PHOTO: BRIAN MURDOCK
MADRID BY PETRA, Tours of the Movida Madrileña (https://www.facebook.com/madridbypetra)
PHOTO: BRIAN MURDOCK
MADRID BY PETRA, Tours of the Movida Madrileña (https://www.facebook.com/madridbypetra)
Peral’s submarine was built at a dock in La Carraca, an important naval shipyard and military base in the province of Cadiz. The watercraft was launched on September 8, 1888 and ready for testing. Six months later, in March, 1889, it was subjected to the first round of practical trials. First they lowered it as far as the turret and recorded their impressions. Then they tested its armament and fired dummy torpedoes into some nearby rocks. Eventually, they lowered it to a depth of 25ft (8m) and studied how well it maneuvered. The Peral would eventually go down as far as 100ft (30m) and crawl around the floor of the harbor for up to an hour at a time. The initial results were promising.
Its surface speed was also reasonably impressive for its day, reaching over 8 knots (up to 12 knots when the accumulators were fully charged). Submarines built posteriorly would not surpass that rate until well into World War I, which should give you an idea of just how advanced it was. Underwater, however, it was limited to a more modest 3.5 knots, a drawback exacerbated by the fact the batteries could not be recharged as they went. With speed subject to the strength of the energy source, performance in this category was unfortunately unreliable.
That said, it’s important to take into consideration that just about everything about the Peral was being testing fully for the first time. After all, this was a prototype more than anything else, and one of the main purposes of the studies was to take note of its strong points and troubleshoot for flaws. They generally produced a wide array of results, ranging from better than expected successes to unforeseen mishaps. Sometimes of the kind you don’t want to unfold when trapped inside a metal container underwater. We can imagine it was pretty nerve-racking for the crew. And while Peral described the atmosphere in the cabin as “excellent” and “healthy”, and praised the team’s morale, some members would later recall the experience with a decidedly more harrowing. One quipped he went down the hatch with dark hair and came back up several hours later with white. All things told, it must have been terrifying.
Despite the tension, the uncertainty, and even subversive setbacks, there is some fairly convincing evidence his project was a victim of sabotage, the tests were said to have gone extremely well. The boat was seaworthy, which was something you couldn’t say about most competitors of his day, reliable and, for the most part, lived up to expectations.
There was just one question that needed to be answered: would it do what it was designed to do? That is, would it be an effective sea weapon?
For that, authorities needed to assess just how it would compete against an enemy vessel. The chosen ship for the challenge was the unprotected cruiser called the Cristobal Colón, that’s Spanish for “Christopher Columbus”. The intended target was packed with naval guests, friends and family who had gathered for a social outing and found themselves on board for the sole purpose of snacking on tapas and spotting the U-boat. Obviously, the anticipation took away most, if not all, of the element of surprise, generally a required condition for submarines to be effective. As a result, the turret was seen from a proverbial “mile” away, and any secret attack was thwarted. On top of that, the state of the sea at the time apparently made it especially difficult for the crew to control the submarine, meaning they had to surface more often than they would like. The test was repeated several times that day with essentially identical results.
This fact, this predictability, apparently irked Peral beyond belief. What kind of test was that? Despite his protests, maybe it was not such a bad one, if you think about it. While hiring a regiment of revelers to keep an eye out for any lurking submersibles as they sip cocktails may not be the ideal way to simulate a wartime scenario, you can bet your depth charges any able naval craft on alert would be counting on professional personnel to do the same. If Sra. Sanchez in her Sunday best could scream “Sub off the starboard!” while keeping her hat from flying away in the sea breeze, just imagine the field day a trained naval serviceman on lookout would have.
The nighttime test, however, produced the desired results. The Peral managed to sneak up to within range and fire upon the vessel several times successfully with dummy torpedoes. In theory, the Colón, would have burst into flames and bubbled to the bottom in minutes, several times over. Satisfied with the way things had gone, it was time to return to the office for a review.
The first official reports on the Peral were not quite stellar but encouraging. The submarine had passed most of the main trials satisfactorily, but discrepancy arose over the sub’s range and autonomy. There were claims it could roam for up to 511 kilometers and that the 600-plus accumulators could run for 66 hours without recharging. This was met with skepticism, and rightfully so. Conditions would have to have been close to ideal to have a shot at meeting those standards; but, as many sailors will tell you, conditions are rarely ideal out at sea. Plus, as anyone who has had a battery-run toy or a tape recorder will attest to, energy levels don’t go full throttle until they suddenly shut off; instead they slowly lose their oomph before coming to a complete stop. An internal combustion engine which kept the batteries charged would have solved that issue, but unfortunately it hadn’t been incorporated. To be fair, the vision Peral had in mind was that of a vessel that would defend the coasts of Spain, not make transatlantic crossings. The weapon was designed to be more defensive in purpose. It didn’t need a great range.
Other issues that needed addressing included complications involving the electrical network and the vessel’s troublesome tendency to rock unstably underwater. Peral himself was the first to admit these problems and already had plans to remedy them. Unfortunately, trying to correct them with the existing submarine would have proved both complex and unsatisfactory in the end. The easiest solution would be to start all over with a new sub and the needed corrections in place.
So, the board, while not overly enthralled, must have seen enough potential to order a second one, with the necessary improvements, naturally. It even toyed with the idea of creating an entire fleet to be deployed in pairs and trios around the country’s staggering 6,000 kilometers of coastline. The next submarine would be larger, faster, with a hybrid motor of combustion for surface and electric batteries below. That way they wouldn’t have to return to base to recharge. The sub’s design would be modified, too, to adhere to better specifications that would make it more stable. The officials also planned on equipping it with two torpedo tubes instead of one and a gun fitted on the deck to increase its attacking capabilities. By including these, they just might have a vessel worth investing it. Peral agreed and went straight to work.
In the meantime, the country went deliriously crazy.
Most people today know little or nothing about Isaac Peral, but in Spain in 1889 his fame had rocketed to celebrity status. Even polkas were composed in his honor. If that isn’t the ultimate consummation of recognition for a job well done, I don’t know what is. His resounding success struck pride nationwide and earned him an invitation by the queen to visit the royal palace. She was one of his most loyal supporters and admirers, and it was only fitting that her protégé be given a hero’s welcome.
His trip to Madrid was met with much anticipation and it illustrates the inventor’s seemingly boundless popularity. He and his wife arrived by train on July 22 at Atocha Station (known as Mediodía Station back then) in the center of the capital, where they were mobbed by a crowd that ran into the thousands. It reportedly took them over an hour just to reach the hotel where they were staying on the Calle San Jeromino, a mere half a mile away. Once at the accommodation, hordes gathered outside like teenagers waiting anxiously to get a glimpse at a pop influencer. They refused to leave until their newfound idol appeared on the balcony and delivered a speech of gratitude and appreciation for their support. He acquiesced and the reaction was said to have been delirious.
Ensuing banquets and celebrations were held in his honor, and the queen herself bequeathed her deceased husband’s gala sword to him, a gesture of appreciation and affection difficult to match. The festivities brought the capital to a near standstill. The frenzy was mindboggling. Lindbergh’s victory tour comes to mind as a comparison. It was a great time to be an inventor, that’s for sure. One of those few moments in history when they got the attention they deserved. The future looked bright; the project showed promise. It seemed like for the first time in many, many years, the Spanish navy was ready to retake center stage.
Peral was at the height of his career.
The Last Chance
So timing was on Peral’s side. It was his moment to convince the military command that he was on to something. That is, a solution to Spain’s naval woes. His solid reputation as a serviceman and researcher worked in his favor, as well as his connections with people in high places, Queen Regent María Cristina of Spain no less. She was a said to have been a big fan of his project. Eventually, he swept his plans up off the table and headed for Madrid for a private interview with Vice Admiral Manuel de la Pezuela y Lobo, the Minister of the Navy at the time. Born in 1817, the aging official had spent the better part of his long career witnessing first hand the descent of his beloved navy into the abyss and was intrigued but not entirely convinced. He needed to see more. So he agreed to finance the preliminary tests before going all out.
The government initially allotted Peral 5,000 pesetas to conduct a set of experiments to see if going through with construction of a full-scale submersible was even worth it. These tests included, among other things, ensuring the survival of the crew for extended periods of time in an enclosed area. This is, and has always been, a clear and present danger for anyone daring to close themselves into a confined airtight space and plod around the bottom of the sea. Even H.G. Welles, the creative literary giant who seemed to envision just about anything as being possible, once said rather fatalistically, “I must confess that my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea.”
The writer was wrong, of course, but his views were not entirely off base. Submarines are tricky machines and have a lot of natural laws working against their success. In fact, it’s a wonder they work at all.
For example, even after you have found a way to ensure breathing and can get rid of the increasing levels of carbon dioxide, since it doesn’t just disappear magically, there’s a whole slew of challenges to overcome, like getting the vessel to sink. We all know that air keeps boats afloat, but how can we make them go under…on purpose? Anyone who has tried to plunge a beach ball under water for a sustained period of time can relate to this complication first hand.
And, you will want it to submerge in a controlled fashion, which the laws of physics dictate is easier said than done. Round oblong shaped objects tend to rock and roll, or on occasion just dive headfirst onto the floor of the ocean. It’s achieving a steady and balanced descent that sailors struggle with.
Next comes forward motion, almost blindly, without bumping into anything. And you’ll need to know how to generate the power to propel it mechanically on its own. Finally, as the voyage comes to an end, you’ll have to make sure you can get the vessel back up to the surface.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A handful in a myriad of obstacles. To say Issac Peral had not set the bar high for himself is an understatement. Still, one gets the feeling that it was his passion for his project that carried him and it through.
The first tests concerning survivability proved successful; very successful, in fact. The ministry nodded with approval and allocated the team another 25,000 pesetas to get the program up and running.
Peral went straight to work, making use of the grant to travel personally to various points in Europe to obtain the materials and instruments needed to see his dream come true. He returned with everything he thought he needed and began the assembly.
Just what, might you ask, did Peral and his team design? Well, quite possibly the most advanced vessel of its kind the world had ever seen. Let’s take a closer look at some of the genius behind the Spaniard’s plans.
The sub was 72 feet long and weighed nearly 80 tons. One of its most innovative features was the inclusion of electricity as a system for propulsion. This would allow for independent mobility underwater and it would free up the crew from manual labor and allow them to focus on other tasks. To power the massive sub, the Peral required 613 batteries (known as accumulators) weighing 50kg each, which the inventor had purchased in Belgium. This source of energy ran the two 30hp electric engines he combined to turn the two large screws at the back. These had been acquired in England.
To help the sub to lower under water, Peral came up with a brilliant idea. He called it a “caja de profundidades” or “depth device” and it consisted of two vertical screws placed on the bottom of the hull, one each end of the sub. Once turned on, they assisted in the descent. This machine allowed the submarine to dive in a stable manner, thus overcoming one of the most challenging obstacles of underwater navigation. It also kept the vessel steady when firing the torpedoes.
Additionally, ballast tanks were installed on the bottom of the hull. Ballast tanks are containers which can fill up with water so that the submarine can submerge. The water is then pumped out when it’s time to surface. They also controlled buoyancy.
Oxygen was provided thanks to four tanks of compressed air and was regenerated through an engine that pumped air through a sodium hydroxide (or soda lime) filter to control the levels of CO2 and avoid air poisoning. The same motor injected oxygen when necessary and also powered the bilge pump to expel excess water. It was a very useful machine, indeed.
Oxygen supply was reported to last for up to two days underwwater, though that was never fully tested. At the same time, when the Peral was at the surface, air could also be recycled thanks to two air vents (he described them as “snorkels”) which drew in fresh air and sent it to the galley.
To improve underwater navigation, Peral stuck a bronze magnetic needle on the ceiling of the sub’s turret to act as a compass. He placed it as far away from the electrical equipment to avoid interference with the readings. It was an addition that had gone untried up until then and proved very helpful. An electric light was attached to the hull giving the visibility of up to an impressive 150 meters. When moving close to or at the surface, the Peral could also count on its tower as well as a periscope in order to see without being seen. The periscope in practice presented problems for the Peral, but the innovation as an idea would live on to this day.
The final touch, probably the one that interested his superiors the most, was the inclusion of a torpedo tube at the bow. It literally made up the nose of the vessel. Two watertight hatches on each end of the tube enabled the crew to launch them underwater. All you had to do was raised the hatch, launch the torpedo, close it, and quickly replace it with another. There was room for three additional projectiles. The ammunition of choice was the German-made Schwarzkopf. If all went according to plan, the Peral and its future sister ships would form a serious threat to any menace enemy.
Peral didn’t invent most of these components. He didn’t invent the battery. He didn’t invent the ballast. He didn’t invent the electric motor, the air purifier or even the torpedo. And he certainly didn’t invent the compass or the screw. His ingenuity lay in the fact he knew how to put them all together so that he could construct a solid and reliable submarine. That required vision and, let’s be honest with ourselves, a lot of inventiveness. It meant modifying existing components to adapt to his necessities, as well as plenty of tweaking as they went.
And if you think about it, isn’t that how these things so often work? Aren’t most sophisticated inventions an accumulation of previous ones that required that one blob of magical mental glue to stick them together? The result, in this case, was a tremendously resourceful and imaginative submersible vessel. To many, nothing like it had been created before.
The final price tag was something along the lines of 300,000 pesetas, more than ten times the original budget. That too, is just the way most projects work!
It was now time to put it to the test.
Enter Isaac Peral
In 1884, a man by the name of Isaac Peral met with naval authorities and discussed the incalculable benefits of constructing a self-propelled submarine powered by an electric-battery which, if successful, would enhance the navy’s otherwise deficient status to that of a force to be reckoned with. If unable to compete directly with the feverish arms race carried out by other nations with greater means, in the very least it would act as a deterrent against any wanton aggression. It would, the officer argued, make rivals think twice about screwing with Spain, though I’m sure he probably worded it more elegantly.
At the time of the proposal, Peral was far from a no-name in his sector. Born in Cartagena in 1851 into a family with a military tradition, he was destined for a career in service to his country. His parents soon moved to the naval port of San Fernando, Cadiz, where he grew up until he entered the navy at the tender age of 14. He took to the sea for the first time when he was just 16. It would the beginning of fifteen very active formative years during which he would distinguish himself for his commitment and bravery in an array of areas, from combat to academic investigation.
His maiden voyage took him to the Philippines where he conducted scientific research on the behavior of hurricanes and typhoons. He then was stationed in Cuba and fought local insurgents who were leading the fight for independence against Spain. It was there the young officer earned praise from his superiors for his courage and dedication, as well as a spot on the enemy’s hit list for pretty much the same reasons. He is also rumored to have been challenged to a duel with an individual whom he felt had insulted Spain. If this occurred at all, we can assume the outcome turned out favorably for the young and dashing Peral.
Then he returned to his homeland where missions included high profile assignments such as escorting Amadeo of Saboya, an Italian prince, to Spain to become king for a very brief reign of two and a half years. He also participated in the Third Carlist War (1872-1876), a domestic conflict over succession rights. Here, his fleet, representing the national government, anchored off the coast of Bilbao and kept supplies from reaching the Basque Carlistas, who were supporting Charles VII as the rightful pretender to the throne.
Peral would make one more voyage to the Philippines, but his stay was cut short when he was forced to repatriate for health reasons. Some say it was cholera, others claim it was from a head wound. The oddest story recounts how a barber cut a mole off his temple accidentally, but for some reason the lesion never fully healed. I tend to buy this explanation because, when you think about it, who would make something like that up?
The long and short of it was that Isaac’s active duty had reached its conclusion. And “active” it had been. In 15 years, he had served on 32 different ships and spent over 1,300 days at sea (that’s approximately 3.5 years on board a vessel), participated in at least two theaters of war, and also found the time to get married had have children.
Once back in Cadiz, he was awarded the chair of physics and chemistry at the naval academy and settled into the more sedentary life of teaching, where you can make money and not really do anything in particular. As was true of many academics of his day, his new job allowed him to devote part of his time to other disciplines, such as research and development. In Peral’s case, just about anything scientific would do, but it was a burgeoning interest in all things electric that really got him charged up. Couple that with an insatiable thirst for solving a nagging naval conundrum about successful underwater navigation, and, presto, in 1884 you had the initial sketches of a major technological breakthrough that would awe the naval world: the first true military submarine.
At least that was the idea on paper. The intense, energetic, intelligent, tirelessly investigative Peral had become passionate about his brainchild and was eager to get his project off the ground. All he needed now was three crucial elements to see his dream through: time and money and, as is the case of many inventions, a little unexpected luck.
That bit of fortune would come in the form of an international incident which, at first glance, seemed totally unrelated to underwater vessels, but would act as the catalyst to get the attention of the upper tiers of the Ministry of the Navy.
In 1885, a crisis arose between Spain and the German Empire over the sovereignty of the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific Ocean. The Carolines are a vast sub-region of mostly uninhabitable islands and atolls in what is now known as the Federated States of Micronesia. The Spanish claimed to be the first Europeans to land there in 1526 (the Portuguese disagree) and regarded them as part of Spanish territory under the premise of “finders, keepers”, though it never really exercised full control. It was this very vagueness that would lead to problems down the road.
The Carolines didn’t really have much to offer in terms of natural resources; they didn’t have much of anything. But they did possess a singular attribute that major powers in general find particularly seductive: strategic positioning. The Spanish knew that better than anyone. Why else, otherwise, would the British be keeping a toehold on a hunk of rock on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula if it weren’t for the fact Gibraltar forms the gateway to the Mediterranean?
The Carolines, in a similar fashion, acted as a kind of crossroads between different Asian spheres of economic influence, so as trade routes between the East and the West increased, so did the desire to have a better hold on them. One rising world power of the late 19th century, Germany, was particularly interested, and it brought this to the attention of the Spanish government. Not much came of it until word got out that the Spanish were planning on formally controlling what had been mainly a de facto territory of theirs. That was when German chancellor Otto von Bismarck decided to beat them to it and had a flag raised on Yap and Palau, two of the few usable islands in the whole chain, in an attempt to claim ownership.
That was a big mistake, if you know anything about Spanish protectiveness of small, mainly meaningless, international possessions. In 2002, 12 Moroccan soldiers landed on a tiny 40 acre land mass known as La Isla de Perejil, or Parsley Island. Perejil is only 500 feet off the coast of Morocco and anyone taking a quick glimpse at a map would immediately assume it belongs to that country. While the name suggests lush vegetation, it can better be described as barren boulder decorated sparingly with a few lonely shrubs and a terrain suitable only for creatures donning exoskeletons. The “invaders” pitched a tent and raised the Moroccan flag nice and high for everyone, especially the Spanish, to see, and waited to see what happened.
The Spanish were not amused. The government figured their neighbors from the south were testing Spain’s resolve to defend the territory. And defend it they did. The island has no value whatsoever, unless you are a goat, smuggle drugs or enjoy suicidal solitude, but that didn’t stop Madrid from taking swift action to return it to its rightful owners. In a military operation reminiscent of the Falkland’s, though a lot less bloody or costly, the Spanish armed forces swept in and took the island back. The United States would intervene and act as a mediator in the crisis, establishing a status quo ante bellum agreement between the two parties.
The Germans, without the benefit of fortunetelling, did not foresee an angry reaction and probably figured that if the Spanish hadn’t bothered to settle there in 350 years, they really wouldn’t care if they set up a trading post. They were as wrong as the Moroccans. The Spanish did care. A lot. It was like what happens to you when you decide to throw out that toy shark your child left on the shelf three year before and make the mistake of announcing it out loud. Before you know it, the kid has flopped on the floor and is kicking and pounding the parquet, screaming it’s their favorite and that they’ll die if they lose it.
The confrontation amounted to little more than several weeks of a tense diplomatic standoff, with the Spanish being especially vociferous in their outrage. Thousands in Madrid vehemently protested outside the German embassy, and similar demonstrations broke out around the country. The German government was apparently taken aback by the fierce criticism. They clearly figured it wasn’t such a big deal. Eventually, Bismarck sought the intervention of the Pope Leo XIII, which was a poor choice, because the Holy Father naturally sided with Catholic Spain and declared the territory to be Spanish. A treaty was drawn up and signed.
Not much changed, but the incident did bring to light a reality which most had already known about but were unwilling to admit: had the German navy wanted to impose its will, it could have and there would have been little Spain could have done to stop it. Nothing at all, in fact.
Something needed to be done.
A Once and Glorious Navy
It must have been no fun being a part of the Spanish military back in the final days of the 19th century. Once one of the mightiest fighting services in the world, by the 1880s it was limping its way to a very slow, and not especially dignified, decline. Most would call it death.
The navy was especially sensitive to this reality given its previously celebrated past. For hundred years the armada stood out as one of the most formidable naval forces around and had come to be a major presence in vast portions of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, not the mention the Mediterranean.
On the military front, Spanish fleets racked up numerous victories in many different theaters around the world. These included Lepanto in 1571, the Isla Flores in 1591, Cape St. Vincent in 1606, St. Christopher Island in 1629, St. Martin in 1633, Cartagena in 1738, Toulon in 1744, Tenerife in 1797, to name just a few. Historic clashes against worthy rivals. Days of glory for Spain’s maritime war machine. Feared, respected, loathed. These were some of the sentiments its enemies felt for it.
Now, to be fair, we can’t, of course, overlook some of the great defeats the country suffered as well. Notable setbacks, like the Armada of 1588 or Trafalgar in 1805 come to mind. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. These were years, dare I say centuries, of near nonstop warring amongst major powers that busily exchanged blows with each other for superiority of the high seas and the colonies. Wins, losses. Victories, defeats. Each nation bagged its fair share of triumphs and humiliations in a power struggle that would last for centuries.
Spain’s navy also designed the first frigate and created the world’s first marine corps. It built ports and coastal fortresses throughout the new world and set up global trade routes. It controlled a major network that linked three continents, Europe, America and Asia, with hubs in Seville, Havana, Acapulco and Manila. For two and a half centuries, Spain, and more specifically, Castile, commanded the world’s most important shipping lanes in the valuable, highly coveted, spice trade.
It also had a corner on the precious metals market and was a pioneer in the concept of using a convoy to escort its prized Treasure Fleet, which annually shipped chestfuls of gold, and especially silver, back home. The convoy was so effective that only two shipments in nearly three hundred years were lost or taken. The silver that was coined would also help establish the Spanish silver dollar as the first international currency of modern times and the one upon which America would base its own money; it was even legal tender in the United States until 1857.
By the late 17th century, though, Spain was showing initial signs of weariness as a major power. A grossly overextended empire and mismanagement of revenue certainly played a part. But that was just the beginning. Competition stiffened as just about anyone who could and wanted a stake in those lands, did their best to have one. Fair play was rarely respected. Ships were confronted, assaulted, reflagged and even scuttled; soldiers and sailors were kidnapped, impressed or enslaved; cargos were confiscated, reclaimed, or just plain stolen. The Caribbean was particularly susceptible to this kind of activity, since it was a major hub for transatlantic trade. The interested parties, namely France, England, Holland, and later the United States, constantly vied for supremacy. They were almost continuously at war; if not officially, then by proxy or simply illegally.
If things started to slow down for Spain in the 1700s, when the 19th century came around, the country experienced a near total implosion. It kicked off with a monumental defeat at the now legendary Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, Lord Nelson’s finest hour. Trafalgar left the Spanish navy in tatters, this time, practically for good. The rough times were only beginning. French occupation of Spain followed shortly afterwards, triggering an uprising to rid the country of Napoleon’s troops from their territory, and while the Peninsular War (1808-1814) would represent a moment (albeit brief) of Spanish unity and national patriotism, the eventual victory came at a heavy price. Spain no longer had the wherewithal to sustain such a massive empire. Its resources depleted, its finances drained, its ability to stand up to growing powers began to falter.
Spurred by the successful movements in North America, the territories over in Latin America took advantage of the crisis in Spain to declare independence, almost in unison. Within a short period of fifteen years, 95% of Spain’s empire vanished, and with it, the need to harbor a major navy.
On the domestic front, things were not much better as the country struggled to get back on its feet. Infighting, internal strife, civil unrest, rising separatist movements, workers movements. They all contributed to the debilitating of the country, making it increasingly more difficult to keep up with its rivals. Evidence of the technological gap difference between Spain’s navy and the more youth rival powers would become clearest in the brief but decisive war against the United States in 1898.
First there was the Battle of Manila Bay, on May 1, 1898, when the entire Spanish fleet, 8 vessels in all, was obliterated in little more than seven hours. The Spanish lost 77 lives while 271 others were wounded. The Americans, on the other hand, had to tend to just nine casualties, none fatal. It went down as one of the most lopsided victories in naval history and a humiliating defeat for a nation with such an illustrious history in military engagements at sea. Unfortunately for the Spanish high command, though, the worst was yet to come.
Just two months later, in the city of Santiago de Cuba, another American fleet would annihilate a squadron from Spain as it tried to break out from a siege laid on them. Even though the Spanish ships were better equipped than their counterparts in the Philippines, they were sorely outgunned by their adversaries. Nonetheless, the courageous and foolhardy column burst out of the harbor to face the enemy and, if all went well, outrun them to safety. It was a desperate act which only served to accentuate the alarming disparity that had separated the two navies. After just four hours, the battle had ended. Once again all the Spanish vessels were sunk or scuttled. Over 300 men were killed in action, and some 1,800 were pulled out of the sea. The U.S. buried just two soldiers.
Both battles must have been painful to watch for those Spaniards in high office. The burning wreckage. The billowing smoke. Helpless sailors frantically dogpaddling in the sea and calling out for help. And yet, you can’t say they didn’t have it coming to them. Just years before that awful demise, the Spanish had an opportunity to do something about it; something that, if successful, possibly could have made the outcome turn out differently.
It was a Friday evening in October of 1991 and I was hanging out with some friends at a cevercería in the Plaza de Manuel Becerra in Madrid. I don’t think it’s there anymore; bars are continually reinventing themselves in this country. In any event, some of us were already there having a beer when another from the group came in bearing unexpected news. In the days before the widespread use of a spanking new invention known as the cell phone, messages were delivered orally.
Unfortunately, his arrival augured little positive. It was just the kind of tidings you don’t want to hear when you’ve ordered your first caña and are eyeing a plate of potatoes with aioli sauce. Someone had died. And not just anyone. It turned out that one of our friend’s father. He had just passed away that very morning and we were called upon to show our immediate and unfailing support by rushing to the side of the bereaved in her time of need at a funeral home (called tanatorio, in Spanish).
At first I was puzzled by all the hurry. The body was practically still warm. Just why would we be racing to a wake? As it turned out, we had to act fast, because once a person expires in this country, people don’t waste a lot of time keeping them around. You see, the whole death thing was a first for me in Spain. I was used to the customs back home, where you had to take baked hams over to the family as they grieved and worried about the funeral plans. Days could go by. “They bury him tomorrow?!” I was a little taken aback to learn they planned on lowering him into the grave in about the same time it took to send a box of pajamas by Amazon Prime.
“What’s the hurry?! Is there an early bird special or something like that? Do they get a discount on embalming?”
“That’s the way it always is?”
“Are you kidding me? Don’t you have to wait like five days just to make sure there wasn’t any foul play…?” Growing up in a murder-ridden country made comments like mine come naturally “…what if he is still alive? You’d be surprised how many coffins have scratch marks on the inside on the lids.”
On average, the deceased are either incinerated or interred between 24 and 48 hours max. It’s both tradition and law. I don’t know if it’s a result of the warm climate and fears decay will set in too fast or just a desire to get everything over and done with as soon as possible, but corpses hang around for less time than recycled trash and it’s unnerving.
It’s also disruptive. It means that kith and kin basically have to drop everything and tear off to the funeral parlor if they want to have a fighting chance at paying their last respects before the corpse gets whisked off to eternity. Mourning is brief and intense, but more brief than anything else.
“Well, if that’s the way you do things here, so be it. When in Rome…let’s go see her,” I proposed.
“Do you really want to go?” They asked. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.” It’s true I really want to go. I didn’t know her that well, and I had never met the old man at all, but, what the hell, I wanted to be supportive.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“‘Cause it’s in Cartagena, that’s why.”
As a child of the American educational system where world geography gets about the same amount of attention as nutrition does on a box of Froot Loops, that meant nothing to me, but from the look on their faces, it sounded as if you needed an airline ticket to get there. I wasn’t far off. They laid the truth on thick and it involved making it in record time to a province in the southeastern coast of the country called Murcia, a sizable 250 miles away.
“What?! That’s hours away!” Nowadays Spain’s road network rivals the world’s finest, but back in 1992, the situation was decidedly less conducive to swift, and safe, traveling. I think the word “terrifying” best describes it. They consisted of harrowing journeys on narrow two-lane roads which you shared with fleets of bulky 18-wheelers, commandeered by overworked, under-rested and under-fed drivers. There was no way we were going to make it. We might as well have been crossing the vineyards of La Mancha by dogsled.
But let it be known that futility never got in the way of a Spanish road trip. If anything, it often fuelled it. The more hopeless, the better.
“All right. Let’s go bury someone.” I had nothing better to do that weekend. I might as well go to a funeral. It was as good an excuse as any to get out of town to know more about Spain.
We set off with whatever belongings we had on ourselves and tore down the four-lane highway, which offered comfortable travel for all of 40 miles before tapering to the traditional two-lane national roads. Happiness in my world came to screaming halt in a split second. Tense silence reigned in the car as we jockeyed for position along an open route beneath the dying light of late summer La Mancha. Travel times can double and even triple, depending on the density of traffic. Transit volume that day amounted to a full-scale exodus, with trailer trucks topping the list of those fleeing the capital. That meant we weren’t going to reach our destination that night and had to stop on the way in the often overlooked town of Hellín, Albacete. We sacked out in one of those simple and dodgy hotels built for late-night truck drivers, low-budget lovers, and lost language teachers. Got up the next day, floored it down the highway for another two hours to Cartagena and, without the aid of the yet-to-be-created Google Maps, spent another hour or so actually trying to find the cemetery before they lowered the man into the ground.
Just as we got there, we spotted our friend and the rest of her family advancing towards us in a semi-huddled manner and clutching onto each other as they departed. I guess it wasn’t our day, but, on the other hand, it was markedly better than the one the dead guy was having.
“Now what do we do?” I said out loud. In the middle of Cartagena with no funeral to go to and yesterday’s boxers stiffening by the second as if they were entering a stage of rigor mortis. Just what the hell can a person do in this city under these circumstances? We weren’t invited to the luncheon, that was for sure, so a free meal was out of the question. There had to be something we could do to bide our time before we went all the way back for nothing.
“Come on,” said my friend Pepe, who had grown up in the city. “I want to show you something. You’re never going to believe it.”
“I can’t believe I’m in this city for a funeral I just missed, so I’m ready to believe just about anything at this point.”
The name Cartagena comes from “Cartago Nova” or “New Carthage”. The adjective is relative because the community was founded in 227 BC by Hasdrubal the Fair, brother-in-law of the one-and-only Hannibal, the alpine-crossing, elephant-loving Carthaginian general who shredded the Roman army for much of the Second Punic War, only to drop the ball when it came to finishing off the job. In any event, Cartagena has proven itself ideally suited for harboring ships ever since its founding and it’s still a major port for both Spain and its allies. Currently it’s Spain’s fourth largest in terms of freight traffic and the main naval base in the Mediterranean.
My friend Pepe had decided to take me down to the harbor to show me first hand an American frigate which was docked there. I thought that was cool enough idea. I had grown up on the western end of Long Island Sound, where the only vessel of size worth mentioning was a ferry so wide and bulky it looked like a floating pound cake. It used to take us to a beach on an island, unimaginatively called Island Beach. How’s that for inventiveness. And while I don’t exactly consider myself to be a seafaring individual, a chance to take a peek at a sleek, for-real, American warship certainly did have its appeal.
Pepe was extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of sharing the moment with me. My guess is that he either wanted to make up for funeral debacle (After all, I had been hoping to at least see a coffin) or he meant to further fuse the bond in our friendship by showing what our navies had in common. What the hell; I appreciated the effort.
As I looked at the vessel from a distance, I mean a real long way, I regarded its irrefutable naval features –it was gray and had guns. That pretty much summed it up. So, I agreed it was nice and impressive and employed all the right words that one does to convey gratitude, until the well of intelligent observations went dry. Then I suggested we go for a beer, which was always popular with the masses.
As we returned to where the others were, I noticed a large object shaped like a cheap cigar. It was near the dock and mounted on concrete posts to give the effect that it sort of “floated” in the middle of bed of flowers with tiny fountains of water dancing in the air. I enquired and Pepe got to the point.
“Know what this is? It’s a submarine.”
His first comment made me wonder just what it was about my face that suggested I would not easily recognize a sub. On the other hand, not only did people from my country write, finance, produce and release films like “Dumb and Dumber”, we actually made sequels.
“I can see it’s a submarine. Why is it there?”
“It’s the world’s first submarine. And we invented it!”
“Really?” That was not how I recalled my history. The voice of dissent burst out of me. “Says who?”
“The history books.” The Spanish could be so adorably naive. How was I going to break it to him and ensure I had a safe ride back to Madrid?
“Are you serious? Haven’t you people heard of the Turtle?”
“Yes, but that’s an animal. This is a manmade submergible. They’re different.”
“I know they’re different! Why do you keep talking to me as if I dropped out in kindergarten?”
“Why do you confuse military vessels with an amphibian?”
“I’m not. The Turtle is the name of the first submarine. And we invented it.”
“That’s impossible. Besides, who would think of such a ridiculous name for such a great invention?”
“Us?” I was taking a wild guess.
“Well I’m sorry to say that you’re wrong. You’re staring at the first submarine yourself.”
“That’s what you think.”
“Oh, you Americans can be so arrogant.” He was calling me arrogant? How arrogant can you get?!
It is important to recall that this was well before your average citizen possessed the on-the-spot disagreement fixer called Wikipedia. Instead, we were each treated with the power of spending weeks, months and even years comforted by the thought that each of us was right and that no smart-ass was going to whip out a device and call us out in a split second.
As a show of courtesy, I gave up trying to convince him, as if I ever had a chance in the first place, and let him show me the purpose of his admiration. It was impressive enough, I have to admit, and it certainly had all the features of a bona fide submarine. It was called the Peral, and to my knowledge, no one on the planet had ever heard of it. Just what was it all about? And what was behind Pepe’s claim?
To find out, we have to rewind some one hundred years in time.