At the urging of Juan de Palafox, influential member of the Consejo de Indias, the Armada de las Islas de Barlovento y Seno Mexicano was authorized by the Spanish Crown about 1635. The name was abbreviated to Armada de Barlovento, or Windward Fleet. Its purpose was to police the sea lanes in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea to protect Spanish shipping and coastal settlements from foreign raiders. The armada's principal activities relating to Texas centered around the La Salle expedition, especially the search for La Salle's colony, and support of Domingo Terán de los Ríos in his entrada of 1691–92.
Since the 1560s sea commanders of the Armada de la Carrera de las Indias, the Spanish Indies fleet, had requested a separate battle squadron permanently based in the West Indies. It took the Thirty Years' War, which occasioned heavy losses of Spanish shipping and occupation of Spanish islands in the Caribbean by French, English, and Dutch forces, to bring it about. The alcabala, a local sales tax of New Spain, was doubled to finance the new fleet, which began operation in 1641 with a few embargoed vessels of various sizes while others were being built.
The armada, first stationed at Veracruz, was alternately ported at Havana, Santo Domingo, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Under command of Adm. Antonio de la Plaza Eguiluz, it achieved a notable victory on its first voyage. Plaza's force seized three English or Dutch ships in the act of destroying two galleons being built for the armada in the Río de Alvarado, south of Veracruz. Farther down the coast it overhauled three other vessels, killed their captain and inflicted heavy casualties otherwise. The captured vessels expanded the Armada de Barlovento.
The broader picture, however, was not so bright. The plethora of European enemies made it impossible for Spain to guard such extensive possessions. A perpetual manpower shortage afflicted the armada, at times so severely that the ships were unable to sail. From time to time its vessels were assigned to escort the silver fleet to Spain, then were kept there under various pretexts. Intrigues in the Spanish court further inhibited the accomplishments of the fleet.
After a long period in limbo, the Armada de Barlovento was reinstituted in 1664 with four ships purchased in Amsterdam. These vessels, outfitted and manned at Cádiz, were unable to sail for the Indies until July 1667, when they were sent to escort the azogues (ships carrying quicksilver for the mines). After reaching Veracruz they served their intended purpose for a time, patrolling the pirate-infested Campeche coast and the Windward Islands. Then the capitana again was sent to escort the treasure ships to Spain, leaving Adm. Alonso de Campos and three ships to deal with Henry Morgan's rampage in the southern Caribbean.
Morgan, after sacking Portobelo and Cartagena in the summer of 1668, turned his rapacity on Maracaibo early the following year. Campos interrupted his own reconnaissance of the Antilles to set course for the Venezuela port. Entering boldly into the Gulf of Venezuela, he engaged on April 27 a vastly superior force that destroyed his fleet. His loss included three ships and more than 130 men. It was the Armada's most disastrous encounter to that time.
In 1672 a new Armada de Barlovento was organized by the viceroy of New Spain. The old problems of financing and manning the ships persisted; the fleet was spread too thin, with too wide an area to cover. Its numerous enemies, including a growing band of multinational pirates, always seemed to know where the armada was and to time their raids accordingly. Such was the case in May 1683, when a buccaneer force of eight ships and 1,000 men led by Michel de Grammont and Laurens de Graff (Lorencillo)-the professionals-carried out the rape of Veracruz.
The Armada de Barlovento had better luck a year later against a bunch of amateurs who sought to do the same for Tampico. Headed by Captain-General Andrés Ochoa de Zárate, the fleet caught the freebooters red-handed and captured 104 men, predominantly English and Dutch. Testimony given by the prisoners-fourteen of whom were garroted-indicated that they had recently visited the Texas coast in hope of salvaging a wrecked vessel. Among those spared was a pilot who later revealed expert knowledge of the Matagorda Bay area while serving as a guide on a voyage seeking La Salle's colony.
The first definite news of La Salle's intrusion came from pirates captured by General Ochoa and his armada in a different encounter. On July 6, 1685, Graff and Grammont stormed ashore at Campeche with 750 buccaneers to begin a two-month spree of rape and pillage. Ironically, the armada during that time was in the Caribbean, seeking the pirates' hideaway on the Honduras island of Roatán. Returning in early September from the fruitless voyage, minus three ships lost in a tropical storm, the remaining ships stumbled onto Graff's fleet off Cabo Catoche, retreating from the Campeche raid. The armada succeeded in destroying one pirate ship and capturing another. In pursuit of Graff's flagship, already crippled by the Spaniards' fire, a cannon exploded on one of the armada vessels, killing three men. In the ensuing confusion, Lorencillo was able to right his vessel and escape. Several armada officers held responsible for abandoning the chase were brought to trial and suspended from duty. The several tragic occurrences of this voyage culminated two days later, when Ochoa, stricken by a sudden illness, died at sea. Yet the armada had 120 prisoners, among whom were defectors from La Salle's company willing to disclose-for a chance at escaping the garrote-the Frenchman's plan for planting a settlement on a river called "Michipipi."
Armed with depositions from the captured French pirates, the Spaniards mounted a three-year search for La Salle's colony. The Armada de Barlovento dispatched five voyages seeking the intruders, bringing to the fore names of such officers as Juan Enríquez Barroto, Francisco López de Gamarra, Andrés de Pez y Malzárraga, and Martín de Rivas. The search constituted a rebirth of exploration of the Gulf of Mexico and its coasts. Thus, the Armada de Barlovento figured prominently in the Spanish mapping of Texas and the Gulf Coast, providing place names and other data that found their way onto maps of several European nations.
Even after Alonso De León, on a 1689 overland march from Coahuila, found La Salle's Fort St. Louis near the head of Lavaca Bay (at a site now in Victoria County), the Armada de Barlovento continued its involvement in matters pertaining to Texas. In 1690 Capt. Francisco de Llanos sailed to Matagorda Bay on a multipurpose mission that included mapping the bay area. With him went Capt. Gregorio de Salinas Varona, in charge of land operations, and Manuel José de Cárdenas y Magaña as mapmaker. In 1691–92 Enríquez Barroto, who lately had mapped the Gulf Coast while piloting the Rivas-Iriarte expedition, ferried men and supplies for the Terán expedition to Matagorda Bay. While his two ships waited offshore for Terán to complete his mission, six of his men drowned in a boating accident.
Spain, meanwhile, was involved in King William's War. The manpower shortage that generally afflicted the fleet became more critical. At a tender age three of the Talon children, late of La Salle's colony, were enlisted as soldiers in the Armada de Barlovento of Captain-General Andrés de Pez to serve on Santo Cristo de Maracaibo, flagship of Adm. Guillermo Morfi. They thus became witnesses to one of the most shameful episodes in the armada's history. Santo Cristo, cut off from the fleet, struck her colors and surrendered to a French squadron off Hispaniola on January 7, 1697. The Talons were repatriated to France, to return to Louisiana and Texas a few years later, and both Pez and Morfi were court-martialed. With the blame assigned to Morfi, Pez was exonerated. The exploration of Pensacola Bay and a portion of the Mississippi Delta by Pez and Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora in 1693 was followed in 1695 by a coastal reconnaissance from Tampico to Pensacola Bay. The voyage was conducted by Andrés de Arriola, who later became the reluctant founder of Pensacola and, still later, captain-general of the armada.
In 1700 the armada still faced a plethora of problems: the nest of pirates and poachers infesting the Laguna de Términos and the Campeche coast, the Scots invading Darién, and pressure from European enemies across the length and breadth of the Caribbean. Going into the War of the Spanish Succession, the ships were in bad repair or poorly manned, with the exception of the capitana, which still served for escort duty to Spain. The fleet dribbled away until, in 1712, a new naval construction program was implemented at Havana. At the end of the war plans for naval reorganization were put forth in Madrid, a move toward centralization that ultimately spelled the end of the Armada de Barlovento as an independent unit. The armada enjoyed a brief resurgence in 1719, but within the next decade its crews were being appropriated for the new navy. Its manpower was depleted further in the years that followed. On January 31, 1748, the crown decreed dissolution of the Armada de Barlovento.