Historical background

The Cadiz journal appears to have been written in February/March 1810. The author says he had arrived in Cadiz from North Africa and we can therefore suppose that the Ceuta report comes from the weeks or months before this. So what was the context for the worry about Ceuta and why was Cadiz under siege?

The year 1810 falls right in the middle of the Peninsular War (1807-1814). The first half went France’s way. Something of a stalemate ensued but this was broken in 1811 when the French withdraw troops to support their disastrous invasion of Russia. Hanging in the background of the two documents is the impact of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 which had given the British mastery of the seas.

France and Spain were not entirely happy allies, but they resolved to invade Portugal together which they did in November 1807. Napoleon withdrew his troops from Portugal but was slow to withdraw them from Spain and occupied a large part of northern Spain. This soured relations and caused the Spanish to withdrew their troops from Portugal. Napoleon responded by forcing the abdication of the Spanish king and installing his brother Joseph as king. This led to open revolts across Spain. Some people supported the French, some wanted a republic, while others were loyal to the Spanish royal family. A general uprising in May 1808 led to the fragmentation of the government and the creation of a series of juntas around the country.

Over the next eighteen months, French armies advanced into each region, generally defeating the local Spanish armies but never quite having the ability to wipe them out as they melted into the hills and commenced guerilla activities, targeting the French supply lines. Already allied with Portugal, Britain came to the aid of Spain and signed a treaty of support.

At the end of 1808 a French army under French General Soult advanced into north west Spain, defeating a British army under Sir John Moore at Corunna. Soult then turned south and attempted to re-invade Portugal in January 1809, only to be ejected by an Anglo-Portuguese army led by Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington), who was newly returned to the Peninsula. Wellesley followed up by advancing towards Madrid and, in July 1809, fought the battle of Talavera which was a tactical victory. However, being heavily out-numbered, he retreated back to Portugal.1

Meanwhile, in the south, the French under General Dupont tried to invade Andalusia which covers the whole of southern Spain, including Cadiz and the land around Gibraltar. He was defeated at Bailen, also in July 1809, where 17,000 French were captured. This was the biggest Spanish victory of the war and lived long in Spanish memories. Our author refers to its impact in his Cadiz journal and we can assume that many of the French prisoners being held in hulks had been captured at Bailen.

In early 1810, the French once again invaded Andalusia, bottling up the national Junta in Cadiz. They then settled down for a siege which began on 5 February, 20 days before our author’s Cadiz journal starts. Our author describes the easy-going air of the population in the early days of this siege and describes the difficulty of attacking the city. It was hardly surprising: the city was naturally defended from the mainland and with control of the seas in the hands of the British fleet, the populace could be supported by supply ships and protected by offshore artillery.

A stalemate ensued as the Anglo-Portuguese army was not strong enough to take on the much larger free-ranging French armies in major battles.

The siege of Cadiz lasted until August 1812, after the decisive battle of Salamanca (July 1812), on the road to Madrid. Faced with the withdrawal of frontline troops to support the the Grande Armées disastrous invasion of Russia, and an active and effective Anglo-Portuguese army, the French had no option but to withdrew troops from southern Spain to protect their supply lines. From then on, it was downhill to the end of the first part of Napoleon’s reign.

Our author mentions his concerns about the threat to Gibraltar. This is unsurprising given the presence of a large French army in Andalusia. But do we also detect a degree of pique in his tone when he mentions the need to garrison Ceuta to control the whole of the Straits of Gibraltar and thus avoid ships passing through the straits in the mist as had happened when Villeneuve had escaped Nelson’s fleet in 1805, in the prelude to Trafalgar?

  1. Our author may have been referring to this when he mentions Henry Wellesley’s ‘… brother’s failure …’ in his comments in the Cadiz journal