In September 1708 Major-General James Stanhope took the island from the French, officially on behalf of Britain’s ally, Charles III of Austria, but the British needed a permanent base in the Mediterranean for their fleet and Maó appeared ideal. Stanhope persuaded Charles III to cede the island to Britain in settlement of debts owing and, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Treaty of Utrecht granted Britain sovereignty of Menorca (and Gibraltar), thus beginning the first of three British dominations of the island.
The Naval Base was originally built on the south (Maó) side of the harbour by Admiral Byng in 1709 but soon proved to be too small and was transferred to its present site on orders of the Governor, Richard Kane during the second British occupation of Menorca. In order to increase the area available, Saffron Island (nowadays known as Isla Pinto) was purchased, flattened and developed as part of the base. Many of the original buildings on the base, constructed by the British during the eighteenth century, remain today, including the arsenal, the facade of which resembles a castle, and the clock tower on the Isla Pinto, the top of which is said to represent a military helmet.
The base was further extended under Spanish rule, following the Duc de Crillón’s conquest of the island in 1782. During this period the naval dockyard started work again, constructing six 34-cannon frigates and relaunching three galleys and a brig. At the time the Menorcans were well-known for their skill as boat builders.
After the third, brief, British occupation of the island, Menorca was finally returned to the Spanish Crown in 1802 under the Treaty of Amiens and between 1825 and 1828 two 22-cannon brigs were built for the Spanish Navy, the ‘Manzanares’ and ‘Guadalete’. Between 1815 and 1840 the United States Mediterranean Squadron was based in Maó to deter piracy and the midshipmen were trained here until the opening of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. Between 1846 and 1848 the first two steamships were constructed, the ‘Nuevo Balear’ and the ‘Cid Campeador’.
In the last third of the nineteenth century, the Torpedo Brigade was created and a dock for the two torpedo boats, Castor and Pollux, was built on the Isla Pinto. An example of a torpedo is on display in the grounds. The base was further extended in the early 1900’s and was protected by three-metre high walls and watchtowers. Four seaplanes were based in Maó and, later, several submarines.
Following the end of the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War various tunnels, arsenals, and underground water and fuel tanks were constructed with financial aid from the U.S.A. The 480-metre long torpedo tunnel was completed in 1964 with workshops and the installations necessary for the torpedoes, but the tunnel system which would have had an exit on the far side of the headland, was never finished.
A minesweeper squadron was later based at Maó but, since the 1970’s, Menorca has lost its strategic importance and the Naval Base has slowly declined. All the boats, submarines and the prison on the Isla Pinto have been transferred to the Naval Base in Cartagena, in mainland Spain, and the jetty and floating cranes dismantled. Although the gardens are still well kept, a lack of funding has made it difficult to maintain all the buildings which is a shame when there is so much history involved.
Article courtesy of Christine Watterson, Focus on Menorca