Hey Brother, Can You Spare A Peso?

The 1st in a series of articles about Spain’s forgotten contributions to American independence.

By Eric B. Ramey

When the Revolutionary War erupted in 1775, Spain saw a golden opportunity For revenge.  Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake and Henry Morgan are but a few 16th and 17th century names synonymous with daring British raids of the Spanish Main.

The contest between Spain and England raged on into the 18th century as these countries constantly vied for colonial supremacy. Spain lost and eventually regained it’s financial nerve center of Havana in 1763, but at a heavy cost; Spain had to cede both Florida and the island of Minorca to the British crown.  Now at last there was a chance break the British control from within her own colonies. Almost immediately, Spain sent two million in currency and sundry war material to support the Continentals.  Along with France, Spain pledged its support to the new nation and entered into a secret agreement to support the rebellion against Great Britain. Spain (at the moment) was not at war with England, so assistance had to be clandestine, the Spanish not wanting to endanger an already tense neutrality.  To this end, a “dummy” corporation was formed by both France and Spain to covertly funnel money and supplies to the fledgling American colonies.  Roderique Hortelez et Cie was formed in May of 1776 and was financed by Carlos III and Louis XVI, the king of Spain and France respectively.  Each contributed one million to establish and operate the company, which was headquartered in France, but based on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius. 

St. Eustatius, a Dutch possession at the far eastern end of the Caribbean, became, in effect, the marshaling point for foreign aid and supplies sent to the new United States.  The island was a veritable “shopping destination” and provided the latest in goods to those who could afford it.  At any given time, one could find an assortment of expensive imported silks, rich with embroidery, painted and printed cotton calicos, gloves, fine stockings, clothing and goods sure to satisfy even the richest tastes.  In 1779 alone, St. Eustatius received and shipped over twenty five million pounds of sugar to destinations around the globe.  So much wealth passed across its shores that the island was known as “The Golden Rock”.  In addition to goods and raw materials, the traders and agents of St. Eustatius privately obtained a variety of military supplies from Spain, Holland, France, Portugal, even England, and promptly provided or sold them to the United States.

If St. Eustatius was the marshaling point, then New Orleans was the distribution conduit.  Originally a French colony, New Orleans was given to Spain by France after the French and Indian War, as reparation for the loss of Florida.  Sitting at the terminus of the Mississippi River, the city was perfectly situated to send much needed supplies upstream to the Continentals.  Jose de Galvez, Spain’s Minister to the Indies was instructed by his king to lend as much support as possible to the struggling Americans.  In response, tremendous amounts of supplies were shipped up the Mississippi by the Spanish.  Muskets, cartridge boxes, uniforms, shirts, lead, gunpowder, medicine and food spread out from the Crescent City, making their way to the Continentals by barge and by ship.  Between 1776 and 1779, Spain gave the Americans lines of credit and loans totaling roughly eleven million, over three hundred thousand pounds of gunpowder, over two hundred cannons, and thousand upon thousands of musket balls, muskets, bayonets, tents, grenades, bayonets, uniforms, shirts and shoes.  After three years of covert support, Spain declared War on Great Britain in June of 1779, and overtly turned its forces in the Caribbean to supporting America’s Revolution.



In addition to organizing and conducting military operation against the British, Carlos III instituted a colony-wide tax or donation, of one peso per Indian and two pesos per Spaniard.  Monies (and in some cases supplies of an equal sum) were sent to and distributed from Mexico City.  The “donativo” or war-tax, generated a tremendous amount of hard currency and goods, to be used for the American cause. 

One “peso” or “dollar” was the equivalent of a “piece of eight”.  The coin could be split into eight separate pieces and divided into quarters, hence the term “two-bits” describing two pieces, or a “quarter” of the eight.  To give an example of the size of this one-time “donation”, Alta or “upper” California’s contribution alone totaled well over four thousand pesos.  Supposedly, Fr. Junipero Serra, the Franciscan founder of the California system of missions, covered the province’s entire obligation from church funds.

By 1781, the British had had enough of St. Eustatius and the mass of goods flowing through the small island into the hands of the Continental Army. Holland and Britain had declared war on one another the previous year, clearing the way to deal with a problem that had plagued Britain since St. Eustatius’ fort became the first to recognize the new United States and gave a proper military salute to the U.S. brig-of-war, Andrew Doria.

Admiral George B. Rodney, overall British commander of the Leeward Islands, sailed his fleet into Oranjestad’s harbor without flags flying.  In a clever ruse to entrap as many fat cargo ships as possible, Rodney quickly subdued the single Dutch man-of-war protecting the harbor, and made quick work of the town’s fort, its garrison totaling a meager sixty soldiers.  Recognizing the vast wealth of his prize, Rodney completely plundered the island.  From the initial conquest in February, to November of 1781, Rodney, determined to make his own fortune, loaded everything of value found on St. Eustatius for transport back to England and the waiting prize-courts.  He razed Oranjestad, then singled out and forcibly removed and relocated the island’s large Jewish population.  His actions, driven by overt anti-semitism, were vehemently protested in England, but protests were of little comfort to St. Eustatius’ Jews, who were stripped of their homes and belongings, and shipped from the island on one day’s notice.

Rodney’s St. Eustatius expedition cost the British dearly in military terms.  Because of his greed, Rodney missed averting the French fleet under Admiral DeGrasse, the same French fleet that hemmed in and effectively blockaded General Cornwallis and his British army at Yorktown. 

Without Rodney’s fleet, and the naval support it would have provided, Cornwallis fell in defeat to a combined American and French army, finally surrendering to General Washington on October 19th.

By 1781, the Revolutionary War had spread to become a global conflict.  Spain, with France and Holland, engaged the British across the World.  Spain was making preparations to launch attacks on England’s Caribbean possessions, with a particular emphasis on Jamaica, while the French were attempting to wrest India from British control.  With the necessary cessation of hostilities in America, Great Britain was pressed to defend against those who had come to the aid of the United States, and who threatened English interests from Europe, to Asia and beyond.  What had begun as a small colonial revolt in faraway Boston, had become a threat to Britain’s standing on the worldwide stage, with a tremendous cost in both British blood and treasure.  The rebellious American colonies didn’t seem as important as they once were…at least in the eyes of Great Britain.

Click here for :  PAST ARTICLES