Date: 14 February 1797 Place: The Atlantic, off Cape St Vincent (Portugal)
If you’re English and into naval history, you will recognise the time and place as the Battle of Cape St Vincent – one of nine, that is. (Clearly it was a popular place for enemy fleet rendezvous.) This particular Battle of Cape St Vincent was the one which became famous for Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates1 so you’re now settling in for a nice read about Horatio Nelson and various associated heroics of the Royal Navy, right? Let’s go:
It was a cold and foggy day…
Er, no. It was a cold and foggy day but you should have taken a look at the title perhaps.
Rather than detailing Nelson’s heroics of which you can read on plenty of other websites, I’m going to write about a Spanish naval officer: Cayetano Valdés, who had been cast in the role of having to save the Santísima Trinidad, the pride of the Spanish navy, the largest warship of its time.
A topic that you won’t find much discussed in English elsewhere (for entirely understandable reasons).
The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés (Who?)
Much that I love history, at this point I have to admit that I don’t usually read biographies: So-and-so was born here, Fulano did that, X. Y. died then. I prefer autobiographies (especially those where the author had the good sense to leave out all the boring bits about his upbringing and concentrated his mind on the actual interesting thing he had done).
And yet the other day I actually sat down in front of the computer and scoured the online bookshops for a biography of Cayetano Valdés. Cayetano Valdés y Flores Bazán y Peón, who had inspired a character in a novel I read recently about the Battle of Trafalgar. But as I found nothing, I was left to learn what I could from the internet.
Well, in English this didn’t amount to a lot.
Of course it’s not surprising that the English don’t know who Valdés was because frankly, they’ve got more than enough naval heroes of their own; they haven’t got time for other people’s. There is a Wikipedia entry on him, shortened from the Spanish entry, and that’s about it. It explains adequately who he was but leaves out all the exciting bits. If you want to know the exciting bits, you have to read Spanish.2 Except to your luck you’re reading this blog and I’m going to spare you the trouble of having to learn Spanish.
So we go back to 14 February 1797, a cold and foggy day off Cape St Vincent…
Save the Trinidad (Act I)
Among the history-minded English public there is a perception – entirely understandable, although not entirely correct – that the Spanish navy was never any good. Someday I might take the trouble to explore this topic in some detail but not today because 14 February 1797 is not one of those days which the Real Armada should look back on with particular pride – regardless of the individual heroics of certain Spanish sailors on the day.3
A Quick Background to the Battle of St Vincent 1797 In 1796 Spain, just then allied to the French Republic, declared war on Britain. A Spanish fleet under Lieutenant-General Córdova left Cartagena (on the Mediterranean coast of Spain) to sail to Cádiz (on the Atlantic coast). Bad weather drove the Spanish fleet past Cádiz well into the Atlantic; and to their misfortune, on their way back they ran into an English fleet under Admiral Jervis.
As I said, you can find plenty of information elsewhere on how the battle went, including the rather decisive part Nelson played in it. Let it suffice to say here that although the Spanish did rather outnumber the English, they came off much the worse: they lost four ships-of-the-line while the English lost none. With most of the Spanish fleet in full flight, the flagship of Lieutenant-General Córdova, the much prized Santísima Trinidad also struck her colours. Not one of the most glorious moments of Spanish naval history.
But then appeared Cayetano Valdés with his 74-gun ship, the two-decker San Pelayo.
Sailing through the smoke and gun-fire with all sails spread and her flag flying, the San Pelayo bore down on the two English ships threatening the Spanish flagship (the 64-gun HMS Diadem and the 74-gun HMS Excellent). As he went into action, Valdés rallied his men crying,
“We save the Trinidad or we all die!”
And the crew responded with a resounding “Long live the King!” Or so the story goes. (And why would we spoil it?)
Interposing his ship into the English line of fire, Valdés signalled the Santísima Trinidad to hoist her colours again and return to the fight. As the Trinidad hesitated, Valdés threatened to open fire on his own admiral and sink him on the spot – rather than allow the capture of the ship by the English. Reconsidering his options, Lieutenant-General Córdova decided to obey his subordinate, raised his flag again and the San Pelayo, with the help of the now also arriving San Pablo, managed to extricate the flagship from her difficult position and save her to fight another day.
If at this point you don’t give much for the promotion prospects of el capitán don Cayetano Valdés, I’m with you. Luckily, in the subsequent court-martial the Spanish admiralty decided to side with him rather than with his commander: exit Córdova, disgraced.
Save the Trinidad (Act II)
Fast forward a few years to 21 October 1805. (No prizes for identifying the date as that of the Battle of Trafalgar.) Valdés, captain of the 80-gun Neptuno4, was sailing in the vanguard of the combined French-Spanish fleet. Behind them in the centre of the allied fleet, both the French and Spanish flagships were in deep trouble. The French Vice-Admiral Dumanoir, in command of the vanguard, concluded (not unreasonably) that the battle was lost, and ignoring Admiral Villeneuve’s order to all ships to engage the enemy, opted to sail away.5
Following his commander in flight, however, proved too much for Cayetano Valdés to stomach. Ignoring Dumanoir’s signals, just as Dumanoir was ignoring Villeneuve’s, Valdés turned the Neptuno back to go to the aid of the badly pressed Santísima Trinidad. When Dumanoir asked where the devil he thought he was going, he replied tersely:
“Into the fire.”
The Neptuno never reached the Trinidad. Fighting two English ships at the same time, she lost her mizzen mast and suffered damages to her main mast and foremast. Twice wounded, Valdés refused to go below for treatment and his ship continued to fight, without any hope of victory, out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Finally, wounded for the third time on the head and the neck, Valdés lost consciousness. The second commander took over, until he too was wounded, leaving the first lieutenant6 in command of the last ship still fighting the English – until he eventually surrendered while his captain lay under the surgeon’s knife.
At the end, the Neptuno was battling four English ships all at once.
Epilogue: The Exciting “After-Life” of Cayetano Valdés
At this point the career of Cayetano Valdés well might have been over: if he wasn’t going to die of his 117 wounds, nor drown in a shipwreck, then he looked set to rot in an English prison for years. But audaces Fortuna iuvat (fortune favours the brave):
Having survived the ministrations of the ship’s surgeon (no small feat in those days), Valdés used up his get-out-of-jail-free card when his ship was retaken from the English prize crew the next day… He then survived as his dismasted ship was wrecked on the Spanish coast in the storm the day after. When he recovered from his wounds, he found himself promoted for his conduct at Trafalgar and in command of the Spanish fleet… what little there was left of it, that is.
Here you might, not unreasonably, object that this is all very well but trying to save the Trinidad (even twice) does not warrant writing a biography for the general public. After all, there were a lot of heroes – Spanish and otherwise – in the history of the world and the life of most of them was doubtless exceedingly dull (apart from their brief moment of glory, obviously).
Well, there are several adjectives that we could employ to describe the life of Cayetano Valdés in the aftermath of Trafalgar but boring is not one of them. However, as it’s impossible to tell the story of Valdés’s life from here onwards without making a significant detour into Spanish history first, we’re going to leave Valdés on shore for a bit and come back another day – watch this space.
NOTES 1 Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates: During the battle of Cape St Vincent, Nelson, in command of HMS Captain, manoeuvred his ship alongside the San Nicolás which he boarded. He then proceeded to board the San José which lay alongside with its rigging entangled with that of the San Nicolás and so captured both ships. For more details see: The Battle of St Vincent (National Archives). 2 Spanish sources: Biografía de don Cayetano Valdés y Flores (Todo a Babor), Ejercicio de memória histórica and El sable y el granadero (both by Arturo Pérez-Reverte), El capitán español que sufrió 117 heridas combatiendo solo contra 4 navíos ingleses en Trafalgar (ABC.es Historia) and Cayetano Valdés y de Flores Bazán y Peón, Biografía (Todo Avante - the article is no longer accessible). 3 Spanish historians tend to take away only two positives from the battle: the performance of the San Pelayo under Captain Cayetano Valdés and the heroism of Martín Álvarez Galán, a marine of the San Nicolás who refused to strike the flag. You might take as a third positive the subsequent demotion of the evidently incompetent Lieutenant-General Córdova, I suppose. 4 Commentators on the Battle of Trafalgar always seem to take great pleasure in pointing out that there were three ships named Neptune taking part: one each of the respective navies involved. I don't see why I too shouldn't vaunt my knowledge of this fact even though I find it slightly bemusing that anybody might consider it worth noting that each admiralty thought that the name of the sea god would make a good ship name. :) 5 To be fair to Dumanoir here, accounts vary as to whether he ignored Villeneuve’s signals and simply ran for it, or whether he was just so very slow to obey the orders to turn back and take part in the action that he missed it altogether. (And of course, he was entirely correct in his analysis of the situation.) 6 In those times, in Spanish ships the capitán was followed by a segundo comandante [second commander], so that the first lieutenant was only third in the line of command. (Just to confuse the English.) Also, you may have noted that the Spanish navy had generals - not admirals. All pictures public domain via Wikipedia/Wikimedia Commons. Throwback Thursday: Originally published on 24 September 2015.