Monday, 13 February 2012

Trinidad and the Empire


The Seas around us hold our destiny

From climatic conditions over naval decisions to the petrochemical industry: our fate was always intertwined with the oceans around us.

Who controlled the high seas during the colonial era was always of great significance to us in these islands. When Sir Winston Churchill in 1913 as First Lord of the Admiralty altered the British ocean-going fleet from coal furnaces to oil burners, the economic future of Trinidad was forever altered.
If Admiral Lord Nelson's flotilla had encountered the French battlefleet in an unfortunate manner in the Gulf of Paria in 1805, we may all be French-speaking today. Or, for that matter, had Admiral Apodaca attacked Admiral Sir Henry Harvy's squadron as they sailed through the Dragon's Mouth instead of burning his fleet in Chaguaramas Bay in 1797, Spanish might be spoken here.
The seas around us hold our destiny. A significant period in the history of Trinidad and Tobago occurred at a time when we were hardly mentioned on the maps and charts of the world. Spain and Portugal had been given the New World, the entire western hemisphere, by the pope of the day, oblivious to the fact that it was not his to give away in the first place. This was challenged by the non-Catholic princes of Europe, particularly England. At the source of the circumstances lay the proverbial root of it all: money.
Had circumstances gone in favour of Spain, the direction of history would have changed. In the wake of the discoverers Columbus, Vespucci and others, came the adventurers Cortes, Pizzaro and de Berrio, to name but a few. These were followed by the privateers, bandits and buccaneers, many of whom were English seamen like Morgan, Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh.
Spain was then an underpopulated, comparatively backward European country which had recently driven out its intelligentsia, that is, the Jews and the Arabs. She had become enormously wealthy by her new colonies in the New World. Out of the mines of Peru and Mexico came gold and silver. From the Gulf of Paria came pearls of great worth. Vast areas of the southern continent, as yet without names, yielded emeralds and rubies. The power of the Spanish empire was so fortified by these riches, that King Philip could equip his armies and his navy as no other power had done before.
This was well appreciated in the ruling circles of England. Recently Protestant under Henry VIII, Spain, a powerful Catholic neighbour, posed a threat to the island nation. So long as Spain controlled the wealth of the New World, she could launch and equip battlefleets against England.
To get a piece of the treasure from Americas, England therefore had to arrest it at its source or capture it from the Spanish ships on the high seas. England's economy in those years, the 1580s, was agricultural. She had to strengthen her finances. The virgin Queen Elizabeth I accordingly sanctioned a quantity of unofficial expeditions against Spanish interest in the west. This brought Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh into the Gulf of Paria. Raleigh burnt down Port of Spain, captured Trinidad's capital, St. Joseph, kidnapped the Spanish governor and took him up the Orinoco river in search of El Dorado and the City of Gold.
Sir Henry Morgan raided out of Jamaica the Spanish-held coastlines of Mexico. British privateers would lie in hiding in Tobago's Pirates Bay, so as to spot Spanish treasure fleets making for the Galleons Passage, the narrows between Trinidad and Tobago in order to capture treasure beyond their wildest fantasies.
Avoiding open war, these raids continued. However, they made no lasting impact on Spain. It was only John Hawkins who rebuilt the British navy and put into place the sound foundation that would make it master of the open sea in the coming 17th century.
Sir Winston Churchill, writing in his "History of the English-Speaking Peoples", remarks:
"The Spaniards had long contemplated an enterprise against England."
They knew that England stood in the way of their reconquest of the Netherlands. Spain commenced the building and the assembling of a fleet. These preparations were delayed for a year by Drake's famous raid on Cadiz in 1587. He wrote that he had "singed the King of Spain's beard". In May of the following year, the armada was ready. 136 ships were assembled, carrying 2,500 guns and more than 30,000 men; 20,000 of them soldiers. There were 20 galleons, 44 were merchantmen and 8 were Neapolitan galleys. These were the main ships.
The Spanish armada set out to sail up the channel with a view to land on the south coast of England. They were under the command of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. Hawkins' redesign of Britain's fighting ships was about to be tested. In fact, the best that they could put against the Spaniards was a fleet of 34 ships of the line plus another 150 privately owned vessels.
The British stationed small squadrons all along the southern coast. In the meantime, an Atlantic storm that had been broiling for several days swept the Spanish fleet, dismantling two 1,000 ton ships.  The storm in passing through the channel, forced the British to put out to sea.
If the Spanish Duke had attacked the English vessels to leeward of his ships as they struggled to clear the land, he would have caught them at a disadvantage, but instead, he followed his orders and sailed up the channel. The English, however, just managed to get their fleet to the windward of the Spaniards and for nine days hung on to the Armada as it ran before a gusty westerly while pounding away with their long-range guns at the lumbering galleons.
On July 23, the wind dropped and both fleets lay drifting off Portland Bill. The Spaniards attempted a counter-attack with the Neapolitan galleys rowed by hundreds of slaves. Sir Francis Drake took advantage of light wind and swept in upon the main body, forcing them to give way "until they flocked together like sheep".
During the following night, the English launched ships full of dynamite to drift in the direction of the enemy, then set them alight, abandoning them as quickly as possible. Massive explosions shook the very air. The Spanish captains cut the cables that held their ships at anchor and made for the open sea. There were many collisions in the dark.
Over the following several hours, both winds and tide worked against them. Finally, the Spanish turned to face their pursuers. A long and desperate fight raged for eight hours. Ships lashed together as men fought it out hand to hand, sword to sword, musket to musket. Breaking free, their main van sailed northward with one thought in mind: home. This time, the westerly winds helped although they were wrecks. Then a shift came. They were forced to make for Ireland for fresh water - they had already cast their horses and mules overboard.
The English had not lost a single ship. A handful of men had given their lives. The Spaniards had lost half their fleet. The British struck a gold medal upon which was inscribed: "God blew and they were scattered". This victory over Spain was the shining achievement of the Elizabethan age. England had emerged as a first class sea power. She had resisted the might of the greatest empire since Roman times.
This, in fact, was a turning point in the history of the world. There were still many battles to fight against Spain, France and later against Germany, and many tribes and nations to conquer and overthrow to make the British Empire. But in the final analysis, it was England that won the wars. That is why she calls herself even now, after her decline, Great Britain.

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