The Last Voyage of the Mercedes

By Naval Museum

Museo Naval de Madrid

Explore the fascinating story of the Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes frigate. The sinking of this ship with its cargo of treasure was the prelude to the Battle of Trafalgar and marked the end of the peace agreement between Spain and England.

The Mercedes Frigate

In 1804 a flotilla of 4 Spanish Royal Navy frigates was transporting treasure and produce from the Viceroyalty of Peru when it was attacked, without a declaration of war, by a British flotilla off the coast of the Algarve in Portugal. One of the frigates, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, exploded and sank, along with its cargo.

Battle in the Bay of Algeciras (First quarter of 19th century) by Antonio González GallegoOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The situation in Spain in around 1800 was complex. As a result of its offensive-defensive alliance with the Executive Directory of the French Republic, Spain had been at war with England since 1796. This conflict had continued while the Spanish Navy was in a state of decline.

The Treaty of Amiens, signed in 1802 between England and France, and their allies, put an end to the conflict. However, the peace was short-lived as England rekindled its alliances with other powers, with the intention of overthrowing Napoleon.

View of the Town of Ferrol with English Troops Disembarking on Doniños Beach (1800) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The Mercedes frigate took part in various battles against the English, with victories on both sides.

It was part of the defense of Ferrol in 1800, successfully preventing the English from destroying the ships that were anchored there as well as the naval base itself.

Building the Model of the 34-Gun Frigate "Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes" (2012 - 2014) by Miguel Godoy Sánchez / José Antonio Álvarez Manzanares / Francisco Tamayo Fernández / Francisco Fernández GonzálezOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

Last Voyage of the Mercedes Frigate

Goods and money were essential for maintaining the status quo. Manuel Godoy, the first Secretary of State to the Spanish monarch Charles IV, and Supreme Commander of the Army and the Navy, decreed that wealth from the Americas should be transported to Spain in warships.

Surrender by the English at Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1848) by Nicolás Alfaro y BrievaOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The English made several attempts to intercept treasure and Spanish goods en route from the Americas.

In 1797, for example, Vice Admiral Nelson of the British Royal Navy attempted to capture the Princesa frigate.

Defeated by General Gutiérrez, the English signed a capitulation in Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

Building the Model of the 34-Gun Frigate "Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes" (2012 - 2014) by Miguel Godoy Sánchez / José Antonio Álvarez Manzanares / Francisco Tamayo Fernández / Francisco Fernández GonzálezOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

In 1801 the frigate Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes set sail from Ferrol with the Santa Clara, later joining the Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, which had set sail from Cadiz, on a voyage to Montevideo.

Domingo Pérez de Grandallana y Sierra (First half of 19th century) by Lino GarcíaOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

Domingo Pérez de Grandallana

As Secretary of State and of the Office of the Navy between 1802 and 1805, Grandallana would become a key figure in the investigation into the discovery made by the company Odyssey Marine Exploration.

In 1802 Manuel Godoy wrote to inform him that there were large quantities of treasure in Lima that could easily be transported in "a few warships." In the letter, he remarked that, "the Clara and Mercedes frigates have therefore been dispatched to Lima for the treasure".

Royal Decree of Minister of the Navy Domingo de Grandallana (1802) by Domingo Pérez de Grandallana y SierraOriginal Source: Archivo General de la Marina "Álvaro de Bazán".

The Álvaro de Bazán General Archive of the Navy has in its collections a Royal Order signed by Domingo de Grandallana, ordering the preparation of the Clara and Mercedes warships in response to Manuel Godoy's request.

It clearly states that the Mercedes frigate should be included in the expedition.

Royal Naval Ordinance for the Service of His Majesty's Vessels (1802) by Royal PrintingOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

In 1802 Grandallana signed the new Naval Ordinance for the service of His Majesty's vessels.

This ordinance would determine the voyage and fate of the Mercedes.

It set out the appointment of Diego de Alvear y Ponce de León as second-in-command and major general, with his subsequent transfer to the Medea, the General Statements on the frigates, their flags, the decision to engage in combat, and more.

José de Bustamante y Guerra (19th century) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The officer and Governor of Montevideo, José Bustamante y Guerra, took command of the fleet carrying treasure and produce on the return to Spain, while Jose Manuel Goycoa y Labart commanded the Mercedes.

Undress Uniform of a Captain in the Spanish Royal Navy (19th century) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

Royal Navy captain's uniform, according to the ordinances of 1802.

Map of the Naval Base at Callao, Lima (1801) by José de Moraleda y MonteroOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The Viceroy of Peru, Gabriel Miguel de Avilés y del Fierro, delayed the flotilla's departure for Spain until he could be sure that the route was safe, because of the continuing war between England and France, in which Spain remained neutral.

Model of the 38-Gun Frigate the "Medea", Unknown, 1797 - 1804, Original Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.
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In Montevideo, they joined the Medea and Astrea frigates, finally setting sail for Spain on August 9, 1804.

Maritime Atlas of Spain—Cape Santa Maria (1789) by Vicente Tofiño de San Miguel y Van der WalleOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Biblioteca.

Meeting of the Flotillas

England maintained a policy of harassment towards Spain because of its alliance with France.

In 1804, after receiving intelligence from a British diplomat in Spain, the British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, devised a plan to intercept the Spanish flotilla returning from the Americas, laden with riches.

Life-Sized Recreation of a Section of the Half Deck on the Frigate "Mercedes" (2014) by Taller de carpintería del Museo Naval de MadridOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

This life-size recreation of a section of the half deck on the Mercedes shows a 12-pounder cannon - one of 26 used in combat against the English.

Cannonball for Muzzle-Loading Cannon (Beginnings of 19th century) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

The cannons fired solid iron cannon balls that pierced the wooden hulls of enemy ships, causing wooden splinters and shrapnel to fly around the deck.

This was what actually caused the majority of wounds and casualties in naval battles.

Spanish Bar Shot (End of 19th century) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

This Spanish-style bar shot consists of 2 balls joined by a bar, unlike the French and English versions.

It was a type of projectile with a range of one third of a cannon ball, making it the perfect weapon for shorter distances.

Regulation Pistol of the Spanish Royal Navy, Unknown, 1801 - 1807, Original Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.
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As well as cannons, other types of weapon were used in combat such as pistols, rifles, blunderbusses, and swords.

Spanish Flintlock Blunderbuss, Unknown, Second half of 18th century, Original Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.
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Copy of ''The Star'' Newspaper, No. 4,901 (1804) by UnknownOriginal Source: Archivo General de la Marina "Álvaro de Bazán".

The English newspaper "The Star" published a report on the English attack on the Spanish frigate.

This was reported to Manuel Godoy by the Captain General of the Department of Ferrol, Félix de Tejada.

The Battle of Cape Santa Maria and the Explosion of the "Mercedes" (1854) by José Ferrer de Couto y José March y Labores. J.J. Martínez, lit.Original Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Biblioteca.

Following the English attack on the Spanish flotilla in which the Mercedes perished, Spain could no longer maintain its neutrality.

As a result, on December 14 of the same year, it declared war on the United Kingdom.

The attack would come to be understood as the prelude to the Battle of Trafalgar.

Atlas Marítimo de España (1789) by Vicente Tofiño de San MiguelOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid. Biblioteca

Construction of the Mercedes Frigate

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries the navies of Spain, France, and England underwent dramatic changes in terms of their size, the caliber of their artillery, and the number of ships they had.

Portuguese Compass Box (XVIII-XIX century) by Arcenal do ExercitoOriginal Source: Museo Naval Madrid.

Box of compasses and measures used in naval engineering to design ships.

José Romero y Fernández de Landa (18th century) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid.

José Romero y Fernández de Landa was the first Naval Engineer of the Spanish Royal Navy.

He designed plans for various 2- and 3-deck 'ships of the line', and for frigates that took part in the great naval battles of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, such as the Battles of Cape Santa Maria and Trafalgar.

Model of the 34-Gun Frigate "Santa Casilda" (ca. 1990) by Baldomero Bellón GonzálezOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid

Fernández de Landa signed the plans for a 34-gun frigate in Ferrol, which followed the French and English innovation of enlarging its gun decks compared with previous designs.

This model of a 34-gun frigate was used in the construction of the Mercedes frigate.

13-Arroba (25-Pound) Barrel (18th century) by UnknownOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid

"Treasure" of the Mercedes

When carrying out its task of transporting goods to Spain, the Mercedes frigate was laden with more than 2 million pesos in coins and over 2 million in silver and gold, as well as plants, various animal skins, cutlery, kitchen equipment, and 2 cannons.

'Pipas' - barrels - were used for transporting all kinds of liquids such as water, wine, or liquor.

1,001 8-Real Silver Coins from the Frigate "Mercedes", 1803, Original Source: Museo Nacional de Arqueología Subacuática. ARQUA. Cartagena, Murcia.
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This set of coins was the most highly prized, both by the English in 1804 and later by the North American company Odyssey Marine Exploration.

Most of them were pieces of silver in denominations of 8 reales, minted in around 1803 during the reign of Charles IV.

There were also silver coins in denominations of 1, 2, and 4 reales.

Two Golden 8-Escudo Coins from the Frigate "Mercedes", 1803, Original Source: Museo Nacional de Arqueología Subacuática. ARQUA. Cartagena, Murcia.
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The cargo of the Mercedes also included gold coins in denominations of 8 escudos, although there were more silver coins.

Building the Model of the Frigate "Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes" (2012 - 2014) by AnónimoOriginal Source: Museo Naval. Madrid

The Price of the Mercedes: Reason in the Face of Plunder

The Mercedes and her cargo remained under the sea until, in 2007, the North American treasure-hunting company Odyssey Marine Exploration discovered and plundered the frigate and her contents.

Following years of litigation, the nearly 500,000 coins taken from the wreck finally joined the permanent collections of the National Museum of Underwater Archaeology in Cartagena (ARQUA).

As a result, Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes became an example of protecting underwater cultural heritage.

Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes, a state shipNaval Museum

The Battle of Cape Santa Maria and the Explosion of the "Mercedes" (1854) by José Ferrer de Couto y José March y Labores. J.J. Martínez, lit.Original Source: Museo Naval. Madrid. Biblioteca.

The sinking of the Mercedes frigate, and her discovery, plundering, and subsequent recovery show the importance of research, conservation, and education in cultural heritage, and particularly underwater cultural heritage, which is constantly vulnerable to looting.

Spain's rich underwater archaeological heritage, which is protected by the Law on Spanish Historical Heritage and the 2001 UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, is fundamental to understanding the country's history.

The authorities have an obligation to conserve it and pass it on to society through cooperation and collaboration.

Credits: Story

Organized by
Museo Naval de Madrid (Naval Museum of Madrid)

Sponsors
Comisión Nacional Española de Recuperación (National Spanish Recovery Commission) with UNESCO
Fundación Museo Naval (Naval Museum Foundation)
Navantia
Vilmaoil
TAISA
UTI
confemetal
TECNOBIT

Curated by
Susana García Ramírez

Online adaptation
Naval Museum Communications Department
Xián Rodríguez, Alicia Suárez
Based on the exhibition The Last Voyage of the Mercedes Frigate: Reason in the Face of Plunder at the Naval Museum of Madrid.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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