The Battle of Flores (1592), Cruising Voyage to the Azores of 1592, or the Capture of the Madre de Deus was a series of naval engagements that took place from the 20th of May till the 19th of August 1592 during the Anglo-Spanish War. The battle was part of an expedition by an English fleet led by initially Walter Raleigh then Martin Frobisher and John Burrough. The expedition involved the capture of a number of Portuguese and Spanish ships including the large Portuguese Carrack Madre de Deus which was captured after a long naval battle off Flores island. The expedition, particularly the capture of the great carrack was a huge success financially and militarily. The rich cargo on board the carrack was subject to mass theft when it arrived in Dartmouth, England and subsequent arguments of share. The expedition would have huge consequences for the English not just financially but also on the future of English exploration.
By virtue of the Iberian Union, the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 was in abeyance, and as the Anglo–Spanish War was still ongoing, Portuguese shipping was a fair target for the Royal Navy. Sir Walter Raleigh having only been released from the Tower received a commission by Queen Elizabeth I for an expedition to the West Indies. A naval squadron was fitted out by him numbering sixteen ships of which two, the Garland and Foresight belonged to the Queen.
The expedition was a private venture much like the Drake-Norris expedition with only some assistance and subsidies coming direct from the crown. Its objective was to pillage any Spanish and Portuguese ships within the Atlantic, off the Spanish coast or the Caribbean and for the venture to make a profit of which the Queen would receive a large sum.
Sir John Burrough as vice-admiral was to command the fleet and was joined in commission with Sir Martin Frobisher with his experienced knowledge of maritime affairs. George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland had a large stake in the expedition; the ship Dainty (owned by John Hawkins under command of John Norton as well as many of the support ships that were with the fleet belonged to him. The fleet included many famous names of the day William Monson, Robert Crosse captain of the Foresight, Samuel Purchas, Richard Hawkins and Christopher Newport (who lost his arm fighting the Spaniards in the Caribbean in 1590) captain of the Golden Dragon.
The expedition was established at Dartmouth setting sail on 6 May 1592 after a number of delays due to bad weather and this meant heading to the West Indies was put on hold as supplies had already been used. Instead the fleet intended to head towards the Azores where it could intercept a Spanish plate fleet or Portuguese Carracks heading from the East Indies. Initially Sir Walter Raleigh was in command but on the following day, 7 May the fleet was overtaken by Sir Martin Frobisher in the pinnace Disdain. Raleigh was given letters written from the Queen ordering his recall to England so that he could be retained there and as a result relinquished his command in favour of Frobisher. On the 11th May a storm struck just off Cape Finisterre scattering the majority of the fleet; three small ships were sunk and Garland very nearly foundered.
The fleet nearing Cape St Vincent would split into two sections as ordered by Raleigh, one under John Burrough was to head to the Azores to lay in wait for Spanish and Portuguese ships. The other under Sir Martin Frobisher in Garland with George Clifford were to cruise off Cape St. Vincent with the strategy of keeping the Spanish fleet to remain on their own coast.
As the fleet sailed further South by the end of May they came across the Santa Clara just off Cape St. Vincent; an armed Spanish galleon of 600 tons. The English captured the ship after some heavy resistance, taking whatever goods the Spanish had failed to retrieve from her burnt-out hull. She was carrying a large amount of ironware valued at £7000 and was sailing to Sanlúcar de Barrameda where further freight was destined for the West Indies. With the capture, the fleet separated leaving the prize and goods in the hands of Frobisher and Clifford.
As the fleet headed further South from the Cape in early June, Burrough in the Roebuck took a Spanish flyboats after a long chase which brought him near the Spanish coast and the master gave information, that a great fleet was prepared at Cadiz and Sanlúcar. Having received notice that Sir Walter Raleigh was fitted out with a strong force for the West Indies, Philip II of Spain had provided a large fleet to oppose him but at the same time to escort the imminent arrival of the rich East India carracks back to port. Don Alonso de Bazán, brother to the Marquis of Santa Cruz and Captain General of the Armada, was to pursue the fleet of Raleigh and intercept him. As Burrough's men were burning the flyboat, part of the Spanish fleet was spotted and Burrough having rejoined his own fleet soon sailed to the Azores subsequently losing sight of them.
Meanwhile further North off Portugal Frobisher with his position becoming untenable captured a prize fresh from Brazil laden with sugar heading to Lisbon on the 18th of June and a few days later a Spanish caravel. With this prize Frobisher's separated expedition headed back to England from Cape St. Vincent having also missed de Bazán's fleet sailing further South to them.:121
Burrough's ships did not to wait long before the scout ships spotted a large vessel coming their way near Corvo Island on the 25th of June.
The vessel was the Portuguese carrack - the Santa Cruz of 800 tons; which was pursued by three of Cumberland's owned ships. A storm arrived and forced the English away from shore but not the Santa Clara which was beached on the coast of Corvo. The Portuguese who had disembarked then set up entrenchments nearby once the storm had passed the following morning, taking off the cargo and burning the vessel. Burrough immediately dispatched 100 soldiers who waded ashore and having easily dispersed those who guarded the shore, after some resistance the site was captured with the Portuguese fleeing. The precious cargo burnt inside the ship although some was salvaged by the English. Prisoners were taken including the ships purser and two foreign gunners and under threat of torture, they then confessed that within fifteen days three other carracks would arrive at the same island. There were five carracks in the fleet having departed from Goa and headed for Lisbon; as well as the Santa Clara, the Buen Jesus admiral, Madre de Dios, San Bernardo, and San Christophoro. The Madre de Deus was the largest a thirty-two gun of 1,600 tons, one of the greatest belonging to what was the crown of Portugal and one of the largest ships ever built.
With the news of the imminent arrival of the carracks, the English ships waited and raided the villages on Corvo for supplies. For the month of July each English ship was spaced about six miles apart in an axis that was South and North. From the Southern flank near Flores Island, the ships were lined up as followed; Dainty, Golden Dragon, Roebuck, Tiger, Sampson, Prudence and Foresight.:121 The Spanish fleet which had been sighted briefly seemed no longer a threat; De Bazan had made major miscalculation in that by disobeying orders and heading further West, the English had reached the area of interception first.
Madre De Deus
On August 3 Dainty sighted a large ship heading directly towards them and as it drew nearer the size of the ship was suddenly realized. The massive carrack was far larger than the Santa Cruz and was three times the size of England's biggest ship. The Madre de Dios was attacked by Dainty, which as it approached was totally dwarfed by the huge carrack. Around midday Newport's Golden Dragon followed by Roebuck; more substantial ships than Dainty but still only a fraction of the size of the Madre came in to the attack. These were by followed by two hours intervals whereby they were joined by the Queen's owned Foresight and Prudence in the evening with the aim to weaken the defences so a boarding party could follow. In the action the smaller vulnerable Dainty had her foremast shot away and then was out of the battle for five hours.:122
The English hoped to avoid sinking the ship and also to prevent her from running aground as had been done with Santa Clara, in addition crews were praying for good weather. The damage on the Madre de Dios defences was becoming serious with her bow rigging all but disabled Burrough sent the Roebuck which then crashed into the Madre de Dios followed by Foresight with both being directly under the main guns.:122 Then the assault was made by boarding in the dark at 10 pm - Golden Dragon, Sampson and Tiger and the repaired Dainty came up in support and with the numbers soon adding the English took the ship after a bloody battle most of which involved hand to hand combat.
The decks of the Madre De Dios were bloody and strewn with bodies; especially around the helm. The carrack was very nearly destroyed when a cabin which was full of cartridges was set on fire and only quick action saved the ship. Burrough spared Captain Fernão de Mendonça and the rest of the wounded, sending them ashore to the Azores. Burrough was trying to keep his own ship the Roebuck afloat as it had sustained damage when it crashed into the Madre and in the process Cumberland's men started pillaging the carrack.:122 Only when Burrough came aboard and claimed the prize in the name of the Queen did any pillaging stop; any sailor was stripped of 'stolen' goods, however this proved only temporary.
The carrack was quickly repaired, heavily guarded by all ships and the expedition set sail back for England De Bazan now closed in on the English but he was too late, for a hundred leagues he pursued the English but in vain and returned to Spain having missed such an opportunity. The fleet reached the English channel in early September without incident.
As the ship sailed back to England Burrough produced an inventory - the produced report mentions; "Gods great favor towards our nation, who by putting this purchase into our hands hath manifestly discovered those secret trades & Indian riches, which hitherto lay strangely hidden, and cunningly concealed from us.:124
Among these riches were chests filled with jewels and pearls, gold and silver coins, ambergris, rolls of the highest-quality cloth, fine tapestries, 425 tons of pepper, 45 tons of cloves, 35 tons of cinnamon, 3 tons of mace and 3 of nutmeg, 2.5 tons of benjamin (a highly aromatic balsamic resin used for perfumes and medicines), 25 tons of cochineal and 15 tons of ebony.:125–27 There was also a rutter and a document, printed at Macau in 1590, containing valuable information on the China and Japan trade; Hakluyt observes that it was "enclosed in a case of sweet Cedar wood, and lapped up almost an hundredfold in fine Calicut-cloth, as though it had been some incomparable jewel".
The ship entered Dartmouth harbor on September 7, towering over the other ships and the town's small houses as it sailed by. The only vessel guarding it being the Roebuck as the other vessels had slipped off to sell of some of the riches in Portsmouth. Nothing like it had ever been seen in England - the whole frame, the extreme length, from the beak head to the stern was 165 feet long. The breadth at the broadest deck, was just over 46 feet. Her draft of water was twenty six feet at her arrival in Dartmouth. She contained several decks; one main orlop, three main decks, one forecastle, and a spar deck of two floors each. The length of the keel was 100 feet, of the main-mast was 121 feet, and its circumference at the partners was just over ten feet. The main-yard was 106 feet long.
Seeing this huge vessel, pandemonium broke lose amongst the townspeople. Madre de Deus attracted all manner of traders, dealers, cutpurses and thieves from miles around, and even from as far as London and beyond; they visited the floating castle and sought out drunken sailors in taverns and pubs, buying, stealing, pinching and fighting for the takings. Local fishermen as well would constantly venture aboard and back to shore, further depleting the cargo.
English law at the time provided that a large share of the loot was owed to the sovereign, and when Queen Elizabeth disocvered the true extent of the theft, she sent Sir Walter Raleigh to reclaim her money and punish the looters. Sir Walter swore, "If I meet any of them coming up, if it be upon the wildest heath in all the way, I mean to strip them as naked as they were ever born, for Her Majesty has been robbed and that of the most rare things." By the time Raleigh had restored order, a cargo estimated at half a million pounds (nearly half the size of England's treasury and perhaps the second-largest treasure ever after the Ransom of Atahualpa) had been reduced to £140,000. Still, ten freighters were needed to carry the treasure around the coast and up the River Thames to London. In all the expedition as a whole yielded Elizabeth a 2000% return on her investment.
Both Burrough and Clifford however were disappointed in what they were given and the share in the rich prize was angrily contested with a number of investors. Firstly for Cumberland it was legally decided against, to whom, as special compensation, the queen allotted a sum in consideration of his money venture. For Burrough there was no compensation and bitter quarrels continued in which he would eventually be killed in a duel two years later.
Alonso de Bazan, having a greater fleet and failing to intercept any English ship and suffering the loss of two large carracks was disgraced by the king of Spain for his negligence. As for the English practical lessons were learned, firstly the fleet wound not divide itself as had been done before capturing the Madre de Deus making more of an effective force. Secondly as some years later, when a rich Spanish or Portuguese ship was captured and brought into the Thames for unloading, the Dockers were made to dress in "suits of canvas doublet without pockets".
The foretaste of the riches of the East galvanized English interest in the region in particular being the Madre de Deus's rutter from Macau and was a forerunner to voyages that would end up establishing the East India Company in 1600. As a result by 1603 the newly formed company itself would end up with a trading factory at Bantam.
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