The sea… an open book in which so many great and small stories are written! Some totally submerged, abandoned to their fate in the obscure and rare beauty of deep seas. Who would not like to know them? Others, unscathed by the waves of time, seem to defy the centuries, just as their protagonists once braved the storms. This is how one of them has come down to us, the famous gest of the Glorioso, a ship that… made history.
A risky mission
It was the early hours of Sunday, May 28, 1747. In the port of the Mexican city of Veracruz, everyone was sleeping. Everyone… except the men of the intrepid Pedro Mesía de la Cerda. A navy guard in the Spanish Armada at seventeen, he was then, after a long and brilliant military career, an experienced captain of forty-seven years of age, commander of the St. Ignatius of Loyola, a seventy-gun ship nicknamed Glorioso.
The crew had spent the whole night loading a valuable treasure from the port down into to the holds of the ship and finalizing preparations for a quick and secretive departure – very secretive. English spies were prowling the area, and utmost discretion was required.1
With all aboard, they set sail without delay for La Habana, from where they would continue on to Spain, carrying in the holds of the ship a staggering cargo of more than four million silver coins and four thousand four hundred ounces of gold. In addition to this was a rich freight of sundry goods,2 all of which also had to reach its destination as soon as possible.
This was the difficult mission that weighed on Captain Mesía’s shoulders. He knew better than anyone the countless incidents that could arise during the voyage and how they could result in the loss of a real fortune. And if that were not enough, he would have to make the crossing without even one support ship, facing the dangers of the sea and English piracy entirely alone.
For this reason, having been informed in advance of the risky mission he would have to undertake, the captain was allowed to choose each of his men, and he handpicked the most experienced he could find.
After weeks of tranquillity, the first battle
The first weeks of sailing went normally, but on the morning of July 25 things changed. Near the Azores Archipelago, the sailors spotted a large number of sails in the distance. Were they British? Hours later, the bad omen was confirmed: it was a large English convoy escorted by four warships, under the command of Captain John Crookshanks.
Discovering the solitary Spanish ship, the English sensed that it was easy prey and certainly well laden with treasure. The commander then ordered a warship from the small fleet to continue escorting the others, and he set out with the other three – the ship of the line Warwick, the frigate Lark and the brig Montagu – on the chase for the rich Spanish booty.
The Montagu, faster than the others, managed to get close first and fired at the St. Ignatius of Loyola, aiming to reduce its speed. But Captain Mesía, foreseeing her movements, ordered several cannons to be moved aft and kept her at bay throughout the night with cannon fire.
On the following day, July 26, the other two ships managed to draw close, and by nightfall they were harassing the Spanish ship, which could not avoid a confrontation. This time, however, it was Captain Mesía who would take the initiative in the attack.
By moonlight, and as if for her there was no tomorrow, the St. Ignatius of Loyola rushed towards the Montagu, firing a few cannon shots at close range that forced her to retreat, never to return. However, the most important result of the manoeuvre was to put the Spanish ship alongside the Lark, enabling her to fire all her starboard batteries so successfully that the English frigate, having lost all its masts, was out of action.
At last Captain Mesía turned about to attack the Warwick, and when he had it within firing range he discharged on it all the port side battery, his cannon balls criss-crossing those of the despairing English, who could hardly believe the unexpected move.
After this he turned once more and bombarded her with his cannon on the right side. The battle lasted more than six hours, after which Erskine, captain of the Warwick, took advantage of favourable winds to escape from the enemy’s fire and call for help. His ship was destroyed.
Victorious, the Spaniards were able to continue their course. The damage suffered was quite serious, and the crippled ship seemed to display its battered sails like an unvanquished war standard. Nevertheless, the crew was happy. Little did they know that the clash they had just left behind them was only the beginning…
After a few weeks without any major developments, on Sunday August 13, with only ten leagues to go before reaching Cape Finisterre, the lookout from the mainmast spotted several sails. The following day, it turned out that there were three Royal Navy vessels: the ship Oxford, the frigate Shoreham and the brig Falcon. All three were advancing rapidly towards the damaged St. Ignatius of Loyola, as if they had been waiting for it for some time. Perhaps they just wanted to settle a score.
In view of the tragic scenario, the troubled expression on the Spaniards’ faces revealed the countless doubts that, like cannonballs, assailed their minds: would they come out unscathed or perish in the fight? They were so close to home that this turn of events seemed like a true nightmare. But soon the deadly silence that aroused so many questions was broken by a shout from Captain Mesía: “¡Zafarrancho! [Battle stations!]” It was not the time to speculate, but to pray and fight.
The British fleet approached slowly. Finally, around four o’clock in the afternoon, the Shoreham and the Falcon crossed paths with the St. Ignatius of Loyola on one side, at a prudential distance, while the Oxford did the same on the other side, but no one opened fire.
However, having their prey within reach, the English manoeuvred to begin the capture. In an instant, Captain Mesía had his ship in a favourable position to exchange fiery leaden salutes with the enemy vessels.
The lopsided clash lasted almost three hours when Captain Callis, commander of the English squadron, no longer able to bear the punishment inflicted on him by the St. Ignatius of Loyola, decided to retreat.
The scene was unbelievable – a real miracle! It was an extraordinary sign of the divine protection that had not abandoned them.
The last enemies appear on the horizon
Finally, on August 16, they reached the port of Concurbión, Galicia, where they unloaded the valuable treasure in a safe place. Their mission was accomplished! But their odyssey continued. After making the most urgent repairs to the ship there, they set sail on October 11 for the port of El Ferrol, where they would have everything necessary to complete the ship’s restoration.
Unfortunately, they were unable to reach the port due to a strong gale. Moreover, they were in the vicinity of the Coast of Death, a dreaded region where many vessels were shipwrecked. It was not prudent to continue along that route, especially in their precarious condition. Accordingly, Captain Mesía ordered them to set out towards the port of Cádiz.
During this route, at dawn on October 17, another misfortune struck: the Royal Family appeared on the horizon, a privateer fleet commanded by the English Commodore George Walker, who was aboard the flagship King George. Followed by the frigate Prince Frederick, Walker set off in pursuit of the damaged Spanish ship. Night had fallen when the privateer reached his prey. The battle was once again fought by moonlight.
Having lost her main mast in the first volley of shots, and suffering heavy casualties both killed and wounded, the King George kept up the fight alone for nearly three hours.3
It was well into the night when the frigate Prince Frederick arrived on the scene. Her commander, Edwar Dottin, cannonaded the St. Ignatius of Loyola, in order to divert the shots that kept falling on the Commodore’s ship, and received a well-merited retort. Finally, in Walker’s own words, “at eleven o’clock, the enemy to our great surprise set sail […]. We were not able to follow.”4
Until the last cannonball
The next day, October 18, the St. Ignatius of Loyola was being pursued by the frigates Prince George, Duke and Prince Frederick, almost the entire Royal Family! As if that were not enough, another of His Majesty’s vessels appeared before the Spanish ship: the Darmouth, commanded by Captain John Hamilton.
When the latter came within firing range, both battled at length until, suddenly, one of the shells from the St. Ignatius of Loyola hit the powder magazine of the English ship, blasting it skywards. Such was the effect of the tragic explosion that of the three hundred and seventy men in the crew, only eighteen were saved.
Even so, the truce was short-lived. Around midnight, another ship opened fire on the St. Ignatius of Loyola: the Russell, Her Majesty’s mighty ship of the line, with three bridges and ninety-two cannons, which had joined the Royal Family frigates. What must the Spaniards have thought, seeing the situation go from bad to worse? At this point, perhaps for many of them it made no difference whether they faced two or four ships…
Under fire from the frigates and the Russell, Captain Mesía and his men defended themselves to the last cannonball. When these ran out, they loaded their cannons with every kind of metallic material they could find. Finally, they had nothing left to load them…
Living “Gloriosos”, ready to fight and resist
So unbelievable did this resistance seem that Commodore George Walker wrote: “Never did Spaniards, nor indeed men, fight a ship better than they did this.”5
At about six in the morning, when the first rays of sunlight were illuminating what still remained of the St. Ignatius of Loyola, the British entered the ship and there found one hundred and thirty wounded men and thirty-three dead. The rest of the crew were led to the British vessels, from where each Spaniard could better contemplate his devastated ship.
At that tragic moment, under the sad gaze of those who had shed so much blood on it, the ship itself seemed to come to life to utter its last words to them: “What are you looking at, brothers? Take no more notice of these remains which will soon be destroyed. Material things pass, but glory descends upon those who suffered with me and fought to the end.”
It would be hard to imagine a more glorious end, thought the sailors. Was it then that the nickname Glorioso was enshrined forever? Probably. What is certain, however, is that from that moment, each one of them became a living Glorioso, ready to fight and resist, in that hope of which the Apostle speaks: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom 5:3-4). ◊
1 In fact, from the beginning of the 18th century, Spanish ports were a veritable “anthill of British agents ready to inform Rear-Admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle, commander-in-chief of the British West Indies fleet, of the slightest movement of Spanish ships” (PACHECO FERNÁNDEZ, Agustín. El “Glorioso”. 5.ed. Valladolid: Galland Books, 2021, p.93).
2 “6,412 arrobas of fine cochineal, 2,354 of logwood, 64 of wild cochineal, 281,092 vanilla beans, 68 quintals of jalapa extract, 350 arrobas of sugar, 24 of balsam, 55 of cocoa and 300 animal skins” (Idem, p.135).
3 Cf. ROJO PINILLA, Jesús Ángel. Cuando éramos invencibles. 7.ed. Madrid: El Gran Capitán, 2017, p.147.
4 WALKER, George. The Voyages and Cruises of Commodore Walker. London: A. Millar, 1760, v.II, p.216.
5 Idem, p.231.