The creation of foreign policy and the prosecution of war are often largely dependent on the personalities and circumstances of those in power. This is, perhaps, a disconcerting truth that can be mitigated by the development of international law, alliances, and multilateral or unilateral treaties. The mitigation, however, only goes so far, as laws and treaties can fall prey to selective interpretation in the service of individual domestic and international political ambitions. Add to this the selective perspectives perpetuated by multiple media outlets on politicians and extra-national populations and the influence of personality becomes very difficult to dismiss. The importance of personalities in shaping foreign affairs is certainly not a new discussion but it can prove useful to look at their effect from a more removed and historical point of view. The case study of a small Anglo-Spanish crisis from the Seven Years War (1756-63) in which British ministers strove to maintain Spanish neutrality illustrates how British foreign policy and strategy could be derailed by the clashing personalities of the Spanish Court.
Maintaining Spanish neutrality was an important element of British strategy in the early years of the Seven Years’ War. The prevailing atmosphere in the Spanish Court was, therefore, a topic of vital importance to the ministers in London carrying out the war. Spanish foreign policy towards Britain was shaped by several trade treaties and by the personalities of King Ferdinand VI and the Spanish Secretary of State, Don Ricardo Wall, an Irishman who held the post throughout the war. The British minister with whom Wall and the King had the most contact was the ambassador in Madrid, Sir Benjamin Keene. Keene worked to maintain friendly and respectful relations with both Wall and Ferdinand. He found Wall to be a man interested in maintaining peace but brought low by the weight of his responsibilities. Accusations of ‘Anglophilia’ had plagued and shaped his political career. Until his death in 1758, Keene remained convinced that Wall would work with him in earnest to maintain Spanish neutrality but that the internal squabbles of the Spanish Court as well as French influence were against them.
King Ferdinand VI is variously described as ‘gentle’, ‘weak’ and ‘inward looking’ by historians of eighteenth century Spain. He had assumed the throne in 1746 after being side lined from politics for most of his youth. Perhaps as a conscious contrast to the policies of his father and step-mother, Ferdinand generally favoured peace as the aim of Spanish foreign policy. Staying out of European conflicts allowed him to focus on internal politics and reforms. Like most monarchs, however, he was influenced by his ministers and Keene feared that he could be persuaded to question the benefit of Britain’s friendship. Despite enjoying a very friendly relationship with the Spanish monarch, Keene was critical of, and clearly frustrated by, Ferdinand’s reliance on the sycophantic ministers who guided him through matters upon which he was ill informed. Unfortunately for Britain, not all of the men easing the King’s conscience were vocal champions of Anglo-Spanish friendship.
As a whole, the impressions made on British ministers by the dynamics of the Spanish Court at the beginning of the war were two fold. There was a running theme of maintained friendship, and thus neutrality, but it was made delicate by a lack of strong pro-British leadership. These dynamics can be seen clearly in the affair of the British privateer the Antigallican.
News of the Antigallican’s activities, like those of many successful privateers, often cropped up in British newspapers as accounts of glorious battles against the French. The London Evening Post, a London tri-weekly newspaper, printed a small article on January 18th 1757 which described the Antigallican’s engagement against a French East Indiaman, Le Duc de Penthievre, off the coast of Spain the day before. In true sensationalistic fashion, the article highlighted that the crew of the privateer held off their attack until they were close enough to the French ship to fire their small arms directly into the cabin windows. The Post‘s article is fairly typical for a description of British privateering success and concentrates more on the adventure of the encounter rather than any type of political or anti-French message. Unbeknownst to the writers and publishers of the London newspapers however, bad weather had subsequently forced the Antigallican and her prize into Cadiz where the Spanish Governor claimed that the capture had taken place within cannon shot of the Spanish coast, i.e. neutral waters, and was therefore not a legal seizure. The Spanish Governor at Cadiz ordered the British captain, Capt. Foster, to give up his prize to the French Consul despite protestations from the French crew that it had been a legal capture. Foster refused and two Spanish war ships opened fire on the Prize until she surrendered to Spanish authority.
William Pitt, the de facto Prime Minister, was extremely concerned by the events in Cadiz, and expressed his unease in a letter to Keene on the 25th of February 1757. He wrote that the Antigallican affair showed an alarming partiality toward France on the part of the Spanish Government and that Spain’s own violation of neutrality (firing upon and seizing the British prize) was condoned by the Court. While Pitt had to wait for a reply from Keene to see how the small crisis would play out, the British newspapers indulged in utter speculation. On February 22, the Middlewich Journal published an article that the influence of the French Ambassador on the Spanish King seemed to ‘presage a Declaration of War against Great Britain…orders either have, or will be given to our Ambassador [Keene], to re-demand the abovementioned prize [Le Duc de Penthievre], and, in case of a Refusal, he may perhaps immediately be recalled.’ As the British ministers were still trying to understand exactly what had and was happening in the case of the Antigallican, the writers and publishers of the Middlewich Journal had falsely escalated the affair to one of impending warfare. Though the article had no discernable effect on the actions of British ministers and had no direct anti-Spanish phrasing, it did convey to its readership a sense that war with Spain was inevitable and the fault of French and Spanish connivance. This narrative would continue to play out in the press with an increasingly violent anti-Spanish rhetoric.
The reality of the Antigallican affair, as related by Keene, was much more pernicious than anything yet being printed in Britain. Wall had presented Keene’s complaints about the treatment of the Antigallican to the Spanish King who was seemingly unaware of the extent of the violence which had transpired. It came to light that the Spanish Minister for War, and captain general of the army, Sebastián de Eslava, along with the French Consul at Coruña, had presented Ferdinand with the version of events in which Le Duc de Penthievre had been seized illegally by the Antigallican and that, therefore, the actions of the British captain had violated Spanish neutrality. The King, with these facts before him, gave Eslava leave to order that the prize be secured at Cadiz until more information could be gathered. The King, however, had not authorized the use of force against Captain Foster and his prize, nor had he authorized the return of the prize to French authorities. This had, instead, been ordered entirely by Eslava upon the urging of French representatives in Court. Keene described Ferdinand’s reaction upon learning of Eslava’s cavalier actions: ‘The King railed at Eslava, [and] asked Wall why he was not turned out. He would discard the old Radoteur immediately’ and then ordered the Letter to be wrote to stop further Proceedings.’ The damage, however, had been done. Ferdinand, unable or unwilling to bare to the world that he could not control his ministers neither censured nor contradicted Eslava. Wall, who feared further accusations of anglophilia, remained silent. Keene bemoaned the dynamics of the Spanish Court and feared for Spanish neutrality: ‘Messr. Wall hates his office, and suffers at these matters as much as myself; he sees, as well as I do, the Danger Two Great Crowns are in, from matters of so insignificant a nature compared with their peace, and a good correspondence.’
The controversy over the Antigallican carried on for more than a year without resolution but was soon overshadowed by numerous breaches of Spanish neutrality by British privateers. The French faction in the Spanish court, whose influence was clearly observed by British ministers in the Antigallican affair, seized upon these breaches to further erode Wall and Ferdinand’s pro British position. As the war progressed, British influence in the Court of Spain continued to wane and the Franco-Spanish friendship grew into the Family Compact of 1761. Britain, seeing the cause of Spanish neutrality lost, recalled her ambassador and declared a state of war.
The research discussed in this post will be presented at a King’s College Maritime History Seminar on January 7th at 1715 in Room K6.07, of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, Strand, WC2R 2LS.
Image: The Captured Spanish Fleet at Havana, August-September 1762, by Domonic Serres the Elder, via wikimedia commons.