The Day Port Royal ‘Burned’
Archaeologists Shed New Light on 1782 Battle

May 28th, 2013

Matías de Gálvez y Gallardo, Spanish governor of Guatemala, led the invasion force history tells us expelled the British from Roatan in 1782. But recent archaeological evidence calls contemporary accounts of those events into question.

Matías de Gálvez y Gallardo led the force history tells us expelled the British from Roatan in 1782. Recent evidence calls that account into question.

This month in 1779 Spain declared war on Great Britain in support of the English North American colonists’ quest for independence. Britain responded by going on the offensive in the Western Caribbean, including by reoccupying the fortifications at New Port Royal on Roatan it had abandoned per a 1748 treaty ending a previous Anglo-Spanish war. History tells us that three years later a Spanish force from Guatemala invaded Roatan, defeated the British garrison, destroyed the fortifications and expelled the British from the island. But what if it didn’t happen that way? Christian Wells, an archaeologist from the University of South Florida who has been digging around New Port Royal since 2009, says his team has “yet to find any evidence that the Spanish burned and sacked the community, as they had originally reported.” Wells and his team have made four field trips to the Port Royal area, concentrating on the ruins of Augusta, a military garrison and settlement established by the British and their Miskito allies in 1742. Their research has focused primarily on the social and cultural interactions between the English and Miskito settlers and the process of royalization of the Miskito – engendering them to self-identify as British subjects. But along the way they have encountered evidence, or the lack thereof, that calls into question some commonly accepted elements of the historical record. In particular, in an article published last year in American Archaeology, Wells noted an “absence of evidence of flight” from Augusta, such as hurriedly leaving behind valuables, leading him to suspect the Spanish troops may have embellished the battle reports to their superiors to make it appear they “did everything they could to squeeze the British.” Now, in retrospect, Wells tells the Voice, “I would not say that Gálvez (the Spanish commander) embellished his reports, but simply that what we have found archaeologically does not match the substance of those reports … the specific places where we excavated fail to support the claim that the settlement was destroyed.” Under the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the war, the British were given 18 months to vacate all settlements in Central America outside present-day Belize. Wells said evidence from his digs confirmed the British left Augusta around that time, just not necessarily in a rush. The Spanish reports also said they removed 300 slaves from Roatan after the battle and sold them at auction in Havana. But Wells said his team had not found “any material evidence of slaves” at Augusta. Wells also told the Voice the team had been unable to find “any physical evidence” of the colony that archival records indicate William Claiborne’s Providence Company established in the vicinity of Port Royal between 1638 and 1642. “We feel pretty confident that the Providence Company was located in the environs of Port Royal on the far east end of the island,” he said. “We just have yet to find it.” Wells acknowledged that the archaeological record is “coarse” and that the team might not be looking in the “right” places. But his team has definitely dug up some new dirt on some old questions. Christian Wells and Lorena Mihok of the University of South Florida will publish some of the findings of their field research on Roatan in an upcoming issue of the International Journal of Historical Archaeology. Read more about the Roatan archaeological project by clicking here.

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