Sunday, April 24, 2022

ARP245 San Juan Expedition

A few weeks ago, in Episode 240, I briefly touched on a military campaign that took place in what is today Nicaragua between the British Navy and Spanish forces there along the San Juan River.  I want to dig a little deeper this week into what became known as the San Juan Expedition.

Plan of Attack

After Spain entered the war in 1779, many British military leaders saw it as a new opportunity to take more colonies.  Spain had been relatively unprepared to defend its massive land holdings in the Americas during the Seven Years War, and consequently ended up having to cede territories to the British.  Spain had been reluctant to enter this new war for the same reason.  With Spain’s entry, British leaders once again looked for weak spots in the Spanish Empire, to make part of the British Empire.

Horatio Nelson, 1781
At the time New Spain stretched from the southern tip of South America up to what is today California.  The only large area not under Spanish control was Portuguese Brazil.  There were a handful of other European outposts, including French and Dutch Guiana, just north of Brazil.  But otherwise, Spain dominated what is today the western United States, and most everything south of that.

Outside of its North American colonies in what is today the US and Canada, Britain’s only other claim on the continent was a tiny outpost at British Honduras.  Britain looked at the opportunity to gain more territory, or perhaps also use a few victories in the middle of New Spain in order to encourage Spain to drop out of the war entirely.  Britain’s first offensive, to capture Spanish-controlled New Orleans, failed after the Spanish commander Bernardo de Galvez, learned of British plans, and instead preempted the attack with an attack of his own on British outposts in West Florida (see Episode 229).  

With the advance on New Orleans at a stalemate, Secretary of State for American Affairs, Lord Germain, considered other weak points in Spanish outposts.  The San Juan River in present-day Nicaragua was a crucial piece of territory in the center of Spain’s American empire.  The area provided an overland passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, making use of inland lakes and rivers to carry portage most of the way between the two coasts.  A successful attack would capture this valuable portage and would also split the Spanish Empire in America in two.

British military planners suggested building a series of British forts in the region which could be used as a launching point for further raids into Spanish territories.

Germain reviewed plans suggested by General Sir John Dalling, Governor of Jamaica.  In addition to being governor, Dalling was a major general. He had served under General Wolf in the capture of Quebec during the French and Indian War.  Near the end of the war, Dalling found himself stationed in Jamaica, where he held a series of government positions, eventually receiving appointment as governor in 1777. Dalling was, by this time, an experienced officer and politician with family connections among the aristocracy of Britain, but with no title of his own.

Traditionally Spain had made much of its wealth in the new world by compelling locals to work mines where they pulled out tons of gold and silver for their Spanish masters.  Britain frequently profited by looting Spanish treasure ships headed across the Atlantic.

In 1779, Dalling continued this tradition with a raid on Omoa in the Bay of Honduras.  There, forces under his command captured a Spanish treasure cache worth over $2 million.  Dalling began researching resources in New Spain to find other potentially valuable targets.

He made the case in London that with a force of perhaps 1500 regulars, he could capture all of Central America for the British Crown.  Much of his proposal involved recruiting slaves and local militia from the region to join the British cause.  Since the Spanish treated the locals so terribly, he believed this was a real possibility.

Dalling outlined his plan to Germain, suggesting a force would land at the San Juan River and capture El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción, a fort located near Lake Nicaragua.  From there, his forces would capture the City of Granada on the other side of the lake and would then be able to control the entire region.  Numerous inland waterways would allow the navy to send provisions to the army as it battled for control.

If the British succeeded, New Spain would be split.  Britain could begin raiding to the north and south, taking towns along the Pacific coast, destabilize Spanish authority and foment rebellion among the local population.

Germain was cautiously intrigued by Dalling’s daring plans.  The possibility of a British stab into the heart of Spain’s American possessions could lead to potential expansion of the empire, as well as neutralizing Spain as a threat in other parts of the world.  Spain would either have to give up territory, or devote military resources that it would otherwise use elsewhere in the war with Britain.

In January 1780, Germain informed Dalling that he was sending 3000 soldiers to Jamaica, in part for better defense of the island against a potential French attack, but also to provide the forces for his attack on the Spanish coast.

The Expedition

Even before receiving Germain’s approval Dalling had sent a small expedition to the region to gain reconnaissance and connect with the locals.  In late 1779, Dalling had deployed a force under the command of Major James Lawrie to occupy an area along the San Juan River.  By November Lawrie had written back to Dalling, requesting more arms and ammunition, with which he hoped to arm local native tribes and what he called “trusty negroes” who would support the British.

He also needed ship-carpenters and ship building materials so that he could build a ship on Lake Nicaragua to help secure the lake.  As they had done in Canada, the British hoped to break a ship into parts, carry it to the lake, then reassemble it for use.

Since this would require naval support, Dalling assigned the sixth-rate frigate Hinchingbrooke, to participate in the expedition.  The Hinchingbrooke’s Captain Horatio Nelson, was only twenty-one years old but had been in naval service since the age of twelve. He had proven himself a capable officer.  Nelson would command the naval force that escorted the troop carriers from Jamaica to the Mosquito Coast and the mouth of the San Juan River.  Following the landing of the expeditionary force, Nelson was instructed to provide naval support and secure supply lines.

Gov. Dalling issued a proclamation in Jamaica, calling for local volunteers to join the expedition, promising “riches and honor” while performing an “essential service to their country.”  Volunteers would be paid and fed as soldiers, but would also receive a share of any plunder taken.  Joining the expedition would be British regulars including a number of regiments who had been sent to Jamaica from New York.

I’ve seen some accounts that the British expedition was as much as 3000 men.  This seems to me to be inaccurately high.  That may be the number of total troops sent over the course of the entire campaign.  As best I can tell, there were between two and three hundred regulars from the 60th and 79th regiments.  There was another group of perhaps several hundred from the Loyal Irish Corps.  I believe this was a group of Irish loyalists raised around Boston in 1775, who had moved to New York with the army and then later got deployed to Jamaica.  There were also perhaps 200-250 volunteers raised in Jamaica. They were described as a mix of foreigners, negroes and Indians, which I assume describes anyone who volunteered in Jamaica and who was either not white or not from the British Empire.  These men were shipped aboard six or seven relatively small transport ships, escorted by the 28-gun Hinchingbrooke. In total, I’d estimate the expedition for this initial offensive was a bit under 1000 men.  

I mentioned that Captain Nelson of the navy had responsibility for the fleet.  The army officer in command of the expedition was Captain John Polson, who held the rank of major in America.

The expedition left Jamaica on February 3, 1780 with six months worth of provisions, traveling about 400 miles to the British-controlled island of Providence just off the coast of Nicaragua.  From there, the fleet sailed to Cape Gracias a Dios off the Honduran coast.  There, they planned to meet up with Major Lawrie, who had been tasked with raising a force of locals to join the expedition.  From there, the fleet would sail down the coast to the San Juan River, and proceed up the river toward Spanish defenses.

When the fleet arrived at Cape Gracias a Dios, Major Lawrie was a no-show.  They found only one officer who informed Major Polson that Lawrie was still inland trying to raise more recruits.  Rather than proceed without the local reinforcements, and not wanting to keep the men aboard ship where they would only grow sick, the expedition set up camp along the shore, and began their own efforts to recruit warriors from local tribes to join the campaign.  About a week later, Lawrie finally arrived with about 200 locals who were described as being in poor health.  The expedition took another week before leaving on March 7 for the San Juan River.

It took them more than two weeks to reach their target, arriving on March 24.  The army established a base at a coastal village known as Greytown.  The offloading went poorly.  Several overloaded boats capsized, leading to the loss of much-needed supplies.  Also, one man drowned.

Major Polson led his force up the river.  Captain Nelson accompanied the force.  As the group advanced, Polson received word from Jamaica, that another 300 regulars and 300 volunteers would arrive soon under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kemble, who would assume overall command.

Kemble, you may recall, was a New Jersey born Loyalist who had received a commission in the regular army before the war.  The Continental Army camped on his family farm at Morristown.  He was the brother-in-law of General Thomas Gage, the British commander when the war began.  Kemble had been in command of British intelligence in New York before Major John Andre bought the position from him and took over.  Kemble then shipped out for Jamaica with his regiment.

Fort San Juan

Major Polson pressed on, knowing that he would only receive the credit of any success he achieved before Kemble arrived and assumed command.

El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción
A British advance force of regulars detected, surrounded, and captured a small Spanish outpost.  Polson and Nelson designed a joint attack to ensure that none of the Spanish garrison could escape and alert the main force at El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepcion, about five miles further upriver.  The British executed the attack on April 9, taking prisoners but allowing one of the Spanish soldiers to escape.  The only British casualty was an unlucky soldier, who suffered a snake bite and died.

The British force continued on its way, reaching the castle the following day.  The castle, under the command of  Don Juan de Ayssa, had 14 foot high walls, twenty cannons, twelve swivel guns, and a garrison of about 150 defenders, less than half of whom were Spanish regulars.  The garrison was on alert from the one Spaniard who had escaped the attack on the outpost.  The defenders were prepared to defend against either a direct assault or a siege, and had already sent messengers for a relief force.

Because of the formidable defenses, Polson and Nelson opted for a siege of the castle.  They only had small four-pound field canons which could not hope to penetrate the four foot thick stone walls of the castle, but could harass the garrison inside by firing from a nearby ridge.  On April 13, the two sides settled into a siege.

The outnumbered Spanish defenders were no match for the British force.  The British, however, soon fell victim to the most deadly enemy of the jungle: disease.  Rain began to fall almost every day, making the unsheltered attackers miserable.  Malaria, dysentery, and typhoid fever began to ravage the ranks.  

The attackers began to run out of ammunition for their cannons as they had lost much of their ammunition in the accidents offloading their boats at the coast.  They also began to run out of food.  Nelson had been responsible for maintaining supply lines, but instead personally remained at the siege.  Supply details trying to bring food from the fleet often got lost up tributaries.

The failure to keep up a regular rate of fire led the Spanish to attempt an attack on the British besiegers leading to a brutal hand to hand combat between Spanish machetes and British bayonets.

After 16 days, the Spanish garrison surrendered, having run out of water and ammunition.  The British took control of the castle, renaming it Fort San Juan.  

Matias de Galvez

The Spanish official tasked with contesting the British was Matias de Galvez, recently appointed Captain General of Guatemala, a vast territory containing what is today Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica.  Galvez, who had been an army officer for much of his life, was now in his early 60’s, and not particularly eager to take to the field.  His son, Bernardo de Galvez had taken command at New Orleans and had contested with British forces in West Florida.  The elder Galvez had only received his appointment as Captain General a few months before the British expedition landed, but he had served in the region for many years.  When Galvez learned that the British had taken El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepcion, now Fort San Juan, he opted not to send a large force to retake the fort.  Instead, he reinforced nearby Fort San Carlos near where the San Juan River meets Lake Nicaragua, to prevent further British advance.

Galvez had been focusing on the British incursion further north along the coast at San Fernando de Omoa, in present day Belize, where the British had also captured a small fort, which I discussed back in Episode 240.  But Galvez never attempted to march more Spanish forces deep into the jungle to retake San Juan. Instead, he kept the British force there isolated, and allowed mother nature to do the dirty work for the Spanish.

Colonel Kemble Arrives

About two weeks after the British captured Fort San Juan, Colonel Kemble arrived with more British reinforcements.  He had hoped to continue upriver to Lake Nicaragua.  But when he arrived, he found the British garrison sick and dying. The fort was in disorder. There was not even a guard to challenge his force when they entered the fort.  Many of the natives warriors who had joined the expedition were annoyed that they had not been allowed to plunder the fort.  Having no desire to sit around with the rest of the sick and dying soldiers, almost all of them went home.  For the remaining garrison, hunger, disease, and relentless rains took its toll.

Stephen Kemble
After two months of this, after receiving more reinforcements, Col. Kemble led an advance force of about 250 soldiers upriver, despite continuing torrential rain.  The British advance force made its way thirty miles upriver to the mouth of Lake Nicaragua, only to find the Spanish had fortified the defenses there.  The Spanish garrison at Fort San Carlos was no match for the force that Kemble had brought with him.  A Spanish patrol discovered a British reconnaissance force that Kemble had deployed, meaning he also lost the element of surprise.  With that, he opted to return to Fort San Juan.

Kemble spent a few more months at Fort San Juan, looking for other Spanish targets in the area, or another route to Lake Nicaragua other than using the river.  The intelligence he gathered about Fort San Carlos convinced him that he could not take the fort without more reinforcements, and larger canons.

Kemble sent repeated requests back to Jamaica for more reinforcements.  He received promises form Governor Dalling, but found only continued frustration as few of the promises were ever kept.  As he waited, his garrison at Fort San Juan continued to be decimated by disease.


Meanwhile the British grew concerned that a French fleet might attempt to capture Jamaica.  Governor Dalling ordered Kemble to prepare to abandon Fort San Juan and return to Jamaica.  Near the end of the year, Kemble acted on orders from Dalling to blow up the fort and return with what remind of the expedition to Jamaica.

The Spanish forces occupied the ruins of the fort in January 1781 after the British had abandoned them.  The survivors of the expedition had evacuated to the coast, and prepared to return to Jamaica, finally returning in February 1781.

The campaign had been devastating for the British.  Of an estimated 1800 soldiers and 1000 sailors who had participated in the campaign, only 380 returned to Jamaica.  Almost all of the men had succumbed to disease and other poor conditions in a hostile jungle.

From the view in London the expedition had been a reasonable gamble - hoping to take territory or force the enemy to expend resources to stop them.  What British planners had not anticipated was the brutal rainy season and harsh jungle conditions that would ravage the expedition without the Spanish having to do much of anything.  The result was the needless loss of about 2500 British soldiers and sailors.

Next week: we return to New York where General Lafayette returns and the Connecticut line at Morristown mutinies.

- - -

Next Episode 246 Mutiny of the Connecticut Line (Available May 8, 2022)

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Further Reading


Kotlik, George “The British Invade Nicaragua: The San Juan Expedition” Journal of the American Revolution, September 22, 2020,

Gálvez, Matías De (1717–1784)

Kemble, Stephen

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Kemble, Stephen, The Kemble Papers, Vol. 2. New York Historical Society, 1884. 

James, W. M. The Durable Monument: Horatio Nelson, London: Longmans, 1948 (borrow only). 

Russell, William Clark Horatio Nelson and the Naval Supremacy of England, New York, G.P. Putnam's sons, 1890. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Sugden, John Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758–1797, Holt, 2004  (borrow on

Knight, R. J. B The Pursuit of Victory: The life and achievement of Horatio Nelson, New York: Basic Books, 2005.  (borrow on

Needle, Jan Nelson: The Poisoned River (Nelson Chronicles Book 1), Lume books, 2015 (fictional account, ebook only). 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.


Sunday, April 10, 2022

ARP244 Russia and the League of Armed Neutrality


Over the last few episodes, I’ve focused on how Britain has been struggling with a larger war against European powers.  The rebellion of its American colonies raised a sense in Britain’s enemies that it might be in a state of weakness. France in 1778, and Spain in 1779 went to war against Britain.  Other countries also began smelling blood.  Although not ready to go to war, they did hope to take advantage of the situation.

European Discord

Europe at this time was dominated by a few families of aristocrats that intermarried with one another.  They made whatever deals they had to do to maintain alliances of national security.  They were also always ready to pounce on a neighbor in a moment of weakness in order to add to their own real estate when possible. 

When various European powers went to war, diplomatic efforts turned to bringing allies into the war, or at least keeping potential enemies from joining the war.  Alliances shifted with some regularity, but a general trend over the prior couple of centuries was that Protestant countries generally squared off against Catholic countries.  So Catholic France, Spain, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tended to ally, along with smaller papal states in the Italian peninsula. Protestant Britain tended to ally with the Netherlands, Denmark (which included Norway) and Sweden (which included Finland), and Prussia and the smaller German states, . 

There were exceptions, of course.  Catholic Portugal often allied with Britain because Catholic Spain tended to be an enemy.  Nordic countries, including Sweden and Denmark sometimes allied with Catholic countries in order to fight their neighbors in the German states.  Russia tended to be all over the place, changing alliances regularly, and sometimes in the middle of a war.  It’s also important to remember at this time that wars were not the massive bloodbaths that we see beginning with the Napoleonic era.  

In the 18th Century, wars were fought between relatively small professional armies that did not involve the much larger civilian population.  Most of these people were peasants, who really didn’t care that much what distant monarch claimed sovereignty over them.  War might bring destruction, pillaging, and rape, but since all armies did that, including the one that ruled over the people, peasants were more concerned that the war would end quickly so they could get back to trying to survive.  If a different king took their same taxes and rents, that was not much of a concern.  Armies were made up of paid professional soldiers who were looking to conquer other paid professional soldiers.  The monarchs of Europe paid for these professional armies to protect their real estate and look to conquer others, like some giant game of Risk.

The 18th century wars in Europe and the constantly-shifting alliances could be a whole podcast by itself.  I only mention all this by way of background for the war that broke out in the 1770’s.  Spain and France were at war with Britain, but other European powers were mostly trying to stay out of the fight. War was an expensive proposition, so letting other countries fight each other while you built up your money and resources, would give you an advantage against those potential adversaries in the next war. One of the key countries that maintained its neutrality in this war was that of Russia, ruled by Catherine the Great.

Catherine the Great

Catherine II of Russia, also known as Catherine the Great, was like all the other European leaders, continually shifting alliances for whatever gave her country the greatest benefit..  Catherine had been born in the German state of Prussia, today part of Poland, as Princess Sophie.  Her father was Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, one of many tiny German states.  Since her father was not the first born son, his older brother ruled and Christian embarked on a military career.  These smaller states typically served in the larger Prussian Army, which usually provided military protection to the smaller German states.

Catherine, age 16
By the time of Sophie’s birth in 1729, her father was a major general.  Eighteen months earlier, the 37 year old general had married the 15 year old Princess Joanna Elizabeth, also from a minor noble family.  The couple lived a modest but comfortable life.  Joanna showed little interest in her daughter, allowing her to be raised by servants almost from birth. 

But the couple did have family connections.  Pretty much all royal marriages took place to other royals, meaning that almost all of them were interrelated in some way.  It was a strategy to keep wealth and power within the extended family.  Lower ranking royals used marriage as a way to improve their family’s status, wealth, and power.  It was also unusual to marry someone from your own country.  Marriages were a strategic way to maintain alliances. If your child married the child of your rival, perhaps he would be less interested in waging war against his grandchild.

By the time Princess Sophie was eight years old, her mother began shopping her around the great houses of Europe in search of a potential husband.  They didn’t have much luck.  The family lacked wealth and position.  A military general living in a townhouse was not impressive to the great royal families of Europe.  Even so, her mother worked to find Sophie an impressive match that would enhance the family’s stature.  By 1739, Sophie was ten years old and still without a fiancé.  

Peter III of Russia
Her mother went to visit her brother, Sophie’s uncle Adolf that year.  Adolf had recently become the guardian of eleven year old Charles Peter Ulrich, who was the only living grandchild of Peter the Great of Russia, and also a potential heir to the throne of Sweden.  The boy’s prospects made him a major catch for anyone looking for a strategic marriage.  Charles and Sophie were second cousins.  Sophie thought the boy was childish and ugly, and wanted nothing to do with him.

That, of course, was irrelevant.  The children would have no say in who they married.  Johanna began corresponding with the boy’s aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia.  Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great.  Elizabeth’s mother was Peter’s maid. She was illegitimate, but Peter later married her mother and tried to legitimize her birth.  The result was she had a hard time finding a spouse among the great families despite being daughter of the Tsar. Elizabeth had been engaged to Johanna’s brother.  He died before they could be married.  Johanna used that past relationship to begin correspondence with Elizabeth about a possible match between Johanna’s daughter Sophie, and the childish and ugly Charles Peter Ulrich that Sophie hated, 

A few years after the two children met, Elizabeth of Russia, through a whole series of deaths, coups, and other machinations too complex to get into here, assumed the throne and became Empress of Russia in 1741. She brought the boy to Russia and proclaimed him heir to the Russian throne.  He would go by the name Peter, and renounced his claims to the Swedish throne.  He converted to the Eastern orthodox religion and began to prepare to take the throne upon his aunt’s death.

Meanwhile, Sophie’s mother, Johanna continued to encourage Elizabeth to agree to a marriage to the heir-apparent of the Russian throne. Sophie’s prospect of marriage grew a bit when her father inherited his family’s principality upon the death of the last of his older brothers in 1742.  Probably more important was the support of the new King of Prussia Frederick II, later known as Frederick the Great.  Frederick wanted the marriage in order to strengthen the relationship between Russia and Prussia.  He was trying to pull Russia away from an alliance with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia’s enemy.

Empress Elizabeth
Sophie’s mother overplayed her hand and ended up being expelled from Russia as an accused spy for Prussia.  Elizabeth, however, had taken a liking to Sophie. With ministers from both Prussia and France encouraging the match as a way to improve international relations, Elizabeth approved the marriage.

In 1744, Sophie, by this time fifteen years old, moved to Russia, and prepared to become the wife of Peter. She took the name Catherine, converted to the Eastern Orthodox religion, and began learning how to speak Russian.  The following year, the sixteen year-old Catherine and the seventeen year-old Peter were married.

By many accounts, including Catherine’s he still despised her new husband and refused to consummate the marriage.  Both husband and wife began taking other lovers almost immediately.  

While the marriage relationship was, at best, strained. Catherine did work hard to build a good relationship with Empress Elizabeth.  Even this relationship was tactical, rather than out of any affection.  After four years of marriage, Catherine was accused of plotting with her husband to overthrow Elizabeth and take the Russian throne before the Empress passed away from natural causes.

The plot was crushed and kept relatively private.  Afterwards, however, Elizabeth pressured Catherine to produce an heir, likely with the intention that she would leave her throne directly to their child, and bypass Peter and Catherine entirely.

It took a few more years, but Catherine eventually had two children, a boy and a girl.  Peter was deemed to be the father, although there is great doubt as to whether this was really the case.  But the children were accepted as legitimate, and the boy, Paul, took his place in line for the throne.  Elizabeth took the child from Catherine and had the baby raised in her own household by nannies and tutors.

In 1762, the Empress Elizabeth died.  Peter and Catherine became the new Emperor and Empress of Russia.  At the time Russia was embroiled in the Seven Years War.  

Now remember, the whole point of marrying the Prussian Catherine to Peter was to cement the Prussia-Russia alliance.  That, however, did not take place.  Russia allied with Austria, France, Spain, and a few other powers against Prussia, Britain, Portugal, and others.  So, Russia was at war with Prussia and had captured Berlin.

Upon his ascension to the throne, however, Peter favored Prussia and was a huge fan of Frederick the Great.  He ended up switching sides and allying Russia with Prussia, and returning Berlin to Frederick.

Catherine, of course wanting to support her husband on this important matter of state, accepted this decision.  Of course, I’m joking.  Catherine deeply opposed her husband’s decision to ally with Prussia.  Following the truism that well-behaved women seldom make history, she began plotting to overthrow her husband.  After less than six months on the throne Catherine used the issue of the Prussian alliance to get the political support she needed to take the throne for herself, and have her husband thrown in jail.  Shortly thereafter, Peter died in his jail cell.  It was officially ruled a stroke, but most people believe he was murdered.

So, on the issue of opposing the alliance with Prussia, Russian leaders put the daughter of a Prussian general and an accused Prussian spy, in command of Russia.  Her son Paul was eight years old at the time, and had not really lived with his mother ever.  Catherine continued to leave the child’s upbringing to others while she ran the country.

In 1772, Paul turned eighteen and decided it was time to take over from his mother.  Catherine was having none of it.  She managed to keep him in the shadows while she continued to rule Russia as its only leader.

Catherine took efforts to modernize Russia and to extend its commerce.  Her position of power and her familial relationship to the great powers of Europe gave her some influence over international affairs.  

Russo-Turkish War

When the war began between Britain and its colonies, the last thing Russia wanted was to get involved in another war.  Catherine had rejected entreaties from George III of Britain to hire Russian soldiers to assist in the suppression of the American rebellion. 

End of Russo-Turkish War, 1772
At the time, Russia had just ended the Russo-Turkish War.  That war began in 1768, after Russian Cossacks in Poland crossed into Ottoman territory in what is today Ukraine.  The Ottomans took the border crossing by Russian soldiers as an act of war.  Perhaps Russia should have learned at the time that invading Ukraine was a bad idea, but apparently not a lesson that they took to heart.

I won’t go into all the details, but the war spread through the Caucuses and into the Mediterranean Sea, leading to about six years of bloody fighting.  It also led to the partition of Poland in 1774, causing officers like Thaddeus Kościuszko and Casimir Pulaski to flee the country and eventually head to America.

Russia was generally regarded as successful in the war, but had been left in debt and exhausted as a result of it.  When Britain came calling with an offer to join another war a year later, Catherine was not interested.  George would have to satisfy his military needs with Hessians instead. As an interesting aside, Catherine's brother, Frederick Agustus had become prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, the home of their father.  He did agree to rent some of his soldiers to George III and many of them went to America to fight as Hessians.

Merchant Shipping

Russia had built up an active trade with many European countries by the 1770’s.  Russian serfs produced iron that was feeding Britain’s industrial revolution.  Other Russian products were sent by ships to trade with the Netherlands and France.

While Russia and the other neutral powers were trying to avoid being drawn into war, they also did not want to end commerce.  Other northern powers, such as Denmark and Sweden all wanted to send commercial shipping through the English Channel to countries in southern Europe.  The British Navy did not want these neutral countries selling items to its enemies if those goods could benefit enemies’ war effort.  So British ships had no compunctions about boarding neutral merchant ships in open waters and seizing any goods they deemed to be contraband.  Russia also sent goods on British ships, which were being seized by privateers operating in European waters.

At this time, the most annoying neutral country for Britain was not  Russia, It was the Netherlands.  It was sending military goods to its island colonies in the West Indies.  There, American ships were purchasing war supplies and other necessities, which they would run back to North America for use in the ongoing war with Britain.

Charles Fielding
To combat this trade, Britain tried to compromise with the Netherlands, allowing it to continue to send general trade goods to America, but not military supplies.  The Netherlands rejected the offer, under the principle of you're not the boss of me, and I can do what I want - arguing it had every right to send military goods to its own colonies in the West Indies and Britain had no authority to prevent them.  If Americans were then smuggling those goods into America, that was Britain’s problem.

With no compromise possible, Britain informed the Netherlands that its navy would stop and search any Dutch vessels in the English Channel.  In January of 1780, a small British fleet in the Channel commanded by Commodore Charles Fielding, confronted a fleet of Dutch merchant ships and demanded the Dutch permit them to board and search the ships.  The Dutch commander refused.  Fielding ordered his ships to open fire, after which the Dutch almost immediately surrendered and the ships were taken as prizes to a British port.

The incident set off a diplomatic flurry as Dutch officials protested the British navy’s attack on neutral merchant ships.  It also gave Russian Empress Catherine the incident she needed to announce Russia’s new Declaration of Armed Neutrality.

League of Armed Neutrality

Russia saw the growing discord as a chance to increase Russian influence.  Catherine announced that Russia would resist any efforts by foreign ships to search Russian-flagged vessels at sea.  Russia entered into a treaty with Denmark and Sweden to cooperate in resistance to searches or any other interference with merchant vessels in the open sea.  It further demanded that the countries at war, Britain, France, and Spain, agree to respect these rights.

The principles asserted by the treaty were that neutral vessels could navigate freely between ports and along the coasts of the nations that were at war.   Even if neutral vessels carried property belonging to countries that were at war, they could be carried freely without interference, with the exception of contraband items (such as arms or ammunition).  It would protect items such as naval stores or ship’s timber which might be put to use supporting a belligerent country’s war effort, but also had legitimate peacetime uses.  A belligerent could blockade a port to prevent commercial traffic, but this could only be respected if there was a clear naval force blockading a port.  Roving vessels with intent to search or seize neutral merchant ships could not claim to be part of a blockade.

Spain and France accepted the principles laid out in the treaty right away.  Britain received the declaration from the Russian ambassador on April 1, 1780.  Britain agreed as a matter of policy to comply with some of the principles, but would not recognize any of them as international rights.  Britain believed that its navy was its most powerful weapon against France and Spain.  Giving up its power to interdict trade would hamper its war effort.

Challenging British resistance to the declaration, Russia announced that its League of Armed Neutrality would deploy a fleet of 84 Russian, Danish, and Swedish warships to keep open the seas to neutral merchant vessels.  If the British attacked these ships, it could lead to open war against the League, something that Britain really could not afford at the time.

The end result was that the League further isolated Britain from the rest of Europe.  The Netherlands attempted to join the League, but Britain ended up declaring war on the Netherlands before they got the chance to join, thus taking them out of the category of being a “neutral.”  Over the next few years, the other major powers of Europe joined the League, adopted its principles, and to some extent, contributed to its enforcement.  Prussia, Austria and Portugal would join the League in 1781.  Even Russia’s rival, the Ottoman Empire joined in 1782, and the powers that make up what is today southern Italy joined in 1783. 

The result was that virtually all of Europe was either at war with Britain or part of the league that was hostile to Britain’s naval policies.  Britain was finding itself even further isolated and subject to even greater threat from its lack of allies.

Next week: Britain opts to expand the war even further with its decision to attack Spanish outposts in Central America.

- - -

Next Episode 245 San Juan Expedition 

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Further Reading


Charles Fielding

Kaplan, Herbert H. “Observations on the Value of Russia’s Overseas Commerce with Great Britain during the Second Half of the Eighteenth Century.” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 1, Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, 1986, pp. 85–94,

Armed Neutrality

League of Armed Neutrality

Carpenter, William S. “The United States and the League of Neutrals of 1780.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 15, no. 4, American Society of International Law, 1921, pp. 511–22,

Griffiths, David M. “An American Contribution to the Armed Neutrality of 1780.” The Russian Review, vol. 30, no. 2, [Wiley, Editors and Board of Trustees of the Russian Review], 1971, pp. 164–72,

Kulsrud, Carl J. “Armed Neutralities to 1780.” The American Journal of International Law, vol. 29, no. 3, 1935, pp. 423–47,

Armed Neutralities - League of the armed neutrality

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Catherine, II, Memoirs of Catherine the Great, New York: Tudor Publishing Co. 1935 (borrow only) 

Haukeil, Henry A. and Tyrrell, H. The History of Russia from the foundation of the Empire to the War with Turkey in 1877–78, Volume 1 (London: The London Printing and Publishing Co. 1879.  

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Alexander, John T. Catherine the Great: Life and Legend, Oxford Univ. Press, 1988 (or read on 

.Almedingen, E. M. So dark a stream; a study of the Emperor Paul I of Russia, 1754-1801, Hutchinson & Co. 1959 (or read on

De Madariaga, Isabel, Catherine the Great: a short history, Yale Univ. Press, 1991 (or read on

De Madariaga, Isabel. Britain, Russia, and the Armed Neutrality of 1780: Sir James Harris's Mission to St. Petersburg During the American Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1962. 

Kaplan, Herbert H. Russian Overseas Commerce with Great Britain During the Reign of Catherine II. American Philosophical Society, 1995. 

Massie Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, Random House, 2012

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.