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Battle of Santa Cruz 1657

Blake's St George at Santa Cruz
Blake's St George at Santa Cruz

At Santa Cruz in the Canary Islands in April 1657, General-at-Sea Robert Blake won the most devastating victory over the Spanish since the Armada of 1588 . Sixteen Spanish ships were destroyed at a cost of only 200 British casualties and Spain's finances were left in ruins forcing her to shelve plans for the reconquest of Portugal.

Britain and Spain had been at war since 1654. Oliver Cromwell aimed to capture Spanish colonies in the West Indies. A key part of Cromwell's plan was to seize the heavily guarded Spanish silver bullion fleet, the flota, which sailed every year from the Americas across the Atlantic. Not only would this cripple the Spanish war effort, but also stabilise the finances of Cromwell's republican regime.

Blake's fleet was deployed off the coast of Spain in the spring of 1656 and for much of the next year he was frustrated as the Spanish simply refused to give battle. The only success was the capture of two ships by Sir Richard Stayner, Blake's second-in-command. Blake responded to the Spanish inactivity by instituting a blockade of the Spanish coast during the winter of 1656-57. At the time it was a most unusual tactic, although it set a precedent for the close blockades of French and Spanish ports conducted until the end of the Napoleonic era.

Since the ships of the 1657 flota could not enter the main Spanish port of Cadiz, because of Blake's fleet, they were ordered to the Canary Islands to await an opportune time to complete the voyage. However, Blake soon learned of their presence and arrived off the island of Tenerife on 18 April. Despite serious differences between Blake and his Captains over the plan of attack, it was agreed that twelve ships under Stayner's command should move inshore to engage the flota whilst Blake's force remained further out to sea.

Blake's forces faced a formidable task. An extensive network of gun batteries covered the Spanish ships and the larger vessels were deployed in an outer line to fire broadsides at the English vessels as they approached. The variable direction of the wind was also an uncertain factor. Nevertheless, Stayner's ships managed to enter the harbour and position themselves between the two rows of Spanish ships with little loss. The Spanish made a serious error by placing their inner line of ships between the batteries and the advancing English. Resistance from the smaller vessels near the shore was swiftly eliminated and Blake arrived with the remainder of the fleet to take on the seven larger galleons. All the Spanish ships were soon destroyed or captured and most of the batteries ashore abandoned.

Five Spanish ships were taken in tow as prizes, but the wind direction meant the English ships had severe difficulty in leaving the harbour. Blake ordered the prizes be set on fire and abandoned, a highly unpopular move since the Prize Money to be shared by the crews would have been considerable. Eventually all the English ships got clear and only Stayner's ship, the Speaker, suffered heavy damage from the reinvigorated shore batteries. The major disappointment in an otherwise successful operation was the failure to find the silver bullion, which the Spanish had hidden ashore.

Blake was hailed as a national hero for his great triumph, but became ill while returning to England and died when his ship was in sight of Plymouth. He was buried with full state honours in Westminster Abbey. With no means of transporting the bullion from Tenerife, Spain's position in Flanders and Portugal was fatally undermined by the lack of finance and the military reputation of the Commonwealth regime much enhanced.

Further reading:

  • J.D. Davies "A Permanent Maritime Fighting Force, 1642-1689" in J.R. Hill (Ed.),
  • The Oxford Illustrated History of the Royal Navy (Oxford, 1995). J.D. Davies, "Blake: Santa Cruz, 1657" in E.J. Grove (Ed.) Great Battles of the Royal Navy (London, 1994).