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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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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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 Burning Mountain of Huexotzinco

The Conquest of New Spain, an eye-witness account of how Hernán Cortés conquered Mexico, is one of the most memorable non-fiction books I’ve ever read. And I don’t just mean that I vividly recall various episodes in the book; no, there’s more to it than that. Because of this book, I ended up reading others on the subject, and some of them, like Tlaloc Weeps For Mexico, a novel by László Passuth, were excellent. And because of this book, I practically haunt the Aztec rooms of the British Museum. (And I wish that I remembered more of the exhibits of the Museo de América in Madrid!)
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33 Days

This book made it – at the last minute – on to my recent list of books that transport you, despite the fact that it’s not one of the best written books ever. In fact, the best piece of writing in it, easily, comes from the pen of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who wrote the introduction and who smuggled the book out of war-torn France for publication in America. But although Léon Werth, Saint-Exupéry’s best friend (to whom he dedicated The Little Prince) lacked his friend’s brilliance as a writer, he was an excellent observer and wrote a perfectly clear and lucid description of what it was like in those 33 days when he fled Paris with his wife from the advancing German army in June 1940.

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Fever Pitch

If you come from certain countries, football is in your blood. For some it’s just light entertainment on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others will be in the stand even at the height of winter, in rain, snow or a howling gale. Some discuss the latest match politely over dinner; far too many punch each other in the street and set metro cars alight. Some gamble on match results and others only watch the world cup. I know which group I belong to; but which one are you?

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Paris Unloved (Miguel de Unamuno in Exile)

Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.
Paris Skyline at Sunset. Photo by James Whitesmith via Flickr.

Paris, the city of light… Paris, home to the Louvre and the Notre-Dame. A great capital city whose fame and influence spread well beyond the city limits, well beyond the borders of France. In fact, at certain points in its history, Paris was quite simply the place to be for any intellectual. Famous writers and philosophers have been inspired by Paris: Dickens and Balzac, Montaigne and Nietzsche.

Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant. (Honoré de Balzac)

What an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world! (Charles Dickens)

An artist has no home in Europe except in Paris. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

I love Paris tenderly and am French only by this great city: the glory of France, and one of the noblest ornaments of the world. (Michel de Montaigne)

But not Miguel de Unamuno.

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When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific

Just before noon on 25 September 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa ordered his men to halt, then went forward alone, to complete the last stretch of the journey to the summit of the mountain they were climbing. Soon he stood, alone with his god, his ambitions and his sins on this peak rising out of the jungle in Darién; the first European to set eyes on a new ocean. A new ocean which he named Mar del Sur (South Sea) because he reached it by travelling southwards. The ocean that Magellan seven years later was to rename Pacific – coming as he was round the Horn via the straits named after him, well Magellan might have thought the Pacific peaceful.

Núñez de Balboa was no hero, no geographer, no selfless servant of his king. He marched across the Isthmus of Panama in a desperate bid to be first to reach the unknown ocean only because he knew that no less feat could save him from the scaffold. Continue reading “When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific”

Glassfuls of Water into a Forest Fire (Flight to Arras)

Flight to Arras, or to give it its original title Pilote de guerre, ‘Pilot of War’, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is set during the German invasion of France in 1940. In other words, it’s a war story. But if this makes you think you’re in for a cracking adventure, some kind of adult version of Biggles, think again. To take Flight to Arras for simply the story of a dangerous reconnaissance mission is falling wide of the mark. More than anything else, this book is a brilliant and moving description of the collapse of France fused with a philosophical discussion on the nature of war and defeat – told by a man in the cockpit of an aeroplane; a man who lived the story he’s recounting.
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Commander (Or Reading Books on History)

Ever since I read a book about the Trojan War as a child, I enjoyed reading about history. Preferably novels.

Nevertheless, over the years I have sufficiently matured to the point of reading – voluntarily, that is – non-fiction, and some of it was very good. Like Herodotus. Or the Conquest of New Spain. Or when it comes to it, Pepys, although I wouldn’t recommend him to the casual reader, unless much distilled. Let Pepys bury the Parmesan or flee from his wife’s red hot poker in a single volume rather than in the eleven that I’ve got on the shelf.
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