“A true British Spirit”: Admiral Vernon, Porto Bello, and British National Identity, 1730-1745
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Admiral Edward Vernon’s capture of Porto Bello, a Spanish stronghold in the Caribbean, was met with enthusiastic celebration when the news arrived in Britain in early 1740. With just six ships, he had struck a dramatic blow to restore British honor and protect British trade. The response to Vernon’s victory was widespread and varied: public rallies, verse, sermons of thanksgiving, annual celebrations of Vernon’s birthday, and a diverse material culture. The capture itself accomplished little and the campaign’s small gains were entirely erased by Vernon’s failures at Cartagena in 1740-41, yet Vernon continued to be celebrated by the British public. It seems surprising that Vernon excited so much popularity and lasting commemoration during the period in which his short-lived successes and catastrophic failures were most obvious and consequential. To explain Vernon’s extraordinary and enduring popularity, this thesis employs a variety of primary sources viewed through the lenses of national identity and gender to argue that Vernon assumed lasting political and cultural importance because his admirers interpreted broader meanings from his actions and character. Celebrating Vernon gave Britons a way to articulate what Britishness meant to them, and what they believed it should mean for others. In chapter 1, I argue that the parliamentary opposition skillfully employed celebration of Vernon after his capture of Porto Bello in 1739 to argue for ministerial change. In chapter 2, I argue that Vernon enjoyed continued popularity in the 1740s in spite of his failures because his supporters argued that he embodied the “publick spirit” of the mercantile empire and aggressive masculinity that many believed had been lacking in public figures of the 1730s. Whatever his real successes or failures, Admiral Vernon became an important rhetorical tool for those who sought to imbue British politics and culture with the “national” values of the mercantile empire, aggressive foreign policy, and bold masculinity that many believed represented the way forward in a period of change and growing imperial challenges.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
CommitteeDesBrisay, Gordon; Stewart, Larry; Muri, Allison
Copyright DateMarch 2015
British history, 18th century, national identity, naval heroes, masculinity, Admiral Edward Vernon, Royal Navy