top of page
  • hbanziger

G - 147 : Mahon - In Search of a Port

Our third week of sailing will start in Port Mahon on the eastern tip of Menorca, the most northern island of the Baleares. Mahon (or Maò in Catalan) has Europe’s longest natural deep-water harbor. It is about 5’000 meters long and was already used by the Carthaginian Fleet during the Punic Wars (around 200 BC).

Port Mahon from the East - Mahon Town is on the upper left - Fort St Philip on the lower left

It is no surprise that Mahon caught the eyes of the Royal Navy when it started to regularly deploy fleets to the Mediterranean (my blog E- 34 provides background). In the 17th century, sending a fleet from England to the Med took – under the best circumstances - one month. Keeping it on station for months required a 2’500 miles long logistics chain exposed to interruptions by weather or enemy forces. Having a naval base in the Mediterranean would solve the problem.

The Capture of the Town of Gibraltar by a British - Dutch Fleet in 1704

During the war of Spanish Succession, a joint British-Dutch Fleet captured Gibraltar without much resistance. When the war ended with the Utrecht Treaty in 1713, "The Rock" became British. It was a valuable base at the entrance to the Mediterranean but it had its drawbacks. Open to the prevailing westerly winds, it was not the best place to anchor a fleet. The inner harbor, protected by quays, was small and could not accommodate many ships of the line.

Gibraltar in 1799 before the big port was built - ships were quite exposed to the elements

The Royal Navy kept looking and found Port Mahon. Since being “liberated” from its Muslim rulers in the 13thcentury, Minorca was part of the Kingdom of Aragon which later merged with Castille and became Spain. In 1708, four year after the capture of Gibraltar, another British-Dutch force landed on the island of Minorca which also became British under the Treaty of Utrecht.

Port Mahon at the Time of its Capture by the British in 1708

Finally the Royal Navy had what it was looking for. A deep-water port in the Mediterranean to permanently station and resupply its fleet. It was an ideal place to monitor Toulon and Cartagena, France’s and Spain’s main naval bases. Cartagena was 300 nautical miles away or 2 ½ days of sailing; Toulon only 260 miles or 2 days of sailing. It was the perfect place to follow the two countries' ship building programs, watch their fleets training and assess their combat readiness.

Port Mahon under British Rule - the Map dates from <1756 - Georgetown does not exist yet

The new rulers wasted no time. A few months after Minorca's capture, the British Admiralty issued orders to develop Port Mahon as a Naval Base. As early as 1711, Port Mahon had a Master Shipwright and from 1716 on a Store Keeper. Also in 1711, construction of a hospital started. Situated on the Illa del Rei in the middle of the natural harbor, it was the Royal Navy’s first own hospital. The British engineers also began to upgrade Castello de San Felipe, which was built in 1554 after Barbarossa, the Ottoman Corsair, had raided Mahon and enslaved 600 citizens. A state-of-the-art fortress was built around the original castle with mighty bastions and deep-dug underground caverns.

The modernised Fort St Philip with Vauban-Style Bastions & New Georgetown on the left

In 1722, Minorca’s capital was moved to Mahon. After the first siege in 1756, the town of Arrabal next to the castle was demolished to create a better field of fire and Georgetown or New Arrabal (El Castell today) was founded. The last big project were the warehouses built in 1760. Port Mahon was indeed the Royal Navy’s main base in the Mediterranean.

New Wharf & Warehouses are just opposite Mahon - the new Royal Navy Hospital in the Bay

England’s enemies, the Franco-Spanish Alliance understood the importance of Port Mahon to British operations all too well. They invaded Menorca twice. The first time during the Seven-Years War in 1756. The second time during the American War of Independence in 1781. Both times, the sieges of Fort Saint Philip lasted for months but eventually the fortress surrendered. Built on a limestone plateau it provided excellent shelter from bombardments but had no gardens to grow vegetables for vitamin C. With just water and bread, half of the garrison suffered from scurvy after three months and died or was in hospital. There were not enough soldiers anymore to man the bastions and guns.

French Artillery Plan for the Siege in 1756

The Royal Navy knew of course that Fort Saint Philip needed external support to resist the Franco-Spanish force and sent in 1756 a relief fleet with 12 ships under Admiral Byng. To him though, the safety of his fleet was more important than the relief of the fortress. He withdrew after an initial clash with the French. For his lack of aggressivity he was court-marshalled on his return to England and executed on the HMS Monarch in Portsmouth in 1757. In France, Voltaire commented ironically “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un admiral pour encourager les autres.”

The Execution of Admiral Byng on the Deck of HMS Monarque in 1757

During the second siege in 1781, the Royal Navy was mostly engaged on the American coast and in the Caribbean. There were no spare ships for a relief force. After a few months of heavy fighting, the fortress had to surrender again.

The 2nd Siege of Fort Saint Philip in 1781 during the American War of Independence

During the Napoleonic Wars, England re-occupied Minorca in 1798 but then returned it in 1802 in the Treaty of Amiens to Spain. The Fortress was demolished by Spain but many underground galleries are still intact and the emplacement of the bastions and gun batteries are still visible. The remains of the fort are open to visitors. We won't miss the chance.

One of the Galleries chiseled into the limestone hill of Fort Saint Philip

Of course, England did not give up Minorca for altruistic reasons. The British Empire had found a more suitable alternative in Malta which they liberated from French occupation in 1800. La Valetta became the Royal Navy's main naval base in the Mediterranean. La Valetta's deep-water harbor with its multi-layered fortifications provided protection that Port Mahon never could. Being much further away from France and Spain, it was also far more difficult to invade. Minorca was too close to the mainland.

La Valetta with its deep-water Harbor in 1800 just before it became an English colony

With the opening of the Suez Canal, Malta became an even more important naval base. It stayed this way for over 170 years. The Mediterranean Station was the Royal Navy’s biggest and most prestigious squadron.

A painting from 1798 - the last Time the Royal Navy anchored in Port Mahon

61 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page