1711 – Battle of Rio de Janeiro
The Battle of Rio de Janeiro was another battle from the War of Spanish Succession. This global conflict saw fighting in the Southern Hemisphere. The port of Rio de Janeiro was an important and strategic location, the Portuguese colony of Brazil supplied the empire with much-needed gold and silver, and it was this thirst for gold which drew the French commander Rene Duguay-Trouin, last seen smashing an English fleet off the Cornish coast, to attack the port of Rio de Janeiro.
We sometimes forget that military expeditions often grow out of a personal need for money, for example, Francis Drake’s reputation as an English hero overshadows his more murky past as a pirate with a ship to hire. In conflicts that spanned thousands of miles, it was difficult for commanders to get the money to finance their expeditions. Duguay-Trouin at the time of the battle was a man who had fallen on hard times, he was broke, not a gold sovereign to his name, almost bankrupt, the rich pickings of the port of Rio de Janeiro seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
France was also desperate for a victory, and Duguay-Trouin was also guided by a question of honour, in 1706, another buccaneer, Jean-Francois Duclerc had attempted an attack on Rio, the attack failed, the attempt left 600 French soldiers rotting in an inhospitable prison. Duguay-Trouin hoped to liberate these men.
Duguay-Trouin had a fleet of 17 ships carrying a total of 738 cannons and 6,139 men, a huge contingent which was financed not by the French treasury but by private financiers. In an interesting piece of subterfuge the French prepared the ships in different harbours, the British intelligence (who were allied to the Portuguese) tried to warn the Portuguese and dispatched a fleet to blockade Duguay-Trouin before he sailed from Brest, unfortunately, the British fleet were two days late.
The appearance of the French fleet in Rio’s harbour was a surprise to the Portuguese. The Portuguese fleet commander could do nothing but try to get his ships moving. In desperation three battleships were grounded and destroyed by the Portuguese to prevent their capture, the fourth ship fell into the hands of the French and was burned.
The bombardment of the city lasted three days, on the fourth day the French landed 3,700 men to attack the city. The Portuguese defence buckled under the French attack and the Portuguese militia began deserting, this led to the citizens and the governor fleeing the city.
The expedition was a military success for the French, and most importantly for the backers, gained the financial success they needed to make a profit from the battle.
The old naval saying; “when ships were made of wood, men were made of steel” certainly rings true for the brave combatents who took part in these deadly confrontations.