Hero Under the Death Sentence (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés II)

Continued from Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)

Sometimes people have the misfortune to live in ‘interesting’ times. Exciting, even. In the case of Spain, in fact, it’s difficult to find a period of history when the times were not ‘exciting’ – so it shouldn’t come as surprise that the excitement in Cayetano Valdés’s life not ended with Trafalgar, but rather, it began.

I mean you’d think there he was, sitting ashore in the naval ports of Cádiz and Cartagena, figuratively licking his wounds… having been promoted to senior officer, safely behind a desk in an office, pushing paper in the grand Spanish fashion, into quiet old age – since there wasn’t much of a navy left for him to command, right?


AWOL on the Mediterranean

It was three years after Trafalgar, 10 February 1808 and his flagship was called Reina María Luisa, 112 guns. As commander of the Spanish squadron in Cartagena, Valdés had just been ordered to take his ships to the French port of Toulon. He sailed, in accordance with his orders… but somewhat failed to arrive at Toulon. Admittedly the weather was not that great but we are talking about one of the better sailors of the Spanish navy, who in the past had been around the Atlantic and even the Pacific, the first man to circumnavigate Vancouver Island; you’d think he could handle winter weather on the Mediterranean?

Yet somehow Valdés managed to take nearly three months in failing to arrive at Toulon.

Instead he eventually fetched up in the Baleares, a safely held Spanish territory – on exactly the 2nd of May, the very day of the Madrid uprising against the French, the beginning of the Spanish War of Independence. A curious coincidence? The fact remains: What little was left of the Spanish fleet had just been saved from falling into the hands of Napoleon.

Unsurprisingly, the French took a dim view of this disobedience. They fired him from his job, in absentia.

Quick Guide to the Spanish War of Independence

March 1808: France occupies Spain, formerly an ally, and forces the king (Charles IV) to abdicate in favour of his son Ferdinand VII
2 May 1808: Uprising in Madrid against French, suppressed brutally - but the rebellion spreads all over the country.
6 June 1808: Napoleon replaces Ferdinand VII with his brother Joseph as king of Spain. 
June 1808: The Junta of Asturias calls for British help against the French.
1810: A rebel government is formed in Cádiz where it's besieged by the French. Guerrilla warfare continues against the French in the rest of the country.
19 March 1812: The Cádiz Constitution (aka La Pepa) is proclaimed - a liberal constitution establishing universal male suffrage, national sovereignty, the freedom of the press and a constitutional monarchy. 
1812: Wellington enters Spain and defeats the French at Salamanca and Madrid.
11 December 1813: Joseph abdicates
1814: The French are driven out of Spain; end of the Spanish War of Independence (better known in England as the Peninsular War).

Valdés Nails His Colours to the Mast

The French might have fired him but the rebel Junta Suprema appreciated having a few ships at their disposal: in 1809 we find the freshly promoted Lieutenant-General Valdés in Cádiz, where he was soon appointed Governor and Captain-General of the besieged town, the temporary capital of Spain… eventually coming to preside over the inauguration of the new Constitution. (This is where you ought to read the text in the grey box above if you haven’t done it yet!)

Oh dear. A liberal Constitution.

A progressive, liberal Constitution that Ferdinand VII, once known as the Desired, annulled within six weeks of his return to Spain. And not content with merely annulling this atrocious document, he proceeded to throw into prison those associated with it. Our General Valdés included.

(Thank you for your many years of service, general.)

A nasty piece of work: Ferdinand VII by Francisco Goya (1815), Museo de Prado [public domain via Wikipedia]
Valdés sat locked up in the castle of Alicante while his uncle, Antonio Valdés, himself a former captain-general of the Spanish navy and secretary of state for the navy and the Indias, went cap in hand to the king to secure his release. Ferdinand VII decided to show himself gracious: Cayetano Valdés would be released from prison, he said, if he would beg for mercy from his king.

Given the man’s past history, do I need to spell out Valdés’s reply?

Unsurprisingly, he said no.

Under the Death Sentence

Just as unsurprisingly, for Ferdinand VII is widely regarded as the most vile king Spain ever had (and that’s saying something as they seemed to have more bad kings than most), in 1820 a revolt broke out in favour of the 1812 constitution…

Ferdinand VII - The Worst King Spain Ever Had

"He proved in many ways the basest king in Spanish history. Cowardly, selfish, grasping, suspicious, and vengeful, [he] seemed almost incapable of any perception of the commonwealth. He thought only in terms of his power and security and was unmoved by the enormous sacrifices of Spanish people to retain their independence and preserve his throne." (Stanley Payne)

…and the king was arrested. France then invaded Spain in order to restore the Bourbon king to his throne, and the rebel government once again retired to Cádiz – making the liberated Valdés commander of the defenders of the town. Eventually, the king promised to mend his ways and he was set free. But as soon as the war ended, Ferdinand VII went back on his promises. Reprisals against the liberals followed swiftly.

In fact, so vile were Ferdinand’s actions at the time that the Duke of Angoulême, who led the invading French troops, refused to accept the decorations the king wished to bestow on him for his military services.

As for Valdés, the French warned him that the king wanted to have him arrested and executed. When Valdés refused to flee, the French commander of Cádiz arrested him and saved his life by putting him onto the first boat into the English-held Gibraltar. Valdés could only return to his homeland after the death of Ferdinand, in 1833, when along with other liberals he was pardoned by the queen regent.

Ask yourself: What does it feel like to be exiled after decades of service to your country, what does it feel like when your king wants you dead? What does it feel like to owe your life to the mercy of your former enemies, the French and the English?

I think it must have felt s**t.

The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés

Somebody ought to write a biography about Cayetano Valdés in the manner of Stephen Taylor’s Commander. Meaning a good one; a page turner. And I know exactly who this somebody should be.

(Don Arturo, I’m living in hope.)

You might also like:The Novel Life of Britain's Greatest Frigate CaptainThe Siege (El asedio)Cabo Trafalgar [Cape Trafalgar], a novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (not available in English translation) in which one of the characters was inspired by Cayetano Valdés.

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