Warship Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023: The Electric Angel
Here at LSOZI, we take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1954 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023: The Electric Angel
Above we see the cruzador de 3ª classe São Gabriel of the Royal Portuguese Navy as she rested in San Francisco harbor in April 1910 during her epic 16-month “circumnavegacao” of the globe. A lightly armored protected cruiser roughly more akin to a sloop or large gunboat of the era, she nonetheless marked several important milestones in the country’s naval history.
Portugal’s Modern Navy
While Portugal had one of the world’s best navies in the days of Afonso de Albuquerque, Ferdinand Magellan, and Vasco De Gama, by the late 1890s, the empire was in steep decline. With only about 300 merchant ships carrying the country’s flag– mostly sailing vessels– Portugal did not have a big civilian fleet to protect. What Lisbon did have were lots of overseas possessions such as the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic, African colonies in Guinea, Angola, and Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique), Goa in the Indian Ocean, Timor in the East Indies, and the Chinese enclave of Macau.
To protect this far-flung collection of pearls, Portugal had only several wooden-hulled vessels and the 3,300-ton British-built ironclad Vasco Da Gama (go figure), which was laid down in the 1870s.
Thus, in the early 1890s, the service embarked on a naval expansion and rejuvenation project under the helm of Naval Minister Jacinto Cândido da Silva, with orders placed roughly simultaneously both in domestic yards and in England, France, and Italy. With an emphasis on smallish cruisers with long legs that could police overseas colonies, the building program would include the 2nd class protected cruiser Dom Carlos I (4250 tons, 4x 6-inch guns, ordered from Armstrong Elswick in Britain), the 3rd class Rainha Dona Amélia (1683 tons, 4 x 6-inch guns, built domestically), the small unprotected cruiser Adamastor (1757 tons, 2 x 6- inch guns, built in Italy), and two 3rd class cruisers ordered from France (our Sao Gabriel and her sister Sao Rafael). Further, the old Vasco Da Gama was taken to Italy and completely rebuilt in a move that saw her cut in half and lengthened by 32 feet, fitted with new engines, guns, and machinery.
All would be delivered between 1897 (Adamastor) and 1903 (the modernized Vasco Da Gama). The effect was that, in a decade, Portugal had gone from one elderly ironclad to six relatively effective, if light, cruisers.
The French-built pair was slim and beautiful, albeit with a ram bow. Ordered from the Augustin Normand Shipyards in Le Havre, they were just 246 feet in length and displaced 1,800 tons.
Able to float in 16 feet of seawater, the two cruisers carried a pair of 6-inch/45 singles fore and aft, four casemated 4.7-inch/45s, eight 47mm Hotchkiss anti-boat guns, a 37mm landing gun, and a bow-mounted 14-inch torpedo tube. With just under an inch of armor plate covering their decks and a 2.5-inch steel plate on the side of their conning towers, they had a modicum of protection against small-caliber enemy shells and splinters. Able to make 17 knots on trials, they weren’t especially fast when you think of cruisers, but for the 1890s the speed was adequate.
They favored the very similar French colonial sloop Kersaint, a 225-foot 1,300-ton steel-hulled gunboat with a ram bow constructed about the same time as Sao Gabriel.
Where these two cruisers shined was in their extensive electrical fit, the first warships in the Portuguese fleet with such a luxury. This included two 30 horsepower Laval generators that produced about 20 Kw of electricity which enabled them to have two powerful topside searchlights, extensive internal incandescent lighting in more than 50 compartments (most of the ship), external running lights and signal lamps, electric engine room telegraphs on the enclosed bridge, ammunition lifts in the magazine, below deck forced ventilators and even electric stoves.
It made sense for Sao Gabriel to fit the first Marconi wireless radio system in the Portuguese Navy, which she tested on 11 December 1909 when, at 1530 on the afternoon when steaming off Lisbon, she established communications via telegraphy with the radiotelegraph post in Vale de Zebro.
With the 390th anniversary of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s first circumnavigation approaching, it was decided in 1909 to send Sao Gabriel around the globe on a solo cruise to mark the occasion and flex the country’s new muscle. Leaving Lisbon on 11 December– the day she tested out her wireless for the first time– she would return home 16 months and nine days later on 19 April 1911, after calling at 72 ports. In all, the slim Portuguese cruiser would steam just shy of 42,000 nautical miles.
In accomplishing her mission, she became the first Portuguese warship to enter ports in Chile, Peru, Panama, Mexico, California, and the islands of Hawaii, as well as touching each of the country’s overseas ports on a single cruise.
The miles between her port calls:
Her trip was exceedingly lucky and a tribute to Portuguese navigation and seamanship. Despite the best attempts of Poseidon, who threw typhoons, hurricanes, and pirates at the little warship, she suffered no casualties either human or mechanical, and made every mile underway under her own steam, arriving back in Lisbon with all 242 souls she took to sea. That’s remarkable even by today’s standards.
The rest of her career, and loss of a sister
Sao Gabriel continued to be a lucky ship, and largely escaped involvement in the uproarious series of domestic coups that wracked her homeland and saw much participation of other Portuguese naval assets, and swapped ensigns from the royal to the republican example when she arrived back home.
To wit, her sister Sao Rafael, which in 1910 took an active part in the military coup that established the Republican regime in Portugal by shelling the Terreiro do Paço and the Palácio das Necessidades where King D. Manuel II, later tore her bottom out on the rocks at the mouth of the Ave River while patrolling against monarchists forces.
Continuing her service, even while other Portuguese cruisers and gunboats would deploy overseas for extended periods, following her circumnavigation Sao Gabriel would typically spend most of her time at home, with the occasional Atlantic training cruises with midshipmen.
This would include a 1920 trip to Boston and Bermuda.
Likewise, her Great War service was anticlimactic, spent in coastal waters. It very much seemed like the Navy was disinclined to risk their most famous warship, especially at a point when she was so patently obsolete.
By 1924, with her boilers and engines wore to the extent that she could barely steam any longer, and cash too tight for the Gomes-Gaspar government (who had repressed at least four military coups in two years) to justify an expensive rebuild that would make the Navy even more powerful, Sao Gabriel was sold for scrap.
The Angels today have much of their logs, papers, plans, and extensive correspondence from Sao Gabriel‘s circumnavigation in Portuguese archives. Likewise, her builder’s model endures at the Museu de Marinha.
Her globe-rounding skipper, Capt. António Aloísio Jervis de Atouguia Ferreira Pinto Basto, penned a 449-page journal covering Sao Gabriel’s 1909-11 voyage, which is digitized online in at least two locations.
In addition to her likeness gracing numerous postal stamps over the years, in 1985, a commemorative medal celebrating the first Portuguese wireless stations was issued by the government.
Sadly, it doesn’t seem like the Portuguese have reused the names of the Angels. A shame.
Ships are more than steel
And heart of burning coal,
For those who sail upon
That some ships have a
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