The Battle of Matanzas Bay
By the first few decades of the 17th century, the Dutch and Spanish had been at war in the Netherlands for over sixty years, with little sign of either side emerging on top. With their backs to the North Sea, the Dutch defended their land and independence with desperate ferocity. For her part, Spain was able to fund an almost perpetual war, thanks to the flow of gold and silver bullion mined in her American empire. For over a hundred years these treasure fleets had crossed the Atlantic, largely unmolested by their enemies. But all that was about to change as the Dutch looked increasingly towards the sea for their salvation.
In May 1628 the Dutch West India company gathered together a powerful fleet of more than fifty warships in great secrecy. Their mission was to attack the Spanish in the Caribbean and capture that year’s treasure fleet. This would not only starve the Spanish of the means to pay their troops in Europe, it would also supply the funds for the Dutch to go on the offensive. The man placed in charge of this expedition was Piet Heyn, the son of a sea captain and a highly experienced sailor. He knew the Caribbean well and was a fluent Spanish speaker.
Unfortunately for the Dutch, word of their expedition reached the Spanish. Once he arrived in the West Indies, Heyn sent part of his fleet to the island of Blanquilla to collect a supply of fresh meat. The island was uninhabited at the time, but was known for its large feral goat and donkey population. Having successfully re-supplied, the Dutch ships departed. Unfortunately, they left a crewman behind, who subsequently fell into the hands of the Spanish. After questioning he revealed Heyn’s plan.
In response the Spanish kept their treasure ships in port at Cartagena and Veracruz and waited for the Dutch to be forced to depart when their supplies ran low. Meanwhile Heyn, unaware that his plan had been compromised, patrolled the waters north of Havana in Cuba. Now a stalemate developed, as week followed week, with the Dutch lying in ambush and the Spanish waiting for them to go.
Towards the beginning of September Dutch supplies were becoming critical and scurvy was starting to break out among the sailors. Heyn decided to send the worst cases home in part of his fleet, while he remained with the rest. The departure of these ships was reported to the Spanish, who assumed that the coast was now clear for their galleons, and the order was given for the treasure fleet to sail.
Not since the time of the Tudors had a Spanish treasure fleet come under serious threat, and in consequence they were very poorly run by this time. The 1628 fleet was no exception. It was commanded by Juan de Benavides, a corrupt official with no experience of seamanship or naval warfare. His ships were ill-prepared for battle, and were said to be so overloaded with cargo and passengers that his sailors were unable to operate their guns. As they reached the north coast of Cuba, they were spotted by Heyn’s fleet. Even if Benavides had been able or willing to fight, his sixteen ships were heavily outnumbered by the thirty-one warships still available to the Dutch. Instead of giving battle, he ran for Matanzas Bay, a refuge on the Cuban coast fifty miles to the east of Havana.
One by one the Spanish ships were overtaken and compelled to surrender by the Dutch, with only four ships making it to the bay, but this did them little good. Heyn’s ships followed them in and captured these vessels too. With the entire treasure fleet captured, the Dutch were magnanimous towards their Spanish prisoners. In a war that was known for its brutality, Heyn set them ashore unharmed and even provided them with food and water for their long walk back along the coast to Havana.
The Dutch had succeeded in inflicting one of the worst disasters ever to befall the Spanish Empire. In previous years only the odd ship had been lost to storms or attacks by an enemy, but never had an entire treasure fleet been destroyed. The sixteen ships captured represented a third of the Spanish ships operating in the Caribbean at the time. Not only this, but the Dutch had hardly suffered any casualties in their victory. As a result, Heyn returned home to a hero’s welcome, together with almost twelve million guilders in precious metals, indigo and cochineal – enough to fund the Dutch war effort for almost a year. The captured gold and silver alone weighed over ninety tons.