TRAVEL by Eric Mackenzie Lamb
About four years ago, having some time on my hands, I decided to explore Ireland, a country which I’d never visited before. After arriving at Dublin airport, I rented a car and headed north, a route which would first take me to Belfast in Northern Ireland, then back across the border in a southwesterly direction along the island’s picturesque Atlantic coast. The weather was perfect-at least for the moment-with plenty of photo opportunities along the way.
And I wasn’t disappointed. It didn’t take long to realize why the country was known as the Emerald Isle. Rolling green hills, centuries-old stone farmhouses, rambling sheep, spectacular views that seemed to stretch forever: the epitome of history, serenity, and unspoiled beauty.
By coincidence, my visit took place only a few days before the referendum in which a majority of the UK’s population would vote in favor of Brexit. But not here. Crossing the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, it was evident that most locals on either side, many of them tradesmen, farmers and fishermen, were adamantly opposed to such a drastic move, especially as they believed that it had all been dictated by the political elite in London, another universe away. (Little had they realized how maddeningly complicated the process would become over the next four years. But by then, it was too late to turn back the clock).
The following morning, after spending a restful night with a great breakfast at an Air B&B farmhouse, I continued south along the coast. As is typical in Ireland, especially on the Atlantic side, the weather had changed overnight from sunshine to sporadic rain and patchy fog. Then again, I thought to myself, that’s what kept the country so green. Ominous dark clouds on the western horizon were a sure sign that some fierce Atlantic gales would soon be arriving.
Shortly after noon, I decided to take a break from driving and do a hike along the seaside cliffs. There wasn’t a solitary human being to be seen, only flocks of seagulls and gannets. All I could hear was the whistling of the wind and the muted roar of waves breaking on the rocky beaches below. It felt almost ghostly. Walking along the path, I suddenly noticed a large solitary rock about a hundred yards away, inscribed with what appeared to be a metal plaque. Out of curiosity, I made my way toward it for a closer look. The plaque’s text was in both English and Gaelic, not easy to read because most of its surface had been worn away by time and weather. But its message was still clear-a testimonial to a momentous event which had happened more than four centuries before, and which changed history forever: the English defeat of the Spanish Armada.
The real story starts here. Not even Hollywood could come close to depicting the scale of human bravery under hopeless conditions which followed a reckless decision by King Felipe II of Spain to invade England-a decision which would ultimately result in the tragic loss of over twenty thousand lives and the beginning of the end for the Spanish Empire.
But first, some background information.
By the mid Sixteenth century, England and Spain had become sworn enemies, with much of the mutual hostility due to England’s conversion to Protestantism under the Reformation Act, along with its support by English royalty. Queen Mary, the daughter of Henry VIII, infamously became known as Bloody Mary for her brutal executions of hundreds of English Catholics who refused to stop practicing their faith, an act of defiance which was considered heresy. Mary died in 1558 and was succeeded by her half sister, Elizabeth the First, who continued to support mandatory Protestantism (known as the Act of Conformity) and the abolition of what was then termed as Popery.
Nor were tensions eased by the fact that English privateers, often led by the legendary Sir Francis Drake, consistently attacked Spanish ships in Atlantic and Caribbean waters in order to confiscate gold and other valuables being transported from Spain’s South American colonies to the mother country. As far as King Felipe was concerned, enough was enough. He ordered his armed forces to start preparing for the invasion of England. He also revealed his plans in secret to Pope Sixtus V, who gave his blessing to bring Protestant England back into the fold of Rome.
By 1587, Spanish preparations were well underway to prepare for the invasion. However, these were interrupted when Drake raided the Armada’s supplies in Cadiz, which resulted in almost a year’s delay.
Finally, in May of 1588, the Armada’s fleet, under the command of the Duke of Medina Sedonia, set sail from Corunna. Its goal was to secure the English Channel and then transport the invading Spanish army to England from Flanders. The very size of the force was unprecedented: 130 ships, 2,500 guns, 8,000 sailors, and 20,000 soldiers. (In addition, the fleet carried 180 priests and 14,000 barrels of wine). However, the Armada was beset by storms and didn’t reach the southern coast of England until July 19, almost two months after it had departed. This also adversely affected its supplies of food, fresh water, and other essentials even before the battle had begun.
The delay had also helped the English to spot the approaching fleet when it first appeared off the coast of Cornwall. On July 21st, as the Armada approached Plymouth, they were intercepted by a hundred English ships under the command of Lord Charles Howard and Francis Drake, who had already made meticulous tactical plans. Their first step was to bombard the Spanish fleet from a safe distance, taking advantage of their heavy long range guns. Despite the confrontation, and thinned by the English assault, the Armada’s fleet managed to proceed slowly up the channel and, by July 27, had anchored off the French port of Calais. The plan was to wait until a message was received confirming that the Spanish army was ready to embark from Flanders.
But no message came. By now, it had become apparent to the Spanish officers that the Duke of Medina Sedonia was totally inexperienced when it came to maritime warfare. His decision to wait in an exposed position off Calais, rather than proceed as quickly as possible to Flanders, message or no message, would have disastrous consequences.
And they weren’t long in coming. Just after midnight on July 29, the English launched eight burning unmanned ships into Calais harbour. The resulting panic was immediate. The Spanish were forced to cut their own ships’ anchors and sail out to sea to avoid catching fire.
But worse was yet to come. Precisely at the first light of dawn, the scattered and disorganized Spanish fleet was attacked in full force by the smaller and more agile English ships off the French coast, in what would go down in history as the Battle of Gravelines and the ultimate defeat of what had once been called the Invincible Armada. Many Spanish ships tried frantically to escape by turning southwest along the channel, but a sudden change in wind direction and blockage by English navy vessels made this impossible. The only choice was to turn around and sail in the opposite direction, only to be further devastated by gunfire from the faster English vessels which pursued them. The Armada’s remnants were forced to retreat to the northern tip of Scotland and then south along the Irish coast in an attempt to return to Spain. With no anchors, the surviving ships were now even more vulnerable to tides and strong winds. According to historical records, at least twenty-one Spanish ships were driven ashore and wrecked along the Irish coast, including the Santa Maria Rata Encoronada, with 520 guns and 429 men, whose memorial plaque I’d seen during my hike along the cliffs. Most of the Encoronada’s crew managed to escape. Once ashore, a decision was made by its captain to set the vessel on fire to prevent its appropriation by the English. After this was done, the captain and his crew were transferred to another ship, the Duquesa Santa Ana, which itself was wrecked four days later off County Donegal.
In the end, less than half of the Armada’s fleet managed to return to Spain. By then, untold thousands of men had perished, either from wounds sustained in battle, or from malnutrition, disease, or drowning. Meanwhile, back in England, the expression God sent us the wind had almost become a national anthem.
You may also have heard the expression Black Irish. Although it’s never been proven, many still believe that they’re descendants of the Armada’s Spanish survivors who made it ashore and eventually intermarried with the Irish population-a perception fostered by their darker complexion and black hair. And, like so many Irish over the past centuries, they became immigrants to other parts of the world, including the Caribbean. All in search of a better life.
Who knows? Maybe it’s time to check those birth records in Montserrat?