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?

Wrong.

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Save the Trinidad (The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano Valdés)

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.

Twice.

A topic that you won’t find much discussed in English elsewhere (for entirely understandable reasons).

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Rest in Peace? The Wandering Remains of Christopher Columbus

¿Que en paz descanse? Los restos errantes de Cristóbal Colón

The other day I was reading the Rough Guide to Andalucía, and I came across this:

The dispute about Christopher Columbus‘s birthplace – claimed by both Italy and Spain – is matched by the labyrinthine controversy surrounding the whereabouts of his remains.

I thought it sounded promising, so I read on.

El otro día estaba leyendo la Rough Guide de Andalucía, y me topé con esto:

La disputa sobre el lugar de nacimiento de Cristóbal Colón – reclamada tanto por Italia como por España – está acompañada por la controversia laberíntica que rodea el paradero de sus restos.

Pensé que sonaba prometedor, así que seguí leyendo.

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Salamis (According to Herodotus)

Salamis – an island in the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea, opposite Mount Aigaleo, 16 kilometres west of Athens.

Salamis – a battle that defined history for centuries to come.

The Warriors of Salamis (Achilles Vasileiou), battle monument on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
The Warriors of Salamis by Achilles Vasileiou, on the island of Salamis. Photo by Sculptureholic via Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
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Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is not, as some American readers might imagine, the title of an apocalyptic post in the wake of the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States… In fact, it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with America or politics: it’s merely the title of an English work of art.

A rather striking work of art:

geograph-4236825-by-ian-capper
Tower Poppies

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The Secret of the Greek Galley

The Antikythera Shipwreck

In 1900, sponge divers discovered the wreck of an ancient Greek galley off the Aegean island of Antikythera more than fifty metres deep under the surface. As usual, the find threw up a load of questions: Where did the galley come from? Where was it going to? Why did it sink? Who were the passengers? And what is that mysterious, complex mechanism found in the wreck?

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A History of The Great Sea

In 2015 it took me an entire year to work my way through The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean by David Abulafia, a book I had been very keen to get my hands on. And it is a substantial book but that was not the reason it took me so long; after all, I only recently read The Bible in Spain, all 550 pages of it, in less than a week. So what held me up?

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The Gruesome News from Famagusta

The two hundred galleys of the Holy League – Venice, the Spanish Empire, Genoa, the Papacy, the Knights of St John and sundry smaller states on the Mediterranean seaboard – were sailing south on the Ionian Sea in battle order when a small brigantine passed them: a Venetian ship from Crete carrying the news that the town of Famagusta, the last stronghold of the Republic of Venice on Cyprus, fell to the Turks.

The date was 4 October 1571, three days before the Battle of Lepanto.

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The Pirates of the Adriatic

nehaj_senj_croatia
View of the Adriatic from Fortress Nehaj, Senj. Photo by: Joadl CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Countless films have been made about the pirates of the Caribbean, not to mention the countless books written, both fictitious and factual. But how many of you knew that there used to be pirates on the Adriatic too? Or who they were or where was their lair? (Anybody who doesn’t know where the Adriatic is is probably reading the wrong blog by the way.)

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Francis Drake and the North-West Passage

Franklin’s Lost Expedition

A few years ago, in one of the galleries of the National Maritime Museum of Greenwich there was exhibited a life-size model of a boat trapped in pack ice, with a suitably gruesome frozen hand protruding from under frozen canvas: a striking illustration of the fate of Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew for the younger visitors. Franklin’s expedition set out in 1845 with 129 men on board of two ships to search for the North-West Passage – a route from the Atlantic into the Pacific through the islands of Northern Canada – and was never heard of again. Despite repeated search missions in the following years and decades, the exact fate of the lost expedition remained unknown until 2014 when a Canadian research team finally located one of Franklin’s ships, the HMS Erebus.

On Monday morning, when I started to write this post, of course I couldn’t have imagined the news that broke in the media that same afternoon: that Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror, has now also been found – the last piece of the puzzle falling into place? But although Franklin’s expedition is without doubt the most famous among all the attempts to navigate the North-West Passage, I wanted to write about another sailor who searched for the passage nearly three hundred years earlier and from the opposite direction: Francis Drake on the Golden Hind in 1579.

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The Novel Life of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain

For me, a good non-fiction book is not one that simply gets its facts right; it also has to read well, like a novel. (Showing my lack of sophistication here.) It helps of course if the author of the non-fiction book has a good subject to work with; and the Royal Navy in the time of the Napoleonic wars certainly makes for a good subject.

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A Digression On Pepys (Throwback Thursday)

About a year ago I started to write a post comparing two books that I had happened to be reading simultaneously, one of which was boring me to tears. I was not going to waste my breath on it too much – I was going to point out how good the other book was in comparison. As luck would have it, both were on the subject of history, so I started the post with an introductory paragraph about having read some good history books in my time… Unfortunately, the introductory paragraph ended up running to several paragraphs, neatly hijacking the entire post. The chief hijacker was Pepys – whom I found myself quite unable to dismiss in one summary sentence.

I feel Pepys deserves a post to himself, so here I proudly present you with:

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The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus

Mausolus British Museum
Larger than life statue of Mausolus from the Mausoleum (British Museum)

Halicarnassus, the birth place of Herodotus (nowadays Bodrum, Turkey) was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Mausoleum, a colossal tomb of Mausolus, a Persian satrap and a ruler of Caria (377-353 B.C.). The word mausoleum as used today originates precisely in the name of Mausolus and his tomb.

Halicarnassus, the royal residence of the dynasts of Caria,” wrote the Greek geographer Strabo two thousand years ago. “Here is the tomb of Mausolus, one of the Seven Wonders, a monument erected by Artemisia in honour of her husband.” (Strabo: Geography, XIV.2)

Mausolus made Halicarnassus his capital and spent a huge amount of money on improving the harbour, fortifying the town and embellishing it with temples, palaces and statues.

 About halfway up the curving slope… a broad wide street was laid out, in the middle of which was built the Mausoleum, a work so remarkable that it is classed among the Seven Wonders of the World. (Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture, II.8)

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On Goulash Communism

I read some books set in the Soviet Union recently – one of them was absolutely brilliant and nothing much was wrong with the other one either – and it really set me thinking back about the times I lived under a communist regime myself. It was not the sort of communist regime that made life all that hard – it went by the name of ‘goulash communism‘ for a good reason – but still it made for a, shall we say, an interesting life experience?

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The Horses of St Mark’s Basilica

Apologies for being a day late with the Mediterranean Miscellany but I was on holiday – in the Mediterranean (of course).

So today: Venice, a fantastic city with loads of history, since I just came back from there.

If you ever go to Venice, don’t begrudge the 5-euro entry fee to the loggia of San Marco (the church itself is free). From this loggia the Doge and Petrarch watched the tournaments held in celebration after Venice had successfully quelled a rebellion, the so-called Revolt of St Titus, in Crete in 1364. And the view over St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and the seafront is indeed delightful but the most memorable thing up there is…

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The Battle of Salamis: Poetry & All

Previous: The Battle of Salamis: To Fight Or Not To Fight

I defy you to write about the battle of Salamis without quoting Byron. (Or Aeschylus, for that matter, who’ll have his turn in due course!) Because in six short lines Byron captured the essence of the story from Herodotus to perfection.

A king sate on the the rocky brow
Which looks o’er sea-born Salamis:
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations; – all were his!
He counted them at break of day –
And when the sun set where were they?
             (Lord Byron: The Isles of Greece)

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The Battle of Salamis: To Fight Or Not To Fight

This post has been updated. Go to: Salamis (According to Herodotus)

I don’t know about you but when it comes to famous naval battles, with me it goes: Trafalgar, Salamis, Lepanto… That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of other naval battles that are of interest but – perhaps because the outcomes of these three defined history for centuries to come – they are always the first that come to my mind. Certainly, in the second Greek-Persian war Salamis was the turning point, the decisive moment. And Herodotus pays the battle its due, gives it the full treatment: lots of details to get lost in.

So Part I of the Battle of Salamis.

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