British Squadron for the West indies


Fleet CommanderSir Francis Hosier (d.1727)TRN3
Fleet Formed1726/04/09TRN3
Fleet Disbanded1729TRN3

Introduction

Vice-Admiral Francis Hosier (B.) was given command of the squadron for the West Indies. He sailed from Plymouth on April 9th with seven men-of-war, and, after a tedious passage, arrived off the Bastimentos, near Puerto Bello, on June 6th. He was then or thereafter joined by several vessels which were already on the station, and by others from home. These brought up his total force to a strength of sixteen ships.

The appearance of the British fleet in the West Indies gave great uneasiness to the Spaniards; and, as soon as it was reported, the treasure-ships, which were then ready to make their voyage to Europe, were unloaded, and their cargo of pieces of eight and other valuables was placed on shore in security, part at Havana and part elsewhere. The men-of-war which were to have convoyed the treasure-ships were, moreover, laid up at Puerto Bello; and it was determined that, so long as a powerful British force remained in the neighbourhood, no attempt should be made to dispatch the annual flota to Spain ; although, of course, the non-arrival of the usual supplies would inevitably put the mother country to immense inconvenience.

The governor of Puerto Bello sent a civil message to the Vice-Admiral desiring to know the reason for the unexpected visit. The real reason was that the galleons might be watched : but as there lay in Puerto Bello at the time a South Sea Company's ship, the Royal George, and as this vessel would probably have been detained if Hosier had at once proclaimed the nature of his mission, the reply returned was to the effect that the fleet had come to convoy the Royal George. The governor thereupon took measures to facilitate the early departure of that ship; and, when she had joined the fleet, he politely requested the Vice-Admiral, seeing that the ostensible reason for the presence of the force had ceased to exist, to withdraw from off the port. But Hosier then answered that, pending the receipt of further orders, he purposed to remain where he was and that his intentions might no longer be in doubt, he stationed a ship of the line within gun-shot of the castle, and suffered no vessel to enter or leave the port without being strictly examined. He maintained this blockade for six months, his ships in the meanwhile becoming daily more and more distressed by the ravages of epidemic and other diseases ; and when, on December 14th, 1726, he proceeded to Jamaica, his command was so completely enfeebled that he had the greatest difficulty in navigating it into harbour.

The Vice-Admiral refreshed his people and, to the best of his ability, made up his weakened complements to their full strength; and in February, 1727, he stood over to Cartagena, where some galleons then lay. Until August he cruised upon his station; but his instructions were of a nature which prevented him from being of much use to his country. They authorised him to make reprisals subject to certain restrictions, but not to make war; and although the Spaniards, after a time, began to seize the property of British merchants and to detain and condemn British vessels, Hosier was obliged to content himself with demanding a restitution which the Spaniards refused, and which he was unable to compel. During that period disease was even more rife throughout the fleet than it had been in the previous year; and, after thousands of officers and men had perished miserably, the misfortunes of the expedition culminated on August 23rd, when Hosier himself died.

His death has been attributed to anxiety and chagrin, but it was, in fact, caused by fever. Nor is it astonishing that the fleet was then little better than a floating charnel-house. The most elementary prescriptions of sanitary science seem to have been neglected, and there is perhaps no better illustration of the extraordinary
indifference to the simplest laws of health than the fact that in that hot and pestilent climate the Vice-Admiral's body was given a temporary burial-place in the ballast of his flagship, the Breda, where it remained, a necessary source of danger to all on board, until it was despatched to England, late in the year, on board H.M. snow Happy, Commander Henry Fowkes. Hosier's death left Captain Edward St. Loe of the Superb, 60, as senior officer on the station.

St. Loe pursued the same policy as Hosier had followed, and prevented the sailing of the galleons, until he was superseded by Vice-Admiral Edward Hopsonn, who arrived at Jamaica on January 29th, 1728. Hopsonn died of fever on board bis flagship the Leopard, 50, on May 8th, leaving St. Loe once more senior officer. But by that time the difficulties with Spain were in a fair way of adjustment. It was still, however, necessary to keep a large force in the West Indies; and ere it was  materially reduced, St. Loe also fell a sacrifice to the climate and to the insanitary condition of the ships. He died on April 22nd, 1729.

It is doubtful whether any other British fleet has ever suffered from disease so severely as that of Hosier suffered in 1726-27. Its horrible experiences made a deep and lasting impression upon the nation, and it may be hoped that they have had the effect of impressing upon all later British admirals the supreme importance of taking systematic and rigorous measures for preserving the health of their men. During the two years immediately following Hosier's first arrival off the Bastimentos, the fleet, the nominal complement of which never, roughly speaking, exceeded 4750 persons, lost, in addition to two flag officers and seven or eight captains, about fifty lieutenants, and four thousand subordinate officers and men, by various forms of sickness.




Sources


IDDescriptionAuthorType
TRN3The Royal Navy : a history from the earliest times to the present Vol IIIWilliam Laid ClowesDigital Book