The Battle of Rio Nuevo
The last decisive battle between the Spanish and the English for control of the Island of Jamaica.
Fought in June of 1658 on the Bay of Rio Nuevo in the present day parish of St. Mary.
The Story of the Battle of Rio Nuevo
On this site, in 1658, was fought the decisive battle between the English and the Spanish for control of the island of Jamaica. Three years earlier, in 1655, Cromwell’s British forces, under Admiral William Penn and General Robert Venables, invaded Jamaica after a failed attempt to take the Spanish stronghold of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. Jamaica was at that time sparsely populated and ill-defended. The Spanish capital of Villa de la Vega (the site of present day Spanish Town) was easily captured and English occupation of the southern regions of the island began immediately.
At the time of its capture by Penn and Venables, Jamaica had already been occupied by the Spaniards for more than 150 years. When it was claimed for Spain by Columbus in 1494, the island was heavily populated by Amerindian peoples we now know as the Taino (Arawaks).
In 1509 the first Spanish settlers arrived, founding the town of Sevilla la Nueva (New Seville) near present day St. Ann’s Bay on Jamaica’s north coast. A ruthless campaign by the Spaniards was successful in bringing the Taino under their control and through the combined harshness of enforced labour, decimation by European diseases (to which the Amerindians had no immunity) and suicide, the Jamaican Taino population was massively reduced within the first 20 years of Spanish occupation. They were slowly replaced with African slaves.
Early English efforts to colonize the island were hampered by Spanish resistance fighters who had remained in the island after the main body of Spanish citizens had been ousted. Under the leadership of Don Cristobal Arnaldo Ysassi, they wreaked havoc on the new settlers. They were at times aided by the Cimarrons; bands of Afro-Jamaican slaves who had been freed by, or had escaped from, their Spanish Creole masters and were probably joined by Amerindians who had earlier escaped. These would become the foundation of the Maroons in Jamaica.
Spain, as well as England, soon realized the strategic importance of Jamaica’s position in the Caribbean. However, Spain was preoccupied with the affairs of its richer colonies in the region (as well as by wars across Europe) and allocated to Jamaica only limited aide which was to be supplied by Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico and Mexico. The use of the Spanish Armada (the galleons which escorted the annual fleets across the Atlantic and were the only resource which could have effectively recaptured Jamaica) was never authorized. The king of Spain, however, did recognize Ysassi’s valour and loyalty, and in October of 1656 he was made governor of the island (the last Spaniard to hold that title).
In 1657, a Spanish-Caribbean relief force, gathered from Cuba, Hispan-iola and Puerto Rico, was landed on the north coast. Through a series of strategic miscalculations and political and military blunders, this re-inforcement was easily defeated by the English at Las Chorreras (near present day Ocho Rios) in October of that same year. The survivors made their escape to Cuba from the nearby anchorage at Rio Nuevo. Another relief expedition, this time made up of troops gathered from Mexico and referred to as the “Mexican Tercio”, was landed at Rio Nuevo in May of 1658. They were, however, soon discovered by English scout ships and before the Spaniards could even finish building their fort of “Nuestra Señora de la Concepción de Río Nuevo” (our Lady of the Conception of Rio Nuevo), the English forces under the command of Edward D’Oyley launched a major attack on them there.
On June 17, 1658, after two days of minor skirmishes and unsuccessful negotiations on the beaches and river banks, D’Oyley’s troops began their march on the Spaniards fort. Instead of taking a direct approach across the beach, they set out, before dawn, taking an inland route. Cutting a rough path as they went, they made slow progress through the dense woods, finally arriving at the banks of the Rio Nuevo a good distance upstream. After crossing the river and climbing a steep ravine to the plateau above, the English stormed the timber stockaded fort from the rear, where it was as yet unfinished.
It took only a quarter of an hour of heavy fighting for the stockade to be breached. The fort itself then became a bloody killing ground and before the day was out more than 300 Spaniards were dead or taken prisoner. D’Oyley’s forces captured the supplies which had been brought by the Mexican Tercio and destroyed everything that could not be carried off. After burying their own dead, the English returned to their south coast headquarters at Cagway (near present day Port Royal).
Ysassi survived the battle and was able to escape. He remained in Jamaica with a small group of followers for almost two years during which time a final attempt at Spanish reinforcement was made. However, by this time, the Maroons had become discouraged by Ysassi’s inability to help their own situation and one of their leaders, Lubolo (known to the English as Juan de Bolas), defected to the enemy. This resulted in a disastrous defeat of the Spanish by ambush of their camp in the hills above Ocho Rios, near present day Shaw Park Gardens.
This final defeat proved to be the last straw for even the steadfast Ysassi. Demoralized and now finding himself in a desperate and hopeless position, he departed Jamaica in April 1660 from a point believed to be somewhere just to the east of present day Pt Maria.
In the following years, formal hostilities between Spain and England ended and Jamaica was ceded to England in the Treaty of Madrid in July of 1670. In June of 1661, Edward D’Oyley received his commission as the first English governor of Jamaica, a post he held for less than six months.
Today, little remains of the Battle of Rio Nuevo beyond its written history. The graves of those who died were unmarked and are unknown.
The battle of Rio Nuevo was the largest ever fought in Jamaica and was truly international… the Spanish Jamaican Creoles, their African Jamaican allies and the Mexican troops being pitted against the English, Scots and Irish who comprised the British forces. The decisive outcome of this battle would chart the course of both European and Caribbean history and there would be no more attempts to land a force from the Spanish West Indian colonies in Jamaica. To recover the island from the English, the Jamaicans would have had to rely on Spain itself, and that help never came.
Jamaica went on to become the prime jewel in Britain’s eighteenth century empire. The island’s distinct history, combined with its strategic geographic position, continues to place it in the forefront of world social, cultural and political dynamics.
Text prepared by Susan L. Shirley
with invaluable assistance from Dr. James Robertson,
Lecturer in the Department of History at the
University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, Jamaica, W.I.
Cover illustration by Susan L. Shirley
Text and illustration to be used only by permission
updated April , 2012