Pascual Cervera y Topete

views updated

Pascual Cervera y Topete

Born February 18, 1839
Medina Sidonia, Spain
Died April 3, 1909 Puerto Real, Spain

Spanish naval officer

"We cannot go to war without meeting with acertain and frightful disaster."

Pascual Cervera y Topete quoted in "Leaders Who Lost: Case Studies of Command under Stress"

The Spanish-American War (April-August 1898) marked the end of an empire that had spanned the globe. In the historic blink of an eye, Spain lost its colony Cuba to independence and surrendered its control of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the United States. Spain's navy had played an essential role in building its empire. Crushing naval defeats in the Philippines and Cuba during the war, however, sent Spain back to Europe. The man with the misfortune to lead Spain's last naval grasp for empire in Cuba was Rear Admiral Pascual Cervera y Topete.

Naval career

Pascual Cervera y Topete was born in Medina Sidonia, Spain, on February 18, 1839. He attended the Spanish naval academy in San Fernando from 1848 to 1851. Cervera then spent the rest of his life as an officer in the Spanish navy. This included service at Spain's West Indian naval station at the beginning of the Ten Years' War (1868-1878), a rebellion in which Cubans sought better government from Spain.

In 1885, Cervera received command of a ship called the Pelayo. Seven years later, Práxedes Mateo Sagasta (1825-1903) became prime minister of Spain. Sagasta appointed Cervera minister of the marine, the head of the naval department of the Spanish government. On October 30, 1897, Rear Admiral Cervera became commander of the entire Spanish squadron stationed at Cadíz, Spain. The man he replaced, Segismundo Bermejo, took Cervera's place in the government as minister of the marine.

The Second Cuban War for Independence

Spain faced another rebellion in its island colony of Cuba beginning in February 1895. This time, the Cuban rebels wanted independence from Spain, protesting the government's economic policies that favored privileged classes on the island and wealthy businessmen back in Spain. Cuban workers, shopkeepers, and farmers wanted more say in their government and better social conditions for the island's working and lower classes.

When Cervera became a squadron commander in October 1897, many Americans and members of Congress were asking President William McKinley (1843-1901; served 1897-1901; see entry) to enter the conflict in Cuba. Newspapers in the United States carried stories of Cuban civilians dying from disease and starvation, thanks to Spain's wartime policies. American investment in and trade with Cuba was suffering from the rebels' strategy of destroying plantations, sugar mills, and other means of economic production.

Spain did not think the United States would intervene in the conflict, for President McKinley had said he would strive for peace at all costs. But when McKinley sent the U.S. warship Maine to Havana, Cuba, in January 1898, Cervera sought instructions from Bermejo on what to do in the event of war. Bermejo said Cervera's mission would be to destroy American military facilities at Key West, Florida, and blockade the entire U.S. Atlantic coast to contain the U.S. Navy.

Cervera knew this plan was absurd. Two of his squadron's ships, the Pelayo and the Carlos V, were unavailable. His newest ship, the Cristóbal Colon, did not have its four main guns, and his fastest ship, the Vizcaya, had a dirty hull that would slow the ship considerably. Turrets that housed mounted guns on the Infanta Maria Teresa and Oquendo were broken. Cervera warned the Spanish government of his fleet's poor condition in correspondence in early 1898.

Spain, however, failed to correct the problems reported by Cervera. Its government was in great debt from the ongoing Cuban revolution and had neither the time nor the money to bring its naval fleet up to battle conditions. National pride may also have prevented government officials from seeing the true condition of its squadrons. This pride caused Spain to refuse to do the one thing that could prevent a war with United States: leave Cuba entirely.

Preparing for war with the United States

On February 15, the Maine exploded mysteriously in the harbor at Havana, hurtling the United States toward a declaration of war. Around April 14, Cervera and the ship captains in his squadron gathered at St. Vincent, Cape Verde, off the west coast of Africa, where the Spanish fleet would assemble for battle. When they sought coal for fuel, the officers found that the U.S. consul had bought almost all that was available in the area. Only after much difficulty—and at twice the regular price—were they able to obtain seven hundred tons of coal from England, a small amount of fuel for a squadron.

Cervera then called a meeting of his staff. Spain planned to keep six ships with heavy guns near the European continent for protection, and to send the other six with Cervera to Cuba. Cervera and his men decided this would be suicide, especially as the United States had enough battleships and smaller vessels to assemble two to four squadrons for action in the Atlantic.

On April 20, Cervera sent a telegram to the Spanish government saying he and his men thought they should return to the Canary Islands and use the Spanish navy to protect the mother country, Spain. In another telegram on April 22, the chief of Cervera's torpedo boat flotilla informed Prime Minister Mateo Sagasta that destruction of the squadron was certain and useless. According to Cervera's chief of staff, Víctor Concas y Palau, in The Squadron of Admiral Cervera, the Spanish minister of colonies replied with a telegram written in English, saying, "God bless you."

Heading for Cuba

After the United States declared war on April 25, Cervera and his doomed squadron sailed for the West Indies on April 29. Ironically, this news alarmed residents of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Ignorant of the weak condition of the Spanish fleet, these Americans imagined deadly attacks on their coastal cities and homes. U.S. Navy secretary John D. Long (1838-1915) had to dispatch coastal patrols to calm citizens' fears.

Meanwhile U.S. admiral William T. Sampson (1840-1902) set up a blockade around Havana, Cuba, while U.S. commodore Winfield S. Schley (1839-1909) and his Flying Squadron looked for Cervera in the waters around Cuba and Puerto Rico. Guessing that this would be the American strategy, Cervera and his fleet headed for the port at Santiago de Cuba at the southeastern end of the island, opposite from Havana. Much to Long's annoyance, the Spanish squadron slipped into Santiago untouched, though running low on coal, the morning of May 19.

Unknown to Cervera at the time, his government had issued an order on May 12 that the fleet return to Spain. The crushing defeat of a Spanish squadron by U.S commodore George Dewey (1837-1917; see entry) in the Philippines on May 1 had showed Spain how unprepared it was for a naval war. The Spanish governors at Cuba and Puerto Rico, however, convinced Spain to make Cervera's squadron stay before it could refuel and return. According to Concas, one of the governors felt that defeat of Cervera's fleet would rally the Spanish army to repel the U.S. invasion and win the war.

Death on the horizon

Upon learning of Cervera's whereabouts, Admiral Sampson directed the U.S. Atlantic fleet to move its blockade to the mouth of Santiago harbor. Unsure of whether mines protected the port, Sampson kept his fleet in the sea, waiting for Cervera to come out.

Meanwhile, U.S. general William R. Shafter (1835-1906; see entry) landed American forces a few miles from Santiago on June 22 and 23. From June 24 to July 1, American troops marched and fought alongside Cuban rebels until they had captured the town of El Caney and the hills of San Juan Heights just outside of Santiago. Cervera sent one thousand men from his ships to help defend Santiago at the beginning of July.

The moment Admiral Cervera had been dreading since April then arrived. While the fighting raged outside Santiago on July 1, Cervera received orders from the Spanish governor of Cuba, General Ramón Blanco y Erenas (1831-1906), to leave the harbor as soon as possible. According to A. B. Feuer in The Spanish-American War at Sea, Blanco said, "If we should lose the squadron without a battle, the effect on Spanish morale would be disastrous."

Cervera called his officers together for a final meeting on July 2. He informed them of their orders and advised that the fleet try to outrun the American blockade and sail for the Cuban harbors at Havana or Cienfuegos, fighting only if necessary. According to Concas:

[The Admiral] stated to us that the time for discussion had passed, that we had done all that was within human power to avoid the catastrophe, and that nothing was left now but to obey, to which we all agreed.… The words of the Admiral were received with enthusiasm, and we all clasped each other's hands fervently, as soldiers who knew how to meet death and destruction, from which no power could save us. There were harsh and well-merited denunciations of many statesmen who remain as calm as if they owed nothing either to God or their country, and we swore that if anyone of us should survive he would defend the memory of those who perished in the encounter.

The naval battle at Santiago

After the fighting sailors had returned to their vessels and rested, Cervera's fleet steamed from port the morning of July 3. The harbor entrance was narrow, crowded further by a ship that the United States had sunk inside it. This forced the Spanish ships to sail single file, each meeting the full brunt of the American attack alone as it emerged into the Caribbean Sea.

Aboard the Infanta Maria Teresa, Cervera, Concas, and the officers and crew led the fleet into battle. The U.S. fleet was lined up outside the harbor, with the Brooklyn farthest to the west. Cervera thought of ramming the Brooklyn to give the rest of his squadron a chance to escape westward. U.S. maneuvers, however, put the Infanta Maria Teresa in danger of colliding with two American vessels. With his vessel on fire and severely damaged, Cervera eventually decided to strand it on a Cuban beach to prevent the crew from drowning and to protect the boat from being captured.

The battle was over in just four hours. Cervera's entire fleet was beached, captured, or destroyed. Of the Spaniards, 323 died and 151 suffered severe wounds, all for national pride. As Concas described it:

There was missing the excellent Villaamil, the commander of the destroyers, killed by a shell on the bridge of the Furor; also five of the officers of the Maria Teresa, and four of the Vizcaya, whose survivors related how the poor gunner, Francisco Zaragoza, with gaping wounds, asked for a piece of the silk flag which the flames were devouring, and, wrapping it about him, gave up his soul to the Creator; and with tears in their eyes they told how the midshipman, Enrique Cheriguini, with both legs shot off close to the trunk, after making preparations to die like a Christian, wrote a letter to his parents, to whom he gave his last thoughts, knowing that God receives in His arms all good children, and that his soul would be united with Him, and with his last breath he wrote the last letter of his name.

Rescue and return

Stranded on a beach, Cervera and his crew tried to organize their camp and tend to their wounded. An American ship appeared amidst this activity to pick up the admiral and some officers and assistants to hold as prisoners-of-war. The sailors Cervera left behind organized themselves into groups of fifty and, using dry branches, dug graves to bury their dead comrades.

Practically naked, Cervera and his men arrived at the U.S. ship Gloucester, where the Americans received them honorably. After feeding and caring for their prisoners, the Americans transferred Cervera and his comrades to the Iowa and eventually transported them, along with eighteen hundred other prisoners, to confinement on the American mainland.

The war ended on August 12, 1898. On September 12, Cervera boarded a vessel with his men to sail back to Spain. "Every face on board expressed the joy that filled every heart," according to Cervera in The Spanish-American War. In Concas's words, "on the 13th of September the shores of the continent which [Christopher] Columbus had discovered, in an evil hour for Spain, faded from our view."

Back in Spain, Cervera and his officers faced a military trial for their defeat. Although the trial ended in Cervera's favor, he assembled a collection of documents to tell his side of the story and published them in 1899 in The Spanish-American War. The following year, Concas published The Squadron of Admiral Cervera to add to the squadron's defense.

Cervera continued service to his country after the war, first as a vice admiral, then as chief of staff of the navy, and finally as a senator. He died in Puerto Real, Spain, on April 3, 1909.

For More Information


Cervera y Topete, Pascual, ed. The Spanish-American War: A Collection of Documents Relative to the Squadron Operations in the West Indies. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1899.

Concas y Palau, Víctor. The Squadron of Admiral Cervera. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900.

Feuer, A. B. The Spanish-American War at Sea. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995.

Golay, Michael. The Spanish-American War. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 1995.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Notes on the Spanish-American War. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1900.


Smith, Eric M. "Leaders Who Lost: Case Studies of Command underStress." Military Review, vol. LXI, April 1981, no. 4, pp. 41-45.