‘It’s merely a flesh wound!’
There was definitely something of Monty Python’s Black Knight in Admiral Blas de Lezo (1688-1741). In the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, whilst guarding what he perceives to be a strategically placed plank of wood leading over a stream, the Black Knight loses his arms and legs in a sword fight with King Arthur. ‘Come back and fight, you coward,’ the mutilated Black Knight calls after King Arthur, ‘it’s merely a flesh wound.’ And so it seems Blas de Lezo was of the very same ilk. Brave, resourceful and unyielding, Blas de Lezo was variously known as Patapalo (peg-leg), or Medio-hombre (half-man) for the many wounds he supposedly received in battle. Considered one of the greatest commanders and strategists in the Spanish navy, in 1704 he lost his leg at the battle of Velez-Malaga; a few years later out came his left eye at the siege of Santa Catherine castle; later still, one of his arms was left behind at the battle of Barcelona. During his distinguished military career he apparently laid siege to the port city of Genoa, captured north African cities lost to the Ottoman Empire, and slaughtered a number of pirates along the coast of South America. Having participated in 22 battles during his military career his most successful action was most probably the defence of Cartagena de Indias from an attack by British forces in 1741.
The battle of Cartagena de Indias was the most significant of the War of Jenkin’s Ear (which lasted from 1739 to 1748) and was one of the largest naval campaigns in British history. Following the breakdown of trade agreements between Britain and Spain, the decision to mount a major West Indies expedition was agreed in the British parliament in December of 1739, with the objective of capturing the four Caribbean ports controlled by Spain – Havana (Cuba), Santa Cruz (Mexico), Cartagena (Colombia) and Portobello (Panama) – and thereby seriously undermining the Spanish exchequer. After seizing Portobello the British fleet, under the direct command of Vice-Admiral Edward Vernon, made for Cartagena. But news of such a large expeditionary force had long ago come to the attention of Blas de Lezo, who had been appointed commanding general of Cartagena in 1737, and he planned his defences accordingly. His military force of 6,000 men at arms was massively outnumbered by the British, which included 180 ships, 2000 canon and 28,000 men. On the 13th March the British naval guns began pounding de Lezo’s harbour defences. Despite being wounded in the arm and the thigh the Spanish admiral fought as tenaciously as ever, though he was forced to scuttle his ships and retreat his forces to the fort. Sure that the battle was already won Vernon dispatched positive news back to London: Cartagena would fall in days. Except the fighting was far from over. Breaking through the harbour defences the British made successive attacks against the fort, but neither Vernon’s marines, nor his contingent of machete-wielding Jamaican slaves, were able to breach the Spanish defences. As the campaign dragged on more and more of the British forces succumbed to fever, the Bay of Cartagena gradually filling with the casualties of battle, malaria, cholera, dysentery and scurvy. On the 20th April Vernon launched a desperate attack, allowing de Lezo his moment of glory. After repelling the British yet again, de Lezo ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge the retreating forces, slaughtering 800 of them and taking prisoner a further 1,000. With the British resolve destroyed Vernon began withdrawing on the 28th April – he had lost 50 ships and 18,000 men, half of them to disease. It was a disaster on such a scale that when the story of defeat reached London King George II banned the news from ever being revealed to the public. Four months after Vernon’s retreat Blas de Lezo died of his wounds.
The streets of Cartagena
(Source material: Wikipedia)