Bernardo de Gálvez: Spanish Hero of the American Revolution by Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia
Of the European powers that helped the United States win its independence from Britain, Spain was easily the most ambivalent. Unlike France and the Netherlands, Spain's King Carlos III refused to conclude an alliance with the upstart republic during the Revolutionary War and waited until 1783 to begin the process of diplomatic recognition—and even then the Spanish government held off negotiating a treaty of amity and commerce for another decade. This hesitation was partly because Spain had major territorial disputes with the United States, as it claimed East and West Florida—both of which Congress named in 1776 as potential additions to the Union—as well as the east bank of the Mississippi River as far as Lake Superior. Spain also had a much clearer sense than France, in particular, of the threat that American republicanism posed to colonial powers everywhere. If Spain was a reluctant ally, however, no foreign government played a more important role in securing American independence, and no Spaniard was more central to the revolution's success than Bernardo de Gálvez, the subject of Gonzalo M. Quintero Saravia's impressive new biography.
Gálvez came from a family of shepherds on Spain's south coast and probably would have spent his life in obscurity had it not been for the meteoric rise of his uncle, José de Galvez, shortly after Bernardo's birth in 1746. The "smartest student" (9) in the local parochial school, José had caught the attention of the bishop of Málaga, who tapped him for the church. But the young prodigy switched to law, which he studied at the University of Salamanca in the early 1740s. After the death of his first wife, José married Lucía Romet y Richelin, a well-connected French woman living in Madrid, and secured a position as consul to the French embassy. By the early 1760s, he was the official lawyer to the Spanish crown prince and became one of the leading figures in Carlos III's so-called Bourbon Reforms. This position allowed him to bestow favors on his older brother, Bernardo's father Matías, and eventually on Bernardo himself.
Matías and Bernardo both started their careers in the military. From 1757 to 1778, Matías de Gálvez served as a military governor in the Canary Islands before becoming viceroy of New Spain. Meanwhile, Bernardo became a lieutenant in the French army during the Seven Years' War, followed by stints in northern Mexico fighting the Apache in 1769, in an elite Franco-Spanish regiment in France in 1770, and as an officer in General Alejandro O'Reilly's disastrous expedition to Algiers in 1775. Bernardo's [End Page 597] most important patron continued to be José de Gálvez, who served as visitor general to New Spain from 1765 to 1771 and then as minister of the Indies after his return to Spain—an appointment that included elevation to the nobility as the marquis of Sonora.
Although Bernardo de Gálvez owed his rapid ascent to his uncle, the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War provided considerable opportunity for his own talent and ambition. In January 1777, he became governor of Spanish Louisiana. While remaining publicly neutral, he assisted Congress by allowing patriot merchants and privateers to use the Mississippi River to circumvent Britain's blockade of the Eastern Seaboard. When Captain James Willing of the Continental navy attacked several British settlements on the river's West Florida bank, Galvez allowed Willing to sell the proceeds at New Orleans, provoking a sharp response, but nothing more, from British officials. Gálvez also cultivated close ties to Louisiana's French population, marrying Marie Félicité de Saint-Maxent d'Estrehan, daughter of a wealthy creole, in November 1777. When Spain entered the war in 1779, he seized the initiative by attacking West Florida before the British could strike New Orleans. Over the next two years, Gálvez took every British stronghold on the Gulf Coast, culminating in the dramatic capture of Pensacola in May 1781. In a speech that came to exemplify his courage under fire, Gálvez told his soldiers before the final assault "Yo solo (I alone)" (201)—that he alone would sacrifice himself.
The siege of Pensacola sealed Bernardo de Gálvez's military reputation, making him as famous as his influential uncle. His next posting was to Cuba as commander of a Franco-Spanish expedition to take Jamaica. The expedition's larger objective was to expel Britain from the Gulf of Mexico. Consistent with that goal, soldiers from Gálvez's force seized New Providence in the Bahamas in 1782 while preparations for the assault against Jamaica were underway, but the Treaty of Versailles—the Anglo-Spanish component of the Paris settlement that ended the Revolutionary War—put a stop to his plans. Gálvez returned to Spain, where his wartime exploits made him a natural choice to consolidate the Bourbon monarchy's recent gains as governor and captain general of Cuba. He was soon back in America, now ennobled as a count. The new conde de Gálvez reached Havana in 1785, shortly after his father Matías de Gálvez died in late 1784, leaving open his position as viceroy of New Spain. Gálvez was appointed to the vacancy, becoming the first viceroy in the kingdom's history to succeed his father. Not yet forty years old, Gálvez was also one of New Spain's youngest leaders. Although elevating talent from outside the Spanish aristocracy was a benchmark of Carlos III's enlightened reign, the Gálvez family's low social origins made the dynastic appointment appear even more unusual in the eyes of New Spain's conservative elite.
During his two and a half years in Mexico, Gálvez was forced to contend with two natural disasters: an unusual, crop-destroying August frost [End Page 598] in 1785, which led to a famine that killed some three hundred thousand of Mexico's inhabitants, and a typhus epidemic that in November 1786 ultimately claimed the young viceroy as one of its victims. Before his untimely death, Gálvez earned a reputation as an innovative, dynamic leader. He was also widely seen as an examplar of afrancesamiento, a Spanish word that meant "Frenchification" but connoted a broader set of attitudes and commitments—to modernization, to administrative reform, to social and religious toleration, to a "popular" style of government, and to the rational and scientific principles of the Enlightenment. Though in some quarters—especially among New Spain's traditionalists—the new viceroy's French manners were cause for concern, Gálvez earned praise during the famine of 1785 and 1786 by cracking down on speculators, forcing landowners to sell maize and other foodstuffs at fair prices, and dispensing aid to people who were unable to provide for themselves. He worked to improve the administration of justice for Mexico's Indigenous subjects, and he drew up new instructions to improve relations with the independent Indigenous nations on the kingdom's northern frontier, especially the Apaches. Although force remained important as a last resort, Gálvez urged a greater reliance on commerce and diplomacy, with the ultimate goal being to find ways to "coexist" (309) with Natives over whom, his own experience showed, the Spanish lacked the capacity to achieve unconditional victory.
In telling the story of Galvez's eventful life, Quintero Saravia does a superb job of capturing Spain's complex, often-contradictory response to the American Revolution. As a loyal subject of the Spanish Crown, Gálvez shared his government's hostility to the territorial claims of the United States on the Gulf Coast, writing at one point that the new republic's citizens had no legal right to navigate the Mississippi River apart from what Spain was willing to give them as an act of generosity. Yet his relations with individual Anglo-Americans—especially Oliver Pollock, the Pennsylvania merchant who represented Continental interests at New Orleans—were often cordial, and his social and cultural attitudes, especially his enlightened interest in science and reform, were in many ways closer to those of the revolution's patriot leaders than they were to Spanish American ultras who took issue with his modernizing ways. During his 1784 sojourn in Spain, one of Gálvez's principal activities was to attempt his own balloon launch, inspired by the Montgolfier brothers' celebrated ascent the previous year in Paris. The attempt was not a success, but it attracted the attention of Sir Joseph Banks, who published a report in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.1 Despite their many differences, Gálvez would not have been out of place in a salon that included Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. [End Page 599]
The other strength of Quintero Saravia's book is its meticulous and exhaustive research. Of the book's approximately six hundred pages, about two hundred fifty are devoted to endnotes, a bibliography, and an appendix of twenty-one tables. The tabulated data include, among other subjects, the names of Spanish warships during the West Florida campaigns, the number of British prisoners of war, the names of French and Spanish officers at the siege of Pensacola, and the size of the Spanish regiments in the planned expedition against Jamaica. The endnotes and bibliography are, if anything, even more comprehensive. To take one example, note 246 on pages 405 and 406, which references the discussion of Gálvez's 1772 Noticia y reflexiones sobre las guerras que se mantiene con los indios apaches (Reflections on the Apache War), fills a full page with a lengthy discussion of the bibliographic history of the report's two extant copies. The University of North Carolina Press is to be commended for agreeing to include so much material in the back matter, and Quintero Saravia deserves praise as well for his own hard work on the references.
For anyone seeking to know more about the Spanish dimensions of the American Revolution, Quintero Saravia's Bernardo de Gálvez should be required reading. Rarely has a historian treated the subject so thoroughly or with so much erudition. The result is an important addition to scholarship on the American founding, one that situates the revolution in the wider continental and hemispheric context where it belongs. [End Page 600]
1. "Sur un moyèn de donner la Direction aux Machines Aerostatiques. Par M. Le Comte De Galvez. Communicated by Sir Joseph Banks, Bart. P. R. S.," Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 74 (1784): 469–70, esp. 469.