23 September – On this day

The Battle of San Juan de Ulúa was a battle between English privateers and Spanish forces at San Juan de Ulúa (in modern Veracruz). It marked the end of the campaign carried out by an English flotilla of six ships that had systematically conducted illegal trade in the Caribbean Sea, including the slave trade, imposing it even by force.

The English fleet consisted of 5 ships: the Royal carracks Jesus of Lübeck (leased from Queen Elizabeth I) under John Hawkins, the Minion under John Hampton, and the barques Judith under Hawkins’ cousin Francis Drake, Angel and Swallow. A captured Portuguese caravel joined the privateers and was renamed Grace of God. Following a full year of plundering and illegal trading, Hawkins decided to anchor his ships in the port of San Juan de Ulúa on 15 September for repairs and resupply before the return voyage to England. But while they were carrying out this re-provisioning, a Spanish escort fleet under command of Don Francisco Luján also arrived in the port.

Luján launched a lightning attack in which the English lost 4 ships and 500 men as well as almost all of their year’s loot, which was re-captured by the Spanish. The flagship San Pedro, the only full-armed Spanish ship at San Juan, was also badly hit during an exchange of fire with Minion, which also suffered damage. The early assault and capture of the island’s batteries—held until then by the English—became decisive to the fate of the English fleet. Angel sank after a few salvoes, and Swallow was seized by the Spaniards soldiers manning the batteries. The French commander of the Grace of God, Robert Blondel, set her on fire before joining Hawkins on board the Jesus. Both of them, along with some members of the crew of the Jesus were later rescued by a pinnace after Hawkins gave the order to abandon the ship. Hawkins took command then of the Minion.

Only the Judith, commanded by Drake, and Minion escaped, whilst battle was still raging on, leaving behind them the Jesus of Lübeck and some members of her crew still on board. The Jesus was eventually boarded by a Spanish party who had been lurking inside a nearby hulk. During their withdrawal, the Minion and the Judith were hopelessly overcrowded, and some of their men had to be abandoned on the coast to save on supplies for the Atlantic crossing. Hawkins left behind 110 men to surrender to the Spanish. He eventually arrived back to England with a crew of only 15. Drake had reached Plymouth just days before, on 20 January 1569. Only 70 or 80 sailors from the original expedition returned to England at all.

The battle was a clear precursor of the war that broke out between Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England in 1585.