The Story of the British Involvement on Menorca
Following the disastrous attack on Mahón in 1535 by the infamous Barbarossa, (Red Beard the Pirate), it was decreed by the Spanish King Charles 1 that a small fort be built at the entrance of the harbour to defend it from further attacks. It took the best part of 25 years before it was completed and was, in effect, similar to a small medieval castle.
At this time, Britain’s important trade route with the Middle East, through the Mediterranean was highly dangerous. Their merchant ships were continually attacked by the Pirates of the Barbary Coast of Algeria. The British Government ordered the Royal Navy to protect the merchantmen, but the situation worsened so much that for the Royal Navy decided to convoy the ships through the most vulnerable areas, rather than have multiple individual boat sailings.
With increasing numbers of war ships engaged in the operation, that the Royal Navy required a safe haven, a place to shelter from inclement weather, carry out repairs, take on fresh water and food and a place where ship crews could rest for a while on dry land.
The British Government was fully aware of the island of Menorca located due north of Algeria and approximately half way between France and the North Africa coast. They were also aware of the huge deep harbour of Mahón on the south eastern corner of the island.
They found that the new defences at the entrance of the harbour had been completed. What better situation for that safe haven they required? Britain was on friendly terms with Spain at this time and therefore any approaches were very diplomatically handled. Although the Royal Navy started to use the harbour from 1661, it was not until 1669 that Admiral Mansell, commander of the Western Squadron of the Mediterranean Fleet reached an agreement with the local nobility for the Royal Navy to start to build a permanent base on the Island.
This first base, or Arsenal, was constructed on the southern side of Mahón harbour located underneath the cliff of Mahón. And so the British Union Flag was raised for the first time on Menorca.
The local people found there was extra employment and that there was significant increase in trade with the outside world as ships of friendly nations could safely find protection from the pirates and refuge from storms. The Noble families and the Authorities were delighted and close relations between them and the British was fostered. A friendship which proved to be so important some 50 years later, early in the 18th century.