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The Castro Crisis 1908:
La Armada de Venezuela in GWAS

By David Meyler
January 2012

In the years immediately before the First World War, Big Power interference in the Caribbean and South America was certainly nothing new or unusual. Venezuela became an independent nation in 1830 with the final dissolution of the republic of Gran Colombia (the republics of Ecuador and New Granada — renamed Colombia after 1861 — were the other resultant states).

In the four decades before the turn of the century, the nation had seen a succession of dictatorships and insurrections. Often these insurrections were abetted, if not instigated, by the European colonial powers when they wished to overturn a Venezuelan administration not to their liking. The Spanish-American War of 1898 saw the collapse of the Spanish colonial empire and the American occupation of Cuba. This put the remaining European colonial powers on notice.

The Venezuelan economy — these were pre-petroleum days — was very weak. The country produced little in the way of exports, and the bulk of the revenue collected by the central government was from customs dues. Britain, with its adjoining colony of Guiana, wanted control of the gold fields along the border with Venezuela and also wished to control traffic along the Orinoco River, so that trade would be funneled through Port of Spain in Trinidad, instead of Venezuelan ports. The Dutch, based in Curacao, and the French in Martinique, as well as the British, were all interested in keeping customs tariffs low. The Americans, while wishing to increase their own economic influence, especially wanted to keep European military presence in the region to a minimum.

Cipriano Castro, bane of the Great Powers.


In May 1899, Cipriano Castro led an insurrection based on his home province in the Andes, and became president against only light opposition. While vilified in the American and European press, it is an open question whether Castro was a worse or better dictator than his immediate predecessors or successors. However, Castro was a strong nationalist and this in large part explains the great animosity of the Big Powers, which otherwise could get on quite well with admittedly extremely brutal dictatorial regimes.

One of Castro’s immediate acts was an attempt to impose a 30-percent surtax on goods transshipped from the British and Dutch Antilles. This policy had actually been enacted during the rule of Antonio Guzman Blanco in 1881, but had never really been implemented. In October 1899, an arbitration tribunal gave British Guiana control of most of the gold mines, but the British failed to secure control of the Orinoco. Castro also attempted to negotiate a more sustainable repayment schedule for the nation’s massive foreign debt (mostly forced loans to previous corrupt regimes).

A more immediate issue was the dispute over the so-called diplomatic claims. Foreign powers had the right to sue the Venezuelan government for damages suffered during the various insurrections that had occurred (even though many of these rebellions had been instigated by the powers in question). Often these claims were exaggerated or completely spurious. European and American consular staff could amass a sizeable fortune, often abetted by corrupt Venezuelan officials who took a cut of their own. Guzman Blanco, in 1873, had also made an attempt to regularize this claims process, but the effort proved abortive due, in particular, to American pressure. However, in 1901, Castro declared the 1873 decree to be in effect.

The Big Powers had traditionally used a combination of economic, political and military threats to control Venezuela. Trinidad and Curacao, with the connivance of the British and Dutch, made handy bases for any potential rebel. Here the insurgents could find men, weapons and ships. And if all else failed, the colonial ports were already prepared to support direct military action.

A dangerous insurgency began in January 1901. Under the leadership of the banker, Antonio Matos, said to be the richest man in Venezuela, the rebels were actually funded by the American company of New York and Bermudez (NY&B). This company, involved in exploiting forest products and asphalt in the Venezuelan state of Bermudez, was in a legal dispute with two other Americans over ownership of a district of land called La Felicidad. Fearing the case would go against them, NY&B equipped Matos with an armed ship, men and more than 5,000 rifles to overthrow Castro and establish a more friendly regime. The Libertador began to make raids along the Venezuelan coast, landing troops and distributing arms. The Libertador avoided the label of piracy by operating under the Colombian flag on a technicality. After suffering damage in March 1902 in a fight with a Venezuelan gunboat, the Libertador put into Port of Spain to make repairs, and it stayed there for several months. Meanwhile, in Venezuela itself, Castro had, by November ’02, decisively defeated the Matos rebellion. (Ironically, the courts finally found in favor of NY&B.)

The European powers, however, had finally decided to take direct action. In a rare show of co-operation, Britain, Germany and Italy organized a joint naval expedition to blockade the Venezuelan ports in 1902. Venezuela maintained only a small navy. In part, it was a “prestige” force, a means to show the Venezuelan flag. Comprising a handful of gunboats, the real purpose was to combat smuggling and guard against insurgents. But it could in no way offer resistance to any significant threat. The Germans took over or sank a number of vessels, including the Restaurador, General Crespo, 23 de Mayo and Totumo, (although Restaurador was returned after hostilities ended), while the British disarmed a small number of other ships.

Koningin Regentes undertakes gunnery practice.


The blockade lasted a little more than two months from early December ’02 to mid-February ’03. The Dutch had sent the ironclad Koningin Regentes to intervene as well, but it was turned aside to provide emergency help after the eruption of Mount Pelee on Martinique. The United States was called in to arbitrate. Castro was forced to make a financial settlement, but the net result was an increase of American influence, the very thing the Europeans had hoped to avoid.

In 1908, a second Venezuelan crisis occurred. Economic tensions with the United States escalated, in part from still unresolved issues involving NY&B. The gunboat Tacoma was sent to the Venezuelan port of La Guayra to put pressure on Castro. News of another planned insurgency, under a General Rolando, based in Trinidad, led Castro to strengthen his port defenses. In turn, British colonial authorities blocked Venezuelan ships from landing goods and passengers in Port of Spain, due to a supposed outbreak of bubonic plague in Venezuela. Castro then quarantined La Guayra, citing the same report of plague, and thus blocking British trade. Then Dutch authorities on Curacao began to restrict Venezuelan shipping. Castro retaliated with a virtual ban on foreign ships from conducting trade from Venezuelan ports.

By the summer, merchants on Curacao made a direct appeal to the Dutch queen, complaining the blockade was ruining the trade of Curacao, and with the somewhat ominous hint, that if the Dutch government did not take urgent action, the colony might invite the United States to establish a protectorate.

The Dutch sent a squadron of three vessels, Gelderland, Jacob van Heemskerck and Friesland, to the Caribbean and in early December 1908, established a blockade of the Venezuelan coast. Two small coasters were captured, Alix and 23 de Mayo, but on December 22, the Dutch government decided to lift the blockade.

Jacob van Heemskerck, instrument of Dutch imperialism.


What foreign intervention and insurgency could not achieve, disease would. Castro had become severely ill from complications from a bladder infection. He left for Europe in November for necessary surgery in Germany. He left long-time supporter Vice President Juan Gomez to deal with the blockade. Gomez did this by deposing Castro in absentia with the support of the Americans. He established himself as president on December 19, and immediately asked the Americans to send warships for his protection. The Dutch, meanwhile, failed to get the commercial treaty they had hoped for.

Castro, in spite of British, Dutch and American hopes, did not die in Germany, but recovered. In April 1909, he attempted to return to Venezuela, but was intercepted in Fort de France, and lived out the rest of his life in exile. He died in Puerto Rico in 1924.

La Armada de Venezuela

At the turn of the century, the Venezuelan navy comprised about a dozen small vessels, most of minimal military worth. Among the more modern of these were Bolivar (ex-Spanish torpedo boat Galicia) with two torpedo tubes (but it appears unlikely it was ever equipped with torpedoes in Venezuelan service), and the gunboats Restaurador, Liberatador (stricken in 1910), and Miranda. In 1909, three more gunboats were acquired, the 29 de Enero, Cristobal Colon and Ciudad Caracas. In 1910, Bolivar was renamed Zumbador. In 1912, the navy acquired the Maresal Sucre, which was the ex-Isla de Cuba, a Spanish vessel captured by the Americans in 1898 (equipped with two 4-inch guns and two 6-pounders).

Sea of Troubles, Operation Scenario 20, Manifest Destiny

This scenario closely reflects the situation in 1908, but with Britain and France distracted with war in Europe in 1914. Set up the scenario as usual, but with the following changes.

The American player adds the following ships (this order of battle for the Venezuelan navy can be considered typical for any GWAS scenario taking place between 1912 and 1920): TGB Zumbador, GB Restaurador, and GB Miranda at Maracaibo (AJ32); GB Maresal Sucre and GB Cristobal Colon at Caracas (AK 41).

Add to the victory conditions: The Dutch score 3 VP for bombarding Maracaibo and 2 VP for bombarding Caracas with a BB.

You can download the new Venezuelan counters here.

You can download the Venezuelan ship data here.

Sail the Sea of Troubles yourself—order now!