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Mar 172018

Jorge Gili Ruiz

jorge-gili-ruizIt is not the same to be a hero here or there. What happens to one after one dies in the textbooks approved by the minister who happens to be in charge, or in the popular memory depends, to a great extent, on which police station one was given the passport. If it is in one of Scotland Yard, or wherever the British go to have their passports issued, then one has a lot to win. Now, if it is sealed by the national police in any neighborhood of any Spanish city, you have been well served until the day of final judgment, and that if it is not stained by some arrogant and cantankerous losers who believe they have the exclusive right to judge those who tried to do something great for this country that we call Spain and in which, unfortunately, also lives, and does not partake, that outraged exalted vociferous pack.

For sample, let’s propose a fellow. Or two. The wartime English soldier and military man, Sir Horatio Nelson, and a Spanish counterpart: Blas de Lezo, to be sure.

Admiral Nelson

Admiral Nelson

The English one, justly recognized by his compatriots, was lauded with honors and recognitions, they gave him titles of nobility, and if they had to invent one ex profeso for the occasion, they would not doubt it. That’s how Don Horatio got to be the first viscount of Nelson, and that’s nothing. Nor did they spare any effort to grant him the first dukedom of Bronte, or to recognize him as knight commander of the Order of Bath and Knight Grand Cross of the order of Saint Ferdinand and Merit. Not content with that, they go and erect a tall and colorful column crowning it with his statue in one of the main London squares: the one in Trafalgar, as if rejoicing at the fireworks that they gave us back in October of eighteen hundred and five, last week as it seems.

The truth is that the merits to the brave English sailor don’t fall short: he participated in the war of American independence, furrowed infinity of times the waters of the Caribbean trying to stick his finger in the eye of the quiet Spanish sailors who passed by with the wineries loaded with riches and raw materials heading to the peninsula. En Cape San Vicente he was about to swipe the largest warship that was then sailing the seas: the Santísima Trinidad, with its four bridges and one hundred thirty-six guns saluting him, and that disobeying his admiral and getting into the middle of a fight of cannon shots. Almost nothing. Later and with the same attributes, he tried to disembark with his friends in Tenerife, around five o’clock, to have tea and take the island, but this time he had to turn around with his tail between his legs and order him to adjust the right sleeve of this military tunic, since he left behind his arm in the attempt. Occupational hazards.

His great victory came years later. Tired of playing cat and mouse with the French-Spanish combined armada, he locked them in the port of Cádiz, so that they would not disturb in the middle of the sea. He had the good fortune that Napoleon, a little pissed off at the dejected Villeneuve, who at that time exercised as the supreme command of the combined force of the city of Cádiz, ordered his dismissal. Seeing them come, Villeneuve decided to take to the sea with the thirty-three ships of line arranged, or half of them, for the combat that he could gather and prepare. With such a character in charge, ordering all the time wrong manoeuvres, in turn angering all the officers of the Spanish army who were about to mount a riot before sailing, he put it on a plate to the experienced Englishman. We got screwed, and of course, Nelson was declared a national hero. Even his ship, the Victory, can be seen today anchored in the Thames, yes, a little restored because it was left with more holes than Gruyere cheese. On that same ship and after the battle of Trafalgar, Don Horatio’s corpse was repatriated in a cognac barrel to preserve it during the voyage. Even for that they are different, you see. His funerals and funeral honors were multitudinous, and he was buried where a large number of the most illustrious British society rests: in Saint Paul’s Cathedral. That said, a proper hero, from feet to head.


I was telling you, in comparison, of another warrior: the Spaniard Don Blas de Lezo, great sailor, truly a great one, as many given by this land: the Gaztañeta family, Jorge Juan, Churruca, Barceló, Gravina, to name some. Don Blas spent more than half his life at sea, risking his life in each fight in which he had the bad idea of ??walking in, and I say bad idea because the poor man was immediately disfigured, so that his face was no longer so graceful. He was only twenty-five years old when he was already nicknamed halfman after leaving an eye, an arm and a leg on the deck boards of the ship in question in which he sailed.

Like the English, he wasn’t short on merits: he participated in the blockade of Barcelona in the war of succession on the side of the Bourbons, he cleaned the South Sea from pirates and corsairs, so that the riches of the Viceroyalty of Peru reached Portobello without bad encounters, he recovered a historical debt that the Genoese had with the Spanish crown, and that they failed to pay on each occasion the Spanish went to collect it, with a simple argument: either you pay or I destroy the city. You see, they paid. Later he went down to the moros giving naval coverage to the landing forces in Oran so that from there they could stop causing problems with so much piracy, putting order in the state of the ships, that is to say, ours spitting fire and those of the Berbers making glu glu glu.

Portrait of Lezo, Museo Naval de Madrid

Portrait of Lezo, Museo Naval de Madrid

But his greatest victory, and a posthumous one, just like the English, came later. In Cartagena de Indias, where the largest naval fleet ever put at sea until Normandy was expected. One hundred and eighty English ships with more than thirty thousand men on board tried to take the place defended by six ships of line and barely three thousand men of garrison and crew of ships. The firepower was also disproportionate in favour of the invaders. A piece of cake, Admiral Vernon told himself when he saw the scene: “send a message to London that this is solved and on the way they coin me some coins commemorating my victory”. But he did not count on the halfman, although the English had in his favour the inept viceroy Sebastian de Eslava and his pettiness. In short, not to entangle myself in battles, the English got scaled in the matter, receiving the biggest defeat of their naval history, one which that they knew how to silence very well. Almost as much or more as Spaniards recognized the merits of Don Blas de Lezo, denying him the honours, stripping him of command and degrading him because of the envy and differences he had with Eslava during the fighting, which in the end cost the sailor his life. His funeral, unlike that of Sir Horatio Nelson, was so discreet that even today there are doubts about where his mutilated body lies, some sources point to the convent of San Francisco, others to that of Santo Domingo, both in the Colombian city.

He did not receive any recognition for his heroic acts, for saving one of the most important places in the Spanish Caribbean, he was not given any noble title, he was vilified by his contemporaries, only his family enjoyed some very subsequent recognition: almost twenty years after his death , Carlos III named his son Marqués de Ovieco, but in Lezo’s lifetime, his merits only credited him to obtain from the Municipal Council of the Port of Santa de María a water tap for his home where his family was waiting for him forever. You see, running water, what irony with so much water, by work and grace of the town hall.

Blas de Lezo Statue in Madrid

Blas de Lezo Statue in Madrid

What I said at the beginning, it is not the same to be a hero in one place than in another, it depends on the stamp of the passport. Trafalgar Square is London’s popular meeting place, with its Nelson column in the centre, its Victory moored in a preferential spot of its river; and here, we have, only since 2014, a small statue of Lezo in the Paseo de Canalejas de Cádiz and another one, by popular subscription, or innocently believed that it had been the initiative of the administration?, in the gardens of the discovery of Colon Plaza of Madrid, and even so, some old-fashioned Catalan town councils demand its demolishment.

With such pageantry that we give to our heroes, I would not be surprised if Daoiz and Velarde were suspicious, for fear that we lower them from the pedestal.


Jorge Gili Ruiz was born in Madrid in 1970. His passion for journalism and literature has led him to write many articles on current topics. He is currently working on his second novel.