Blogs in this series

Life in Culebrón is a disconnected series of pieces about the banal and ordinary of everyday life in an inland Alicante village seen from my very British perspective.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Mercedes

Arturo Perez Reverte is a well known Spanish author. I've read a fair few of his books. Even in Spanish he's easy to read and often there is an informative element to the novels which I like. The last one I read was called Un día de cólera. It was written back in 2007 but it was new to me and I found it fascinating. It was about the 2nd of May street revolt in Madrid in 1808. We're with Napoleon, Trafalgar, Arthur Wellesley and all that. It's one of the few times that Britain and Spain have been on the same side. It's a period we bumped into a lot when Maggie lived in Ciudad Rodrigo because the town had been one of the battle sites as Wellington moved against the French inside Spain.

Intrigued by the Perez Reverte book I hunted around for a book to increase my knowledge of the War of Independence (Peninsula War) without overtaxing my age enfeebled brain. A likely candidate was a book by a chap called Adrian Galsworthy. I think the name's a giveaway. He's not Spanish and I decided it was stupid to read a book translated into Spanish from an original English language source. The clincher was that it was cheaper in English than Spanish.

It was Father's day last week. I got a day off work. Adventurers that we are went to the MARQ archaeological museum in Alicante to see a temporary exhibition about the frigate Mercedes. The Mercedes was a Spanish sailing ship sunk by the Royal Navy in 1804. The Mercedes, along with the Medea, Fama and Clara, was on it's way back from America to Spain loaded with taxes for the Spanish exchequer, generally in the form of silver pieces of eight. The ships were bound from Montevideo which was, at the time, a part of Spain referred to as the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. Just one day out from home the Spanish ships were intercepted by four British frigates. The British Government knew about the money on the ships and they were keen that it did not eventually find its way into Napoleon's war chest. Europe was involved in persistent warfare at the time with alliances being formed and broken constantly. Despite Britain and Spain being at peace at the time the British ships demanded that the Spanish ships follow them to a British port. The Spanish ships refused and the commander of the British detachment, Sir Graham Moore, opened fire. During the battle the Mercedes exploded with the loss of two hundred and sixty three lives. The British won and the three Spanish ships were all taken to Britain.

Two hundred and three years later a treasure hunting company, Odyssey, found the ship and plundered what was left of the cargo. They didn't take much care about the archaeological merit of the ship and seemed instead to be simply after the treasure. Odyssey were taken to court in the United States and the Spanish Government eventually won the case. Everything found on the remains of the Mercedes was returned to Spain and much of it was used in the exhibition we saw. It wasn't at all bad. Spanish museums have definitely improved in the last ten years (see last post.)

Back in Culebrón with a cup of tea in one hand and the Galsworthy book in the other I read this morning about an attack on Copenhagen by the British in 1807. Apparently the Danes had a nice little fleet. Denmark was neutral in the wars being waged all over Europe but the British Government was concerned that Napoleon would take no notice of that neutrality and go and steal their ships. If he did that the supremacy of the Royal Navy might be threatened. So we British went and nabbed the ships first.

But for living in Spain I don't think I'd ever have known about the tiny footnote of history that is the Mercedes. And what is this about fighting the Danes? Isn't that the place with Lurpak and Carlsberg? Interesting stuff you find in novels and museums.

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