Born for the Seas and Honor: Examining the Modest Life of the Spanish Navy Officer, Casto Mendez Nunez
The history of Spain is full of great stories about the brave sailors and won sea battles. One of the important players in these tales comes in the form of Casto Mendez Nunez.
Casto Mendez Nunez was born in 1824 in Vigo, Galicia. He grew up in a small city near the Atlantic Ocean. His childhood took place during the decade in which Spain lost many of its colonies as the navy was not able to defend them.
Casto passed his midshipman exams at age 16 and began his practice as a sailor on board the brig “Nervion”. He was passionate with the sea and at this stage of life he felt better on the ship than on land.
His first trips provided him the opportunity to prove his worth as a sailor and as a solider. During one of the battles he took part in, he fought for the freedom of refugees who traveled by a small transport ship. It was on its way to Argentina, which was ruled by the dictatorship of Juan Manuel de Rosas. During this fight, Casto said his first significant words known in history: “The first who dares to put his hand on a Spanish sword will fall down pierced”. The enemies left with empty hands and Mendez Nunez became a hero for the first time.
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Portrait of Casto Méndez Núñez ( Public Domain )
A Modest Man
In 1843, he was part of the Spanish expedition that took possession of the island on the west coast of Africa. His next destination was a military expedition from Cuba to Puerto Plata, the city where the Spanish garrison had been harassed.
A few years later, at age 37, Mendez Nunez showed his modest nature and naval expertise in letters to his family - he barely mentioned his victories and tough battles. He experienced the way of life he wanted, far from the monotony in which most people lived. In his letters he was grateful for even the smallest gifts he experienced from the world. He was happy about the weather, a day well spent - every good moment. He was a very humble and generous person who always sought to bring joy to his homeland and gifts to his loved ones.
In 1865, he was given command of the armored frigate Numancia, with which he would perform his most famous exploits. Numancia was the first battleship that sailed around the world. It was built in 1863 with all the advances available at the time. It was all iron. Until then, most ships were still made of wood. The ship measured 90 meters (295.3 feet) long, had three masts, and was armed with 34 canons.
Illustration of the armored frigate Numancia. ( Public Domain )
On board the battleship he made a trip to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan. At that time it was the most dangerous place for navigating. The ship departed from Cadiz on February 4, 1865 and arrived in Montevideo on March 13. He left from the Uruguayan capital on April 2, and eight days later began the journey through the Strait of Magellan. He arrived to Callao in western Peru on May 5.
The Battle of Callao
In early April 1866, Spain's relations with Peru and Chile became very tense. Mendez Nunez received an order to break hostilities and attack the port of Valparaiso. Before they started the attack, Mendez Nunez warned the civilian population to be evacuated: in four days, 40,000 people left the city. After the battle, Mendez Nunez decided to attack the heart of the Peruvian coastal defense: the port of Callao, fortified by English and Polish engineers and packed with artillery.
It was on May 2, 1866. However, the port of Callao was much better fortified than Valparaiso. Its coastal forts had 90 cannons and the estuary was littered with explosive devices. Despite the danger of attack, Mendez Nunez did not hesitate to carry out military action. On May 2, 1866, the Spanish started to fire. The frigate Numancia was the first to be reached, and the admiral himself suffered several shrapnel wounds in the legs and side.
William Gibbons "Valparaíso Chile during the bombardment by the admiral Méndez Núñez" ( Public Domain )
The battle lasted for the entire day and resulted in reducing the fortifications of an enemy. The Pacific Squadron came out with all their ships for the attack, although several of them became badly damaged. The result of that campaign was disclosed with this dramatic phrase attached to it: "It's better to have an honor without ships than ships without honor."
That battle ended without winners or losers. The South American war itself ended with no clear winner. Nowadays, Peruvians have claimed victory because the Spaniards had to leave. They suggest that their fortifications allowed them to defeat the attack.
During the Callao battle the civilian population did not suffer. Due to Spanish decisions, many lives were left unharmed. Despite this, Mendez Nunez never saw himself as a hero. To him, it was a matter of honor as a solider. He was always loyal to his country, soldiers, and rules in life.
An artist's depiction of the battle of Callao. ( Public Domain )
Goodbye to the Honorable Admiral
Later, Mendez Nunez was promoted to lieutenant general, but refused this grace. He was appointed vice president of the Provisional Governing Board of the Navy by decree of the Provisional Government dated October 20, 1868, and through another decree of March 9, 1869 to the Vice Admiralty - the position he carried until his death. He went back to Galicia and to his family. Casto was married and had a few children.
Casto Mendez Nunez died in 1868 at age 45 in Pontevedra, Galicia. Doctors attributed his death to wounds received during the battle in Callao, the port where he pronounced a phrase that passed him on to become a Spanish national character. His remains were buried in the family manor of the center, in Moaña, Pontevedra.
In May 1883, with a decree signed by King Alfonso XII, the bones were transferred to the Pantheon of Illustrious Sailors in Cadiz. The last journey of the hero of Callao took him back to the Atlantic from the coast of Galicia to Cadiz, on board a ship that was called with the meaningful name ''Loyalty''.
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Plaza of Méndez Núñez and the house of Cruz y Montenegro. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Featured image: The fall of Casto Méndez Núñez in May 2 nd, 1866 ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
José Ramón García Martínez, Méndez Núñez (1824-1869) y La Campaña del Pacífico (1862-1869), 2000.
José Filgueíra Valverde, Día de la Hispanidad. En el centenario de Méndez Núñez, 1969.
José Ramón García Martínez, El Combate del 2 de mayo de 1866 en el Callao (Resultados y conclusiones tácticas y técnicas),1994.