The history of the Spanish Navy is full of great deeds and even defeats full of heroism and punditry. Beyond the great battles, there are many other examples of how our warships knew how to fulfil their duty even in the most adverse conditions, in inferior conditions in many cases.
This is the case of the Spanish ship San Ignacio de Loyola, alias the “Glorioso”, which, with its 70 cannons, returned from Veracruz in July 1747, captained by Pedro Mesía de la Cerda, with a declared cargo valued at 4,502,631 pesos fuertes and 7 maravedís de plata. She was also carrying medicinal goods, fine and wild grana, vanilla, sugar, balsam, cocoa, hides and a valuable personal gift from the viceroy of the Philippines destined for King Fernando VI.
On her voyage to Spain, she managed to repel two English attacks, one some 200 kilometres north of the Azores and another off Cape Finisterre before landing her cargo in port.
On his way, near the Azores, he came across an English convoy escorted by three warships, the 60-gun ship-of-the-line Warwick, the 40-gun frigate Lark and the 16-gun paqueboat Montagu, as well as the 20-gun troop transport Beaufort.
De la Cerda ordered to prepare for combat and continued sailing north-east towards Ferrol, keeping to windward. John Crookshanks, the convoy commander, after spotting the Spanish vessel, ordered the pursue. As the hours went by and seeing that she was moving away from the charted route, he ordered the captain of the Beaufort to stay with the rest of the transports to protect them, and began the hunt for the lone ship.
After several skirmishes that lasted all night, the following morning the other two British warships were already close to the Spanish ship and continued after her until darkness fell again. In this situation, Pedro Mesía, seeing that the three enemy ships were closing in on him, took the initiative. He came suddenly upon the Montagu, which was close to his starboard fin, and fired a few cannon shots at her. The manoeuvre had placed the Glorioso on the port side of the Lark, against which she fired all her guns on the starboard side, knocking down one of her masts. After a cannonade that lasted, according to witnesses, little more than five minutes, John Crookshanks ordered the Lark to detach from the Glorioso. She would not return.
But Pedro Mesía, instead of fleeing, turned his ship round and headed for the Warwick, keeping to windward, against which he fired all his guns on the port side first and all those on the starboard side afterwards, managing to put her to flight.
The Spanish casualties were five dead (including two civilians) and 42 wounded, seven of whom were seriously wounded. Five of them died in the following days. In terms of material damage, the ship suffered four cannonball hits to its hull at the height of the first battery and considerable damage to the rigging. Most of it would be repaired in a few days.
“The dead I had during the operation were three seamen and two passengers, named Don Pedro Ygnacio de Urquina and Juan Perez Veas. Slightly wounded, first and second Constables, and a Brigade Gunner. Ynfantry 10. Only one very badly wounded, the others slightly. Gunners, Sailors, and Grummies 29. six severely of whom, in the days following, four died, and the Private also. 406. cannon shots of the calibre of 24: 420. of 18: 180 of 8: 4,400 rifle cartridges were fired”, wrote the captain in his ship’s log.
When the British Admiralty learned of this engagement, Captain Crookshanks was court-martialled for refusal of assistance and neglect of duty. Found guilty, he was dismissed from the Royal Navy.
After this engagement, the Glorioso continued to sail towards Spain until a couple of weeks later, on 14 August, in the vicinity of Cape Finisterre, in Galicia, she again encountered enemy ships. According to English sources, these were the 50-gun ship-of-the-line Oxford, the 24-gun frigate Shoreham and the 14-gun sloop Falcon.
Pedro Mesía, when he saw that the larger vessel was dizzying his foremast to come upon him, took the initiative by tacking and heading towards the larger English ship. When the two sides came level with the opposing ships, both sides fired all their cannons at them, although the captain of Glorioso, seeing that a lot of water had entered through the ports of his first battery, managed to leave the three enemy ships behind, avoiding fighting again between two fires.
Captain Smith Callis, commander of the Oxford, never wanted to present his ship’s full broadside and, after two volleys, he fled from the barrage, fleeing from the battle. The duel had lasted almost three hours and was a tactical victory for the Spanish captain. In fact, despite being outnumbered, the Glorioso suffered only five light injuries and little damage.
Captain Callis was also court-martialled, although in his case he was acquitted and reinstated with honour.
Two days later, the Glorioso arrived at the Corcubión estuary, anchored at the mouth of the estuary, until the night of 18th August, when it reached port and began to unload its cargo the following morning.
Engraving of the entrance to the estuary of Corcubión where the “Glorioso” remained.
Incidentally, as Agustín Ramón Rodríguez González (in Spanish), of the Círculo Naval, recounts, “the real cargo was very different from that officially declared. In this respect, few Galicians will know that for a few days in the summer of 1747 the walls of some of their rural churches and the historic buildings of their most emblematic cities housed a treasure that today would be valued at more than 4,000 million euros.“ Another aspect to consider in this episode is the efficiency of British espionage, which had woven a complex web of secret agents that allowed the British authorities to know about all Spanish movements in the area. It is also worth mentioning the reasons why a company of grenadiers from an infantry unit belonging to the Army, the Lisbon Regiment, was embarked on the Glorioso. Its performance during the last battles fought by the ship is enough in itself to rescue its small part in this story from oblivion. Finally, it is necessary to point out in this section that Pedro Mesía de la Zerda was promoted to squadron commander a few days after arriving at Corcubión. The Marquis de la Ensenada informed him of this promotion by letter dated 22 August 1747 in Madrid. From this letter we have extracted the following paragraph:
“Having heard with great pleasure and satisfaction the news of happy arrival of Your Excellency at Corcubion with the ship El Glorioso in your charge, and the honour, valour and conduct with which, with the glory of your Royal Pavilion, Your Excellency fought in two battles that you had in your country in 1747. in two battles that you had in your coming to Spain from Veracruz with the English warships (…) Your Excellency has been promoted to Chief of the Navy Squadron: I give you this notice by order of Your Majesty with great pleasure (…)”
After unloading its precious cargo and transporting it inland with the help of the local civilian population, it remained in the estuary for almost two months. There it was repaired with spare parts sent from La Graña. After setting sail for Ferrol on the night of 5th October, the ship encountered a British squadron made up of 15 ships the following morning, so it had to return to Corcubión. It was to leave definitively on 11 October, although on 14 October, a strong wind blew the ship’s anchor, forcing its captain to head for Cádiz.
“By common agreement, it was decided to give the ship a rest, arriving at the port nearest to leeward, which was Cadiz.”
On 17 October, three days after leaving the Finisterre anchorage, off Cape San Vicente, the lookouts on the lone Spanish ship sighted a dozen enemy vessels. Two of them went ahead to meet the Glorioso; they were the British frigates King George and Prince Frederick. Both ships were part of a small privateer squadron commanded by Commodore George Walker.
This squadron was known in the United Kingdom as “The Royal Family” due to the names of its frigates: King George, Prince Frederick, Prince George, Duke, Princess Amelia and Prince Edward Tender. In terms of the strength of the Royal Family, at the beginning of July 1747 the six frigates in question had a combined total of 114 guns and 1,000 men. As will be seen later, only the first three were present in the engagements with the Glorioso, although ultimately the only one to engage the Spanish ship in a direct and prolonged gun battle was the King George, commanded by George Walker. This circumstance speaks volumes about the English commander.
According to Agustín Pacheco Fernández in an article in the Revista de Historia Naval (in Spanish), at nightfall, the corsair King George, the flagship of the group, arrived alone off the San Ignacio de Loyola, positioning itself alongside her. Someone spoke in English, and from the Spanish ship, the name of the ship was asked in the same language. As soon as he answered, the doors were opened and a volley from the two batteries on that side swept the British frigate from bow to stern. “Two of her guns were dismounted, and the topsail mast was lowered. An artillery duel then commenced between the two ships, in which the British tried to compensate for their lack of power by making the most of the company of embarked infantry and the large number of muskets available. However, De la Cerda, aware of his advantages, was not going to allow a duel at close range. With a full moon allowing him to see almost as if it were daylight, he manoeuvred his ship and turned away from the Englishman to take advantage of the greater range of his guns. Walker, with most of his ship’s rigging damaged, could do nothing to prevent it. For the next two hours the privateer frigate was literally wiped out.“
In fact, she lost eight men and suffered numerous injuries. The Prince Frederick appeared on the scene after dark, positioning herself on the port side of the Glorioso, and began firing in an attempt to distract the fire on her commander. Although her captain, Edward Dottin, was careful not to offer his ship’s side to his opponent’s big guns, the latter’s first shots caused three serious injuries to his crew, two of whom had their legs amputated. Half an hour later, the Glorioso left the battle without either of the two frigates doing anything to prevent it.
Despite the three battles with the British already fought, the British seemed far from content to let the Glorioso escape towards Cadiz. The Spanish ship still had two more battles to fight. Thus, at dawn the following day, three Royal Navy frigates, with the three-masted Russell, set off in pursuit of Pedro Mesía’s ship, which, to avoid such an unequal confrontation, ordered the ship to turn and head northwest.
By mid-morning the lookouts spotted a lone ship coming towards them, with no flag to identify it. To make it appear friendly, its commander showed he knew the Spanish signal codes and ordered two slow cannon shots to be fired. Mesía, suspicious of the strange manoeuvre, continued his rout undeterred. After midday, the captain of the ship that was pursuing him, seeing that his trick had not worked, “lowered the Danish flag, and hoisted the Ynglish red”. This was the Darmouth, a 50-gun warship commanded by John Hamilton.
As she came within firing distance, her forward guns began to thunder. Those on the Spanish ship’s gunboats also came into action. De la Zerda assessed the situation and decided to wait for his opponent to present his broadside. However, Hamilton, “conscious perhaps of the lighter weight of his broadside, did not want to expose his entire broadside at any time”, so he brought his topsail and main topsail into the stern to slow the ship, beginning to fire with his starboard batteries when his bow reached the height of the Glorioso‘s mainmast.
The gun battle lasted three hours, until after three o’clock in the afternoon a tremendous explosion disintegrated the Darmouth. There were only 18 survivors, including a lieutenant.
Combat of the ship Glorioso with the British ship Darmouth” by Ángel Cortellini Sánchez
“In this disposition we fought with reciprocal lively cannon and rifle fire until three o’clock in the afternoon, when the fatal misfortune of being blown up came upon her; So that from one moment to the next we found ourselves without an object with which to continue the fire, as it was reduced to small barracks scattered in the sea, and on them we found some men, who, having saved their lives from that dreadful failure, were calling for help with a canvas or white shirt wrapped in a piece of rope or oar.”
“He had three hundred and seventy men in Baggage of whom only ten and eight men escaped, including a lieutenant, according to what the lieutenant himself later informed me…”
For the rest of the day, the entire crew of the Glorioso would remain repairing the ship’s rigging, in order to be able to face the ships approaching from the south with some guarantee. After midnight, with a full moon that made it possible to see as if it were daylight, the Spanish commander watched with resignation as a three-masted ship took advantage of the light night breeze and positioned itself to windward. It was the Russell, an 80-gun ship commanded by Captain Mathew Buckle. Two other frigates were positioned some distance over her stern. After a full night of firing with whatever guns were on board, the Glorioso‘s guns stopped firing after six o’clock in the morning. There was nothing left to load them with.
The pressing shortage of shrapnel meant that the pages and cabin boys began to search the stores and tool rooms for any metallic item that could be used as a projectile, but after a whole night of firing with any weapon on board, the Glorioso’s guns stopped firing after six o’clock in the morning. There was nothing left to load them with.
“Last Battle of the Glorioso“, by Augusto Ferrer Dalmau
“After three and a half hours of combat, we found ourselves without a crowbar or a bag of shrapnel, because we continued our fire with the bullets two by two in the artillery, and putting in the goat’s feet of their service and a few nails instead of the shrapnel, to better offend the enemy.”
Finally, on the morning of the 19th, with 33 dead and 130 wounded on board, the crew exhausted and their ammunition exhausted, Pedro Mesía de la Cerda surrendered the ship.
“The battle lasted until quarter past six in the morning, when we became aware of the unhappy state in which we found ourselves in terms of sticks, bergs and rigging, and that the ship was taking on a lot of water due to the many 36-gauge bullets. And considering that we had no means of being able to arm even a bandolier, nor that the enemy would desist from their efforts, as we were sheltered by the two frigates, which in their company had been firing at us all night; and even if they withdrew from the combat, we were exposed to being destroyed, or to any Corsair taking us, as we were without means of defence; for these reasons we were obliged to surrender…”
On boarding the Russell, he would discover the enormous damage inflicted on his opponent. Subsequent conversations with Captain Buckle and an English gentleman on board made him realise how close he had come to victory.
“And their Commander assured us, that they were in terms of passing the two Frigates, and setting fire to the Ship for the much Water, which made a Bullet to the Fire of her; which Damage was remedied by a famous Diver, which they brought.”
For his part, the English gentleman came to tell them of the harsh situation that had been experienced on board the British ship. Thus, after long hours of fighting with no sign of weakness on the part of the Spaniards, the enemy officers had to use extreme measures to keep some of the crew fighting. “An English Passenger of distinction who was on board the ship told us that when his people were dismayed at not wanting to continue the battle, the officers had to force them to continue with sword in hand.”
It is likely that the Spanish captain, seeing the state of the ship that had captured them and how close he had come to victory, remembered the ammunition he had requested in Corcubión and which had been denied him.
According to Pacheco Fernández, “it was not a problem of lack of stock, as there was a gunpowder store in La Graña with a capacity for 3,000 quintals”. The Glorioso had left Corcubión with barely 60% of the regulated ammunition. The subsequent report of the discharges made in the three engagements confirms this calculation: “In all three engagements, two thousand, nine Hundred, and Sinquenta Cañon shots were fired.“ In other words, if the ship’s ammunition magazines had been fully loaded, her guns would have been able to fire almost 2,000 more shots.
The future of the Glorioso
According to the writer Arturo Pérez Reverte himself, the “final feat” was the ship itself, which was so badly damaged that when the British towed it to Lisbon to repair it and hoist their flag on it, there was no way of keeping it afloat and it had to be scrapped.
“No Englishman ever sailed aboard that ship”, he concluded.
Other sources, however, state that the ship did leave Lisbon and was taken to the port of Portsmouth, according to Captain Richard Hughes, the Admiralty commissioner at the Portsmouth dockyard: “The Glorioso Spanish ship of war, taken by the Russell, has arrived at Spithead.”
The Spanish ship was moored there, where it remained for the following months, awaiting a technical inspection to determine its condition. For its part, the Russell was to sail for Chatham, the main British shipyard, to undergo a complete refit.
In mid-September, Thomas Bucknall, one of the shipyard’s builders, wrote and signed a detailed report specifying all the parts to be replaced and enclosed a list of the “Dimensions & Scantlings of the Glorioso Spanish ship of War”. Bucknall was conclusive: the ship was a strong and well-built vessel, which could be fit for good service after the damaged parts were replaced.
However, the final fate of the Spanish ship was to be decided in a famous London locale. Time had passed and Spain and England had ended the war, which meant a reduction of the British military fleet, so that there was no longer a need for so many ships. So the Glorioso would never sail under the British flag after all.
Finally, it would be auctioned at Lloyds Coffee House on 24 April 1749, a premises now occupied by a supermarket, although a plaque can still be read that reads: “Site of Lloyds Coffe House 1691-1785″.
Pedro Mesía de la Cerda
Pedro Mesía de la Cerda
And what became of the captain of the Glorioso, Pedro Mesía de la Cerda? Well, after the surrender of the ship, in March 1750 he received the command of a naval force destined to fight the Algerian corsairs. In 1755, flying his insignia on the ship-of-the-line Tigre and as commander general of the Mediterranean squadron, he took direct command of one of its two divisions, made up of two ships, a frigate and four xebecs. In 1757, now a lieutenant general, he was appointed advisor to the Supreme War Council.
On 13 March 1760 he was appointed viceroy, governor and captain general of New Granada and president of the Royal Court of Santa Fe, positions he took up in 1761. He was accompanied by his personal physician, the celebrated José Celestino Mutis, one of the most outstanding Spanish scientists of the Enlightenment.
He spent 10 months in Cartagena de Indias and entrusted the restoration of the fortifications to the engineer general Antonio de Arévalo. Once in Bogotá, he approved the founding of the first women’s college in the Viceroyalty, and through the mediation of Mutis, he ordered the creation of mathematics chairs in the higher education centres of New Granada.
He promoted silver mining in the deposits of Mariquita, in charge of which he put the brothers Fausto and Juan José Delhuyar, discoverers of wolfram.
In 1767, in compliance with the Pragmatic Sanction, he oversaw the expulsion of the 187 Jesuits living in New Granada. He also ordered the transfer of the Jesuit libraries and created the Royal Library of Santa Fe de Bogotá, which would later become the National Library of Colombia, the first public library in New Granada.
His resignation was accepted on 21 December 1771 and became effective on 31 October 1772, after which he returned to Spain. He died in Madrid on 15 April 1783, at the advanced age of 83.