Ribadeo is anchored on the western shore of a lush green estuary. In 1989, the Lugo municipality expanded the docks of its small port, which modified the coastline and the marine currents that entered this estuary shared by Galicia and Asturias.
The unexpected force of the waters during the tides began to pierce the sandy bottom and in 2011 some disconcerting volcanic stones surfaced never seen before and some ceramic objects that did not correspond to the traditional ones of the area.
The Museum of Man in Paris soon determined that the rocks came from distant Vesuvius (Naples, Italy), which allowed the archaeologists to realize what they were up against: they were the ballast that was placed in the holds of the galleons to maintain their stability. The San Giacomo di Galizia, the best-preserved 16th-century warship in the world, had just been located just eight meters deep.
Ten years later, and after five campaigns of excavation and data collection, the last in June, the secrets of the captain of the squad that attempted the assault on England in 1597 begin to be revealed to the admiration of the specialists led by the archaeologist Miguel Saint Claudius.
They come from the universities of Texas (USA), Nova de Lisboa (Portugal), Trinity Saint David (Wales), Valencia, the Institute of Nautical Archeology of Texas, the CSIC, and the Maritime Archeology Trust of Southampton(UK).
And that despite the fact that the budget to bring the giant of the seas back to light is meager: 15,000 euros this year, which the University of Texas has put on the deck to extract the secrets of a galleon that carried 91,000 gold ducats (120 million euros at the current exchange rate) to buy wills in the enemy camp.
Only the help and support of the Spanish Navy – each campaign of the military diving team is valued at 18,000 euros, although they do so altruistically -, the Association of Friends of the Ribadeo Galleon, the Xunta de Galicia, the Real Club Náutico de Ribadeo, the Center for Underwater Activities of the Coast of Lugo and the City Council, who offer material and human support, allow the work to continue. Fernando Suárez, the mayor, explains it like this: “They are all volunteers. There are no funds from the Galician and national administrations. Little more to say ”.
The first attempted invasion of England, in 1588, failed due to weather conditions. Of the 137 ships that Philip II sent to provoke the rebellion of the Catholics in the Anglican kingdom, 35 did not return. The storm mainly affected ships adapted to navigation in the Mediterranean and which were not prepared for the North Sea.
For this reason, the monarch was given a second chance eight years later, in 1596: a fleet larger than the previous one (196 ships) would try again.
The empire did not have a royal fleet in those years, so Felipe II only had two options: requisition ships or rent them (“seat contract”, it was called at the time). The Croatian Pedro de Avella offered him 12 warships, the squadron of the Republic of Ragusa (Dubrovnik), of which he would be the admiral and who would captain the San Giacomo di Galizia. Initially, the San Jerónimo was to be the captain, but it sank in the waters of Corcubión, on the coast of Death in October 1596.
All those who work here are volunteers because there are no funds from the Galician and national administrations. Little more to say
Fernando Suárez, mayor of Ribadeo
The San Giacomo had – ”it has”, replies San Claudio, “because it is still there” – 34 meters in length and 11 in beam, it moved 1,800 tons (the Santa Maríade Colón was close to 100) and carried a crew of about 500 men, of which 138 were sailors. It was built in the shipyards of Castellammare di Stabia (Naples) by the owner Giovanni di Polo expressly as a warship.
Unlike others of its category, it was lined with a hull much wider than usual (12 centimeters, compared to six) so that its woods could better withstand the barrage of enemy artillery. Analyzes have confirmed that at least part of its planks come from Mount Gargano (in the Italian region of Apulia). The ship was also armed with 40 Italian-made cannons, the most technologically advanced of the time.
There is no doubt that it is the San Giacomo because in the nineteenth century the local historian Fernando Méndez San Julián, who was also a councilor of the municipality, wrote Apuntes de Ribadeo, where he recovered old municipal documents and one of them referred to the arrival of the galleon.
Miguel San Claudio’s team of historians checked the data in the archives of Simancas (Valladolid) and Mondoñedo (Lugo), while the City Council found older records confirming the name. Currently, they are available on the municipal page.
Built-in 1590, the San Giacomo arrived in Lisbon 1595 with its protection squad, but it was not until 1596 that it was able to rejoin the rest of the royal fleet. The Portuguese capital was not the most appropriate port, due to the prevailing northern winds in the summer, for the assault on England.
In fact, 25 of the ships ran aground in their attempt to approach Great Britain and crashed their frames against the northwestern coasts of Galicia. Archaeologists have located five of them in recent years, such as Santa María Anunciada (Finisterre) or San Jerónimo (Corcubión).
The surviving ships regrouped in Ferrol (A Coruña) and in 1597 136 left for Blavet, in French Brittany, in the hands of Felipe II between 1590 and 1598. There, the royal ships were resupplied and repaired.
Prepared for the attack, they left for Cornwall (England) and were located off the coast of the municipality of Falmouth. But again a storm destroyed the fleet, which remained, however, for days “at the cape” waiting for the huge storm to pass. But the damage was enormous and made the final attack impossible.
The route of the San Giacomo di Galizia
Journey carried out by the galleon since it left the Italian shipyards until it sank in the Ribadeo estuary, in Galicia.
Diego Brochero, the general of the Philippine Navy, ordered the return. But his words did not reach all the ships, and several of them landed 400 soldiers on the English shores. The thirds fortified themselves and waited for reinforcements that never arrived. The English, terrified, did not even try to attack them. The road to London was clear. But the rest of the Army was already sailing back to Spain, so the conquerors decided to return.
The San Giacomo, the landing failed, was sailing towards the Peninsula, but on its way, it ran into three Dutch and one British ship in the Bay of Biscay. It dismantled them with the fire of its cannons, put them to flight, and, damaged, resumed the path back home.
Ribadeo was the last safe port on the Cantabrian coast and with sufficient draft before reaching Santander. The galleon, faced with the damage, decided not to risk it and enter the Galician-Asturian estuary on November 11, 1597, but the night fell upon it. The inhabitants of Castropol (Asturias) and Ribadeo, upon seeing him arrive, lit bonfires in the mountains to guide him.
The San Giacomo finally managed to arrive. “The galleon Santiago de Galizia[the San Giacomo] with two other orcas have arrived in Ribadeo, so devastated that it can be had by a miracle, people come badly unemployed and sick from a lot of work they have suffered ”, describes a document from 1597. The council ordered to bake bread to feed the hungry and sick crew.
A letter signed by Admiral Martín Padilla, dated November 16, 1597, is preserved, where he thanks the councilor of the Galician town, for “the service that this town has done to His Majesty, in the help he has given to save the galleon Santiago, which has been very typical of the natives and its neighbor and the government they have ”.
The ship was anchored at the entrance to the estuary, but on November 14 it ran aground due to the “bad governance of its mandators,” according to the owner complained. The continuous rise and fall of the tide for four days ended up breaking the hull and dragged it into the estuary, less than 30 meters from the coast and eight meters were deep.
However, the entire crew reached land and saved the cargo of golden ducats that they kept to buy wills. At that time, in England fearsome persecution was taking place – including torture and deaths – of thousands of Catholics, and the population doubted whether or not to rise up against Queen Elizabeth.
On the outskirts of the urban area of Ribadeo, among a lush pine forest, there is a disused estuary interpretation center that was built with European funds two decades ago. The City Council has given it to researchers to use as a laboratory.
The experts analyze the remains found, among which are stone and iron cannonballs, shoe soles – there are some very small ones that correspond to cabin boys or pages -, numerous vessels of different shapes and colors, bottles, and even wood from the ship.
The latter are kept submerged in water because if they dried they would disintegrate. Water has replaced, over the centuries, the cellulose that compacted them. When removed, the marine fluid will be exchanged for a polymer compound that will retain its shape forever.
Tânia Casimiro, Universidad Nova Lisboa, and specialist in 16th-century European ceramics examines each vessel in detail. Thus he has discovered that among the vessels found under the waters of the estuary, ceramics from the 6th century BC have been extracted, which confirms that Ribadeo – as was believed – was not only a Roman port, but was used since the Age of Iron.
The extraction of the elements and the loading of the ship is only possible thanks to the cooperation of a team made up of about thirty people, among which is the Ferrol Diving Unit of the Navy, which is captained in this campaign by Lieutenant of ship Ángel Lozano. “It is a State ship”, recalls this soldier specialized in diving and explosives deactivation. Marine remains are collected with the utmost care.
The administrative situation of the ship is quite complicated. On the one hand, and with the Maritime Navigation and National Defense laws 5/2005, the responsibility to protect the underwater heritage corresponds to the Ministry of Defense ―the legal owner of the ship as it is a State ship―, but the patrimonial powers are ceded to the Xunta de Galicia.
The City Council can only act up to the sea edge, even if it is within its municipal area. However, the cooperation is total and harmonious. “And that the Xunta is from the PP and I from the Bloc,” jokes the BNG councilor.
Civil experts have divided the estuary into 20 by 20-meter squares. Saint Claudio explains each day, before starting the search, the plan of the day. “We are going to make an eye to the east, where the piers of the bridge are.” All are silent and listen carefully. It resembles a military operation, where everyone knows their mission. Lozano says nothing. Just stare at your team. One look says it all.
Each point where they dive is marked with a GPS system. The military will be in charge of transporting the archaeologists in rigid inflatable boats (RHIB) to the exact place where they will begin the search. Once they arrive, experts and soldiers dive to the bottom of the estuary carrying nets where they will deposit all the objects they find. Another military boat remains as a lookout and removes the tourist sailboats that enter the work area from the area.
Fundamentally, the archaeologists headed by Miguel San Claudio act in two places: at the entrance to the estuary, where the ship anchored for several days until it was swept away by the currents in the estuary, and the place where it finally broke off and ran aground.
In the first, some 300 or 400 meters apart from the second, the crew of the galleon was throwing away objects of daily use that they no longer believed useful. “For them it was garbage; for us, a treasure ”, affirms the research archaeologist from the University of Texas, as he takes out of the sea, with a big smile, clad in a diver’s suit, the half-arroba jugs and dishes that he finds.