We’re so used to thinking of Cuba and Castro, and perhaps of the Bay of Pigs invasion, that many will be surprised to know that not only did we once launch a full-scale invasion of Cuba, but that we actually once controlled a part of Cuba. Not for very long, admittedly, but we did control it for a time.
We had already had plenty of practice at attacking Cuba by the time we took it over. Drake was sailing the waters off Cuba in the sixteenth century and, rather bizarrely, he may be linked to the mojito. The origins of the mojito are hotly debated, or at least as hotly as you can debate the origins of a cocktail. Some suggest it may be derived from a nineteenth-century drink called El Draque, perhaps named after Drake, and others go as far as suggesting that Drake himself invented it. I personally have no idea whether any of this is true, but they’re jolly stories and the idea of Drake stylishly sipping a cocktail makes a change from all that looting, burning and pillaging.
Talking of which, in 1662, English admiral and pirate Christopher Myngs, who could probably fairly be called Myngs the Merciless due to his rather unsavoury reputation, captured, looted, sacked and briefly occupied Santiago de Cuba.
And in 1741, guess where we invaded? Yes, we stormed ashore at Guantanamo Bay itself. Obviously this was before all the barbed wire and orange prisoner suits. Admiral Edward Vernon arrived with 4,000 soldiers and eight warships, intending to march on Santiago de Cuba again. We even briefly renamed it Cumberland Bay. Imagine if the Americans were running a facility at Cumberland Bay; it would sound more like a bed and breakfast. But the locals weren’t very friendly to us, nor were the local diseases, and Vernon was forced to withdraw.
In 1748 we were back again. In the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, Rear Admiral Sir Charles Knowles tried to send his squadron straight into the harbour of Santiago de Cuba and the Spanish defenders, not surprisingly, expressed their lack of enthusiasm through the medium of artillery. With two ships disabled, hundreds of men dead and 200 wounded, Knowles limped off. Later in the year he was back in Cuban waters for the Battle of Havana. Though it wasn’t quite as disastrous as the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, it wasn’t a glowing success either, and Knowles ended up being reprimanded in a court-martial. After that there were assorted duels involving Knowles and some of his subordinates. Finally, in 1762 our time had come at last. On 6 June (yes, 6 June, just like D-Day) a huge British fleet arrived off Havana with large numbers of ships, and thousands of sailors and soldiers. The expeditionary force landed and we rapidly realised we had a problem with the heavily defended Morro fortress. A bitter and fiercely fought siege, with attacks and counter-attacks, dragged on through June and July, until finally Havana surrendered in August. We lost thousands of men in the fighting and even more were killed on this expedition by disease. Out of the 11,000 men who first landed and the subsequent 3,000 reinforcements, only 3,000 were available for action by the end. A big chunk of Cuba was ours. But only until the year after. In 1763, in a bit of an anti-climax on the Cuban invasion front, we gave it and Manila (see Philippines) back to the Spanish in exchange for Florida and Minorca.