The worst shipwrecks in the history of Spain

The ocean is a mysterious place, and it is inhabited by creatures that could perfectly belong to a work of fiction. It has fantasy sceneries and a scent of saltpetre, but it is also a dangerous world disturbed by fierce tides and storms. Despite its immensity, human beings have sailed through its waters for centuries, even before the Phoenician civilization.

Nevertheless, not all journeys go well. Many of them end up with the ship stranded on the coast of some island, or with the sailors devoured by the depth of the seas. Most of these shipwrecks occur due to a storm, even though some of them have been caused by battles, negligence, or piracy. These are some of the worst shipwrecks in the history of Spain.

The shipwreck of La Herradura, a manoeuvre went wrong

The Berber piracy in the Mediterranean Sea, directed against the Catholic lands from the south of Europe, provoked several alliances between different countries. For instance, Spain, Sicily, Naples and Genoa set up a war fleet to neutralise the threat and ensure supplies for the Spanish settlements on the Mediterranean coast.

In this context, 28 Spanish galleys arrived at Granada in 1562 with the aim of protecting and supplying the Spanish prison of Orán-Mazalquivir. When Don Juan de Mendoza, the captain-general, realised they would be facing a terrible storm, he ordered the galleys to take shelter on the bay of La Herradura.

A bronze statue of a man sitting next to a ship

Statue in memory of the victims of the shipwreck of La Herradura. | Shutterstock

However, during the manoeuvre, the wind whipped the ships and made them crash together and against the rocks. As a consequence, 25 out of the 28 galleys drowned in the morning of the 19 October 1562; and with them, the lives of their sailors were lost. The number of casualties this shipwreck caused amounts to 5000 people.

The shipwreck of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where Nelson lost an arm

1796 marked the start of a war between Spain (aided by France) and Great Britain, which lasted till 1802. Both countries, Spain and France, joined forces to stop the expansion of the British Empire. On 25 July 1797, a British fleet led by the famous officer Horatio Nelson tried to take over the port of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a strategic point for the trade with America.

The commander ordered a frontal attack upon the island, and the Spanish and French forces welcomed them with the sound of their cannons. The British fleet was decimated. The Fox frigate was probably the most damaged ship, and 100 men died there. Altogether, the number of casualties rose to 700 people. It was precisely a cluster munition that destroyed the arm of commander Nelson.

The shipwreck of the frigate of Guadalupe: a tragedy and a hero

Dénia, 1799. Once again, the British-Spanish war. In the middle of March, the frigate of Guadalupe, which belonged to the army of Charles IV of Spain, was being chased after by three British warships. The frigate tried to retreat to Dénia, but a squall took it and made it wreck on March 15, crashing against some rocks. 107 men lost their lives there, and 40 disappeared. The frigate was stuck in Punta del Sardo, and it sank the following day.

Despite the efforts of Dénia’s citizens to save the frigate, it was almost impossible to conduct a rescue in that situation. However, the feat of a sailor called Andrés Martínez is worth mentioning here, since he managed to reach the coast, tie a cape around himself, and get back on the ship, tying the cape to the bow. This way, the sailor saved a few lives.

The tragedy of the frigate of Santa María Magdalena, the worst shipwreck in the history of Galicia

In 1808, the tables of the map of Europe definitely turned. It was the beginning of the Peninsular War between Spain and France, and the British sided with Spain. The Cantabrian Expedition was born in this context: an 1810 naval operation where both the Spanish Army and the Royal Navy took part, arranged with the aim of retrieving the city of Santoña, which was under French occupation.

A beach and a city surrounded by mountains

The estuary of Viveiro. | Shutterstock

To that end, a squadron departed from the coast of Galicia on the 14 October 1810. Their flagship was the famous frigate of Santa María de Magdalena, which sailed next to the brigantine Palomo, two schooners, four gunboats and other ships carrying troops. However, when the squadron anchored off the coast of Santander, they faced a storm that forced the sailors to cut off the ropes of the anchors of both the Santa María Magdalena and the Palomo. After that, they sailed back to the estuary of Viveiro, a place they choose to retreat to in case something went wrong.

There, a new storm raged against the ships. Both of them wrecked and crashed against the rocks, leaving behind up to 550 casualties. Among them, they found the captain of the Santa María Magdalena, Don Juan de Salcedo, and his son; father and son died embracing each other. After this tragic incident, the Spanish Army did not allow direct relatives to embark on the same ship. In 1934, a monument was built in Viveiro to commemorate this disaster, one of the most dramatic shipwrecks that have been recorded in the history of Spain.

The mystery of the Queen Regent

More than 80 years later than the tragedy of Viveiro, a most enigmatic shipwreck took place in Spain. They say that the Queen Regent (“Reina Regente” in Spanish) was one of the best armed ships in Spain, equally feared and respected for its firepower. On the flip side, its artillery destabilised the ship when the sea was rough.

In 1895, the Queen Regent sailed on a peaceful trip to carry Moroccan diplomats to Spain. This movement responded to a complex political situation where France was interested in expanding through the Moroccan territory. In this context, Morocco was after signing a peace treaty with Spain, this way gaining an alliance against the French enemy.

Nevertheless, the political tensions inherited by the war of Margallo and the delicate situation Spain was facing due to the Cuban War of Independence did not make the government eager to meet the Moroccan needs. Considering the unlikeliness of said alliance, the Queen Regent was ordered to return its passengers to Tangier—all this under the threat of an incoming storm.

A black and white picture of a large ship

Photograph of the Queen Regent before it disappeared. | Wikimedia

This storm should have persuaded the captain to immediately come back to Cádiz. However, the political tension between Spain and Morocco seemed too pressing to delay the return. Consequently, the captain of the ship was determined to depart. The ship never reached its destination.

That day, the Queen Regent vanished in the vast ocean without leaving a trace. After an exhaustive search, and notwithstanding all the efforts put into solving the mystery, they never found the ship nor the 412 people the Queen took with her.

The sinking of the Castle of Olite, the greatest shipwreck of the Spanish Civil War

The Castle of Olite, apart from a fortress in Navarre, was also a Russian merchant ship called Zaandijk that the rebels used during the Spanish Civil War. With a crew of 2200 men, the ship sailed off to Cartagena with the aim of aiding the rioters of the city. In fact, there was still a Republican fleet in the harbour. Soon enough, the ship’s derisory speed left it behind the others, and it became an easy target for the enemy.

On 7 March 1939, the ship was harmed by a projectile. They tried to run, but a second shot destroyed the navigation bridge, provoking a great explosion and, eventually, its final sinking. 1500 people died that day, and the survivors were held prisoner by the Republicans.

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