When Cuba flew the Union Jack

As British visitors flock to Havana, James Ferguson recalls an earlier invasion – by the Royal Navy

Illustration by Shalini Seereeram

It’s hard to avoid the British in Cuba these days. As tourism booms, hundreds of thousands of Brits are descending on the island each year in search of beautiful beaches, a vibrant culture and even a little bit of revolutionary nostalgia. In the wake of the Arab Spring, tourists have abandoned Egypt and Tunisia for the safer shores of the Caribbean’s largest nation.

What appeals in large part is Cuba’s exotic allure, its colonial-era buildings, its different language, its almost tangible sense of history. Visitors marvel at the perfectly preserved colonial city of Trinidad and at the ancient cathedral and cobbled streets of Old Havana, evocative of the country’s Spanish past. Spain, though ejected as the colonial power by the Americans in 1898, has left an indelible mark and it is not too difficult to visualise the imperial age when Madrid was master.

What is perhaps rather harder to imagine is that Britain once called the tune in Cuba and that the Union Jack flew over Havana.

We know that Britain once ruled most of the Caribbean, its colonies in Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados and the smaller islands of the Windwards and Leewards leaving the French and Dutch far behind in the imperial version of Monopoly. We know too that these colonial possessions changed hands at a frequent rate as wars in Europe and the Americas ebbed and flowed. And it was a result of one of these wars that 250 years ago, between March and August 1762, the British besieged and occupied Havana.

The war in question was one of those so complicated that even at the time, its protagonists may well have forgotten what it was about in the first place. But in essence the Seven Years’ War was an extended tussle between Britain and France, along with France’s ally, Spain, over colonial and trading pre-eminence. The war spread rapidly from 1756, reaching the Americas, Africa, the Philippines and India. At the end of it a large amount of colonial territory changed hands.

For British strategists, the Spanish colony of Cuba, and in particular its capital Havana, were tempting targets, especially as the Royal Navy was the pre-eminent military force in the Caribbean. With its large, sheltered harbour, the port city was an ideal base from which to export sugar – then the biggest business in the colonial Caribbean – and inland lay the huge plantations that covered the island’s fertile plains.

The Spanish were understandably wary of British ambition, and from 1761 had been strengthening Havana’s defences and adding to its garrison. The massive Morro castle, with 64 cannon, was the lynchpin of the Havana fortifications, standing at the mouth of the harbour. (Today you can visit a much-restored Morro, with great views of sea and city.) But even this imposing hulk might have appeared puny when the long-awaited British force of 45 warships and 30,000 men appeared on the horizon on June 6, 1762. This mini-armada, commanded by the Earl of Albemarle, had set off from Britain in March and had added ships and personnel as it called in at Barbados and Jamaica.

As expected, the Morro castle stood dauntingly in the way of the British, who proceeded to lay siege to it. The Spanish and local defenders, meanwhile, had largely withdrawn into the fortification, having blocked the harbour mouth by sinking three ships. They hoped that yellow fever – the great killer of the period – would eventually take its toll on the British. With this in mind, the attackers had no choice but to land troops to the north of the Morro and prepare an assault on the redoubt. And to make things worse, as they approached from the land they realised that the fortress was surrounded by a deep ditch and was built to withstand intense cannon fire.

What ensued was a long and bloody war of attrition as the British pummelled the Morro with cannon and mortars, while the Spanish replied with their own guns. As the defenders’ casualties mounted, they replaced the dead and wounded with fresh troops from Havana itself, which remained tantalisingly out of reach of Albemarle’s forces. The British plan was to lay mines close to the castle and then storm a gap in the wall, but resilient defending made this impossible.

On June 30, the British finally succeeded in detonating a large mine. As debris slid into the ditch it enabled advance troops to gain a foothold inside the castle. In hand-to-hand fighting the Spanish commander was mortally wounded, and soon afterwards the Morro was finally in British hands. From this vantage point, the invaders could now train their artillery on the city, and 47 guns duly opened fire on Havana. After three days of negotiations, the cannon finally fell silent as the governor reluctantly surrendered and British troops entered a cowed and demoralised city.

The British occupation of Cuba came at a high cost – almost 8,000 dead in action or from illness (no figures for Spanish/Cuban casualties exist) – but the rewards were also considerable: many Spanish ships and their contents and nearly three million pesos of booty. More importantly, the British quickly set about modernising their new colony with roads and mechanisation and opening it up to free trade. According to Hugh Thomas, “The British victory was the signal for an immediate descent on the island by merchants of all sorts from all parts of the British Empire – sellers of grain, horses, cloth and woollen goods, ironware and minor industrial equipment, sugar equipment and slaves.”

Business boomed, freed from the restrictive practices of the Spanish Crown, and this business included the arrival in one year of 4,000 slaves from Africa. The local landowners, who had previously resented Madrid’s monopoly on trade, were delighted. Their sugar exports increased dramatically, as did their wealth. British traders and Cuban/Spanish sugar barons alike had hit the jackpot.

The bonanza was short-lived, however. Britain returned Cuba to Spanish rule in the 1763 Treaty of Paris, receiving Florida in return. Spanish soldiers and bureaucrats returned to Havana, but by now the genie had been released from the bottle. Cuba would never again be exploited as mercilessly by Spain, and its planter elite had discovered that its future lay in free trade – and slavery. The British invasion and occupation, though brief and largely forgotten, had set Cuba on its course towards being the most profitable colonial enterprise of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.