk surrounding the arrival of the Spanish treasure ships, combined with actual experience in the Seven Years War of British interdiction of Spanish commerce in the Americas, show the caution which was forefront in any action by the Spanish government. 

When its ally, France, announced a treaty of alliance with the United States in March, 1778, Spain would still not be moved on the diplomatic front. Quite the contrary, the Spanish government and the Spanish Minister of State, the Conde de Floridablanca, saw this as a potential opportunity. Secret offers to Great Britain proposed that Spain use her alliance with France to mediate the dispute and seek an end to the war. In return for these services, the offer included a suggestion of compensation:  Great Britain would return Gibraltar, at the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea, to Spain.[12] At the same time, France was urging her ally and partner in the Family Compact to join the war and avenge their joint defeat at the hands of Great Britain in the Seven Years War. France had promised Spain the recovery of several former possession as the reward for helping win a war with Great Britain, including Gibraltar, Florida, the island of Minorca and, if possible, Jamaica.[13] After several months of having its attempts at mediation rebuffed by Great Britain, Spain joined its French ally in the war against Great Britain.  Significantly, however, Spain’s alliance was with France alone and Spain did not recognize the United States, although it continued to send aid. Though Spain’s armed forces did not fight with Continental forces, its entry into the war against a common enemy had a military significance for the War of Independence. Spain moved against British settlements along the Mississippi River and, under orders from Governor Gálvez, Spanish forces took several British outposts along the Mississippi and also took the British fort at Pensacola, in Florida. By tying up British forces in the south and west, and forcing the British fleet to defend a much larger area of the Western Hemisphere, Spain, as well as France, engaged forces that otherwise may have been used to put down the colonial rebellion. Similarly, Continental forces tied up British military units that otherwise may have been spent defending Pensacola or the outposts along the Mississippi.

The significant and early material and economic aid given to the rebelling British colonists by Spain, shows a strong level of commitment to the policy. That this aid lasted over several years, growing and broadening in its scope over time shows a consistency of purpose in the effort. Yet the aid to the American cause was limited to economic and material assistance, and any political or diplomatic support was very limited or non-existent. Why did the Spanish government take different approaches in these different spheres?

As a major colonial power in the Americas, Spain had no ideological ties to the United States nor did the Spanish Crown believe that the colonists had an inherent right to throw off the rule of a monarch. The potential precedent of American colonies throwing off the rule of a distant European monarchy was enough to keep Spain from joining the war on the side of the British colonists and from recognizing their independence. To ally with rebelling colonists would be to risk setting an example for their own American colonies. France, on the other hand, had lost much of her Caribbean and American territory in the Seven Years War and was not nearly the colonial power that it once was in the Americas. Thus, France’s actions were different because any considerations about the impact to other American colonies were different, since France no longer had extensive colonial possessions in the area.

Yet Spain did hope to recover its own lands that had been previously taken by Great Britain. Additionally, Spain hoped to provide a buffer between the territory of a strong rival, in Great Britain, and its own long supply lines to its colonial territories in the Americas. In the Seven Years War, Spain had seen Havana sacked and Cuba taken by the British. By taking this gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, Britain was able to easily prey on Spanish merchant shipping and treasure ships. Even though the final peace gave Cuba back to Spain, the occupation of Florida by the British still threatened the security of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. As a former resident of Spanish Florida, he may have held the sentiment more strongly than some, but Juan Joseph Eligio de la Puente likely expressed the view of many Spaniards in Cuba when he remarked in 1777, “I am certain…” that the English want the coasts of Florida “…not solely for defense against their enemies but for offense.”[14] The history of just over a decade previous showed that this was very possible.

By curbing the power of its rival, even if doing so meant covertly aiding a revolt among American colonies against a European monarchy, Charles III and the Spanish government hoped to put Spain in a position to make demands on an rival stretched thin, militarily and economically. Spain spent more than a year; from April, 1778 (a month after France joined the war on the side of the Americans) to the time that Spain joined the war on the side of France in May 1779, trying to regain some of its lost territory by offering itself as a mediator between Great Britain and France.[15] Evidence that its support for the colonial cause was driven by its own self-interest, including the re-occupation of lost possessions, is given by the fact that Spain’s mediation offer and initial peace plans did not include formal independence for the British colonies but simply a long-term truce.[16] If Spain was able to get Gibraltar without having to resort to war, then all other matters could be open for discussion. Only after Great Britain had repeatedly rebuffed Spain’s offer did Spain go to war to regain lost territory and to protect its colonial holdings. Even then, Spain went to war against the enemy of the rebellious colonists but did not go to war as their ally. Nor did Spain recognize their independence until after the war had been decided.

Spanish economic and material assistance to the emerging nation encompassed direct financial aid, loans, military supplies and trading privileges not afforded others outside the Spanish system, which, in turn, provided funds to purchase needed goods. The amounts of each of these forms of assistance were significant, and exceeded by no other country, with the possible exception of France. However, it was the rational pursuit of self-interest, not an ideological or philosophical sympathy, which drove the Spanish government to support rebelling British colonists. The interests of the Spanish Crown and the interests of the rebel British colonists aligned such that action against a common enemy anticipated a mutually beneficial outcome for both parties.

In addition to directing government resources from its American colonies, Spain made several efforts to raise money for the Continental forces among its own population. Appeals went out to its territories in North American southwest and west of the Mississippi, asking that each parish request a one-peso donation from each of their parishioners, for example.[17] Money raised in such ways was then directed to aid the cause of the rebel colonists. Most significantly, however, in the amount of the donations, as well as the timing, was the appeal to residents of Havana to help the Continental and French forces heading toward what would later be known as the Battle of Yorktown. The French Admiral, the Comte de Grasse, was to take his fleet to aid French and American forces that were heading south to oppose those of the British General Cornwallis. Both the French General, Rochambeau, and General George Washington of the Continental Army had appealed for money to pay their armies. Washington felt the need for money so urgently that he feared that without money to pay a month’s salary for his army, a large portion of the army would disappear and the army be immobilized.[18] Additionally, Admiral de Grasse urgently needed funds to bring supplies to be able to maintain the forces already in the field. His appeals to the residents of the French Caribbean islands did not bring the desired results. As a result, Admiral de Grasse then turned to the Spanish government for help but they, too, were short of funds in the government treasuries and the treasure ships from Mexico had not yet arrived at the time of de Grasse’s request. As a last resort, Francisco de Saavedra, whom King Charles had sent to coordinate Spanish activities in the Americas, appealed to the residents of Havana. In a very short time, the government was able to raise over four and a half million reales, most of which was given directly to de Grasse. In his memoirs, Saavedra lists the residents of Havana who donated or loaned money as a result of his appeal.[19] 

Though it was not uncommon for prominent citizens, especially those in government service, to use or make loans of personal funds for government expenses, a number of these individuals did not hold government offices, though no doubt they were among the elite in Cuba.  A similar question about motivations for helping the cause of rebellious British colonists appears to be worthy of examination. Initial assumptions were that these individuals likely were in a position to benefit personally from expelling the British from former Spanish-held territories, primarily in Florida. If they had held land in Florida, or hoped to obtain land grants after a British expulsion, they would likely be motivated to respond to an appeal on behalf of the rebels.  However, close examination of the records show that none of these individuals owned land in the area of St. Augustine, the capital of Spanish Florida and its main population center, prior to the British takeover.[20] Further, examination of records dating from the second Spanish period shows that none of these individuals held land in Florida for a long period after the Spanish regained control of Florida, if at all.[21] If a recovery of former lands, or the gaining of new lands, were not the reasons that generated the strong and rapid response to the appeal for funds in Havana, what could have prompted such a response to the request of the Spanish government?

Those responsible for the funds of military units loaned approximately one-fifth of the funds out of regimental coffers. Sherry Johnson has examined the increased presence of the Spanish military in Cuba and its effects on attitudes toward the Spanish government.[22] She argues that the strong military presence and the increased money flowing into Cuba for defense of the island had the effect of solidifying support for the Crown and the policies of the Spanish government. This is one possible portion of an explanation.

Some of the individuals were prominent merchants in Havana. The protection of Spanish trade routes, or possibly the potential for expansion of trade with the British North American colonies, could have played a role in making personal funds available to oppose the British. Of course, security concerns were likely at the fore[23]front of many considerations.  The Crown spent a good deal of money reinforcing the defenses of Cuba after the Seven Years War.  Many Havana residents had personal memories of the British attack on Havana and a latent anti-British feeling could very easily have provided a motivation to take an opportunity to help avenge past transgressions. Or, it could be that, on the individual level, some of these individuals sympathized with the ideological foundations of the Revolution.

Just as we examined the interests of the Spanish Crown and government, and how those interests aligned with those of the independence-minded British colonists, it would be valuable to do the same with these Cuban elites, at a more detailed level. Are the individual motivations aligned along the tenets of a budding Spanish nationalism in Cuba, more so than in other Spanish colonial territories, or are they more personal and only coincidentally working with the interests of the Spanish Crown and the British colonists in North America?

            Whatever the case individually, it is clear that the international circumstances linked the self-interest of the colonists with those of Spain. A common enemy, which was threatened on several fronts simultaneously, allowed both Spain and the United States to achieve many of their objectives, without ever having been formally allied. The resulting cooperation helped in the birth of a new nation.


 



[1] We see this in Bernard Bailyn’s The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967). Edward Countryman explored the social roots of the fundamental changes to the political structure that both drew from the Enlightenment and expanded upon it in his A People in Revolution: The American Revolution and Political Society in New York, 1760-1790 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981).

 

[Selected Annual Proceedings of the Florida Conference of Historians, Annual Meeting, 2004,}

©2005 by Florida Conference of Historian: 1076-4585

All Rights Reserved.

[2] James W. Cortada, Two Nations Over Time:  Spain and the United States, 1776-1977  (Westport: 

Greenwood Press, 1978), 4.

[3] Light Townsend Cummins, Spanish Observers and the American Revolution, 1775-1783  (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991), 30. 

[4] Ibid., 50.

[5] Grimaldi to Aranda, 9 December, 1776, reserved, no. 6, AGI, Santo Domingo, Leg. 2596, quoted in Cummins, Spanish Observers, 52.

[6] Letter from Madrid to Captain-General of Havana, 24 December, 1776; letter from Madrid to the Governor of Louisiana, 24 December, 1776, both in AGI, Santo Domingo, leg. 2596, quoted in Thomas E. Chavez, Spain and the Independence of the United States:  An Intrinsic Gift  (Albuquerque:  University of New Mexico Press, 2002), 49.

[7] Chavez, Spain and the Independence of the United States, 68.

[8] Cummins, Spanish Observers, 80.

[9] Chavez, Spain and the Independence of the United States, 108.

[10]  Kathryn Abbey, “Efforts of Spain to Maintain Sources of Information in the British Colonies Before 1779,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 15:1 (1928), 65.

[11] Lee to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, 6 October, 1777, quoted in Buchanon Parker Thomson, Spain, Forgotten Ally of the American Revolution  (North Quincy, MA:  Christopher Press, 1976), 51-52.

[12] Letter from Floridablanca to Amb to London, quoted in Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967), 79.

[13] Francisco Morales Padron, ed. and Introduction, and Aileen Moore Topping, trans., Journal of Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangonis During the Commission, which he had in his charge from 25 June 1780 until the 20th of the same month of 1783 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1989), 7.

[14] Chavez, Spain and the Independence of the United States, 23.

[15] Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Diplomacy of the American Revolution  (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1967),

    78

[16]Ibid., 172.

[17]Enrique Fernandez y Fernandez, Spain’s Contribution to the Independence of the United States (Washington,

   D.C.: Embassy of  Spain, 1985), 10.

 

[18]James A. Lewis, “Las Damas de la Havana, El Precursor and Francisco de Saavedra:  A Note on Spanish Participation in the Battle of Yorktown,” The Americas 37 (1980), 97.

[19] Morales Padron and Topping, Journal, Appendix A.

[20]Júan Joseph Eligio de la Puente and Albert C. Manucy, trans., “Key to the Map of San Augustin de Florida, January 22, 1764,” Puente folio, St Augustine Historical Society Library, St. Augustine, Florida.

[21] Florida Historical Records Survey. Spanish land grants in Florida; briefed translations from the archives of the Boards of commissioners for ascertaining claims and titles to land in the territory of Florida. (Tallahassee: State Library Board, 1940-1941).

[22]Sherry Johnson, The Social Transformation of Eighteenth Century Cuba (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2001).