A Brief History
On April 20, 1657, a fleet of 23 British Royal Navy warships sailed boldly into the defended harbor at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, to attack a Spanish treasure fleet anchored there. Braving fire from the anchored ships and the shore batteries, the British fleet sank 12 of the Spanish ships and captured the other 5, suffering only serious damage to one of their own ships.
The Spanish suffered 300 men killed, while the British lost 48 killed and 120 wounded. While England of course had warships for many, many years, the Royal Navy was founded in 1546, and in the years since has covered itself in glory time after time. Sure, there have been defeats and even debacles, but over the course of the last 500 years no other navy has dominated the seas like the Royal Navy, except the United States Navy, but only since World War II (1939-1945).
Lucky for the Spanish, the loads of silver being carried from the New World to Spain had been unloaded at the port and did not fall into British hands or end up on the bottom of the ocean.
At the time of the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Britain was ruled by Oliver Cromwell in his version of the national government known as “The Protectorate” (1653-1659) the previous King (Charles I) having been deposed in the English Civil War and replaced by the “Rump Parliament” (1649-1653) prior to the establishment of the Protectorate. Cromwell and the British had decided to take the side of France in their war against Spain in 1654, an opportunistic attempt to grab Spanish colonies in the New World and to plunder Spanish shipping. The Spanish treasure fleet, carrying silver, was in Tenerife to await a strong escort fleet for the final part of the journey to Spain.
While the British victory was indeed bold (sailing right into the fire of shore batteries) and successful, the battle was exaggerated in the British press as having been over a large fleet of galleons rather than mostly cargo ships, and of course, the British did not get their hands on the Mexican silver. At least the silver was kept out of Spanish hands for a considerable period of time until a suitable fleet could transport it to Spain, an economic advantage to the enemies of Spain during the war. The silver finally arrived safely in Spain 11 months later.
The commander of the British fleet at Tenerife, Admiral Robert Blake, enjoyed a great boost in his reputation as did the respect and reputation of the Royal Navy.
Question for students (and subscribers): What battle do you believe was the greatest victory for the Royal Navy? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Colledge, JJ, and Ben Warlow. Ships of the Royal Navy: The Complete Record of all Fighting Ships of the Royal Navy from the 15th Century to the Present. Casemate Publishers, 2010.
Spence, Daniel. A History of the Royal Navy: Empire and Imperialism. I.B. Tauris, 2016.
The featured image in this article, an anonymous engraving depicting the English attack on Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1657, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or fewer.