The Battle of San Juan de Ulúa was a battle between English privateers and Spanish forces at San Juan de Ulúa (in modern Veracruz, Mexico). It marked the end of the campaign carried out by an English flotilla of six ships that had systematically conducted what the Spanish considered to be illegal trade in the Caribbean Sea, including the slave trade, at times imposing it by force.
Subsequent to the beginning of the Age of Discovery and the European exploration of the New World it was determined that in order to minimize potential conflict between the two major naval powers of the world at the time, Spain and Portugal, that a demarcation line between the two spheres of influence would be necessary. In the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, dividing the New World into Spanish and Portuguese zones was signed by the nations’ respective monarchs and Pope Alexander VI. As a result, the Spanish crown considered everything west of the Zaragoza antimeridian to be its personal property, including the entire North American continent. However, subsequent to the Protestant Reformation in the early 16th century and due to the fact that the Protestant nations of Europe did not recognize Papal spiritual or temporal authority, other powers routinely ignored the treaty.
John Hawkins, an English corsair, had previously engaged in trading voyages to the Spanish colonies in contravention of the treaty, in 1562–63 and in 1564–65, with tacit approval from the English crown. On each occasion Hawkins had traded slaves for gold, silver, pearls, hides, and sugar with various Spanish settlements with varying degrees of success. During his second voyage, while stopping at Rio de la Hacha to sell slaves, he took orders from Spanish clients for his next journey and obtained a letter from the local Spanish treasurer approving his dealings. Nevertheless, the Spanish authorities were alarmed by this challenge to their monopoly and as such the court of justice in Santo Domingo ordered authorities to seize any English ships and their cargos in order to prevent further foreign incursions.
The English fleet consisted of 5 ships commanded by John Hawkins, John Hampton, and Hawkins’ cousin Francis Drake. A captured Portuguese caravel joined the privateers near the coast of Ghana, where the English competed with Portuguese slave traders. The fleet took on water and 400-500 slaves in Guinea in early February 1568 and, reaching Dominica on 27 March, 1568, Hawkins began selling his cargoes to Spanish colonists for gold, silver, and jewels, as per his previous voyages, departing from Cartagena on 23 July.
After a year of looting along the American coast, the English fleet needed some reparations and decided to dock in San Juan de Ulúa. While traveling to San Juan and concerned about being intercepted by Spanish authorities, Hawkins overtook three Spanish vessels carrying 100 passengers, hoping that with these as hostages, he might be able to negotiate for better terms to refit and resupply. But while they were carrying out this reprovisioning, a Spanish escort fleet under command of Don Francisco Luján arrived in the port the very next day, accompanying the new viceroy of New Spain, Don Martin Enriquez de Almanza, to his post in Mexico City.
San Juan’s port facilities were extremely small and rudimentary, consisting of a mooring wall built by the Spanish on “a little yland of stones, not past three feet aboue water in the highest place, and not past a bow-shotte ouer any way at the most, and it standeth from the maine land, two bowshootes or more” and, given the difficulties of fitting both fleets at the anchorage, Hawkins sent out a small boat to inform the Spanish that they were already in the port and that there should be conditions governing how the two fleets were to pass each other in order to avoid confrontation.
The English had repeatedly ignored the Treaty of Tordesillas by attacking merchant shipping but at this point they believed the Spanish would respect a truce on this occasion. After spending two days negotiating, terms were agreed upon and a dozen hostages were exchanged, whereupon the Spanish fleet was allowed to enter the moorage. Two days were spent anchoring the Spanish ships and, for the purposes of safety, the ships of each country were anchored apart from each other. Under the conditions of the agreement the English were permitted by the Spanish to buy supplies for money, repair their ships, and occupy the island with 11 pieces of ordnance. Spaniards were also forbidden from visiting the island while under arms. However, the Spanish commander of the fleet had specifically been charged with stopping English trade in New Spain and as a result, despite the truce which had been agreed upon by both parties the Spanish began secretly massing an attack force on the mainland near the harbor in order to seize the shore batteries which Hawkins had manned to defend the anchorage. In addition, the Spanish hid an attack force of 150 men on board a hulk, the San Salvador, which would be brought up between the English and Spanish ships.
According to the plan the hulk would be brought up between the Spanish and English fleets at midday on 24 September. The English were nevertheless immediately suspicious after spotting Spanish crews shifting weapons between ships. Suspecting that the Spanish were planning on launching an attack from the hulk, Hawkins sent the captain of the Jesus of Lübeck, Robert Barret (who spoke fluent Spanish) to demand that the viceroy disembark his men from the hulk and cease their threatening activities. The viceroy, Don Martin de Enriquez, realizing that the plot had been detected, seized Barrett and ordered the trumpet to sound and the Spanish launched their attack.
The Minion, the ship closest to the Spanish hulk, was the immediate target of the Spanish boarding action but was able to defend itself against the attack and hauled away. The next target, Jesus of Lübeck, was boarded by the Spaniards from the hulk but after a violent struggle on board the ship, the Spaniards were repulsed and the Jesus of Lübeck was able to cut away and join the Minion. The French commander of the Grace of God, Robert Blondel, set her on fire before joining Hawkins on board the Jesus of Lübeck.
Only the Judith, commanded by Drake, and Minion escaped, whilst battle was still raging on, leaving behind them the Jesus of Lubeck and some members of her crew still on board. The surviving vessels sailed out when two ships on fire were driven on them by the Spanish. The Englishmen feared such a fire ship attack which, despite their concerns, failed to inflict any damage on the English ships. During the night Francis Drake, commanding the 50-ton Judith, abandoned the fleet and sailed for home, leaving Hawkins alone on board the overcrowded and poorly provisioned 100-ton Minion.
For decades to come, the battle of San Juan de Ulua was remembered by Englishmen. Drake’s desertion with the Judith in the heat of the action and leaving his relative and patron to fend for himself would haunt Drake for years to come and helped harden Drake’s attitudes towards Catholics in general and Spaniards in particular.
The battle was a clear precursor of the war that broke out between Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England in 1585.