Admiral Vernon, Porto Bello Taken,
As a result of the Convention of Prado in 1739, Spain agreed to pay £95,000 compensation for damages to British shipping by Spanish coastal patrol vessels. However, it soon became obvious that Spain had no intention of paying this compensation. As a result of this, and the continuing attacks on British shipping, war was declared on 19th October 1739 and two squadrons were dispatched to the South American Colonies. The first, under Commodore Anson, was to sail to Peru and the other, under Admiral Vernon was to attack Porto Bello (Panama), where in 1596 Sir Francis Drake had died of dysentry . Vernon had announced to Parliament that he could take Porto Bello with six ships. His second in command, Commodore Charles Brown, was to lead the attack and the principal events were: (i) the capture of Porto Bello on 22nd November 1739; (ii) the bombardment and capture of Fort Chagre on 24th March 1740; (iii) the taking of Carthagena,on 1st April 1741; (iv) the proposed attack on Havana in July 1741. These events were all part of a larger action known as the "War of Jenkins Ear."
Admiral Vernon arrived at Porto Bello on 20th November 1739. The following day Brown led the attack on the Iron Fort (Castle Hierro) at the mouth of the harbour, with Vernon bringing up the rear. After a severe bombardment the troops were landed and the fort surrendered. The next morning the proposed attack on Gloria Castle at the further end of the harbour was curtailed by the enemy putting up a white flag and presenting conditions for a truce. Vernon rejected these conditions and after drawing up his own which were at once agreed to, he set sail for Jamaica on 15th December.
Before leaving England, Vernon had made it clear that his two prime targets were to be firstly Porto Bello and then the much stronger Carthagena. Although, initially he showed no inclination to carry out the second part of the campaign an insolent letter from the Spanish Admiral Don Blas de Leso spurred him into further action. However, unfavourable weather put off his first attempt and he turned his attention to Fort Chagre which he took on 24th March 1740 without much difficulty.
After this success, Vernon appears to have remained inactive for nearly 12 months whilst he greatly increased the numbers of his fleet and was now joined by Sir Chaloner Ogle, his new second in command. On 9th March 1741 the bombardment of the forts and batteries at the mouth of Carthagena harbour began and for the next few weeks they proceeded to take control of the outer harbour. At this point, Vernon dispatched Captain Laws in the Spence with news of his victory which was received with great rejoicing in London on 17th May. However, British luck had started to run out and attempts to take control of the inner part of the town started to go disastrously wrong. Owing to increasing sickness and lack of supplies, as well as the resistance of the enemy, the British were compelled to withdraw. It is estimated that of the initial 5,000 men only 3,200 returned to the ships. Vernon returned to Jamaica and any further thought of attack on Carthagena was abandoned. The medals produced were no doubt the result of reports brought back to England by Captain Laws. The profusion of medals portraying Don Blas kneeling in front of Vernon is purely in the artist's imagination.
Similarly, the medals issued for the proposed attack on Havana were produced in anticipation. After the failure of the attack at Carthagena, the following July Vernon sailed for Cuba where he intended to proceed to Santiago and Havana. However, through a number of difficulties he was compelled to withdraw and return to Jamaica.
The wave of patriotic fervour that these events produced spread even to the British Colonies. In 1743, Lawrence Washington, named his estate on the Potomac "Mount Vernon" in recognition of his naval hero.
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