Public Relations and The Spanish Armada

Another classic Spanish expression is “Abril, aguas mil”, which literally means, “April, a thousand waters”.  In English they are known as April showers, but here so far, they have been a little more steady.  It’s been a rough week for Spain.  The monarchy is against the ropes as a judge asked the Princess Cristina to stop by the courts for a little questioning regarding her involvement or not (after all, she has even been formally charged, let alone convicted…so let’s not make her guilty before even being a candidate for being guilty before being charged), but let’s just say that it was the last thing this country needed.  Or perhaps, the first thing.  Now that we are cleaning out house, let’s make it spic-n-span.  Meanwhile, the rest of us go about our lives they have been doing for the last five years, as if nothing really happened.  The rest of the world watches and wonders.  It’s another notch in the Dreadful Spanish Public Relations Campaign log.  It’s been that way for centuries.

            Take the Spanish Armada, for example.  Here’s what I was told when I was 12 years old and under the impression my European History teacher knew a lot:

The Spanish under Phillip II tried to conquer England and restore Catholicism to that kingdom.  Phillip sent the largest fleet the planet had ever known, went up to the shores of Great Britain and got whooped by the tiny English fleet manned by smaller but faster English ships, with a little help from a storm.  Drake and his men outwitted the Duque de Medina Sidonia and his cumbersome flota.  The Armada was destroyed, Phillip detained, and the heroes of the day, Elizabeth and her countrymen, victorious against overwhelming odds.

       Sounds good from a British perspective, and the general gist is no far off, at least in the sense that the English one and the Spanish lost, but the rest of the facts were somewhat different.

       The original plan of the Armada was not to defeat the English at sea, but to pick up the Spanish army, under the command of the Duke of Parma, in Flanders and use it to invade England.  Spainin those days was unique in that it was said to be the only nation with a fulltime professional army, due in part, no doubt, to the fact it was almost always at war.  Its tercios were the marines of their day, and the most feared force inEurope.  Reaching English soil was the last thingElizabeth would have wanted.

       The plan was a daring and complex operation made trickier by the fact that communications at the time were scant.  This would prove decisive to the outcome.

         The Armada was a fearsome force to be reckoned with and a direct threat to the future ofEngland, but it wasn’t the largest group of warships ever assembled; it wasn’t even as large as the English force, which outnumbered their foes about 230 ships to 140.  The Spanish had more guns, I’ll give you that, but that advantage proved less significant since the English possessed faster ships which were harder to shoot at.  Then there was another factor: the Spanish preferred boarding enemy ships and defeating their enemies in hand-to-hand combat, which sounds courageous but takes away from the edge you might have in terms of artillery.

            The leader of the fleet was the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who bravely rose to the challenge even though he had absolutely no sea warfare experience.  They might as well have sent me, for all it was worth.  The Duke apparently wasn’t very keen on the plan, given its evident risks, nor were many of Phillip’s advisors.  But most advisors back then were there to agree with the monarch and not rebuke him, so their opinions were of little good.

          The English navy inflicted relatively little damage on the Armada.  It was just too dangerous to take it on directly, so they nipped at it here and there, forcing it to adopt a defensive formation all the way to its destination where…where…practically no one was waiting for them.

          What do you know!  The ground forces had been stricken with disease and half the force was unable to go anywhere.  The Duke of Medina Sidonia held tight for as long as he could hoping he could carry out the mission, but that was when the English decided to sail in numerous unmanned boats that had been on set on fire.  The Spanish, who thought the vessels were packed with gunpowder and other explosives, broke their formation and scattered.  This was what the English had been hoping for.  They Armada managed to pull together again, but decided that it could no longer wait for the land troops and decided to return toSpain.

        Due to the winds and the English force to their backs, they chose to take the long route around the Scotland and Ireland before heading home.

       This was a mistake.

       They ran into some of the worst gales the region had seen in years.  Ships were tossed against the rocks like toys.  Men either drowned in the shipwrecks or made it to land, upon which most were promptly killed by the locals.  It wasn’t a good time to be a Spanish sailor, I tell you.

          Twenty-five ships were lost there, some thirty-five in all, and the loss of life was horrendous, most of which came as a result of disease and bad luck.

            So, it wasn’t a particularly good enterprise by the Spanish, but the facts surrounding the events differ significantly from what the English would like us to believe.  They won, used their resources pretty well, and got pretty damned lucky.  But history is full of crucial moments whose outcomes are owed to fortune more than anything man had done.

            Let’s see what the week beholds.

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