The battle of Rande and the treasure that was supposed to be submerged in its waters has captivated the imagination for more than three centuries; some historical facts that have been clarified by recent investigations that have transformed into history some facts enveloped by the haze of legend.
Following the coronation of Felipe V de Borbón as King of Spain in 1700, the War of Succession took place between the Franco-Spanish alliance and the countries that supported the candidacy of the Archduke of Austria: Austria, England and the Netherlands. Towards the end of August 1702, a large Anglo-Dutch fleet composed by 50 warships and 110 ships of all kinds transported an army of fourteen thousand soldiers to conquer the port of Cádiz. This city was defended only by five hundred soldiers.
As the victory seemed likely to happend and it should serve as a basis for control of the Mediterranean, the expedition was accompanied by Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Army. At that time the Fleet of the Indies, consisting of 13 galleons and 13 merchant ships was approaching the Peninsula escorted by 18 French warships. Suspecting that the enemy might be stalking them in their usual destination – Cádiz – they went to Vigo, arriving at their bay on September 23.
Meanwhile, the Anglo-Dutch army sacked the Port of Santa Maria and Rota, getting the civilian population against the cause of the Archduke of Austria. The five hundred soldiers who defended Cádiz in extreme conditions were reinforced by thousands of civilian volunteers. During more than a month of attacks the assailants lost sixteen ships of war, rejecting all their terrestrial attacks. Therefore, on September 30 Rooke decided to abandon the attack on Cádiz, heading to a dozen ports in the Portuguese Algarve to rest and get drinking water before the return trip.
Admiral Rooke was so desperate that he poisoned himself with laudanum, having an enema made so he would not die.
In mid-October, when the great Anglo-Dutch fleet was already returning, it was reached by an English ship that came from the blockade of El Ferrol port and transmitted the news that the Fleet of the Indies was in Vigo. This completely changed the morale of the members of Rooke’s fleet, who decided to go there. The Anglo-Dutch arrived in the Bay of Vigo on October 22.
When the commander of the fleet anchored in Vigo knew about the attack on Cádiz, he took preventive measures. The Spanish and French ships sailed from Vigo into the interior bay defended by the forts of Rande and Corbeiro. The Corregidor of Vigo mobilized more than a thousand carts and hundreds of laborers to help with the unloading of the ships.
The sailors dismantled the artillery of many ships, reinforcing the defenses of the two fortifications on each shore of the Rande Strait; whereas the Spanish military chief recruited about two thousand civilians to reinforce the few soldiers of the forts; but they did not have firearms. They only had farming implements and knives. In addition, the French improvised a chain to prevent ships from crossing the strait. The news of the victory of Cádiz arrived on October 11 in Vigo, accelerating the preparations; so that by the time the fleet of 185 ships of all classes arrived, merchant ships remained on the ships, and they chose to wait for the danger to pass to other ports.
Almost all the money (silver) was in carts way to Madrid. Some carts with part of the treasure were stolen by thieves in the town of Ribadavia (Orense). On October 30, three hundred carts with coins and ingots worth twenty million reales arrived at Casón del Buen Retiro, corresponding to the “Real Third” (the Crown commission). Such was the shouting of the people before the spectacle of their arrival that King Philip V woke up this way from his siesta.
The request of the ship’s commanders for the Corregidor de Vigo to send the eight thousand Spaniards who defended the walls of the city was not attended. For that reason the numerous and hard-fought Anglo-Dutch infantry landed on both banks and took the assault on the forts of Rande and Corbeiro. To the great ship Torbay – of 80 cannons – they attached a gigantic ax to him in the prow, sending itself at full speed against the chain was able to break it, allowing the passage to the rest of the attackers. From that moment the result of the battle of Rande was decided.
The great superiority of the attacking fleet (60 against 20) caused that in a few hours all the Spanish and French ships were destroyed or captured. Among the captured was the gigantic galleon Maracaibo, considered the largest in the world. A part of its cargo had not been unloaded and was captured almost intact. But when, a few days later, the Maracaibo left in the direction of England it was shipwrecked, in front of the islet appropriately named O Agoreiro, accompanied to the bottom of the sea by the English warship Monmouth (which was towing it). When both ships sank, hundreds of English sailors swam to the Maracaibo to collect what they could; most of them drowned. The officers took all what the surviving sailors took once they shipped back.
Since then it has been speculating about the value treasured by the wreck of the Maracaibo galleon, not yet found. The British valued it at a million pounds.
Against the assumption, the attackers only returned with silver worth 14,000 pounds. Most of the loot was the wood and spices that the attackers were able to rescue from the ships deliberately set on fire by the crews when the chain of defense was broken. But there was the paradox that English, German and Dutch merchants were the main losers of this story. In the first place, because most of the goods not landed were from them. And also because – when King Philip V realized that they owned a large part of the silver and goods landed (in almost all cases registered in the name of Spaniards) – he decided to confiscate them for being subjects of enemy countries. That is why the shipment of the Indies of 1702 was the one that contributed the most to the Crown in three centuries of ocean voyages; fundamental resources to finance the huge expenses of the War of Succession.
The arrival in England of Admiral Rooke’s fleet was accompanied by a sharp decline in the London Stock Exchange as well as a parliamentary inquiry into the disastrous attack on Cadiz. After hectic parliamentary debates, the military victory in the Battle of Rande won him a congratulatory vote from Parliament, enabling Rooke to be in command of the fleet that took Gibraltar in 1704; reason why the llanitos have erected a statue in the colony of Gibraltar.
Text by Ignacio Suárez-Zuloaga and illustrations by Ximena Maier.
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