Historic Spanish Fleet Sets Sail

Morro Castle

Morro Castle at the entrance to the harbor of Havana, Cuba. The 1750 Spanish fleet passed here en route to Spain

The fleet captains had been ready for days but there were last minute changes aboard the escorting warship, La Galga. La Galga had been in port since the previous year undergoing repairs. In fact, the aging ship of fifty-six cannons, was offered for sale in Havana but there were no takers. King Ferdinand then ordered the ship repaired to bring back tobacco products and mahogany planks for the Royal Palace being built in Madrid.

Some of the ships had come from Spain the year before. The Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe had arrived in Veracruz on December 6, 1749, after a difficult journey. Besides bringing European goods, she was carrying twenty Franciscan priests. On December 1, the Guadalupe was hit by a storm within sight of Veracruz and was blown south only to encounter a hurricane. The crew despaired but one of the priests, Father Junipero Serra, led them in prayer asking for deliverance with the help of St. Barbara, whose feast day coincided with the storm. On December 4, the winds abated and the seas calmed. Father Serra would go on to be the founder of the California missions. His first was San Diego. The Guadalupe was saved for another mission: she was destined to carry the treasure that would be immortalized in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

By July, all of the ships were in Havana: the Guadalupe, Nuestra Senora de Soledad, Nuestra Señora de los Godos, El Salvador, the San Pedro, a Portuguese register ship, and the Nuestra Señora de Mercedes, a schooner belonging to King Ferdinand. When they arrived, La Galga was not yet ready to sail.

The Spaniards were well aware that they were in the middle of hurricane season but La Galga continued to cause delays. First they had to wait for the tobacco to be delivered, then Captain Huony decided that some of the tobacco stems were too light and might shift in bad weather so it was decided to offload the tobacco onto the Guadalupe. Captain Bonilla was happy for the extra cargo whose freight would be paid for by the king of Spain. More delays were incurred because of lack of crew. Prisoners leftover from the war were taken from the dungeon and forced to work as seamen. The clock was ticking. La Galga’s fate was fused to her ultimate departure time. Hours either way would change the outcome. On August 17, the fleet was declared ready to sail.

The following day, with little fanfare, the makeshift fleet cleared the harbor entrance at Morro Castle and headed for the Gulf Stream that would propel them along the Florida coast before their planned eastward turn north of the Bahamas. Out in the middle of the Atlantic, a tropical depression was gaining strength and heading west for its planned rendezvous with the seven unsuspecting ships.

Next installment: August 25, 1750.

Disaster Strikes

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