MONTEVIDEO – The 60-gun British privateer Lord Clive, sunk in combat off the coast of Uruguay in 1763 during a raid that might have changed the history of Latin America, will be brought up from the floor of the River Plate.
“If that ship had not failed in the attempt to take the city of Colonia, nowadays we might all be speaking English in Latin America,” said Argentine treasure-hunter Ruben Collado, who found the wreck.
The ship lies just 350 meters (380 yards) off Colonia del Sacramento.
Spain and Britain were on opposite sides in the Seven Years War, a multifaceted European conflict that extended to the Americas, West Africa, India and the Philippines.
British merchants desperate to break Madrid’s monopoly on trade with Spanish colonies in the New World saw in the war a chance to force their way into the South American market.
The Lord Clive – launched in 1697 as the Royal Navy vessel HMS Kingston – was sold in 1762 to privateers linked to the British East India Company.
The Clive arrived in the River Plate in 1763, carrying guns intended for would-be rebels in Spanish bastions such as Buenos Aires, Lima and Santiago.
When the British raiders found Spanish defenders on the alert in Buenos Aires and Montevideo, they headed to Colonia del Sacramento, a Portuguese stronghold 180 kilometers (111 miles) west of Montevideo.
Under the command of Capt. Robert McNamara, the small British force intended to take on supplies at the Portuguese post.
What the British didn’t know was that their Portuguese allies had lost Colonia to Spanish troops two months earlier.
At noon on Jan. 6, 1763, the Lord Clive’s 32 port-side cannons opened fire but the squat buildings and huts of Colonia remained untouched because of McNamara’s faulty ballistic calculations: with the ship so close to the coast, the shells sailed harmlessly over the targets.
Spanish defenders took advantage by deploying half-a-dozen small cannons that pounded the British vessel from the beach, eventually igniting a fire that extended to the Clive’s ammunition stores and set off the explosions that sunk her.
McNamara and 271 others aboard the Lord Clive were killed.
“Had the Lord Clive fired its cannons from a greater distance Colonia del Sacramento would have been destroyed in one hour,” Collado said.
Shortly before he left office March 1, President Jose Mujica authorized the effort to recover the ship’s remains under the condition that Collado and the Uruguayan government share equally in any treasure recovered.
The privately financed effort led by Collado will employ roughly 80 people and several ships, boats and pontoons.
“What matters is to recover these ships because they will give us a sense of the true magnitude of history,” Collado said. “This is the history of Latin America and it is also the Spaniards’ history.”