The Legend of the Lost Ship of Blas de Lezo, The One-Eyed, Maimed and Lame Hero Who Defeated England

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Start the rescue of one of the sunken ships of the Spanish admiral in the battle of Cartagena, which prevented the passage of the English to South America.

The ship San Felipe blocked the English invasion and got America to speak Spanish.

Some of the researchers consider him one of the most remarkable heroes in the history of Spain. Also one of the most forgotten. They even attribute the merit that in America Spanish is spoken today. But we continue looking for his remains in one of the old colonial mansions of Cartagena de Indias, the city where he won the victory that ensured the hegemony and commercial supremacy of Spain in the Caribbean and in the Americas until the independence of the colonies.

That Admiral Blas de Lezo was one-eyed, maimed and lame and that he would only have six ships and 3,000 soldiers against the British invasion force, the most powerful of the time -186 ships and 23,600 men-, did not prevent him from captaining one of the most heroic and remembered contests in America. It was fought in 1741, in the bay of Cartagena de Indias , Viceroyalty of New Granada. At present, the statue of Blas de Lezo – gift of Spain -, brandishing a sword with his only arm, at the foot of the San Felipe de Barajas Castle of the Colombian city, a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, recalls the waste of wit and the skills of the great strategist.

A team of underwater archaeologists from the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History will resume work in the coming months to recover one of the three ships that sank in Bocachica to block access to the enemy by the only entrance channel to the bay.

The place where it has been found and the characteristics of the remains point to the fact that it is the San Felipe galleon , key piece of the first part of the battle that for three centuries has remained a silent witness, submerged in the bay five meters from the surface. There also sank Africa and San Carlos.

Although much of it is buried, they have managed to rescue the structural elements that best resist the passage of time and the action of the sea: the keel, frames, the corbel, wooden beams, ballasts, anchors, cannons or cannonballs, kept safe from looters and marine corrosion by sediment layers.

The material emerges towards a new destination: the laboratory located in the fort of San Fernando de Bocachica – erected very close to the old bastion of San Luis – which will open its doors next spring with personnel from the area to process and preserve the findings corroborate the shipwreck and “the importance of the war scenario”, says the underwater archaeologist ICANH, Lorena Palacio .

The Legend of the Lost Ship of Blas de Lezo, The One-Eyed, Maimed and Lame Hero Who Defeated England

“It was found where Blas de Lezo wanted it to sink, in the old canal,” he says. “The construction technique and the first analyzes, which have detected signs of the fire, point to the fact that it is the ship”.

In the laboratory, the first of its kind to be created in Colombia, there is already a replica of San Felipe and other boats of the time that are built by young students from Bocachica in the workshop school located in the fort. This center has as reference the National Museum of Underwater Archeology (ARQUA) , located in Cartagena, Murcia.

Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta, nicknamed Patapalo or Mediohombre due to the physical deficiencies that he suffered due to war wounds, was born in Pasajes, Guipúzcoa, on February 3, 1689. He began his military career at the age of just 15 and won the recognition of colleagues and officers for their qualities and courage.

In 1704, in the battle of Vélez Málaga, a leg was amputated without anesthesia after being shot in the War of Succession by the throne of Spain. In 1707 he lost an eye and six years later his right arm was rendered useless by a shot in the second place to Barcelona.

The tragedy did not stop him from being active. During his career, he participated in 22 battles and expeditions and gave dozens of enemy ships to Spain. They say that he has been, along with Álvaro de Bazán , the only undefeated sailor in the history of Spain.

But his most outstanding feat was developed between March 13 and April 20, 1741, in the battle of Cartagena de Indias, fought between the Spanish and English empires. Admiral Edward Vernon started the assault with 23,600 men, 3,000 artillery pieces and 186 ships. The booty deserved it. It was not the best time for Spain. After signing the Treaty of Utrecht and losing European possessions, Caribbean cities were essential to secure trade with America. And Cartagena was the icing on the cake.

The battle is framed in the War of the Seat , denominated thus by the contract of the Spanish monarchy that allowed to the British crown, through the Company of the Sea of ​​the South, the monopoly of the commerce of African slaves. The contract expired in 1744 and the King of Spain, Felipe V, had announced that he would not renew it. The great damage that this entailed for the British commercial interests together with the abuses of the smugglers gave way to contention.

The English were the best shipyards of the moment. Commanded by Vernon and with reinforcements from the American colonies and Jamaica, an imposing force of line ships, frigates, gunships, bombards and transports was formed. The objective was to conquer the main positions in the Spanish Caribbean.

The squares of Portobelo and Chagres fell without presenting resistance in just two hours. It was the impulse that Vernon needed to propose a lightning operation against Cartagena.

They had not valued the advantages of the city. Spain had sent the best I had. Lieutenant-General Blas de Lezo was in charge of the naval command and, in front of everything, the viceroy, Sebastián Eslava, two soldiers of recognized value, loyalty and intelligence. On the other hand, it was a fortified square and protected to itself by a unique geographical configuration, divided into two natural bays, with narrow steps, which would hinder the advance.

Waiting for reinforcements from Havana that never arrived, Lezo decided to resist with 2,230 soldiers of the regular army, 900 sailors, 600 Indian archers and 1,000 pieces of artillery. The access of Bocagrande, by which large ships could not enter, was protected with two ships available in case the English tried to pass with light vessels. The one in Bocachica, closed with a chain, had the battery of San José and the Fort of San Luis and the four remaining boats.

These maneuvers prevented the English approach during the first weeks. Vernon had to cross the fortifications and the tropical diseases that would end up decimating the assailants made their appearance.

But the difference of forces was noted. After losing the fort of San Luis, the ships sank to block the channel of Bocachica: they set fire to San Felipe and Africa with cannon fire. It was not enough. The Spaniards had to abandon some forts, such as Santa Cruz, and on April 13 began the siege of the city with bombings.

It seemed that victory would settle on the English side in a matter of days. In the metropolis coins and medals commemorating the supposed victory were minted.

But the resistance never considered surrender. It was entrenched in the San Felipe de Barajas Castle, a Spanish bastion in the Caribbean and currently the most visited monument in Colombia.

The Legend of the Lost Ship of Blas de Lezo, The One-Eyed, Maimed and Lame Hero Who Defeated England

On April 19 begins the stake to the Castle. The decisions that Blas de Lezo adopted praised him as one of the best strategists in history . Around the walls he dug a pit so deep that the English ladders fell short and he built trenches to keep the men from approaching. On the other hand, sent two alleged deserters who confused the English with false information about the Spanish troops. They indicated as suitable the best protected flank of San Felipe where the British attack would end up crashing.

That same night, Vernon initiated the harassment with more than 4,000 infantrymen in three columns. On the other side, the San Felipe canyons and a thousand Spanish soldiers were waiting for them. But they could not climb the walls. They had fallen into the trap. They were surprised by the iron defense of the castle.

The heat and humidity made a dent in them, the equipment weighed too much and had been fighting for many hours. Even so, they managed to reach the site. That was when the defenders of the San Felipe launched a bayonet charge that was lethal and forced the English to flee in disarray. A second attack collapsed the English army. They only thought of retreating to their ships, even though there was yellow plague and black vomit waiting for them there.

Vernon tried a new attack but the discouragement of the troops prevented him. To re-establish discipline, he shot some of his soldiers. There were so many casualties that the British sank part of the fleet because they could not crew it. They lost 19 ships of line, four frigates, 27 transports, 50 ships and between 8,000 and 10,000 men . It was one of the biggest defeats in its history. In the withdrawal, they destroyed in Cartagena the fortifications of Santa Cruz and San Luis.

A proud Vernon sent a final letter to Lezo: “We have decided to retire, but to return soon to this place, after strengthening us in Jamaica.” To which Lezo replied: “To come to Cartagena it is necessary that the King of England build another larger square, because this has only been left to drive coal from Ireland to London.”

The legend of the half-man is about to close . While England silenced the defeat and raised a memorial in the name of Vernon in the Abbey of Westminster, in Spain we do not even know where the remains of Blas de Lezo are. The admiral died a few months later victim of the diseases that produced the unburied corpses of the English. It is believed that his body ended up in a common grave. Questioned by the king, he did not receive honors until 1760 in the figure of his son. Spain forgot him.

The Blas de Lezo Foundation has proposed to inform society about its historical figure, as well as to investigate and create a historical archive. He has mounted a traveling exhibition with 50 paintings, weapons, uniforms, banners, flags and models and a documentary tribute to Cartagena.


Source: El Mundo