The city of Havana in Cuba was Imperial Spain’s most important base. In the 18th century it was the third largest city in the New World and was a heavily fortified port that could shelter a fleet of over a hundred vessels, together with dockyards capable of building and maintaining the very largest warships. It was also economically important as a major trading centre for slaves, sugar, silver, tobacco and luxury goods from Europe. Its loss would undoubtedly have been a calamity for the Spanish, but they were certain that their city was impossible to capture.
This belief was not just wishful thinking. Havana was surrounded by formidable modern defences, had a large garrison and a fifth of Spain’s navy were based there. Furthermore, the direct approach to Havana from the Atlantic was blocked by the Great Bahama Bank, an area of thousands of square miles of reefs and islands. Even today, when it has been accurately charted, it is only accessible to small boats with local knowledge. There is a deep water channel through it, the Old Bahama Channel, but it is 250 miles long, is narrow in places and has almost no natural landmarks to navigate by. As a result, any attacker had to sail up the southern side of Cuba, where the water is much deeper, around its western end, and then sail back down the north coast for two hundred miles to approach Havana. Spotted from the shore, and sailing into the prevailing wind, such a fleet would provide the defenders with plenty of warning of its approach. Enemies had been trying to capture Havana since 1537. None had ever succeeded.
In June 1762 the British decided to make a fresh attempt. A force consisting of nearly thirteen thousand soldiers was assembled on a hundred and sixty transporters, supported by a fleet of warships. They would be joined later by a further five thousand men from North America, half of whom where American provincial troops and rangers. Formidable as this total force was, it’s naval commander, Admiral Sir George Pocock, concluded that it would need the element of surprise to have any chance of success. He decided to risk disaster, and take his huge armada through the Old Bahama Channel.
Captain John Elphinstone of the frigate Richmond was chosen by Pocock to lead the fleet safely through. A good navigator, he had been born in the Orkney Islands, where he had learnt from a young age how to sail in difficult and challenging waters. He carefully surveyed the channel, following it right through to its end. Then he retraced his steps, stopping to land shore parties of men at regular intervals on the little islands and sandy cays that marked the route. Each group were equipped to signal to the fleet by day and with combustibles for lighting fires at night, since part of the long passage would have to be traversed after dark. With the Richmond leading them on, the British successfully arrived in the waters off Havana, on the 6th of June, to the amazement of the Spanish, and began disembarking.
The siege of Havana lasted for just over two months and was still a bloody affair. The British side took almost three thousand casualties and lost three warships. The Spanish casualties were close to five thousand men, along with a further five thousand soldiers taken prisoner. They also sacrificed three warships, which they had sunk as a barrier to block the harbour entrance. They then lost a further twelve warships that were trapped in the port when it fell, together with large amounts of military equipment, almost three million Spanish pesos in loot and the city itself. So valuable was Havana to Spain, they exchanged it for all of Florida in the Treaty of Paris that ended the Seven Years War the following year.
Captain Elphinstone went on to have a successful and varied career in the Royal Navy, which included three years serving on secondment as a Rear-Admiral in the Russian Navy. During his time in Russia he commanded a squadron that fought against the Turks in the Mediterranean. He died in 1785, and was succeeded by four daughters and six sons. Four of the boys became captains in the Royal Navy themselves, one of the daughters married another RN captain, and a fifth son became a major-general.
Elphinstone’s vital role in the capture of Havana is often overlooked in modern accounts of the siege, which tend to focus on the more spectacular fighting ashore. Without his skill as a navigator, the 1762 expedition would almost certainly have been a longer and costlier affair, and might well have ended in failure altogether.