Facts stranger than fiction: the story of Don Blas de Lezo
If one was trying to envisage the perfect military hero, Don Blas de Lezo would be a prime candidate. Indeed, if he was from the English speaking world, numerous movies and books would have already immortalized him: a gallant man who although incapacitated by leg and arm amputations, and the loss of one eye, saved a city against overwhelming odds. Locals today joke about him, waving their fists whenever his name is mentioned and cursing: "because of him, we don't speak English!"

Cartagena was the focus of trade between South America and the rest of the world thanks to its position on the Caribbean and deep-water harbour; gold and silver plundered from the Incas were transported back to Spain from here, in annual convoys. Other European nations knew this, and pirates and buccaneers from France and England had sacked and looted Cartagena on previous occasions: Robert Baal in 1544, Martin Cote in 1569, and Sir Francis Drake in 1586. In each instance, buildings were destroyed in addition to huge ransoms being extracted, so the resident Governor, using local merchants' money, started building a fort in the 17th century. The most imposing structure in Cartagena became the trapezoid-shaped Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. It has no vertical walls, and was designed to deflect cannon balls much like the Stealth Bomber deflects radar. The Fort was completed in 1654, and though continually improved and strengthened in ensuing years, Cartagena was taken again by the French pirates de Pointis and Ducasse in 1697. This was the most devastating attack in Cartagena's history.

In the 1700's, friction between Spain and England grew after the English captain of The Rebecca, Robert Jenkins, had his ear severed by the Spanish customs officer Juan Leon Fandiño, as punishment for smuggling transgressions in Florida. Jenkins was told a similar fate was in store for the English King should he visit. When news of this reached England, Sir Edward Vernon, Member of Parliament, was enraged and persuaded Parliament to declare war on Spain in 1739. He was made an Admiral and given mandate to attack Spanish dominions (at the same time, Commodore George Anson was sent to plunder the Pacific shores of Chile and Peru). After conquering Portobelo, a smaller fortress-town in what is now Panama, with only six warships, Vernon boasted that he could take Cartagena and all its riches for England's Exchequer.

Vernon was able to secure funding to assemble a massive fleet for his venture: 180 ships, over 2000 canon and more than 28,000 men (this dwarfs the "invincible" Spanish Armada that Phillip II used to try to conquer England: it only totalled 126 vessels). Earlier sackings of Cartagena had been successful with as few as 1000 men. Some 2700 of the men were recruited in the North American Colonies, under the command of an officer named Lawrence Washington, a half-brother of George Washington. Vernon also enlisted 2000 Jamaican macheteros. Cartagena's defences were miniscule in comparison: 3000 soldiers, some native Indian archers, black slaves and six ships and their crew. But Vernon's gathering of such a large force proved impossible to keep secret, and Cartagena was well prepared for attack when Vernon's fleet arrived at 9am on 13 March 1741.The fort was riddled with tunnels and storage areas, in which the Spanish stockpiled enough arms and food to sustain the populace during a prolonged attack. The Viceroy Sebastian de Eslava and Don Blas de Lezo were in charge of defence, but they were seriously outnumbered. Cartagena's population was only 20,000, with fewer than 6000 men under arms.

Vernon landed men on Isla Tierrabomba and after firing thousands of rounds of shells on the smaller Castillo de San Luis. The entry to the bay was guarded by escolleras, or shallow, man-made underwater breakwaters, and a heavy chain that could be drawn across the entrance between the two forts. But the English were able to breach them and launched a prolonged attack by firing for 16 days and nights, at an average of 62 rounds an hour - too much for Don Blas and his Colonel De Naux to sustain for long. In a vain attempt to prevent Vernon's entry, the Spaniards sank their last remaining ships at the harbour entrance. Don Blas was at the front line of action, and was wounded in his thigh and only arm, and was forced to retreat to the walled city. Vernon entered the harbour, sent Washington and the North Americans to take the Convento de La Popa on the hill overlooking San Felipe, and launched a barrage of artillery that street by street was slowly crumbling Cartagena. Confident that victory was his, he sent a message to England that Cartagena was about to fall. The English authorities, on receiving this advice, minted commemorative victory coins.

Yet Don Blas' men refused to surrender. Held up in the fort, they repulsed attack after attack. The Bay of Cartagena was filled with bodies of the enemy: injuries, malaria, cholera, dysentry and scurvy were beginning to fell the English (the historian Enrique Román Bazurto noted that the English brought these diseases with them).Don Blas was a veteran himself of city-seige tactics: he had been sent to Genoa earlier in his career to obtain payment for the Spanish Crown, and was able to get it simply by surrounding the city with Armada canon and threatening to raze the entire town. Vernon ordered an all-out night-time assault by his marines on the fort on the 20 April. The Jamaican machete wielding slaves led the assault, followed by the English artillery, both of whom were easy targets for the Spanish from their lofty positions. The attack was repelled, and Don Blas seized an opportunity, ordering his remaining 600 men into a do-or-die bayonet-charge counter attack, that left 800 English dead, 1000 taken prisoner, and Vernon's ships full of sick and wounded. It was Cartagena's finest hour.

Other assaults up till the 25th proved fruitless. Vernon started to argue with General Woort about tactics, while desertions and deaths to tropical diseases mounted. On the 28th April Vernon started to withdraw, and on the 20th May he set sail for Jamaica, his dreams of plunder and riches as decimated as his men: he had lost 18,000 men, about half due to disease, the rest to Spanish military superiority. The English only managed to capture 200 prisoners. Five ships of the English fleet were burnt at sea for lack of sailors to sail them home; another sank on the way to Jamaica. Vernon was welcomed home a hero, and is buried in Westminster Abbey, though King George II never allowed the details of this embarrassing defeat be published. Vernon's efforts are also remembered in the USA - Lawrence Washington named his family estate Mount Vernon in his honour. Eslava was rewarded for his efforts by being made Viceroy of Peru, though he chose to continue to live in Cartagena. His house can still be seen at Plaza del Tejadillo, a short walk from Plaza Santo Domingo. Don Blas, wounded in the great Siege of Cartagena, died of his injuries in September of the same year. He has no known grave, though local legend has it that his body was interned in the Iglesia de de la Orden Tercera, next to cartagena's Convention Center, but there is no tomb to see; perhaps he was buried at sea, perhaps he was pickled and sent to Spain only to be lost, or perhaps his tomb was not completed in the rush to re-build Cartagena. This rush was temporarily suspended in 1742 when Vernon, hearing of Don Blas's death, returned with another naval squadron, but ultimately never launched an attack.

Today, Cartagena's population is approaching one million, and welcomes foreign naval vessels for the tourist dollars they bring. Spain is no longer the colonial master, and no gold is shipped in convoys. The fort is featured on phone cards and attracts great crowds of visitors everyday. Just last week an amateur scuba-diving friend of mine discovered some rusting cannons and brought up some cannon balls, which are commonly used as doorstops in Cartagena.

At the foot of the fort, is a statue of a man. The plinth on which it stands has large reproductions of the victory coins that the English had prematurely minted, showing Don Blas kneeling before Vernon with the motto "The Spanish Pride pull'd down by Admiral Vernon" and "True British Heroes Took Cartagena April 1741". The man is brandishing a sword in his left arm, because he lost his right arm in the Battle of Barcelona; minus one leg lost in the Battle of Gibraltar; and wearing an eye patch covering his left eye lost in the Battle of Toulon. This same man lost his life in the Battle for Cartagena, the last of his 23 campaigns. This man is Don Blas de Lezo.

- written by Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

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Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short