WHEN ENGLAND COULD HAVE BEEN PART OF THE SPANISH EMPIRE WITHOUT THE WIND.
On Four years ago, having some free time, I decided to explore Ireland, a country I had never visited before. After arriving at Dublin Airport, I hired a car and headed north, a route that would take me first to Belfast in Northern Ireland and then across the border heading southwest on the along the island’s scenic Atlantic coast. The weather was perfect – at least for now – with plenty of photo opportunities along the way.
And I was not disappointed. It didn’t take long to understand why the country was known as the Emerald Isle. Green hills, century-old stone farms, stray sheep, spectacular views that seemed to stretch forever: the epitome of history, serenity and unspoiled beauty.
Coincidentally, my visit came just days before the referendum in which a majority of the British population is said to vote in favor of Brexit. But not here. Crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it was evident that most of the inhabitants on either side, many of whom were traders, farmers and fishermen, were adamantly opposed to such a drastic measure, especially more than they thought it had all been dictated by the political elite in London, in another universe. (They hadn’t realized how extremely complicated the process would become over the next four years. But by then it was too late to go back.)
The next morning, after spending a restful night with an excellent breakfast at an Air B&B farmhouse, I continued south along the coast. As is generally the case in Ireland, especially on the Atlantic side, the weather changed overnight from sunshine to sporadic rains and scattered fog. Then again, I thought to myself, this is what has kept the country so green. Dark clouds looming over the western horizon were a sure sign that strong Atlantic gales were coming soon.
Shortly after noon I decided to take a break in the car and take a hike along the seaside cliffs. There was not a single human being to see, only flocks of seagulls and boobies. Northern gannet. All I could hear was the hiss of the wind and the low roar of the waves crashing on the rocky beaches below. It was almost ghostly. As I walked along the path, I suddenly noticed a large, lonely boulder a hundred yards away, inscribed with what appeared to be a metal plaque. Out of curiosity, I walked over to her to take a closer look. The text on the plaque was in both English and Gaelic, which was not easy to read as most of its surface had been worn away by time and weather. But his message was always clear – a testament to a momentous event that had occurred more than four centuries before and which changed history forever: the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The real story begins here. Even Hollywood could not describe the scale of human bravery in desperate conditions that followed a reckless decision by King Felipe II of Spain to invade England – a move that would ultimately have resulted in the tragic loss of more. of twenty thousand lives and the beginning of the end of the Spanish Empire.
But first, some basic information.
By the mid-16th century, England and Spain had become sworn enemies, with much of the mutual hostility due to England’s conversion to Protestantism under the Reform Act, as well as its support by English royalty. Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII, is infamous as the Bloody Mary for her brutal executions of hundreds of English Catholics who refused to stop practicing their faith, an act of defiance that was considered heresy. Marie died in 1558 and was replaced by her half-sister, Elizabeth the First, who continued to support compulsory Protestantism (known as the Act of Conformity) and the abolition of what was then called the popery.
Tensions were also not eased by the fact that English privateers, often led by the legendary Sir Francis Drake, constantly attacked Spanish ships in Atlantic and Caribbean waters in order to confiscate gold and other valuables transported from the Spanish colonies in South America to the motherland. As far as King Felipe is concerned, enough was enough. He ordered his armed forces to begin preparing for the invasion of England. He also revealed his plans in secret to Pope Sixtus V, who gave his blessing to bring Protestant England back into the fold of Rome.
In 1587, Spanish preparations were well advanced to prepare for the invasion. However, these were interrupted when Drake attacked Armada supplies in Cadiz, resulting in a delay of almost a year.
Finally, in May 1588, the fleet of the Armada, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, sailed from La Coruña. Its objective was to secure the English Channel, then to transport the invading Spanish army to England from Flanders. The sheer size of the force was unprecedented: 130 ships, 2,500 guns, 8,000 sailors and 20,000 soldiers. (In addition, the fleet carried 180 priests and 14,000 barrels of wine). However, the Armada was beset by storms and did not reach the south coast of England until July 19, almost two months after its departure. It also negatively affected its supplies of food, fresh water and other essentials before the battle even began.
The delay had also helped the English spot the approaching fleet when it first appeared off the coast of Cornwall. On July 21, approaching Plymouth, the Armada was intercepted by a hundred English ships commanded by Lord Charles Howard and Francis Drake, who had already drawn up meticulous tactical plans. Their first step was to bombard the Spanish fleet from a safe distance, taking advantage of their heavy, long-range guns. Despite the confrontation and cleared up by the English assault, the Armada fleet managed to slowly ascend the channel and, on July 27, it anchored off the French port of Calais. The plan was to await receipt of a message confirming that the Spanish army was ready to embark from Flanders.
But no message came. By now it had become evident to the Spanish officers that the Duke of Medina Sedonia was totally inexperienced in maritime warfare. His decision to wait in an exposed position off Calais, rather than to go to Flanders as quickly as possible, message or not, would have disastrous consequences.
And they were quick to come. Just after midnight on July 29, the British launched eight burning unmanned ships into the port of Calais. The resulting panic was immediate. The Spaniards were forced to cut the anchors of their own ships and sail out to sea to avoid catching fire.
But the worst was yet to come. Precisely in the first light of dawn, the dispersed and disorganized Spanish fleet was attacked in force by the smaller and more agile English ships off the French coast, in what will go down in history as the Battle of Gravelines and the ultimate defeat of what was once called the Invincible Armada. Many Spanish ships attempted to escape frantically by turning southwest along the channel, but a sudden change in wind direction and the blocking of English naval vessels made this impossible. The only choice was to turn around and sail in the opposite direction, only to be further devastated by fire from the faster English ships chasing them. The remains of the Armada were forced to retreat to the northern tip of Scotland, then south along the Irish coast in an attempt to return to Spain. Without anchors, the surviving ships were now even more vulnerable to tides and strong winds. According to historical records, at least twenty-one Spanish ships were landed and wrecked along the Irish coast, including the Santa Maria Rata Encoronada, with 520 guns and 429 men, the commemorative plaque of which I had seen during my hike along the cliffs. Most of the Encoronada crew managed to escape. Once ashore, a decision was made by her captain to set the ship on fire to prevent its appropriation by the English. After that, the captain and his crew were transferred to another ship, the Duquesa Santa Ana, which itself was wrecked four days later off County Donegal.
In the end, less than half of the Armada’s fleet managed to return to Spain. By that time, thousands of men had died, either from wounds sustained in combat, or from malnutrition, disease or drowning. Meanwhile, back in England, the expression God sent us the wind had almost become a national anthem.
You may have also heard the expression Black Irish. Although this has never been proven, many still believe they are the descendants of the Spanish survivors of the Armada who managed to land and eventually marry the Irish population – a perception favored by their darker complexion and their black hair. And, like so many Irish people over the centuries, they have become immigrants to other parts of the world, including the Caribbean. All in search of a better life.
Who knows? Maybe it’s time to check those birth certificates in Montserrat?