originally published January 26, 2012

One of my favorite genres of kilograph prose in this little project is the war story. Some of the war stories I find are painfully dull (and there are only so many pooping-on-a-submarine jokes out there), but every once in a while I come across a story that can be wound into a tidy little narrative.

Today’s tale comes from the War of the Spanish Succession, a Europe-wide fight over whether or not Spain and France would be united under a single rule. This would have altered the balance of power in Europe, and would have created a tremendous amount of paperwork. They hated paperwork in the early 1700s.

Wager’s Action is the title of a particular episode of naval ass-kickery between the British (who were hoping to avoid the union of two massive enemies) and the Spanish Treasure Fleet, who nobly sailed back and forth from Spain to the new world in order to bring luxuries, spices, silk, tobacco, and other trinkets to show off in front of the local indigenous peoples before they were slaughtered.

Sir Charles Wager (1666-1743)

British Admiral Charles Wager was frolicking about in the Caribbean with his four ships: Expedition, Kingston, Portland and Vulture. The Spanish fleet knew Wager was in the region; he had recently taken control of an island near Cartagena. You might remember Cartagena as the city where Joan Wilder flew to find her sister in the 1984 film, Romancing the Stone. That is completely irrelevant to this story.

Anyhow, the Spanish fleet knew Wager was lurking in the area, but Commander José Fernández de Santillán was in a panic to avoid the hurricane season and set course from Portobelo to Cartagena on May 28. “What can possibly go wrong?” José likely asked the heavens. Probably in Spanish.

Along with their French escorts – and we’re talking about ships here, not prostitutes I think… Wikipedia isn’t clear on this – José’s fleet consisted of fourteen ships. On June 7, the fleet reached Isla de Baru, which, according to Google Maps, is the last stop before Cartagena.

Question is, why would you ever leave?

Why they didn’t just push forward to Cartagena I have no idea. Maybe they had to finish all the good liquor on board. Maybe the party scene on Isla de Baru was really happening in 1708.

The next day there was hardly any wind. They hung around the island until 3:00 in the afternoon, which actually lends support to either of my heavy-drinking theories for the night before. It was about this time that they spotted Wager’s fleet, gliding toward them and heading for the kill.

The Spanish called for evasive manoeuvres, but the British knew where to strike. There were three big-ass ships in this Spanish fleet, the San José, the San Joaquin, and the Santa Cruz. The money – and like any team of violent attackers, it’s always about the money – would be aboard those.

Around 5:00, The Kingston attacked the San Joaquin, and sent it scurrying into the night like a little bitch after two hours of trading canon blasts. This wasn’t like in those Pirates of the Caribbean movies, where the fight scenes last maybe ten minutes at the most before ships get boarded and Johnny Depp gets to expel numerous flippant remarks while sword-fighting a bunch of zombies overtop an Alan Silvestri score. These battles were long and tedious, with no Depp, and no music but the various sea shanties which sailors from this era were required by law to know by heart.

The Expedition launched its attack on the San José, which happened to be the ship José himself was commanding. After fighting for an hour and a half, the Expedition was a mere 60 meters away from boarding her and plundering her booty (which sounds way hot). That’s when the San José exploded.

No one knew why the ship blew up. Sabotage? Bizarre cannon backfire?

Spontaneous Naval Combustion?

The ship, which allegedly contained somewhere between seven and eleven million pesos on board, sank. Of the 600 people on board, crew and passengers, eleven survived. If that was some kind of sabotage in order to keep something out of the hands of the British (I’m betting it was a super-secret ray gun), then it was a hell of a sacrifice.

The other Spanish warship, the Santa Cruz, tried to slink away from all this violence and mayhem, perhaps figuring that traversing the two miles to their destination might be worth trying despite their monstrous hangover. Everything was coming up British though – a full moon gave Wager the visibility to track the Santa Cruz down and haul ‘er in.

The haul from the Santa Cruz wasn’t great. Luckily, the San Joaquin was spotted, and Wager sent the Kingston and Portland to capture her. The loot was significantly better this time, except for the fact that the San Joaquin made a break for shore after only a portion of its treasure was nabbed. At this point they were too close to Cartagena to risk a pursuit.

It wasn’t enough coins to justify rolling around naked upon them.

So that was it. Three big-score warships – one blew up, one had next to nothing on board, and the other one left before giving up all its goods. The rest of the fleet made it away too, apart from one smaller ship which beached itself on Baru Island. What they did get was impressive enough to be called a British victory though, and Charles Wager became a rich man for it. I’m not sure I understand why – I guess back then Commanders were allowed to keep the treasure they take from enemy ships? Doesn’t seem like a good policy, but that may be why I’m not an Admiral. (there may also be other reasons, but I’m running out of words today)

Captains Bridges and Windsor, who helmed the Kingston and Portland, got sacked for bungling the San Joaquin capture. But the real story here is the San José. Its treasure is estimated to be worth up to $450 million dollars today, and needless to say, people are looking for it. The rights to the treasure were settled in court just five years ago, with the Columbian government legally entitled to half, should any treasure-hunters get lucky. A few folks claim to have found the wreck, but nothing has been confirmed.

It remains an unrecovered mystery. Just like Joan Wilder’s sister.

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