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The history of the Pelayo ship, the deadly Spanish battleship that frightened the United States in the 19th century

The history of the Pelayo ship, the deadly Spanish battleship that frightened the United States in the 19th century

The nights of the late 1890s were darker than usual in the East Coast of the United States. When the sun went down, some coastal cities, those closest to the ocean, remained in shadow. No lighting. No lanterns to give away where they were or might reveal their distance from the sea. The reason: a shared sense of psychosis, the fear that, on the other side of the shadows, hidden in the waters of the Atlantic, there were Spanish ships lying in wait with cannons ready and aimed. Among the citizens it was feared a RAID of the Navy. Was that state of alarm justified?

Yes and no.

Spain was destined to say goodbye to the 19th century with one of the biggest blows in its history, a disaster —thus, in capital letters— that would mark an entire generation: the loss of its overseas territories in the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico and the defeat against the United States, a nation as powerful and thriving as it is young. Almost, almost a newcomer to the international board.

A frustrated counterattack

Before giving up its territories and resigning itself to accepting the bad drink of the trauma, Spain was nevertheless determined to put up a fight. The enemy was superior and the task was complicated, but at stake there were important interests and something just as influential: pride. How did he proclaim in 1896 the very Antonio Canovas del Castillo, in that complicated company Spain was willing to break the bottom of its coffers. And even “leave to the last man” if it was necessary. It would not go so far, but Spain did draw up a desperate plan to try to hit the unfortunate board of the Spanish-American War.

The idea was to surprise the enemy or, in the worst case, make a move that would at least raise the country’s morale.

How? With a large part of the US fleet in Cuba and Philippine waters, the Spanish government decided to take advantage of the situation and strike a blow at Washington where it hurt the most: in his own home.


The plan, known as the “Spanish counterattack”It was simple, at least on paper: mobilize your fleet to attack the US East Coast and force the Americans to scatter their ships and split forces.

The assignment fell to Admiral Manuel de la Cámara and it was decided to create three divisions, each with its own tasks. The idea was to disperse the ships between Halifax and Cabo de San Roque, in Brazil, focusing attention on targets such as West Key. When Washington learned of the plans, he ordered blackouts on the East Coast at night.

The first division, the one that was to unload most of the counterattack, consisted of five ships, with the Carlos V to the head. Spain’s plans were for the second to go to the Caribbean waters and be prepared to return to defend the Spanish coasts. At the front was one of the great “jewels” of the Spanish Navy: the battleship Pelayo.

Only the Pelayo—and the Carlos V—outgunned any of the ships U.S. Commodore George Dewey had in the Philippines. US commanders were naturally uneasy at the prospect of the battleship joining the fray. in his book The war of ’98Pablo de Azcarate tells how Dewey who went down in history for his victory in the battle of cavita against Spain, in May 1998, recognized “the big concern” that Pelayo generated for him.

Was that fear justified?

The Pelayo, the ship that complicated the dream of the American commanders, was a battleship of 105 meters long, 2,719 tons and a steel armor that reached 45 centimeters thick. It had four towers and cannons and, as you remember the chronicler Francisco José Rozada in the newspaper The New Spain, his characteristics had earned him the nickname “El Solitario”. She had been launched a decade earlier, around 1887, at Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée, and had been in the hands of the Spanish Navy since September 1888.

Her image was impressive, but it was of little use.

The Spanish counterattack simply had a lot against it and very little hit. Spain could have ships and a plan, but something crucial was missing: supports. Great Britain was not convinced that the war would spread across the Atlantic and feared that its merchant fleet would end up being harmed, so it decided to make it difficult for the Spanish authorities.

Spanish General

Spanish General

And given her tremendous influence she certainly could. The defeat of Cavite, in Manila, led the Government to rethink its strategy and command much of his force, including the battleship Pelayo and the Carlos V, to the Asian archipelago. Upon reaching the Suez Canal, however, the Spanish encountered obstacles from the Egyptian authorities, influenced by London. Things got complicated and when the ships were already in the Red Sea the news of the Cervera disaster arrived in Santiago de Cuba and it was decided to return to Spain. The rest is known history. The backlash had remained a threat and Spain ended up losing Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam. Did that mean the end of Pelayo? No. The battleship still had several years of history ahead of it, until in 1924, already revealed by the battleship spain, was decommissioned from the Navy list and headed to Rotterdam for scrapping. Before, yes, she came to be used in Melilla’s warin 1909, and played an important role in 1911. Cover image | US Naval Historical Center Photograph #NH 46861

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