Don Blas de Lezo
History is made of good and bad stories, hopefully more true than not. But when I see something or someone vastly left out of history, it makes me want to use my little and limited knowledge of good writing skills to try to do something about it. This particular someone is Don Blas de Lezo (1688-1741). Spain's (Basque) Admiral served his country skillfully and fought battles fifty years before England's well known admiral Horatio Nelson. He fought his best battles physically handicapped with only one eye, one arm, and one leg. It is known that he did not tolerate cowardice.
In 1704 he lost his left leg during the battle of Velez-Malaga (Gibralter). A few years later as a lieutenant in the navy he lost his left eye during a siege of the Castle of Santa Catharine in the port of Toulon, France. In 1713 he underwent an arm amputation at Barcelona in battle. In each battle he left a piece of himself in exchange for a little glory. Before the war ended in 1713, de Lezo rose as one of the brandest young officers in the fleet. He was so brave he almost lost his life on two occasions during bold attacks. It is stated in Spanish archives of royalty when de Lezo's mangled body was seen, he was more appropriate to preside over scenes of terror than to adorn the retinue of a queen.
In 1716 he was appointed to senior rank of captain and command of the sixty-gun ship "Lanfranco", his first navio. Before being assigned to the "Lanfranco", he was given command of a small frigate, and he captured the heavily armed English ship, "Stanhope", an East-Indiaman privateer. This battle is shown in a painting which an embarassed England has to see the partially dismasted "Stanhope" under tow by de Lezo's little frigate with the cream-colored flag bearing the coat of arms of Spanish bourbons flying over the red ensign of the captured English ship. For the next fourteen years, de Lezo spent continuous sea service along the west coast of South America. He exterminated piracy in epidemic stages there. When war broke out in 1727 against England, de Lezo captured six English and six Dutch heavily armed ships carrying cargos worth millions.
During a well deserved leave from South America, de Lezo went to Cadiz, Spain, to be in charge of a Mediterranean squadron. In 1731 he took six war ships (navios) to the Republic of Genoa to tell the leading officials of the two million in currency of the era the Genoan government still owed Spain. However, they did not want to pay. He demanded surrender of funds and a salute to the Spanish flag or, pointing to his timepiece, he said that at a stated time he would raise the city and turn it to ashes. After hearing what he had to say, the officials voted to give Spain's money back to him and to salute the flag. After receiving the money he immediately sailed away.
After this service he went to battle against the Islamic Algerians of North Africa, and also battered them into submission, though costly to his forces.
Now was England's turn. She sent the largest military and naval force of that time (thirty thousand troops and sailors as well as one hundred and twenty ships) to the Caribbean and was very successful until meeting de Lezo at Cartagena, Colombia in 1740. Failure to take Cartagena was the largest and worst defeat suffered by England at the hands of the Spanish in the eighteenth century. England used American colonists with Lawrence Washington, brother of George, commanding 2,763 marines and also 2,000 Jamaican macheteros against the massively outnumbered Spaniards. De Lezo's forces might have totalled 6,000 troops and a very much smaller fleet protecting the harbor. Malaria and dysentary set in on both sides during the siege and made things much worse than what would have been.
Don Blas de Lezo accounted for the English defeat. He displayed all qualities in battle; stubborn resolve and sound leadership. England was so confident of victory that Admiral Vernon beforehand had many bronze medals struck to commemorate the event. They show the eventual victor, de Lezo, kneeling to the defeated Admiral Vernon (kind of hard to do with one leg, huh??). By the way, I believe the medal shows de Lezo with two legs.
After Vernon had taken Portobelo in 1739 with relative ease (because there were more civilians than troops there), he set sail with his invading force destined for Cartagena. The English were very cautious of de Lezo when put on the offensive, but the braggart Vernon in misjudgement wrote de Lezo a letter and a challenge. He answered Vernon's letter in Cartagena: "If I had been in Portebelo, you would not have assaulted the fortress of my master, the King, with impunity because I could have supplied the valor the defenders of Portebelo lacked and checked their cowardice..." It is known Admiral Vernon left Cartagena in bitter defeat and embarassment in 1741 sailing back to England for showers of a hero's welcome.
In all, Blas de Lezo had 39 years of superior sea duty that the best Englishmen would be jealous of, even the much heralded Admiral Nelson. In ending this history note, the badly defeated Admiral Vernon was vindicated and was later entombed with other British heroes at West Minister Abby. The tough, victorious Basque from Spain has no known grave. His wasted worn out body with tropical disease finally gave out on September 7, 1741, in the city he saved.
When England's Admiral Nelson made his famous but unjustified remark in 1793 that the DONS knew how to make ships and not men, he had left out one truly brilliant Spanish naval hero, Don Blas de Lezo, an equal to any Englishmen who ever sailed the high seas in a SHIP OF THE LINE UNDER FULL SAIL.
I also read fairly recently an article in World Coin News by Thomas H. Sebring, April 1998 issue, in which he mentions de Lezo "escaping" England's Admiral Vernon. Well it would be like two prize fighters in a boxing ring where the underdog knocks out the champion, and later the champion after waking up saying "the guy that knocked me out escaped!"
There was not much information about de Lezo in English texts. I had to look in Spanish references for translations. Also there is some new info about England's disaster in Cartagena which has surfaced in recent years. Naturally, England will not publish it. They are still not up to giving this man his just dues to this day. I hope by printing this account I have helped history in some way.
James Eley July 24, 1998
Updated: January 4, 2004
I needed to insert this information long overdue on this page. My intentions with this page on my site was to inform the public all over the world about this man. Now as I look on the internet I do notice the interest he has generated. Today I have to say this "History Page" is ranked second to my "Home Page", all my other pages are overshadowed by "Don Blas de Lezo." When I first posted this page on my site I did not find anything about this interesting man anywhere on the internet. So that was the main reason for doing this. I thank all others who have joined with me on getting him this needed recognition. Who knows, some day there might be a movie about him but finding a qualified actor would be difficult. He would need these qualifications. One arm, one eye, and one leg, plus be able to act.
Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy by John D. Harbron
Archives of the Spanish Society of Ophtamology by Noguera Palau
Vernon in Cartagena 1741 New Data By Gustavo Vargas Martinez
World Coin News 4-98 issue, by Thomas H. Sebring
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