Watts' West Indies and Virginia expedition

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Watts' West Indies and Virginia expedition
Part of the Anglo–Spanish War
DeBry Map of Caribbean & Florida1594.jpg
Map of the Caribbean in 1594 by Theodor de Bry - the expedition took place in Cuba, Jamaica & Hispaniola
Date4 June - 18 July 1590
Between Hispaniola, Santiago colony (present day Jamaica) & Cuba

English victory [1] [2]

  • Expedition success [3]
Flag of Cross of Burgundy.svg  Spain Flag of England.svg England
Commanders and leaders
Rodrigo de Rada
Vicente González
Christopher Newport
Abraham Cocke
17 ships 6 Ships
400 men [4]
Casualties and losses
1 galleon captured [5]
1 galleon sunk,
4 ships captured,
3 ships run aground [6]
60 casualties [7]

Watts' West Indies and Virginia expedition also known as the Action of Cape Tiburon [6] was an English expedition to the Spanish Main during the Anglo–Spanish War. [5] [8] The expedition began on 10 May and ended by 18 July 1590 and was commanded by Abraham Cocke and Christopher Newport. This was financed by the highly renowned London merchant John Watts. [9] The English ships intercepted and dispersed Spanish convoys capturing, sinking and grounding a large number of ships off the Spanish colonies of Hispaniola, Cuba and Jamaica. [1] Despite losing an arm Newport was victorious and captured a good haul of booty. [10] A breakaway expedition from this discovered that the Roanoke colony was completely deserted and which gave the name The Lost Colony. [11]

Spanish Main

In the context of Spain's New World Empire, its mainland coastal possessions surrounding the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico were referred to collectively as the Spanish Main. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the southern portion of these coastal possessions was known as the Province of Tierra Firme, or the "mainland province".

Christopher Newport

Christopher Newport (1561–1617) was an English seaman and privateer. He is best known as the captain of the Susan Constant, the largest of three ships which carried settlers for the Virginia Company in 1607 on the way to found the settlement at Jamestown in the Virginia Colony, which became the first permanent English settlement in North America. He was also in overall command of the other two ships on that initial voyage, in order of their size, the Godspeed and the Discovery.

Sir John Watts was an English merchant and shipowner, active in the East India Company and Virginia Company and Lord Mayor of London in 1606.



By the end of 1589 the immediate threat of a Spanish invasion of England had been abated. Attempts were now made by privateering expeditions or joint stock companies to raid the Spanish Main. In the Spring of 1590 a privateering expedition had been raised and financed in London by merchant John Watts. Watts gathered a naval force with a mixture of armed merchants ships and naval vessels loaned by the English crown. [12] The force composed of the 22-gun, 160-ton flagship Hopewell (alias Harry and John) under Captain Abraham Cocke; the 160-ton Little John of Christopher Newport and the 35-ton pinnace John Evangelist of William Lane (brother of Ralph Lane). [13]

Joint-stock company business entity which is owned by shareholders

A joint-stock company is a business entity in which shares of the company's stock can be bought and sold by shareholders. Each shareholder owns company stock in proportion, evidenced by their shares. Shareholders are able to transfer their shares to others without any effects to the continued existence of the company.

Sir Ralph Lane was an English explorer of the Elizabethan era. He was part of the unsuccessful attempt in 1585 to colonise Roanoke Island, North Carolina. He also served the Crown in Ireland and was knighted by the Queen in 1593.

Their objective was to raid the Spanish West Indies and to coup the rewards of the expedition, but also on the return voyage to help the Roanoke colonists. With them was John White, an artist and friend of Sir Walter Raleigh who had accompanied the previous expeditions to Roanoke. Raleigh had helped put together the fleet along with the aid of White himself who was desperate to go back to Roanoke and help the colonists. [12] As a result, two ships, the Hopewell and the Moonlight were intended as a break off expedition to set sail for Roanoke. [14]

Roanoke Colony Former colony in present-day Dare County, North Carolina, United States

The Roanoke Colony, also known as the Lost Colony, was the first attempt at founding a permanent English settlement in North America. It was established in 1585 on Roanoke Island in what is now Dare County, North Carolina, United States. The colony was sponsored by Sir Walter Raleigh, although he himself never set foot in it.

John White (colonist and artist) English artist, and an early pioneer of English efforts to settle the New World

John White was a settler among those who sailed with Richard Grenville to present-day North Carolina in 1585, acting as artist and mapmaker to the expedition.

Walter Raleigh English aristocrat, writer, poet, soldier, courtier, spy, and explorer

Sir Walter Raleigh, also spelled Ralegh, was an English landed gentleman, writer, poet, soldier, politician, courtier, spy and explorer. He was cousin to Sir Richard Grenville and younger half-brother of Sir Humphrey Gilbert. He is also well known for popularising tobacco in England. Raleigh was one of the most notable figures of the Elizabethan era.


On 20 March the English set sail from Plymouth and crossed the Atlantic without hindrance and reached the island of Dominica by 10 May. [3] They replenished for victuals and two days later the Hopewell and John Evangelist had steered Northwest towards Puerto Rico, whilst leaving Little John temporarily off Dominica to intercept arriving Spanish vessels. All three later rendezvoused at Saona Island. [15]

Plymouth City and Unitary authority in England

Plymouth is a port city situated on the south coast of Devon, England, approximately 37 miles (60 km) south-west of Exeter and 190 miles (310 km) west-south-west of London. Enclosing the city are the mouths of the river Plym and river Tamar, which are naturally incorporated into Plymouth Sound to form a boundary with Cornwall.

Dominica country in the Caribbean

Dominica, officially the Commonwealth of Dominica, is an island country in the West Indies. The capital, Roseau, is located on the western side of the island. It is part of the Windward Islands in the Lesser Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. The island is located near Guadeloupe to the northwest and Martinique to the south-southeast. Its area is 750 km2 (290 sq mi), and the highest point is Morne Diablotins, at 1,447 m (4,747 ft) in elevation. The population was 71,293 at the 2011 census.

Puerto Rico Unincorporated territory of the United States

Puerto Rico, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and briefly called Porto Rico, is an unincorporated territory of the United States located in the northeast Caribbean Sea, approximately 1,000 miles (1,600 km) southeast of Miami, Florida.

Santo Domingo

On 29 May off the south coast of Hispaniola, Abraham Cocke's formation of three ships were joined by Edward Spicer's 80-ton Moonlight (alias Mary Terlanye) and the 30-ton pinnace Conclude of Joseph Harris in the morning. Cocke's reunited trio of vessels then blockaded the southern coast of Santo Domingo for two weeks, capturing the 60-ton Spanish merchantman Trinidad and two smaller island frigates on 17 and 24 June respectively. [6] After these captures the English broke off the blockade and moved further West towards the Tiburon peninsula of Hispaniola. [3]

Tiburon Peninsula region and peninsula in Haïti

The Tiburon Peninsula, or simply "the Tiburon", is a region of Haiti encompassing most of Haiti's southern coast. It starts roughly at the southernmost of the Haiti-Dominican Republic border and extends westward near Cuba, forming a large headland. Four of Haiti's ten departments are located entirely within the region. They are the departments of Grand'Anse, Nippes, Sud, and Sud-Est. A large part of Ouest department is also located in the region, with the capital, Port-au-Prince serving as the line of demarcation between central Haiti and the south. The biological hot-spot of the Massif de la Hotte is located in the region in which various endemic species on the island originate.

Tiburon to Colony of Santiago

On 12 July whilst off the Tiburon fourteen Spanish sail approached out of the east. [13] These ships were five days out of Santo Domingo and were bound toward the Spanish plate fleet assembly point at Havana escorted by Captain Vicente González's galleon. The English ships took up position to pursue and were just in time as Newport's Little John and John Evangelist came up to join them. [15]

Santo Domingo City in National District, Dominican Republic

Santo Domingo, officially Santo Domingo de Guzmán, is the capital and largest city in the Dominican Republic and the largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean by population. In 2010, its population was counted as 965,040, rising to 2,908,607 when its surrounding metropolitan area was included. The city is coterminous with the boundaries of the Distrito Nacional, itself bordered on three sides by Santo Domingo Province.

Spanish treasure fleet Convoy system used by the Spanish Empire from 1566 to 1790

The Spanish treasure fleet, or West Indies Fleet from Spanish Flota de Indias, also called silver fleet or plate fleet, was a convoy system of sea routes organized by the Spanish Empire from 1566 to 1790, which linked Spain with its territories in America across the Atlantic. The convoys were general purpose cargo fleets used for transporting a wide variety of items, including agricultural goods, lumber, various metal resources such as silver and gold, gems, pearls, spices, sugar, tobacco, silk, and other exotic goods from the overseas territories of the Spanish Empire to the Spanish mainland. Spanish goods such as oil, wine, textiles, books and tools were transported in the opposite direction. The West Indies fleet was the first permanent transatlantic trade route in history. Similarly, the Manila galleons were the first permanent trade route across the Pacific.

Havana Capital city of Cuba

Havana is the capital city, largest city, province, major port, and leading commercial center of Cuba. The city has a population of 2.1 million inhabitants, and it spans a total of 781.58 km2 (301.77 sq mi) – making it the largest city by area, the most populous city, and the fourth largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean region.

Location of Tiburon Peninsula, Hispaniola (present day Haiti) LocationTiburon.PNG
Location of Tiburon Peninsula, Hispaniola (present day Haiti)

Cocke gave an immediate signal to attack; the Spanish who saw the English approach decided to scatter, and the armed ships attempted to form a defensive position to allow the lighter armed vessels to escape. [13] Suddenly on seeing Newport's ships came from behind Cocke's vessels, Gonzalez decided to retreat. [6] Most of the Spanish convoy decided to scatter south west and they were pursued until nightfall by the six privateers, who took a single prize, a pinnace. [1]

The following morning, Hopewell, Moonlight, and Conclude then discovered the 350-ton, nine-gun Spanish vice flagship galleon Buen Jesús of Captain Manuel Fernández Correa and Master Leonardo Doria anchored nearby. Cocke then attacked surprising the Spanish; with the Buen Jesús unable to get away in the process of hauling its anchor a long range exchange of fire commenced in which six Spanish were killed and four wounded. [6] The English then closed amidships firing as they came alongside but as they attempted to boarded the vessel they were repelled. [13] Undeterred the English made a more determined attack and secured it despite a stout, four-hour resistance most of which consisted of hand to hand fighting. [15] As well as the ship being captured sixty eight Spaniards were captured with another twenty killed or wounded while English losses were around fifteen. [16]

Whilst the fight for Buen Jesus was going on Little John and John Evangelist chased González's main body which was headed South West toward the Colony of Santiago (present day Jamaica) and all the while exchanged broadsides with the Spanish flagship. [17] As soon as the Spanish arrived off Caguaya bay the English ships immediately drove at two of them. [18] With intense fire the English were able to force the two ships aground before the six or seven Spanish vessels that survived reached Santiago de la Vega. [1] English boat parties then immediately attacked the grounded ships; the Spanish that did defend them were easily driven off. [15] An attempt to re float both beached vessels then began as they used ropes and a helpful southerly wind. [3] The English managed to get one of the ships off the beach but the attempt was not successful with the other ship - already badly damaged it then sank. [6] The English then re embarked their ships and together with the new prize sailed Northwest toward Cape Corrientes. [17]

On 14 July Cocke gave the Buen Jesus to Newport for protection since her cargo was immense and needed to be transported back to England with haste. The cannons and firearms from the ship were stripped of before Newport's victorious privateers withdrew from the Jamaican coastline and headed East towards Cuba. [16]

Cayo Jutias

Cayo Jutias as seen today Cayo Jutias-Mangrove (4).jpg
Cayo Jutias as seen today

At sunset on 18 July, Newport's Little John and John Evangelist sighted three Spanish merchantmen off Cayo Jutias (west of Havana and North of Los Órganos). [15] They proved to be stragglers from Commodore Rodrigo de Rada's convoy from Veracruz, which had entered the Cuban capital five days earlier. [17] The English attacked in the darkness and opened fire compelling one ship to reverse course. The following morning the English closed in on the remaining pair: the 150 ton Nuestra Señora del Rosario Captained by Miguel de Acosta and a 60-ton pinnace Nuestra Señora de la Victoria under Juan de Borda. [7] The Spaniards had lashed both vessels together, and a long-range artillery exchange commenced which the English got the better off, severely damaging Victoria. [3] The English then closed amidships with the Victoria and managed to board her and ferocious hand-to-hand combat soon followed. [5] Newport killed the Spanish captain in the melee that followed but soon after his right arm was struck off by another Spaniard trying to protect his captain. [6] However Newport was saved by a sergeant of arms who killed his would be assailant. [15] The Spanish were soon driven from the vessel and the English suffered five killed and sixteen wounded (including Newport) while the Spanish losses were higher. [16]

The English then discovered Victoria to be so badly holed that it sank within fifteen minutes taking much of the silver within. [9] The next target the Spanish vessel Rosario was swiftly boarded not long after. [10] Another viscous fight took place but again the English soon forced the Spanish from the vessel having suffered two killed and eight injured. [3] The Rosario too was badly damaged and sinking; the English had no choice and drove the vessel ashore western end of Cayo Jutias. [7] Soon after Newport despite being in pain and shock still sent orders and released the Spanish prisoners and sent them ashore. [6] The English then pillaged the vessel but found only a small haul of valuables after which was then broken up and burnt. [18] Newport with only half his arm ordered a return to England. [16]

Newport sailed back to England leaving Cocke in charge, so the Hopewell and the Moonlight with John White sailed to Roanoke with their half of the mission complete. [19] [11]

Expedition to Roanoke

The discovery of the word "Croatoan" carved onto a stockade board Croatoan.jpg
The discovery of the word "Croatoan" carved onto a stockade board

Meanwhile, the other half of the expedition sought to land at the English colony of Ranoake. White's eventual landing at the Outer Banks was further imperilled by poor weather and the landing was hazardous and was beset by bad conditions and adverse currents. [16]

On August 18, 1590 he finally reached Roanoke Island, but he found his colony had been long deserted. The few clues about the colonists whereabouts included the letters "CRO" carved into a tree, and the word "CROATOAN" carved on a post of the fort. Croatoan was the name of a nearby island (likely modern-day Hatteras Island) and a local tribe of Native Americans. [11] The colonists had agreed that a message would be carved into a tree if they had moved and would include an image of a Maltese Cross if the decision was made by force. With no sign of the colonists and the weather becoming worse White returned to Plymouth on October 24, 1590. [20]


Newport returned home to a hero's welcome by early September and counted the large spoils of which was a profitable expedition. [1] The biggest and most profitable was the 300 ton Buen Jesus which sailed into Plymouth in September - the prize had been from Seville, and was typical of Spanish trade at the time. On board: 200 boxes of sugar, at least 5,000 hides, 2,000 hundredweight of ginger, 400 hundredweight of guacayan wood, twelve hogsheads of Chile pepper, twenty hundredweight of sarsaparilla, twenty hundredweight of cane and over 4,000 ducats in pearls, gold, and silver. [16]

The English expedition and the defeat of the convoys proved frustrating to the Spanish. Their commander Rodrigo de Rada wrote afterwards:

the shamelessness of these English ships has reached a point they have come very close to this harbour [Havana] even pursuing barges which bring water from a league away. [9]

Addicted to the prize hunting, Newport set out again, despite the loss of his arm - he owed his life to the ship's surgeon. [19] The following year as captain of the Margaret he combined Barbary trade with Watt's most successfully financed expeditions; the Blockade of Western Cuba. Between 1592 and 1595, when captaining the Golden Dragon, Newport kept to the West Indies again. In 1592 he was given command of a flotilla of privateers and he pioneered attacks on the towns of the Spanish Caribbean. On his return he helped to capture the Madre de Deus off the Azores and was chosen to sail her to England, making him a very rich man. [21]


Newport would be shown erroneously with an arm (played by Christopher Plummer) in Terence Malick's film of the Jamestown settlement "New World" and his statue at Christopher Newport University of which is named after him. [10]

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Bradley pp 104-05
  2. Nichols p 33
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Loker pp 111-112
  4. The Roanoke voyages, 1584-1590: documents to illustrate the English voyages to North America under the patent granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584, Volume 104, Part 2. Hakluyt Society. 1955. p. 69.
  5. 1 2 3 Andrews p 87
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Marely (2008) pp 77-78
  7. 1 2 3 Nichols pp 24-28
  8. Appleby p 189
  9. 1 2 3 Andrews p 164-65
  10. 1 2 3 Bicheno p 316
  11. 1 2 3 Milton pp 261-65
  12. 1 2 Aronson p. 105
  13. 1 2 3 4 The Roanoke voyages, 1584-1590: documents to illustrate the English voyages to North America under the patent granted to Walter Raleigh in 1584, Volume 104, Part 2. Hakluyt Society. 1955. pp. 584–590.
  14. Milton pp 257-58
  15. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Milton pp 259-60
  16. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hakluyt Society, pp 592-603
  17. 1 2 3 Marley (2005) p 150
  18. 1 2 Southey p 210
  19. 1 2 Nichols pp 29-33
  20. Milton pp 266-68
  21. Bicheno 2012, p. 304–06.


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