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.