Castro Crisis 1908:
La Armada de Venezuela in GWAS
By David Meyler
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.
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
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.
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
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,
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
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).
of Troubles, Operation Scenario 20,
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
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,
and GB Miranda at
Sucre and GB Cristobal
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
You can download the Venezuelan
ship data here.
Sail the Sea of Troubles yourself—order now!