One of the most remarkable maritime achievements of the eighteenth century was the resurrection of the Spanish navy. In 1700 the Spanish navy had all but ceased to exist. After 1713 the Spanish crown put a great deal of effort into rebuilding its fleet and during the first forty years of the century new arsenals and yards were developed. The ships built in these yards had a reputation for durability.36 Four years before news of Anson’s capture of the Nuestra Senora arrived in London, the newsheets were full of a story that disturbed many. In April 1740, it had taken three British 70-gun ships to beat a Spanish “70”, the Princessa. Spanish shipbuilders were also at the forefront of testing the practical size limits of the wooden warship. They built some of the largest warships of the eighteenth century, including the famous 120-gun Santissima Trinidad. Completed at Havana in 1769, she went through four refits, ending up with four decks and mounting 136 guns. She was 220 feet long and 2,879 tons burden. She was abandoned in a storm on 24 October 1805 after being badly damaged and captured by the British at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October. The Victory, Admiral Nelson’s flagship at the battle, was by comparison a 100-gun vessel, 186 feet long and 2,142 tons burden.
During the eighteenth century, the Spanish crown did try to reform the commercial system. Regulated companies were set up to trade directly with Honduras and Caracas (1714, 1728 and 1734). All these attempts failed because of the lack of investment and the vigorous opposition of the Dutch and British, who had become well-established in these markets. By 1729, the American market was overstocked with European produce and the goods brought by the 1731 galeones were still not sold by 1735. Even the disruption to Spain’s trade with the empire during the war of 1739–48 did not ease the problem. Registros and foreign vessels had kept the market well supplied. The last of the flotas sailed in 1776, by which time Spain had to recognize that free trade was more likely to keep the empire stocked with goods than the fleet system. Silver would still be brought back to Cadiz on Spanish ships, but the Spanish mercantile marine had not developed to meet the potential demand. A flourishing shipbuilding industry existed at Havana for warships and the American trades. In Spain large vessels were built in the yards of the Basque coast and generally smaller vessels for the Mediterranean trades were built in Catalonia. The crown was remarkably successful in developing its astilleros reales, or royal shipyards, at Cartagena, Guarnizo and El Ferrol, but for the size of the empire and the naval challenges it faced, Spain’s commercial maritime base was perilously small.