In 1819 the Spanish frigate San Telmo reached the Antarctic. Its crew were the first to set foot on the frozen continent and died of hypothermia. The English decided to hide the truth to feed their maritime prestige and self-proclaimed discoverers.
The writer Álber Vázquez recreates the shipwreck of this ship in `Muerte en el Hielo.’g
Spain is a country that is great at forgetting. It forgets its most dramatic periods and its most bloody events. Still, it also tends to overlook those feats worthy of the greatest admiration. For example, there’s that of the San Telmo. It’s surely the first ship that arrived in Antarctica. It arrived before the English. It’s to whom merit is commonly attributed. It is one of those feats so unknown among us as needing vindication.
The renowned writer of the novels of war is Álber Vázquez (Rentería, 1969). He has dedicated himself to this task in the book recently published by La Esfera de Los Libros Muerte en el Hielo. It’s the history of San Telmo and the Spaniards who discovered Antarctica. He’s the author of Mediohombre, which is about the Blas de Lezo and Mescalero wars in the Rio Grande. He could not have it in his head that a vicissitude like San Telmo would not have been counted until he got down to work. It was not exactly “secret but relatively known by history buffs in our country. “It was a perfect material for fiction, but unbelievably nobody had written it.” That’s what he had to say.
As little is known about the facts, Vazquez was completely free to novelize what could have happened 199 years ago. There was a Spanish warship with 74 guns and 644 men on board that departed on May 11, 1819. It departed from Cádiz with orders to get to Peru. He was accompanied by the ship Alejandro, who returned shortly due to his poor condition. It was the war frigate named “Prueba” and the merchant frigate named “Primorosa Marian.” These last two managed to reach their destination. It was unlike the latter, the powerful San Telmo. It was the flagship.
On September 2, what happened was that a storm prevented the ship from turning Cape Horn and separated the expedition. From the Primorosa Mariana, you can see San Telmo for the last time. Note that the rudder has broken. The ship is ungovernable, so it is adrift. The currents and the winds drag it steadily to the south. When it finally runs aground on Cape Shirreff, it will be on the north coast of Livingston Island. It will have deviated between 400 and 500 miles from its route and is at an altitude of Antarctica.
The English captain William Smith was on board the brig Williams. It arrived at the island of Livingston in October of the same year. On his fourth expedition, it was already January 1820. He discovered traces of the shipwreck of the Spanish ship. It included abundant evidence of the recent human presence in an improvised camp. Back in Valparaíso, he admitted that he was not the first man to step on that corner of the South Pole. Still, the authorities of his country urged him to be silent. It was so that Smith remained the historical discoverer of Antarctica.
Álber Vázquez explains a dynamic that is repeated without ceasing. “The British run a thick veil over the find. On the contrary, we Spaniards are faithful to our habit of forgetting everything that happens to us. That is why the history of San Telmo is so little known here. I am tempted to say that they are too smart and we, quite the opposite. It is certain that the English manage their successes and opportunities very well and that we do it very badly.
During the writing of Death on the Ice, the Basque novelist noticed something. “In Spain, there were only six or seven people interested in this subject. Oblivion is very good for us. I try to fight against it with my novels without falling into the chauvinism that we sometimes accuse other countries. If there are things from our past that deserve to be remembered, why do we not do it? The boat ran aground in Antarctica, so those who descended to land were the first to step on it. It’s neither more nor less, “he says.
Proof that the English initially recognized that Spaniards first arrived in Antarctica is there, says Vázquez. “There are English cartographies of the time where a small island appears to the north of the island of Livingston called Telmo. That is one of the most reliable proofs of the Spanish presence. It’s along with the testimony of Smith before they told him to keep quiet. “
As Vazquez writes in his book, “Smith is a man of the sea and honor. He discovered clear traces of the recent shipwreck of a ship that he had no difficulty identifying as Spanish. He saw the stranded wreck with his own eyes. However, he also noticed numerous signs that at least the crew had survived on dry land. “
According to the writer, the most plausible hypothesis about the death of San Telmo men is hypothermia. “The ship was turning Cape Horn to go to Peru. He was not going to Antarctica, but the currents dragged him there. The crew was not prepared for polar temperatures, but we wore clothes that we could consider halftime. The 200 marines on board carried their jackets for a temperate climate. Still, they ended up where the vegetation did not grow because the cold prevented it. Spain now has its Antarctic base there and only operates during the southern summer, when the cold moderates.
Vazquez awaits the expectation of the start of two expeditions. They coincide with the bicentennial of the San Telmo shipwreck. They intend to take advantage of these more benign dates precisely, starting next December. They will go out in search of the remains of the lost ship in some place on the frozen continent. The first of these is championed by Manuel Martín Bueno. He’s a professor of Archeology at the University of Zaragoza. He already led three campaigns with the same purpose two decades ago.
The Spanish Polar Foundation has launched the other through the renowned Antarctic expert José María Amo. His project is “San Telmo” (1819-2019). It includes a search by electronic means with the underwater robot and submersion immersion. It includes submerged remains like the plan of the ship or cannons. They “leave a big mark on the magnetic and acoustic equipment,” according to the foundation’s Twitter account.
Vazquez maintains that finding the San Telmo will not be ” looking for a needle in a haystack. Thanks to the previous indications collected, experts know the approximate place to probe. In addition, the remains cannot be found very deep. If so, the ship would not have run aground there.