Last Medal-------------------Next Medal

Britain 1739

Description: AE Medal Capture of Portobello. Edward Vernon and Charles Brown. 1684-1757 and 1678/9-1753.
Obverse: Confronted three-quarter length busts of Vernon and Brown clasping hands, each holding baton. "ADMIRAL • VERNON • AND • COMMODORE • BROWN"
Reverse: Six English ships entering the harbour of Portobello. "HE • TOOK • PORTO • BELLO • WITH • SIX • SHIPS • ONLY •" In exergue, "NOV • 22 • 1739" over floral spray.
Statistics: Bronze 37mm, 15.8gm, axis 6h
Reference: MI -; Eimer -; Adams-Chao PBvb 11-S; Betts -.


The Battle of Porto Bello as it was known took place in 1739, during the War of the Austrian Succession, in the early stages of the war sometimes known as the War of Jenkins' Ear. It resulted in a popularly acclaimed British victory.

The settlement of Portobello was an important port on the Spanish Main on the isthmus of Darien in what is now Panama. Following the failure of an earlier British naval blockade to prevent a fully laden treasure fleet sailing to Spain from Porto Bello in 1727, an action in which he had taken part, the then Vice Admiral Edward Vernon repeatedly claimed he could capture it with just six ships. Following his appointment to command the Jamaica Station, Vernon organised an expedition with just six ships, despite criticism that this was far too few. Vernon was a strong advocate of using small squadrons of powerfully armed warships hitting hard and moving fast rather than larger slower-moving expeditions that were prone to heavy losses through disease.

Vernon's force appeared off Portobello on 20th November 1739. The British ships entered the bay prepared for a general attack, but a wind coming from the east obliged Vernon to concentrate his ships on the Todo Fierro harbour fort. The Spanish garrison was caught unprepared. When some Spaniards began to flee from several parts of the fort, several landing parties were sent inshore. The British sailors and marines scaled the walls of the fort, struck the Spanish colours in the lower battery and hoisted an English ensign, whereupon the Spaniards surrendered. Of the 300-man Spanish garrison, only 40 soldiers led by Lieutenant Don Juan Francisco Garganta had remained in the fort.

Once he had captured the Todo Fierro, Vernon shifted his ships against the Santiago Fortress, sinking a Spanish sloop and causing other damage. At dawn on the following morning, the Spaniards requested terms. Governor Francisco Javier Martinez de la Vega y Retes surrendered in the afternoon. It was Commodore Charles Brown who had led the squadron and when the fortress surrendered, it was to Brown whom the Spanish governor presented his sword in token of submission. Brown very properly declined to receive it, saying he was but 'second in command,' and took the governor in his boat to Admiral Vernon. But the Spaniard was obstinate, declaring that but for the insurmountable fire of the commodore he never would have yielded. Thereupon Vernon, very handsomely turning to Brown, presented to him the sword, which is still in the possession of his descendants.

Portobello was occupied by the British at the cost of three dead and seven injured. The British occupied the town for three weeks, destroying the fortress and other key buildings and ending the settlement's main function as a major Spanish maritime base, before withdrawing.

The capture of Porto Bello was welcomed as an exceptionally popular triumph throughout Britain and America, and the name of Portobello came to be used in commemoration at a variety of locations, such as the Portobello Road in London (now the famous antiques market), the Portobello district of Edinburgh and also in Dublin; as well as Porto Bello in Virginia and Porto Bello in St. Mary's County, Maryland. The victory was particularly well received in the North-American British colonies, where the Spanish had been preying on British shipping.

Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington, was named for the Admiral. Washington's older half-brother Lawrence Washington had served under Vernon in the War of Jenkins' Ear, and named his estate for his former commander.

Vernon's enduring claim to fame was his 1740 order that his sailors' rum should be diluted with water. In 1740, citrus juice (usually lemon or lime juice) was added to the recipe of the traditional daily ration of watered-down rum. Although they did not know the reason at the time, Admiral Edward Vernon's sailors were healthier than the rest of the navy, due to the daily doses of vitamin C the sailors received. However, it was not until 1747 that James Lind formally proved that scurvy could be treated and prevented by supplementing the diet with citrus fruit such as limes or lemons. The rest of the Royal Navy rapidly followed Vernon's lead, supposedly calling the new drink "grog" after Vernon's nickname "Old Grog", attributed to his habitual wearing of a grogram coat.

By Samuel Scott - David Cordingly et autres, Pirates, terror on the High Seas - from the Caribbean to the South China Sea.
Public Domain,

Back to main page