Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Aug 6: Of a General, an Admiral, a cadet, Mother’s Day and Cinco de Mayo
Here we see the Cañonero corbeta-escuela “General Zaragoza” at anchor around the 1890s. She was the backbone of the Armada de México for more than three decades, one of the first modern warships of that navy, and as such the birthplace of that current military force.
Named for the famous 33-year old General Ignacio Zaragoza Seguín, the leader of the Mexican forces during the first part of the French Intervention in Mexico. The Secretary of War in the cabinet of Benito Juárez, Zaragoza resigned from his desk job and led a ragtag force of some 4500-men against 6000 hardened French regulars at the battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862. This victory is still remembered by Mexicans at home and abroad in the regular Cinco de Mayo festivals in which everyone suddenly loves Corona, Dos Equis, and Modelo Negros.
In 1890 a modern 213-foot steel hulled corvette was ordered from the Société Nouvelle des Forges et Chantiers de la Méditerranée shipways at Le Havre, France. A steam-engined barque-rigged ship, she was capable of 13-knots with her boilers lit, slightly less with her canvas aloft and a good breeze, or slightly more with a following gale. The man-of-war was configured to be crewed by 21 officers and 98 enlisted, she had berthing for 20-40 midshipmen trainees in her intended role as the Navy’s first modern buqueescuela or school-ship in addition to her primary duties as a steel warship.
Being built in France, her armament consisted of a half-dozen Schneider-Canet made 140mm (5.5-inch) rapid-fire naval rifles as her main battery, two Nordenfelt 57mm guns, and a pair of 37mm (1.5-inch) Hotchkiss revolving guns for defense against small boats. The ship also carried enough small arms for a decent landing party and small, wheeled cannon for the same.
A force of officers and contract sailors commanded by Brigadier Gen/Vice Admiral Angel Ortiz Monasterio (at the time the Navy was part of the Army) collected the ship from France November 16, 1891, placing her in commission then. She then sailed in her maiden voyage to Veracruz at a slow rate in nine weeks, carrying the first national prototype kilogram of platinum-iridium to arrive in Mexico.
She re-crossed the Atlantic that fall to have her rig improved for faster sailing and some other technical modifications. As luck would have it, she was in Cadiz in time to attend the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus, serving as an escort ship for the Queen Regent of Spain’s royal yacht, a duty that led to the ship, officers, and men being decorated by the regent. The fact that Monasterio had served in the Spanish Navy for 13 years and at one point was an ADC to the King probably helped ease that process.
To display the new ship, it was decided to attempt the first Mexican circumnavigation of the globe in 1895-97. It was divided into two stages: the first was commanded by experienced Cape Horn master English merchant skipper Carey Brenton, who took command in Tampico, where he sailed on April 5 to tour Central, and South America and passed through the Strait of Magellan to reach Acapulco on July 29. The second stage was to be commanded again by Monasterio with a young captain by the name of Manuel Azueta as ship’s master, who brought his toddler son Jose along for the epic trip. Zaragoza had her hull inspected and cleaned in dry-dock in San Francisco in August at which point while on the circumnavigation that the corvette was boarded and observed by Americans in California.
One of whom left the following impression:
San Francisco Call, August 9, 1895
ON BOARD THE ZARAGUZA
The Mexican War Vessel the Scene of a Public Reception.
Yesterday afternoon a public reception was held on board of the Mexican war vessel Zaragoza, lying off the oil works, and a large party of visitors enjoyed the graceful and hearty hospitality of Captain Azueta and his brother officers. . . . To exhibit the seamanship of his crew Captain Azueta put them through the naval evolutions of sail drill and sending down the lighter yards. At the order, the little Mexican tars ran aloft arid in a short space of time the canvas dropped simultaneously from the yards. The sails were quickly furled and presently the topgallant and royal yards and topgallant masts all came down together on deck with a precision not always found even on crack American and English men-of-war. Prominent among the nimble sailors was the little live-year-old son of the commander . . . The Zaragoza is a French built steel corvette with an armament of six 14-centimeter, or about 5-inch guns, two Nordenfeldt quick-fire and two Hotchkiss guns. . . . Captain Manuel Azueta was born in Mexico 33 years ago, and was educated at the naval school in Spain, and has been in the service of the republic 18 years. He is a highly polished gentleman, a thorough sailor and an earnest patriot of the Mexican Republic. The Zaragoza has completed her repairs and will sail for Guaymas to-morrow.
From there the ship sailed to Honolulu, Yokohama, Nagasaki, Hong Kong, Ceylon, Adam, Port Said and up through the Suez, Toulon and back to Veracruz on July 3, 1897, after showing the Mexican tricolor throughout most of the seven seas in a 27-month cruise. During this trip, the hardy little ship’s name was repeated with pleasure and praise in the columns of the newspapers of those distant countries.
Once back in Mexico, the trio of Zaragoza, Captain Azueta and Vice Adm. Monasterio went about establishing the Republic’s first naval academy, the Escuela Naval Flotante/Escuela Naval Militar, at Veracruz. With just 26 students seconded from the Army, the installation for the Naval Academy consisted of a wooden house at the intersection of Landeros and Coss street consisting of two bodies or eaves of two floors, with an intermediate court where the offices of naval command were installed on the south side of market seafood port. After conditioning the building, it finally opened on July 1, 1897, with the Zaragoza serving as the floating classroom and school ship.
Peace and quiet, however, were not to be the Zaragoza‘s plight, however and by 1898 she sailed under Azueta’s orders to assist the government in the pacification of the Maya Indian rebels in southeastern Mexico. Zaragoza reached the coast of Yucatan with orders to seize the strongpoint at the El Castillo Tulum ruins, the ancient landmark of the Maya. Azueta landed on the beach there with a 150 man Army/Navy landing force and seized the castle after a siege. Over the next seven years, the ship remained in near constant combat against the rebels, transporting her landing force along the coast and seizing Progresso, Xcalax, Isla Mujeres, Puerto Morelos, Cozumel, Ascension Bay, and Rio Hondo, sometimes more than once. It was a bloody conflict that is not remembered well by the history books for good reason. During this time, Monasterio retired and Azueta moved up to command the Naval Academy, leaving the Zaragoza in the Yucatan.
It was while at Tampico the aging corvette served alongside the warships “Veracruz” and “El Bravo” during the siege by the Constitucionalistas from December 1913 to May 1914, where she operated as floating artillery for federal troops under General Ignacio Morelos Zaragoza. On March 14, 1914, then-Commodore Manuel Azueta hoisted his flag on the old girl and took command of the combined Gulf squadron (Flotilla del Golfo), then proceeded to bombard rebel troops along the coastline with shrapnel at close range. During this time the Tampico Incident, a poorly handled event from both the Mexican and American standpoints, occurred where an unannounced U.S. Navy landing party from the gunboat Dolphin bumped into Federal troops and, both parties being armed and unable to speak the other’s language, ended off in a quite literal Mexican standoff.
This led to an American response in the form of a reinforced squadron of battleships and torpedo boat destroyers landing several hundred sailors and marines at Veracruz April 21. To defend the vital port, local Federal troops gathered all the men they could find, including the 50 or so cadets of the Naval Academy to oppose the landings. One of these cadets, José Azueta Abad, the 19-year old son of Manuel Azueta– the same one who sailed the Zaragoza as a toddler around the world, found himself operating a Hotchkiss light machinegun outside the Academy’s walls. There, alone, the young Azueta held off the advancing column of bluejackets until BM2 JG Harner of the USS Florida ended the young man’s stand at a range of 300-yards, earning the MOH.
Azueta died on May 10 after lingering for nearly three weeks of his wounds, but became a hero in the process after he refused to meet U.S. Rear Adm Frank Friday Fletcher or accept care from American doctors that could have saved his life. His resulting funeral was attended by hundreds in opposition to Fletcher’s orders forbidding public assembly. The day of his death is remembered now as Mother’s Day in Mexico and the Naval Academy was renamed the “Heroica Escuela Naval Militar” to honor Azeuta and the other cadets who fought.
The Zaragoza did not take part in the combat at Veracruz, remaining at Tampico with the rest of the vastly outnumbered Mexican fleet. The elder Azueta retired after the Americans left Veracruz in November. The corvette was on its last legs and, in the resulting drain from the years of the cyclical purges, deaths, and defections during the Mexican Revolution, fell into disrepair.
However, she was still seaworthy enough to escort the remains of noted Mexican modern poet Amado Nervo (Juan Crisóstomo Ruiz de Nervo), who died while Mexico’s Ambassador in the Republic of Uruguay in 1919, back home.
Immobile by the 1920s, Zaragoza was decommissioned 6 March 1926, stripped, and sunk in the Gulf of Mexico as a target ship.
Displacement: 1,226 tons
Length: 213 ft. (65 m)
Propulsion: Steam engine
Sail plan: Barque
Speed: 13 knots (24 km/h; 15 mph)
Complement: 139 max
6 × Schneider-Canet 140mm cannon
2 × 37 mm (1.5 in) Hotchkiss Revolving Cannon
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