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.