Tuesday 23 August 2016

The Capture of Fort Serapaquí — February 1848

A small and now-forgotten punitive expedition in 1848 showed just how effectively the Royal Navy could function as Britain’s 19th Century rapid-reaction force.

In the turmoil that followed ending of Spanish rule in Central America in the 1820s, what was later to emerge – in 1838 – as the independent Republic of Nicaragua was initially a province of the so-called Federal Republic of Central America. The young republic’s first decade, the 1840s, was to be marked by civil strife that bordered on near-anarchy. The country was however a backwater in these years – something which was to change after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. As the US Transcontinental Railroad had not been built, and would not be for another two decades, citizens in the eastern United States had only four options for joining the gold rush. The most obvious, and probably most hazardous, was to travel westwards overland. The alternatives were little more attractive – either passage by ship around Cape Horn or by taking ship to Panama, crossing the fever-ridden isthmus there (no railway or canal there yet) and taking further passage onward to San Francisco. The fourth alternative was to travel via Nicaragua, passing up the San Juan river from the east and into Lake Nicaragua, and making the short – 15 mile – overland journey to the Pacific from there and taking ship to San Francisco. Control of this route, and involvement of United States interests, most notably those of the shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, were to dominate Nicaraguan politics through the 1850s and to make the country the focus of attempts at outside control.

A later, promotional, view of the proposed Nicaragua canal (at left)
which would have linked Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific.
Note the San Juan River to the right and the Serapaqui entering it from the south
All this was still however in the future in 1848 and Nicaraguan conflicts were still dominated by internal strife. The situation changed however when two British traders, operating along the San Juan river, were subjected to “outrages and insults” by a local warlord, a Colonel Salas, of the Nicaraguan army. This was the age when any affront to British dignity was to be followed by swift retaliation, and so it was to be in this case. 

Francis Austen in 1796
The nearest British consul contacted the Commander-in-chief on the North America and West India station — Admiral Francis Austen (1774-1865), brother of the novelist Jane Austen – and requested appropriate support. Austen’s attention was already focussed on Central America as he was responsible for protecting British commercial interests during and after the Mexican–American War, which had broken out in 1846.

Austen accordingly despatched two vessels, the 6th-rate HMS Alarm and the steam paddle-sloop HMS Vixen, to the mouth of the San Juan in mid-February. Their quarry, Colonel Salas, was reported to be some thirty miles upriver at the settlement of Serapaquí, where he was ensconced with a considerable body of troops in a makeshift fort. This was located where the Serapaquí river joined the San Juan from the south and on a point projecting into the water and rising to the height of fifty feet. The approach upriver to the fort was a straight reach about a mile and a half long, with thick forest on either bank, ideal cover for concealing enemy defenders.  

Paddle-loop HMS Acheron - generally similar to HMS Vixen
The fort’s location was protected in the rear by dense forest, and in the front by an abattis, a form of defence that consisted of large trees felled so that their upper branches extended towards any attacking force. The defensive positions were formidable, composed of six angular stockaded-entrenchments formed of very tough timber, eight feet high and four feet thick, one side of each stockade looking across the river, and the other down the reach. The principal stockade commanded the only landing-place. Reaching this landing place necessitated passing the fort – while coping with a five-knot adverse current – and being subject in the meantime to fire from above.
Though Alarm and Vixen were heavily armed for their size, and probably well capable of destroying the fort if they could reach it, the shallowness and rapids of the San Juan river prevented their deployment. The only alternative was to send an attacking party of seamen and marines upriver in the ships’ boats and to storm the defences without any heavy covering fire. A force of some 260 men from both vessels, and accommodated in twelve boats, set out accordingly under the command of Captain Granville Loch of the Alarm.

A settlement on the San Juan
It took three days to cover the thirty miles upriver, the rapid current, shoals and rapids making progress difficult and exhausting in the extreme. By the morning of 12th February the fort was in sight and Captain Loch went on ahead of the main to communicate with Colonel Salas, and to negotiate a settlement. No sooner, however, was Loch seen from the fort than his craft was fired at by two guns, and directly afterwards by musketry from both sides of the river. As this act effectually prevented any peaceable arrangements, Loch immediately ordered his other boats to move upriver and land his force to storm the fort. Moving very slowly – under oars – against the fierce current, the boats and their occupants were subjected to musket fire from the forest on either side. The thickness of the vegetation made it impossible to see the enemy and to return fire.

During this slow crawl several men were wounded and two killed. The boats were also almost riddled with shot, and nearly half the oars were broken – it seems surprising, considering also their crowded state, with the mill-stream rate of the current, that a greater number of casualties did not occur. This can only have been a reflection on the competence and marksmanship of the Nicaraguan troops. This last stage of the approach lasted one hour and forty minutes and at times the boats were almost stationary against the current.

The Cutlass - the Royal Navy's fearsome close-range weapon
The landing point was at last reached and Captain Loch gave the order to land, leading the way himself. The boats’ crews followed and charged upwards. Their sheer determination seems to have intimidated the enemy – fighting was all but hand-to-hand and cutlasses and pistols proved devastating, as so often, in the hands of well-trained and well-disciplined men. The Nicaraguans withstood the assault for some ten minutes but they then broke and fled. Loch’s force pursued them into the forest for some thirty minutes before being recalled. Colonel Salas appears to have disappeared with his men. With a counter-attack unlikely, attention was now focussed on destroying the stockades. Their guns were spiked, their trunnions broken and thrown in the river with the Nicaraguan garrison’s abandoned muskets and ammunition. The force was next embarked, when the whole of the defences were set on fire. Whatever could be burned was set alight. Loch’s force then dropped back downriver.
British honour had been avenged, British power asserted.

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