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Antigallican ;

The Antigallican Affair: Public and Ministerial Responses to Anglo-Spanish Maritime Conflict in the Seven Years War, 1756–1758

Dr Anna Brinkman-Schwartz


15 December 2020

In the first year of the Seven Years War, on 26 December 1756, the aptly named British privateer Antigallican captured the French East Indiaman Le Duc de Penthièvre, some way off the Spanish town of Ferrol in the Bay of Biscay. The action lasted three hours, culminating in the surrender of the French ship. The Antigallican lost three men and the French ship lost its captain, among a number of other casualties.

Captain Foster of the Antigallican intended to take his prize to the British admiralty court in Gibraltar, but bad weather forced him to put in at the Spanish port of Cádiz instead. As the port of a neutral nation, Cádiz should not have presented any problems for the privateer—in fact, the city’s residents welcomed the ship and its crew. It was the first time that a French prize had been brought into Cádiz since the outbreak of the Anglo-French conflict, and there was much excitement.

The welcome, however, was brief. After the French prisoners had been delivered into the care of the French consul in the city, the Spanish governor, Manuel de Azolar, had Captain Foster and his men imprisoned. In short order, the Duc de Penthièvre was given back to the French by the Spanish authorities. The actions of the Spanish governor were a clear violation of Spain’s stated neutrality in the conflict. The subsequent actions of Spanish officials and the Spanish government caused a protracted diplomatic incident that tested the commitment of Britain’s government to preserve Spain’s maritime neutrality, which was of key importance to Britain’s overall wartime maritime strategy.

The debate over the Antigallican affair and Spanish neutrality was not confined solely to the corridors of power within the British state; it also played out in a very public way, in much of the London press, and through a series of over sixty anonymous missives printed in the London Evening Post: the Antigallican Letters. Printed discourse about Spanish neutrality and Anglo-Spanish affairs had been almost entirely absent during the Seven Years War until the taking of the Duc de Penthièvre rapidly brought the subjects into the public sphere. The Antigallican affair sparked a public discussion about Britain’s responsibilities towards Spanish maritime neutrality and about Anglo-Spanish affairs more generally.

This article examines both the public and the ministerial debates over Spanish neutrality and British maritime strategy, with a particular focus on the Antigallican affair and the Antigallican Letters. It examines how the ministry addressed the challenges posed by supporting a British strategy rooted in upholding Spanish maritime neutrality, even when flagrant violations of Spain’s neutral rights and obligations were commonly perpetrated by both British and Spanish actors. The article also assesses how, during and after the Antigallican affair, the British press began to discuss and analyse Spanish neutrality, employing an anti-Spanish rhetoric that called on the ministry to go to war to avenge perceived Spanish offences.

The article argues that the ministry’s conciliatory response to the Antigallican affair was perfectly consistent with a well-considered strategy of supporting and encouraging Spain to remain a neutral maritime country during the war. The vitriolic response of much of the London press during the affair, though hostile to the official ministerial policy, was also in keeping with the perceived interests of the Patriot Whigs, who were often involved in maritime trade and privateering, and who had, historically, supported Anglo-Spanish maritime wars. 

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