This post is part of a week of cross-posting between Defence-in-Depth and Imperial Entanglements, the blog of an AHRC funded funded project in the Hispanic Studies Department of Warwick University.


When war opened between Britain and France in 1756, Spain declared itself to be neutral. The relationship between Britain and Spain during the war was strained and required skilled handling by British and Spanish ministers alike. The strain came from three main areas: fishing rights in Newfoundland, logwood cutting rights in Honduras, and the taking of Spanish ships as prizes by British privateers and warships. It was the latter of the three that most concerned diplomatic and strategic manoeuvres over Spanish neutrality.


Commerce predation in the form of prize taking was a crucial part of Britain’s strategy against France and was driven by Britain’s de facto Prime Minister, William Pitt. As the hegemonic naval power in the mid-eighteenth century, Britain was capable of prosecuting a devastating strategy of commerce predation in a war with another seafaring empire. Pitt employed this strategy against France, destroying French colonial commerce by the end of 1758. In doing so, British officials encountered two major hurdles: the carriage of French commerce by neutral nations and the devolution of imperial authority to privateers. Spain feared the growth of British maritime hegemony and the shifting balance of power in the Americas away from France and Spain toward Britain. As Britain’s victory over the French at sea solidified, Spain’s apprehension over the behaviour of British ships toward Spanish shipping increased. It was becoming clear that the only arbiter of neutrality at sea was Britain and British maritime law. If, therefore, Spain lost faith in British law, she would be pushed into a closer alliance with France in an attempt to beat back British maritime dominance.

Spanish Neutrality

Neutrality during eighteenth century wars was not defined by inaction, nor did it mean that a neutral power was devoid of interest and involvement in a conflict. Neutrality was an ambiguous position in which no active state of war existed between the neutral and the belligerents of a declared conflict. The carriage of French goods by Spain as a neutral country was regulated through the bi-lateral treaty of 1667, and British prize law. The treaty broadly determined what was considered legal French cargo for Spanish ships to carry during an Anglo-French war. It also detailed what was not legal cargo and therefore liable to confiscation. If a neutral ship were captured, prize law would then determine if it had been captured legally (in conformity with existing treaties) or illegally. If the former, the captors would receive prize money based on the sale of the goods and ship at auction. If the latter, the ship and/or goods would be returned to the Spanish owners and the captors made to pay damages. From a theoretical point of view, treaties and prize law were enough to curb abuses committed by British privateers and warships, thereby allowing Pitt’s strategy of commerce predation to be carried out successfully and without jeopardizing relations with Spain. The reality, however, proved rather different.

The structural difficulty was that all of the checks on abuses committed at sea were reactive. There was no way to police the actions of British subjects at sea and the only place where abuses of the treaties could be identified and addressed was in the prize courts, often months or years after an incident had taken place. When imperial authority was divested to privateers with the power to take neutral Spanish ships as prize, they became the face of the British government at sea. Their abuses were seen as the abuses of Britain’s hegemony. When British prize courts tried a neutral Spanish ship based on British interpretations of treaties, the court became the face of international maritime law. Pitt understood that a successful strategy against France involved ensuring that prize courts and diplomats kept neutral nations from believing that Britain’s increasing hegemonic maritime power was being used abusively. Through influence in the highest prize court, the Court of Prize Appeal, Pitt and his allies tried to uphold the confidence of neutral nations in British maritime law.


During the war, a commanding number of commissioners of the Court of Prize Appeal were allies of either William Pitt or the Duke of Newcastle, Secretary of the Treasury, who, though they had their differences, agreed on the need to maintain Spain’s neutrality. They also agreed that Spain’s neutrality could not, however, be maintained at the expense of allowing Spanish ships to freely carry French commerce from their colonies to Europe. Pitt, Newcastle, the Earl of Hardwicke (de facto leader of the Court of Prize Appeal), and Sir Benjamin Keene (ambassador from Britain to Spain) all worked toward the same end in their different capacities. Keene and Pitt worked with their Spanish counterparts, Ricardo Wall (first minister of Spain), and Juan Felix D’Abreu (Spanish envoy to Britain) to agree on an interpretation of the 1667 treaty. Britain wished for an interpretation that would give its privateers and warships the most leeway to stop all French commerce from being carried in neutral Spanish ships. Spain wanted the freedom to carry as much French wartime commerce as possible. Their attempts to compromise lasted the length of the war and resulted only in vague concessions that obfuscated, rather than clarified, the original treaties. Pitt and Keene’s most common refrain during all of these negotiations was that despite disagreements over the particulars of the treaties, and despite the actions of British ships at sea, Spanish ship owners and captains could find justice and respect for Spanish neutrality in the Court of Prize Appeal. The British legal system, despite all other diplomatic problems, should be trusted by Spain and her subjects.

In the Court of Prize Appeal, the Earl of Hardwicke presided over cases of neutral Spanish ships captured at sea that had been condemned by the lower courts for violating the treaty of 1667. Here, Hardwicke played a brilliant political game masquerading as impartial judicial wisdom. With the guidance of Pitt and Newcastle, Hardwicke’s judgements were designed to preserve the ambiguity of the 1667 treaty such that no precedent was set that would hamper Britain’s legal ability to stem the flow of French colonial commerce in Spanish ships. The judgements had to placate Spanish clamours about British abuses of power at sea whilst at the same time not anger the British privateering lobby, which expected that bringing in prizes would be a lucrative wartime employment. All of this had to be done without the appearance of political calculation so that Spain would believe Pitt and Keene’s refrain about trust in the British legal system. It was a delicate balancing act where select cases were decided based on the strategic need to placate Spain and the privateering lobby.

British strategy concerning neutral Spain during the war was brilliant and singular but it relied heavily on the carefully balanced relationships between British ministers as well as that of their Spanish counterparts. For much of the war it appeared to be working, and it was only unforeseen factors such as the death of Keene, the fall of Ricardo Wall from power, and the death of both the British and Spanish monarchs, that struck Pitt’s strategy a death blow. By 1760, the new Spanish monarch and his ministers were set upon war with Britain as the best way to resolve the tensions over imperial affairs. In Britain, the new and young king heralded the end of Pitt and Newcastle’s dominance of wartime politics. Spanish faith in Britain’s ability to refrain from abusing its maritime hegemony quickly crumbled. A secret family compact between the Spanish and French Bourbon kings was signed, with the result that Britain angrily declared pre-emptive war on Spain in January of 1762.

 The Co-dependent Lens

The war between Britain and Spain did not last long. Though France and Spain together had the potential to be a formidable enemy, it was too little too late. France’s war against Britain spanned the entire globe with major commitments in Europe. The expense of the endeavour was crippling. French colonial trade had already been destroyed by the time Spain joined, French Canada had already been conquered, and France’s navy rendered practically useless by a British victory at Quiberon Bay in 1759. Spain soon experienced what British naval dominance could mean. Both Havana and Manila, two vital centres of the Spanish Empire, were invaded and captured by 1763 when the war came to an end.

The Anglo-Spanish negotiations during the period when Spain was neutral, and during the negotiation of the peace treaty in 1763 show two empires that were not at all eager or willing to destroy one another. Spanish neutrality was useful to both sides. Without Spain as an ally, France remained a weaker enemy, and the illicit but lucrative commerce that was carried out between British and Spanish colonies could continue, even whilst Britain and France were at war (in some cases this illicit commerce was even more beneficial while a war raged in the Americas). As a neutral nation, Spain’s own colonial commerce could, theoretically, continue as normal and remain safe from British or French interference. As a weaker maritime power than either France or Britain, neutrality gave Spain a bargaining chip in Anglo-Spanish affairs through the threat of allying with France.

Both empires, despite the best laid plans, pushed the bounds of Spain’s neutrality until they broke, and the resultant war left both of them with an undesired outcome. Spain suffered an expensive and humiliating defeat. Britain had conquered territory it had no interest in keeping, and had lost its political gamble to make British maritime power seem like a benign and just international arbiter of the seas. At the treaty negotiations of 1763, Britain returned Havana and Manila. France granted New Orleans to Spain, and land in what is now Louisiana to Florida. None of the reasons for which Britain and Spain went to war: fishing rights, logwood cutting, and the taking of Spanish ships, were addressed in the new treaty. The treaty governing Spanish neutrality was not renegotiated and remained ambiguous as ever. In short, Anglo-Spanish relations reverted to almost their pre-war status with an added dose of resentment and desire for revenge on the Spanish side. Co-dependent empires go to war, but they are not wars of destruction. They are wars that erupt due to existing tensions and outside factors, but they do not resolve the original tensions. Both empires, on the face of it, herald a new period of peace, as with the Treaty of 1763, but under the surface, the status quo is largely maintained and relations carry on as before. Because none of the issues that lead to war are resolved, and none of the issues prevent the two empires from symbiotically existing in the same colonial space, wars between co-dependent empires are also frequent. Britain and Spain had been warring frequently for the first half of the eighteenth century and would continue to do so through the Napoleonic wars, but never as the primary set of belligerents.

Author’s note: This is the first post in a series throughout the next few months that will explore the idea of “Co-dependent Empires” (See previous post) as it applies to Anglo-Spanish imperial entanglements. This particular post is also based on a paper that I will be giving at the McMullen Naval History Symposium hosted by the US Naval Academy at Annapolis on the 14-15 of September.

Image: Defence of the moles of Havana, British ships in the Seven Years War before Havana by Rafael Torres, via Wikimedia Commons



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