The Man Who Saved The Spanish Empire

Everyone knows about the unfortunate fate of the “Invincible Armada” of Philip II of Spain (1588), a defeat inflicted by the English, which was aided by circumstance – and in a determining way – by the anger of the sea. However, it is less known that the name “Invincible Armada,” of English origin, was given in derision to the Spanish “Grande y Felicísima Armada” (“the Grand and Most Fortuitous Armada”). In fact, during the Battle of Gravelines (August 8, 1588), no Spanish ship was sunk by the English. Rather, the very bad weather conditions, a few hours later, led to the sinking of several Spanish ships, forcing them to give up their plan to destroy the enemy naval forces. However, 87 ships out of 122, three quarters of the Spanish fleet, returned to Spain.

It is also not widely known that a year later, Queen Elizabeth I of England, in turn, sent an invading fleet against the Spanish king, and that this naval intervention also resulted in bitter failure. Commanded by Francis Drake and John Norreys, this “English Armada” had the triple mission of destroying the Spanish fleet on the Cantabrian coast, disembarking in Lisbon to stir up the population, and seize an island in the Azores. The operation, which took place from April 15 to July 10, 1589, ended in the rout of the Anglo-Dutch forces, which lost 40 ships out of 150, and 70% of their strength (nearly 13,000 men).

Of all the important events, which marked the war between the Spanish Empire and the Kingdom of England, it is however the epic of the Basque-Spanish admiral, Blas de Lezo, which has been forgotten the longest. This savior of the Spanish Empire, in Cartagena in 1741, has been paradoxically ignored by almost all historians for nearly two and a half centuries. It was only from the 2000s that we really started to take an interest in him and his brilliant tactics and innovation in weaponry.

From Young Officer To Severely Disabled

Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta was born on February 3, 1687, in Pasaia (Pasajes in Spanish) a port which, a few kilometers from San Sebastián, has the safest harbor of the Basque coast. It is from there that La Fayette set sail for America aboard La Victoire, on April 26, 1777, three years before the adventure of the Hermione, “frigate of freedom,” which brought the Marquis to join the American insurgents in the struggle for their independence.

Blas de Lezo’s career began very early. Barely a teenager, he became a sailor, like his ancestors and like so many of his compatriots from Gipúzkoa. At that time, Spain was plunged into a war of succession, which lasted from 1701 to 1713, and which saw the partisans of Archduke Charles III, from the House of Austria, clash with those of Philip V of Bourbon, the grandson of Louis XIV. During this war, dynastic solidarity led to the ranks and military charges of the army and navy of the Spanish Bourbons to be merged without distinction with those of the Bourbons in France.

Barely seventeen years old, Blas de Lezo was thus enlisted in the French squadron of the Count of Toulouse, Louis-Alexandre de Bourbon. While serving on the flagship, he took part in the important naval battle of Malaga (1704), which brought together the Franco-Spanish and Anglo-Dutch squadrons. During the fight, the young Blas was severely wounded in the left leg, which then had to be amputated below the knee. Reports from the time indicate that he remained stoic, impassive, during an operation which was then performed without anesthesia.

Brought back to health, he now had a peg-leg, and was soon given permission to set sail again, and we can follow him in Peñiscola, Valencia, Palermo and Genoa, then along the entire Mediterranean coast, and soon on the Atlantic coast.

Promoted to the rank of lieutenant in July 1707, he was assigned to the defense of the fortress of Saint Catherine of Toulon, where he fought against the forces of Prince Eugene of Savoy. But fate was cruel yet again – struck in the face by one of the countless shards of wood that a cannonball sent across the bridge, he lost his left eye. He was not a man to be discouraged and he now served as a lieutenant in the coast guard at the port of Rochefort. At twenty-five, he was promoted to captain of a frigate.

When the War of the Spanish Succession ended in 1714, he commanded the Nuestra Señora de Begoña, one of the main ships in charge of securing the blockade of Barcelona. At the forefront of the fight, urging on his men, he received a musket ball on the right forearm. At 27, Blas de Lezo was one-eyed, one-armed and one-legged. His men and fellow combatants nickname him with affectionate irony, “Patapalo” (in Basque “Anka Mot,” wooden leg) or “mediohombre” (half-man).

Blas de Lezo then took command of the galleon Lanfranco, a ship that was part of the Franco-Spanish squadron tasked with fighting against the corsairs and pirates raging in the southern seas (off Peru). For twelve years, from 1716 to 1728, he was Commander-in-Chief of the South Seas Armada. Married in 1725 to Josefa Pacheco, a Peruvian Creole, he went on to have seven children. In recognition of his services, the king made him a member of the Order of the Holy Spirit and of the Golden Fleece, the two most prestigious chivalrous orders of the French and Spanish monarchies.

As leader of the Spanish Mediterranean squadron, in 1731, he supported the Infante Don Carlos (later Charles III) in his campaign to recover the Duchies of Parma and Piacenza. He then went to the port of Genoa to demand payment of a debt to Spain, before taking part in the Spanish expedition to retake Oran. In 1736 he was Commanding General of the galleons responsible for the Atlantic trade. A year later, he was appointed Commander General of Cartagena de Indias on the coast of present-day Colombia. This is where he carried out his toughest mission and achieved his greatest feat of arms.

Defending Spanish America Against England

In the 18th century, Cartagena de Indias was a thriving and prosperous city of 20,000 inhabitants. It is a port in a sheltered bay, where all the riches of the viceroyalties of America flowed. It was also a strategic point particularly coveted by the enemies of Spain. In London, complaints from shipowners and traders were mounting. The action of the Spanish Coast Guard, tasked with combating smuggling, was considered to be intolerable. Tensions mounted between the two crowns.

Taking advantage of a minor incident, the British tried to seize Cartagena and destabilize the Spanish Empire. The incident was the seizure, in 1731, of a British merchant ship commanded by Captain Robert Jenkins. Called to testify in parliament, Jenkins said that the Spanish captain, Juan de Leon Fandiño not only confiscated his cargo, but cut off his ear with a saber while threatening him: “Go and tell your king that if he dares to do what you did, I will do the same to him.” The incident was soon regarded as an offense to the crown and to national honor. In October 1739, the “Jenkins Ear War” was declared on Spain.

To “avenge the affront,” England began arming the largest fleet ever assembled. Placed under the orders of Admiral Edward Vernon, it included 186 ships, equipped with more than 2,000 guns and carrying 25,000 men, which was soon reinforced by 4,000 American militiamen, commanded by Lawrence Washington, the half-brother of George Washington, the future President of the United States.

Opposing them, Blas de Lezo’s forces seemed paltry, with only a very limited number of troops – less than 3,000 troops, some 600 Indian auxiliaries and members of the crews and infantry troops of 6 ships. But Admiral “Patapalo” had two strengths, however: his good knowledge of the terrain and the tropical, humid and very rainy climate. From May, swarms of mosquitoes dangerously increased the risk of an epidemic.

Entering the bay of Cartagena, by sea, is only possible through two narrow straits: the Bocachica (small-mouth) and the Bocagrande (large-mouth). The first was defended by the forts of San Luis and San José, and the second by the forts of San Sebastian, Santa Cruz, San Juan de Manzanillo, Santiago and the Castillo of San Felipe. To ensure the defense of the city, Blas de Lezo had chains stretched across the Bocachica and deployed the six ships he had at the two mouths. Orders were given to scuttle them before they fell into enemy hands, with the hope that the wrecks would delay their advance.

Before attacking, Vernon wasted precious time. He did not want to divide his forces and feared being taken from the rear by the French squadron of the Marquis and Vice-Admiral d’Antin. He seemed unaware that this squadron, usually stationed at the harbor of Saint-Domingue, had only twenty-two warships. When he learned that the French, weakened by tropical diseases and without sufficient supplies, had been forced to return to France, he hurried to take advantage.

One Against Ten

On March 15, 1741, the English fleet deployed in front of Cartagena. The disproportion of force was enormous: there was one defender for every ten attackers. The bombardment of the Spanish forts began immediately. Blas de Lezo, responded from his flagship, El Galicia. He did this by using cannonballs that he had chained two-by-two to maximize damage to enemy ships.

After an intense cannonade, Admiral Vernon landed a small part of his troops. The Spaniards fell back and abandoned two forts, that of San José and Santa Cruz. At the mouths, Blas de Lezo sank his ships and ordered a retreat. Two of these ships were also set on fire, but in vain, because the English managed to tow one of them, thus freeing the passage and opening access to the bay. The Spaniards had no other option but to entrench themselves in their last three forts.

The English flagship entered the bay, with its flags fully displayed. Convinced that the battle was over, Vernon began to celebrate his triumph. A frigate was immediately dispatched to England to announce the victory. In London, the news was received with joy and parties were organized to celebrate the hero. A commemorative medal was engraved read; it read: “Spanish pride humiliated by Vernon,” and it showed Blas de Lezo on his knees, handing his sword to the English admiral.

But in Cartagena, events took an unexpected turn. To put an end to the Spanish resistance, Vernon decided to attack the castle of San Felipe. Rather than suffering heavy losses by engaging in frontal combat, he preferred approaching the rear. His men were therefore forced to go through the jungle, which was not without risks. The operation turned out to be more difficult than expected and resulted in the illness and death of many men. But once his troops got behind the fortress, Vernon could finally give the order to assault.

Two times, the English attacked the 600 Spaniards. The first attack resulted in the death of 1,500 English deaths. Before the second attempt, Vernon had scaling ladders made. Then, on April 19, British forces attacked again, but a surprise awaited them. The ladders turned out to be too short to reach the top of the walls. Warned at the last minute by a spy, “Patapalo” had the idea to dig a pit around the walls to increase their height. After a bloody struggle, the attackers were once again pushed back. This episode was crucial to the morale of the defenders. The British made many more attempts, but all proved unsuccessful. The city was bombarded by cannons for long days, but without success.

After two months, on May 20, 1741, Admiral Vernon was forced to lift the siege and return to England. A yellow fever epidemic and food shortage had significantly weakened his troops and undermined their morale. The toll was heavy: the English lost nearly 8,000 men, and 26 of their ships were set on fire, sunk or seriously damaged.

In London, the truth about the Cartagena de Indias affair would long remain unknown. The English authorities banned publication of any news relating to the lost battle. Paradoxically, Blas de Lezo, the main protagonist of the siege, was never to be rewarded by the Spanish.

Ingratitude Of The Spanish

Blas de Lezo ‘s relations with the viceroy of New Granada, Sebastian de Eslava y Lagaza, a fifty-six-year-old Navarrese, commander of the region, had been poor throughout the siege. They become execrable after the departure of the English. Blas de Lezo was a strong supporter of taking the offense, at least when possible. Eslava, instead, advocated caution and favored the defensive. Less than ten days after the victory, the viceroy sent Madrid an extremely negative report on Lezo’s attitude, demanding that he be immediately relieved of his duties and recalled to Spain.

Admiral de Lezo, who was wounded during the siege, was deteriorating rapidly. Abandoned by everyone except his family and a few friends, he passed away on September 7 at the age of 52 and it is not known where he is buried. Ironically, a month and a half later, on October 21, his dismissal and the order to return to Spain were approved by King Charles III. Conversely, Viceroy Eslava returned to Spain, where he was covered with honors and glory. Promoted to Captain General of the Armies, then Director General of the Infantry, he was subsequently appointed Minister of War in 1754, a position he held until his death in 1759.

The eldest son of Blas de Lezo finally did obtain the full rehabilitation of his father, but only in 1760, a year after the death of Minister Eslava y Lagaza. The defender of Cartagena then received, posthumously, the title of Marquis d’Ovieco for himself and his descendants. Only the Royal Spanish Navy continued to honor the memory of Admiral Blas de Lezo in the centuries that followed, always naming a ship after him.

But it was not until 2014 that the memory of the admiral, victorious over the English, was publicly honored. Two monuments were erected, one in Cadiz, the other in Madrid, on Piazza Columbus, and today there are Blas de Lezo streets in a dozen cities in Spain (Valencia, Malaga, Alicante, Las Palmas, San Sebastián, Cadiz, Huelva, Fuengirola, Renteria, Irún, Pasaia and Madrid).

Arnaud Imatz, a Basque-French political scientist and historian, holds a State Doctorate (DrE) in political science and is a correspondent-member of the Royal Academy of History (Spain), and a former international civil servant at OECD. He is a specialist in the Spanish Civil War, European populism, and the political struggles of the Right and the Left – all subjects on which he has written several books. He has also published numerous articles on the political thought of the founder and theoretician of the Falange, José Antonio Primo de Rivera, as well as the Liberal philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, and the Catholic traditionalist, Juan Donoso Cortés.

The image shows, “Admiral Blas de Lezo,” by an unknown painter, daited 1735.