Piracy – kicking ass on the high seas, plundering, sinking merchant ships, and then sauntering back into port to squander all your hard-earned pieces of eight on drunk syphilis-infected wenches – is one of the historical professions most widely-recognized as being totally badass. It's something that basically everybody can get on board with. Everyone, that is, except the Spanish.
You see, all that rape and pillage stuff is decidedly less desirable when you're the one getting raped and pillaged, and for most of the Golden Age of Piracy it was Spain's galleons and doubloons getting forcibly confiscated in the name of some other random European crown. The Spanish had done a damned impressive job of conquering a massive, formidable continent-spanning empire and milking it for enough valuable metal to give a set of gold teeth to the Martian Face, and they didn't really appreciate a bunch of dirty gringos dishing out sail-by shootings, murdering their people and making off with all their hard-earned shit. Sometimes there wasn't much they could do about it – government-sponsored privateers (not to mention formal enemy navies) were pretty adept at taking whatever they could by force of violence and they weren't exactly interested in going easy on the Spanish just because they'd done all the hard work of exploiting the natives for valuable resources. But every once in a while, a man would rise up – a guy like the insanely-hardcore one-armed, one-eyed, one-legged Admiral Don Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta – and kick his awesome-looking peg leg so far into those buccaneers' rectums that they'd be picking splinters out of their teeth for months. But Blas de Lezo was even more than that – this guy was so crotch-destroyingly awesome that not only did he whip the dicks off of the navies of four European powers and destroy squadrons of pirate ships, but he also commanded the Spanish military in the most dominant ass-pounding suffered by the British Admiralty in the 18th century.
Blas de Lezo was born in the northeastern Spanish port town of Pasaia. The son of a shipmaster and one in a line of great Basque sailors, Blas grew up wandering around the docks, learning how to work on old-school sailing ships, and hanging out in super-salty dive bars listening the badass tales of adventure from grizzled old mariners. Looking to get involved in some of that pants-crappingly sweet adventure-ness on the Spanish Main (and hopefully to throat-punch the bitch-hole enemies of the Spanish Crown in the process), Blas enlisted in the navy as a midshipman and set sail for a lifetime of nautical awesomeness.
De Lezo's early career reads much like that of much-beloved (and similarly undeniably-badass) British Mega-Hero Lord Admiral Sir Doctor Horatio Nelson S. Preston, Esquire. And by that, I mean that his life as a junior officer was a non-stop series of battles where this guy went completely balls to the wall in the heat of battle, did something awesome, mangled himself in the process, got promoted, and ended up leaving some generally-vital part of his body rotting on the battlefield. During the numerous battles following the War of Spanish succession, Blas de Lezo fought against the English, French, Dutch, and Austrians, all with similar results. At the battle of Gibraltar in 1704 he was hit in the left leg by a cannon and had it amputated at the knee, reportedly without anesthesia, and without making a single utterance of pain. In 1707 he lost his left eye during fighting around Toulon. In 1710 he commanded a Spanish frigate that boarded and captured a much-larger British warship (something that was virtually head-burstingly unheard of at the time), but, since he didn't lose any limbs in the process of that particular mission, he made up for it in Barcelona in 1713 when he got an arm blown off by a blast of grapeshot while assaulting a beach in an amphibious assault. It's worth noting that his violent disarmament even stop him – he went on to destroy the enemy fleet by lighting a bunch of his own ships on fire and sending them into the middle of the enemy formation, torching the entire enemy navy apart. Sure, he kind of ripped this idea off from Francis Drake, but, interestingly enough, it turned out that incinerating people with raging floating inferno boats was just as effective in 1713 as it was in 1588.
Awesomely enough, despite all of these horrific wounds, Blas de Lezo kept on serving his kingdom on the front lines. He was so tough he didn't wear an eye patch or a hook hand, just letting his physical manglings hang out there for everyone to see. For mobility and badassitude purposes he did go out and get the hook-up on a totally sweet wooden leg, a badge of honor that led to his men affectionately-referring to him as "Captain Peg Leg". His popularity for naval heroism was so great that when King Philip V decided to get married to the Princess of Parma, it was Blas de Lezo's duty to personally command the ship that picked up the Princess and carried her to Spain. This was cool but boring.
Captain Blas bounced around for a while after that. First he went to the Spanish Main, where he battled pirates across South America and the Caribbean, capturing eleven Dutch- and British-sponsored privateer vessels and recovering over three million Pesos worth of goods and wealth. After marrying a hot Peruvian babe, he took some time off to go sack the city of Genoa and beat the fuckballs out of some Barbary Coast pirates in North Africa, including a battle when he crushed an Algerian ruler's imposing naval fortress and captured the guy's capital city. When the Algerian dude returned with a huge navy, Blas de Lezo not only beat the attack off, but he personally pursued the enemy flagship, cornered it in a small inlet, and pummeled it with cockload of flaming cannonballs until its gunpowder store ignited and the entire ship blew up so hard you could see the explosion from space. Or, at least, you would have been able to if there were people in space in the 1700s. I think. Either way, the Algerian ruler died in the explosion, and that part is undebatable.
Admiral de Lezo was a 39-year veteran of like a dozen wars when he was appointed naval commander of the South American port city of Cartagena in 1740. Located in present-day Colombia, Cartagena was the second-most prestigious city in the Spanish Main (only Havana was wealthier), and a major hub for the Spanish treasure fleets that enjoyed ferrying mule-loads of gold from Peru to Barcelona all day every day. Being the commander of the fort there was kind of a sweet gig.
Not long after Blas got to what was supposed to be a cushy retirement gig, however, Admiral Peg Leg quickly realized that he wasn't going to have a whole hell of a lot of time to chill out on the beach with bikini babes sipping Margaritas and Sangria. That's because in the Winter of 1740, the well-known jackass British Admiral Edward Vernon sailed into the Caribbean with a huge-as-fuck fleet consisting of over 200 ships. He had come to the New World to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and bubble gum had not been invented yet.
Vernon's first dick move was to attack the Spanish city of Puerto Bello, Panama, burn the town, plunder it, and then write a total asshole letter to Blas de Lezo telling him that Cartagena was the next town to feel the punishing thrust of his ass-humping stick. Admiral Blas responded with a fairly politely-worded note:
"If I had been in Puerto Belo you would not have assaulted the fortresses of my master the King with impunity, because I could have supplied the valour the defenders of Puerto Belo lacked, and checked their cowardice."
(Translation: Bring it.)
In February 1740 the Spanish garrison at Cartagena had just 4,000 men, a couple hundred coastal guns, and six functional warships. Blas de Lezo's meager force was facing Admiral Vernon's armada of 30,000 British and Colonial American soldiers, 51 full-on warships, and over 130 armed troop transports. To put the cherry on top of his Douchebag Banana Split, Vernon was such a throbbing, overconfident assface that before the battle even started he coined a bronze victory medal that he handed out to his men – it was a picture of the one-legged Spanish Admiral kneeling before the British commander, surrendering his sword. That's a pretty ballsy thing to have minted before you've even fired a single gunshot. I can't make out the text on the medal (pictured below), but I'm fairly sure it's supposed to read, "We totally pantsed this guy like a bitch and spanked his booty with our giant iron cannonballs."
Now sure, Blas had proven his worth against privateer ships, and had more than demonstrated his ability to sacrifice limbs for victories, but he was rapidly running out of appendages and the British Fucking Navy wasn't exactly a bunch of disorderly pirate scalawag chumps who would betray their own mothers for a cask of rum and a warm-bodied wench. These guys rightfully-earned a hardcore reputation for being the toughest, best equipped, and most well-trained gunners and sailors in the world. At the risk of continuing my never-ending streak of including at least one Star Wars reference in every single post I've ever written, in terms of fleet strength this was like the Rebel cruisers facing off against the Imperials in the space above Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi. The fact that this analogy equates Blas de Lezo to Admiral Ackbar only makes this more awesome.
One notable difference, however, was that in Cartagena in 1740 it was Admiral Blas de Lezo who would be lying in wait with a devious strategy, and the British commander who would have the camera zoom in on his face just in time for him to yell, "IT'S A TRAP". You see, Blas knew that the British land forces wouldn't press their attack on the city until the outer forts were destroyed by the navy, so in an effort to prolong the battle as much as possible he made every effort to continually delay the onset of the British fleet. Despite being outnumbered by more than eight-to-one, Blas launched delaying, hit-and-run attacks on the fleet, standing his ground with his eight warships, striking, and then falling back. Whenever he captured enemy ships, he sailed them into the middle of the only deep draft channel that led to Cartagena Harbor – the Boca Chica – and scuttled the captured vessels. The sunken boats created a barrier that made it hard for the British to pass, slowing down their blitz attack and temporarily boning them in the Boca Chica Bow Wow kind of sense.
As you can probably imagine, however, you're not going to do a whole shitload of good against 51 ships-of-the-line when you've only got eight boats under your command. Blas de Lezo wasn't able to hold out forever. The British eventually dragged the sunken wrecks out of the Boca Chica, destroyed or captured all of the Spanish vessels, sent de Lezo's captured Admiral Flag back to London as a trophy, and poured into Caragena harbor with a fleet of amphibious transports. Shit looked pretty bleak.
But despite things being pretty much hopelessly fucked beyond any chance of un-fucking, Blas de Lezo refused to let Cartagena fall. Personally leading his men into combat, de Lezo and his cannons, fortresses, and men went completely batshit nuts. It was like the military equivalent of the time when I was 29 and I discovered I liked avocados all of a sudden, and then I spent the next four months shoveling bucketloads of guacamole into my face like all day every day. The Spaniards shot cannons and muskets all day long, pounded 4Lokos all night to keep their buzz going, and then switched back to Red Bull when the sun came back up. They repelled amphibious assaults, land attacks, coastal ship attacks, and any other kind of attack the British could come up with, delaying the siege until the bitch of a Columbian rainy season set in and started dumping a few thousand metric ass-loads of rain and malaria-infected mosquitos on the British army. Once the powder got wet and the invaders' circulatory systems were loaded up with yellow fever and other bullshit, the Brits and Americans couldn't really do a whole lot except crap themselves to death with dysentery and other tropical diseases. The fighting slowly tapered off, and in May of 1741 – fifteen months after Vernon's first cannonade was directed at the defenders of Cartagena – the British commander ran out of clean underwear and headed back home. Vernon limped back to England with just 3,200 men, roughly a tenth of his initial force. Those "Victory at Cartegena" medals became collector's items, and Blas de Lezo responded to the news of the British defeat by running onto the parapet facing the ocean and using his one good hand to make the side-to-side 'you can't see me" hand gesture that has made John Cena so famous. Cartegena – the jewel of the Spanish Empire in the Americas – remained intact thanks to Admiral Peg-Leg. Spain's American holdings would go on to flourish for nearly another half-century.
The Spanish Navy's greatest hero, Admiral Don Blas de Lezo, died just four months after Vernon's withdrawal. He'd been shot in his good arm, and, probably unwilling to have a third of his four appendages amputated, decided "fuck it" and died of the infected bullet wound. Nobody knows where he ended up being buried, but to this day the city he so boldly defended is appropriately adorned with statues of its hero.
Blas de Lezo
Siege of Cartagena 1741
Carr, James Revell. Seeds of Discontent. Bloomsbury, 2009.
Harbron, John D. Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy. Naval Institute Press, 1988.
Newton, Paula. Columbia. Viva Publishing Network, 2009.
Steward, William. Admirals of the World. McFarland, 2009.