Admiral Cervera, a leadling figure in the Spanish navy for many years, was chosen to command the Spanish naval squadron ordered to Cuba. The squadron was destroyed at the naval battle of Santiago. Cervera knew the attempt was doomed from the start.
Pascual Cervera was born 18 February, 1839, in Medina Sidonia, within the province of Cadiz, in southern Spain. His father was an Officer in the Spanish Army and had fought against the troops of Napoleon during the French invasion of Spain.
When he was only 13 years old, he entered the Naval College. During his first voyage to Havana, he was commissioned as midshipman first class, in 1858. At the age of 21, he became a Lieutenant junior-grade.
Later on he was sent to the Philippines, where he was under the command of Admiral Mendez Nu¤ez (hero of Callao naval combat). He fought against the Moors and nearly lost his life during the assault of Fort Pagalugan.During this combat action, the first in which he took part, he caught the flag carried by one of the enemy. He was promoted to Lieutenant based on his meritorious performance during the war.
He continued in the Philippines, doing hydrographic work, constructing the charts of hundreds of islands of the archipelago. Many of those charts were of great importance to navigators sailing those waters right up until the end of the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1865 he returned to the Iberian Peninsula (homeland) and was married.
Several years passed, during which political instability in Spain reached unexpected levels. In 1868, Queen Isabel II was overthrown and the First Republic inaugurated, bringing with it several problems and disorders, which appeared one after the other.
Cervera had to carry out assignments of higher responsibilities not commensurate with his rank for several years. He also had to face, at risk to his own life, some situations like the Cantonal Rebellion in Murcia. Later, he was again sent to the Philippines and placed in command of the schooner "Circe". Cervera was also given other assignments, such as Commanding Officer of Corvette "Santa Lucia", where he again saw action in many military operations,especially at Mindanao, where his performance was again meritorious.
In 1876 he was appointed Governor of Jolo. The hard and difficult living conditions there caused him to contract malaria, from which he nearly died.Nevertheless, he did not resign from his obligations (duties) although he had recieved permission to do so, as it was his belief that military orders needed to be carried out, even to the point of sacrificing one's own life.
When he returned back to Spain, Prime Minister Canovas del Castillo called him to come to Madrid to participate in conferences designed to obtain an accurate idea about the situation in the Philippines. By that time, the monarchy had been restored in the person of Prince Alfonso XII, the republican era andone-year regency of Amadeo I of Savoy having terminated.
Canovas requested that Cervera accept a post in Madrid at the Naval Ministry. However, the Admiral was not happy being in Madrid, as he really found his vocation was on board ship, as a man of the sea.
Cervera's family and personal life was characterized by a deep sense of austerity in all his acts. During his staying in Madrid, all members of the family used to get up at 6 o'clock in the morning at which time he would help his sons with their studies until 0900 hours, when he left for his office and the children to school.
In the evenings he again helped his sons, explaining their lessons, and after having dinner, he read professional books or went out for a walk until 10:00 PM, when he finally would go for a rest.
His interests or hobbies were always related to his family. He liked to listen to music, but it was only on the occasion of King Alfonso XII's wedding to Dona Maria de las Mercedes de Orleans that he permitted the "excess" of going to the theater in the evening of 23 January, 1878. Such was his character in this regard that he even tried to be optimistic about the many privations his short military wages caused him to suffer, to which he became accustomed.
He commented to a friend of his, a fellow naval officer, that instead of complaining about being able to afford the theater only once a week, he should feel grateful that his country permit him to go to the theater every week. This attitude in his personal lifestyle had a clear reflection in his public work throughout his life.
He was given command of the corvette "Ferrolana" in mid-1879, a schoolship for midshipmen. At the end of 1880, he was transferred, and until 1882, served in the Maritime Command of the Cartagena harbor.
From 1885 to 1890, he presided the 'Comision Contructora' (Shipbuilding Commission) of the battleship "Pelayo", and later became her first Commanding Officer. In this post, he had to fight very hard against the slow bureaucratic procedures that constantly imposed delays in the launching and delivery of the ship to the Navy.
Regent Queen Maria Cristina, mother of the young Alfonso XIII, called him personally to serve in the 'Corte' as her Naval Adjutant. It was May 3rd, 1891. At the end of the next year, he was commissioned Captain first-class (Commodore) and was named Technical and Administrative Director of the Nervion Shipyards, contracted to carry out the final construction of the three cruisers of the "Vizcaya" class, the namesake, the "Oquendo", and the "Maria Teresa". It was the personal desire of the Queen for Cervera to be given this important assignment.
During those days, he was requested by the leader of the Liberal party, Sr. Moret, to become the Secretary of the Navy when the Conservative party administration failed. Cervera, who disliked political assignments very much, answered Mr. Moret with evasives and arguments like "...it is not convenient for any Government to have me as a Minister... as a modest naval officer I think I could be of more value, commanding fleets, naval Departments or any other post that has no political character...", but they insisted in spite of all. Prime Minister, D. Praxedes Mateo Sagasta, told the Queen that he had no "top Minister" (for the Navy), and she pointed out Cervera, her former Adjutant, insinuating that he should be given an order "under the weight of her royal wish", so that loyal Cervera would not offer any resistance. Cervera felt very annoyed when he was appointed to such a high charge, because he foresaw all the thorny conflicts he was about to deal with in an atmosphere so apart from the military world that he so well knew and loved. Even so, after reaching Madrid, it took to him two more days before deciding whether to accept the charge or not. He finally accepted, with one unique condition: that the administration would not reduce the Naval budget by even one single cent, for which he received the promise and word of honor from the Prime Minister to that end. In this way, Cervera, who by that time was Rear Admiral,became Secretary of the Navy (Ministro de Marina) at that lower flag rank, when the practice was to appoint Admirals of higher seniority to that post.
The promises of the Prime Minister notwithstanding, the naval budget for the fiscal year 1893-1894 was altered and lowered by nearly two million pesetas.Cervera, who had previously reduced his budget to a minimum, could not acceptsuch a change and he immediately submitted his resignation to the Government,not only once, but up to three times.
Cervera's "political" life lasted only 3 months. His free and independent character did not permit him to continue carrying out a function for what, according to his own words, "I have not been trained", aside from the fact that he understood the mistaken Government policies could only lead the nation into bankruptcy.
In September 1893, he was appointed Chief of the Naval Commission in London. It was very interesting work professionally, as it meant learning the newest and most advanced techniques of naval construction. While there, during the second half of 1895, the war started in Cuba.
PRELIMINARIES OF THE WAR.-
Independentist cuban leaders Gomez and Maceo were constantly harassing the Spanish Army with their guerilla forces on the island, receiving constant support from the United States, who had already shown interest in buying the Cuban colony from Spain for 100 million pesos. Spain rejected the offer and opted for the war, albeit knowing that it was doomed to failure.
To suppress the rebellion in Cuba, the Government sent General Weyler in 1896 to Havana, to impose a rigorous, if not repressive policy. Leader Maceo lost his life in December 7 of that same year, and the U.S. press, with Pulitzer and Hearst leading the sector, exaggerated the cruelties committed by the Spaniards led by Weyler, who was nicknamed "The Butcher". All of this darkened more and more the social and politic panorama, although in Spain there were two sides to the Cuban issue. The official Spain, that knew pretty well that in case of conflict with the United States, there was not the slightest chance for a victory, and on the other hand, the real Spain, living quietly and not admitting the facts, trusting in a sure victory. While the press in the United States distorted the news in a manner that helped win the war, the Spanish press did the samein a manner that contributed to its loss.
Assassination of Canovas del Castillo, and subsequent changes in the Government thereafter completely changed the course of events that followed. General Weyler was replaced by General Ramon Blanco in October, 1897. Blanco offered autonomy to Cuba, but it was too late, as the Cubans were now determined to obtain their independence.
Such was the state in the colonies, the Philippines being the other crucial point, where problems were also reaching a high tension point. Cervera observed these events with sadness and concern, as he had clearly seen that they had no solution, especially if the conflict with the United States resulted in war. So sure was he about the situation that he had already written a prophetic letter to his cousin, Juan Spottorno, jurist auditor officer in the Naval Department of Cartagena, whose contents (text), closed and sealed in presence of witnesses, constitutes his "military testament". Given the importance of theletter, some of the paragraphs are reproduced here.
"Dear Juan. It seems that the conflict (war) with the United States is being reconsidered, or at least delayed; but it can revive unexpectedly, and every day I am more and more confident in the idea that it would be a great national calamity...Since we don't have practically any fleet, wherever we send it, the fleet must be composed of all the ships together, because dividing them (in groups) would be in my opinion the greatest of all errors; but it would also be a mistake to send it to the Antilles, leaving our coasts and the Philippines archipelago defenseless......I'll be patient and will perform my duty, but with the bitterness of knowing that my sacrifice is in vain ......If our small fleet were well equipped with all that is necessary, and over-all well trained, we could try something......When nations are disorganized, their Governments (that are simply the result of such disorganization), are disorganized too, and when a logical disaster is to come, they don't want to be the real cause; to the contrary,rather, the cry is always "TREASON !", and they look for a poor victim to blame for faults committed by others......I entrust you with great confidence about all that is written here; but at the same time, I ask you not to destroy this letter, keeping it safe, in case that one day it might be convenient for my opinions of today to be known."Although Cervera was steadfast in his convictions, the Deposito de Guerra issued during those days a pamphlet entitled "Military and Naval Power of the United States in 1896" based on data that had been recorded in 1891 by Spain's Military Attache, without taking into consideration the tremendous effort made by the United States between 1892 and 1896. In said booklet, the author fantasized about the American Government abandonment of its Army, the weakness of the Navy, and the deficiencies noted in the defense of US ports, encouraging Spain in some of the paragraphs to sail and capture the Florida Keys to obtain the Gulf of Mexico, and finally, it described how easy it would be to enter the Mississippi with the 'powerful' Spanish fleet and capture New Orleans...
In October 20th 1897, the Government named Cervera Commanding Officer of the Fleet. In view of the events, he then remembered the words of the letter written to his cousin one year and seven months earlier: "...and they will look for a poor victim to blame for faults committed by others !".
He immediately planned a program of naval exercises in Santa Pola to train the crews, because the so-called "escuadra de instrucci¢n" (training squadron) had not done one single combat exercise since 1884, during the issue concerning the Carolines and the threat of war with Germany.
Bad policies carried out by the Government, as well as the lack of foresight, created a large variety of complex and serious deficiencies in the fleet at a moment in which there was no time left to correct all that was wrong. Cervera had to face not only the problems caused by the lack of crew training, but a lack of resources as well, some of them of enormous importance, as was the case of the battleship "Col¢n", that sailed to war without her main guns.
The naval exercises ended with over half of the events programmed by the Admiral uncompleted because the Secretary of the Navy did not provide any funds whatsoever. Furthermore, Cervera was advised "not to spend too much, not to burn coal, and save shots." The heavy artillery of his ships was not fully operational because of the lack of security of the locks of the 14 c/m guns, and the ammunition cases were of very poor quality; some to the degree that they could not be placed inside the guns. He was only authorized to fire TWO shots for each heavy gun. While all of this was taking place, the American fleet was intensively getting ready for the war.
In spite of such a tense situation, the U.S. battleship "Maine"entered Havana harbor the 25th of January, 1898, on a courtesy visit and Spain reciprocated dispatching the "Vizcaya" to New York that same day, without any preparations. Admiral Cervera went to say goodbye to all the crew, saying the following words to the Commanding Officer: "The mission you are carrying out is a mission of peace, and you will perform it well, just the same as any other being given to you. I am sorry I cannot go with you, but soon we will meet again."
The Secretary of the Navy, Sr. Bermejo, and Cervera maintained a very intense correspondence, referring always to the state of the fleet and the need to curb any further delays in arming and fitting the ships, in order to be ready for any declaration of war. In these documents, Cervera exposed with great clarity and harshness, the large difference existing between the two naval forces of both nations, and he always received evasive responses or delays from the Spanish authorities. He never wanted to hide those things that the press did not mention, that is, that the sacrifice (of war) would be useless under such circumstances, but nonetheless, above all, if he were kept on at his current appointment, he would carry out his duty.
In February 15th 1898, the battleship "Maine" suffered a violent explosion while moored in Havana harbor, provoking her sinking. The "Vizcaya" was two days out from New York when this happened. In these brief biographic notes, the investigation that followed the sinking of the "Maine" will not be described, except to say that in the eyes of the American public, this event caused a tremendous impact, followed weeks later by the cry, "Remember the Maine !", which served as perfect pretext to place the nation on a war footing with Spain, given that her forces were considered to have been material authors of that 'act of sabotage'. Only with the passing of the years, and through a third investigating commission, led by Admiral Rickover (USN), it has been determined from hull damage that the explosion aboard the USS "Maine" was caused by a coal bunker fire INSIDE the vessel. The U.S. Government did not accept the presence of Spanish observers in the first two investigating commissions, determining that the explosion was produced OUTSIDE the hull. At the time, Spanish authorities reported not having seen any dead fish in the harbor, and the Spanish commission determined that the explosion was internal, probably initiated at the coal bunkers, in agreement with Admiral Rickover's later thesis [editor's note - the cause of the explosion has never been fully explained].
In the first days of April, the situation could be no longer delayed in the Spanish fleet. Cervera requested permission to go to Madrid to see the Secretary of the Navy and prepare updated operations orders (plan of campaign). The Secretary sent Cervera a telegram, in which amazingly, he said that "In this moment of international crisis, nothing precise can be determined"... Cervera thought all in the Government had gone mad. He received the order to leave with the fleet, sailing to Cape Verde Island, where precise instructions and plans of the Government were to be waiting for him on his arrival. It was by then April 8th. When he arrived at Cape Verde, he did not get the awaited instructions. Instead, he was simply requested to embark all the coal he could, food and stores, and proceed to Puerto Rico or any other port in the Antilles, and to cooperate with its maritime defenses.
On departing for the Antilles he had no precise instructions as we see, and he was fully convinced of the futility of the sacrifice and the disaster that was inevitable. The state of his ships was highly deficient, as he had advised months earlier, and he was also deceived, as he was advised that the Joint Staff of Admirals in Madrid had determined unanimously that departing for the Antilles was mandatory when the real truth was that the vote was not unanimous, but just a simple majority, as there were some dissenting voices. Cervera and his crews were now completely abandoned, facing a devastating fate; only his patriotism and integrity made him obey the received order, although not without bitterness.
The transit from Cape Verde to Martinique island, and from there to Curazao, just prior to their arrival at Santiago de Cuba, was filled with incidents, calamities and shortages, because he could not find the logistic support and coal promised by Madrid in those ports when he left Cape Verde. The decision to continue into Santiago was founded mainly on the belief that this port was free of blockade by US ships, as they were reported to be off Puerto Rico; and besides, he supposed he would get the necessary logistic support he so badly needed. The fleet entered Santiago on 19 May, 1898. At the end of the war, there were some discussions and critiques from certain sectors about why Cervera decided to continue into Santiago instead of picking another place. Here is what military writer Capt. Mahan (USN) wrote concerning this situation:
"Cervera's decision of sailing to Santiago was correct, and assuming he could have selected any other port, even Havana itself, that would have made things easier for the American ships to concentrate their forces, giving us in such a case the most favorable position we could ever have dreamt, not only because we could have blocked all of the enemy vessels, but because at the same time we could have defended in the best way our strategic naval base in Key West".From 19 May to 3 July 1898, the time in which the naval combat took place, the Spanish fleet collaborated with the Army, defending Santiago and there was an intense exchange of signals between Santiago, Havana and Madrid about how to proceed, in view of the development of military operations ashore and the naval blockade by the fleet of Admiral Sampson.
Cervera was subordinate to General Blanco, who assumed command responsibility for all Spanish military forces in Cuba. He received from Blanco the order to proceed for the open sea.
Details describing precise events taking place during this short period of time, as well as the stories concerning heroic actions of war that occurred, will not be dicussed here, to avoid lengthening these lines. It is interesting however to remember that the decision of the Admiral to leave for combat in daylight resulted from his concern for the safety of his ships, given the the nearly total impossibility of a night sortee, a maneuver not recommended by Santiago pilots (who knew the harbor well), and the fact that there were always two American warships present, with their signal lamps lighting the mouth of the harbor.
The Americans tried to contain Cervera's fleet by provoking the sinking of the steamer "Merrimac", loading the ship with coal, and surrounding her with a belt of explosives, to be blown up at the correct moment. There were seven volunteers for this heroic and dangerous mission. Lieutenant J.G. Hobson and six men. The ship was seen by the coastal sentries, and gunfire started immediately from the Punta Gorda Battery, while in the meantime, two torpedoes were fired from the torpedo-boats, provoking the sinking of the vessel without detonation of the attached jars. The entrance to Santiago harbor was not successfully blocked, as the ship was sunk near Smith Cay. Lt. Hobson and his men were captured as prisoners of war and treated by Cervera with such a degree of humanity and chivalry that, on ending the war, there was a signed memorial presented to the Admiral by members of the United States Senate and other Societies and individuals in recognition of this fact,complementing him on his outstanding conduct in the treatment of the "Merrimac" Captain and crew. Lt.Hobson himself for several years thereafter maintained a friendly correspondence with the old Admiral, whom he admired and respected as a consequence of his conduct.
On the 2nd of July, eve of the definitive naval combat, Cervera sent ashore a big closed sealed package containing all official documents, letters and telegrams between himself and the Government. He left those documents in the hands of the Archbishop of Santiago, who, under oath, obliged himself to keep them safely and send them later, either to the Admiral if he survived the combat, or to his relatives in case he died.
At 9 AM the 3rd of July, the order to depart was given. The order of line for leaving the harbor was, in first place, the flagship "Infanta Mar¡a Teresa", followed by "Vizcaya", "Colon", "Oquendo" and then the smaller ships, such as the torpedo-boats and destroyers.
Surrounding the the exit of the harbor, at about 8 or 9 thousand meters of distance, were the American ships "Indiana", "New York", "Oregon","Iowa", "Texas", and"Brooklyn". Admiral Sampson was away, near Siboney, in a meeting with General Shafter.
Silence on board the ships of Cervera while leaving port was impressive. The flagship Commanding Officer, Capt. Concas, relates those moments with these emotive words:
"We had just turned the Diamante, with a deathly hush on board and ashore. Solemn moments, capable of raising the pulse of the most tempered heart. Outside of the combat casement (tower), in which I did not want to enter, to give my crew example, because if I fell there was still the Admiral for command, I requested his permission to open fire. Poor Spain! I then said to the Admiral, and he answered me significantly with his head, meaning hehad done all that was possible to avoid it and his conscience was clean".The US fleet was more modern and its firepower much more devastating than the older design Spanish warships.
Cervera realised that if he proceeded to the open sea, he would lose all of his men and ships. Undaunted, he decided to face the US Fleet and sail out to sea in daytime hours. He used his flagship "Infanta Mar¡a Teresa" to directly engage the closest American ship and presumably provide an aside conflict that might allow the other ships to escape.
At the end of the combat 4 hours later, the Spanish fleet was totally destroyed. There were 474 men dead and all survivors were made prisoners. The Americans only suffered 1 man dead and two wounded.
When the Spaniards were picked up from the sea and nearby beaches, the ones from the flagship were transferred to the "Gloucester", and from there, Admiral Cervera and his Staff officers were taken to the "Iowa". Her Commanding Officer, Capt. Evans, relates the event with the following words:
"Admiral Cervera was tranferred from the "Gloucester" to my ship. When he stepped on the main deck he was received with all honors according to his rank by my whole Staff. The crew of the "Iowa" together with the ones from"Gloucester" broke into a "hurrah!" when the Spanish Admiral saluted theAmerican officers. Although the hero put his feet on the deck of the "Iowa"without any insignia, everybody realized that each molecule in the body of Cervera constituted an Admiral by itself."(This gallant description by Capt. Evans clearly described the fact that Cervera and his men were almost without uniform after the battle.)
When Evans shook the hand of Cervera, he pronounced these words literally:
"Sir, you are a hero. You have done the most sublime feat ever recorded in the history of the Navy".The prisoners were taken to several points along the East coast of the United States. Cervera was at Annapolis and from his arrival, he started to receive tokens of sympathy from the American people that so gallantly recognized his chivalry and did not forget the exquisite treatment he dispensed to Lt. Hobson and men on occassion of the "Merrimac" sinking. Altough he was imprisoned, a better word would have been 'detained' and he indeed became somewhat of a celebrity. Many school children in the United States wrote to him concerning the battle at Santiago de Cuba and requested his autograph.
Also businesses wrote to the Admiral during his stay at Annapolis. In fact, a clothier -Burk & Co- sent the Admiral a light-weight civilian suit so that he would be comfortable during the summer heat in Maryland. Included with the suit was a letter to Admiral Cervera commending his treatment of Lt. Hobson and his crew at Santiago. Admiral Cervera thanked Burk & Co and kindly returned the summer suit. He received many visits. There were some days in which he had to shake hands more than 2,000 times per a letter to one of his relatives in Spain.
In August 20th, Admiral Mac Nair, Director of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, handled Cervera a letter from the U.S. Government, offering freedom for him and his officers under the condition of not bearing arms for the duration of the war. Cervera refused to accept the offer, because, as he informed Mac Nair, the military ordnances in Spain define as derelict and punish the acceptance of freedom under oath not to bear arms while at war, and therefore they could not accept. Eleven days later, the American Government granted unconditional freedom to all prisoners.
Cervera returned to Spain with all survivors of the fleet in September 1898. Things were not seen in Spain with the same sympathy as in The United States because, due to the press intoxication, and the distortion of the truth about the news of the war, they were looking for responsibilities for the disaster, pretending to find guilt among persons and groups that carried out their duty with loyalty and honor. The welcome to Cervera by the Secretary of the Navy could not have been more cold:
"I'm very sorry for all that has happened, General. I suppose that you will have lost all in the shipwreck"."You are right- answered Cervera- I have lost everything except my honor".Cervera was not immune to the situation and had even had to bear the initiation of a lawsuit against him and his officers, which, due to the exact knowledge of facts related concerning the event, and popular clamor, and the voices arising from the exterior, was finally dismissed and Admiral Cervera's honor restored.
The publication of his "Collection of documents", that he so farsightedly had put in the hands of the Archbishop of Santiago, elevated the popular respect for the Admiral up to an unexpected degree. This respect for Cervera grew even larger within the American society. There were many cases proving such sympathy, without any distinction of age, sex or credence. Furthermore, a type of pink flower design was artificially produced, named 'Cervera's pink' or 'Admiral's pink' that had yellow color with the edges of the petals in red, simulating the Spanish colors. The name became well known in the flower markets of New York. The Industrial School of the county of Hamilton, Tenn, named him honor member of the Academia de Castellano (Castellan Academy). To this Center, the Admiral dedicated a letter and a photograph, where he wrote the leiv motif of his whole life: A society in which everyone fulfills his duty would be happy.
He did not accept any valuable presents or offers made to him. One of these was the possibility to tour the United States, giving lectures for no less than 20,000 US dollars. He argued that as a Spanish military officer, he hated the idea of going abroad, explaining the errors and mistakes of his country.
In February, 1901 he was commissioned as Vice-admiral and in December of 1902, he was assigned as Chief of The Navy Central Staff. In May 1903, King Alfonso XIII named him life Senator of the Kingdom.
With his health in a delicate state, he was once again assigned to a new post. This time as Commanding Officer of the Maritime Department of Ferrol. It was 1906, and he stayed there until the end of May of the next year. He retired to his home in Puerto Real in southern Spain, where he spent the last months of his life, and died there on 3 April, 1909, providing an example of dignity and grace to everyone surrounding him.
His mortal remains are actually buried at the Panteen de Marinos
Ilustres in San Fernando, a Navy mausoleum for illustrious Navy men.