The Loss of the San Juan de Sicilia

Depending on who you talk to, it was known as the Grande y Felicísima Armada (the Great and Most Fortunate or Blessed Navy) or the Invincible Armada. The latter of the two names was largely taken up by the English who used it in an ironic manner after the navy was defeated in 1588. For those who don’t know the story, the navy set sail from Lisbon under the command of the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who had written to Philip II of Spain expressing concern about the enterprise and his role – seemingly the letter was never received. He was no admiral of the fleet and lacked the necessary experience. The goal was to rendezvous with soldiers in the Spanish Netherlands, from where an invasion of England could be launched to overthrow the protestant Queen Elizabeth I, who was deemed illegitimate as a monarch because Henry, her father, never had his marriage annulled in the eyes of the Catholic Church.

Ambiguities abound in the history of events surrounding this incident, not least of which are the duke’s lack of suitability for his command and the nature of the Englishman who sailed to his country’s defence. Lorded as a hero, Francis Drake was essentially a privateer and freebooter who was not above pillaging treasure. He was also second-in-command of the defensive forces rather than the leader, who was the less remembered Lord Howard. All of this would seem a localised affair between the Spanish and the English, however present the incident remains in the history of both countries, but it must be remembered that Spain was a considerable power at the time and drew its forces from a wider area than just the peninsula. It’s at this point that we should introduce a ship called the San Juan de Sicilia.

The San Juan was formerly known as the Brod Martolosi, originating from Ragusa (not in Sicily, but what is now Dubrovnik). It was seized under the orders of the Sicilian Viceroy in 1586, hence the name change. It formed part of the Levantine Squadron when the Armada convoy was put together. Logically enough, the crew and accompanying soldiers were recruited from the ship’s common ports, in other words, Sicily and the coast around Dubrovnik. In addition to the Slavs who made up a large percentage of the sailors, there were 135 Sicilian soldiers on board, a contingent that originally outnumbered the Spanish themselves by some margin.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada, August 8, 1588 - Philip James de Loutherbourg (1796)
What happened to the San Juan de Sicilia and its unlucky crew? After skirmishes from Plymouth onwards, the Armada progressed to Calais where it gathered in defensive formation. The English torched some of their own galleons and sent them on a flaming course towards the Spanish. Although no ships were set on fire by these ‘hellburners’, the tight defensive formation was broken. Eventually, Medina Sidonia’s fleet regrouped off Gravelines on the Flanders border, then controlled by the Spanish. After fierce fighting the weather intervened. Storms prevented the Armada from docking at Flemish ports and the fleet was forced to flee northwards, tailed by what became known as the ‘Protestant Wind’. Many ships managed to round Scotland and descend the coast of western Ireland, where some were lost to more atrocious weather. The San Juan made it as far as Scotland, but…

It was spotted in the September of 1588 off the island of Islay, the southern most of the Inner Hebrides. Eventually it managed to come to rest in Tobermory Bay on the Isle of Mull. Given Scotland was then independent, the crew were welcomed, if not with open arms, then at least cordially. They were in desperate need of supplies and threw themselves on the mercy of local clan chief, Lachlan MacLean, who agreed an exchange – the San Juan would get its much-needed water and food if the troops came to MacLean’s aid in strong-arming his local opponents. The tired and hungry Sicilians found themselves settling disputes between bellicose kilted chieftains rather than going toe to toe with belligerent protestants from the south of England.

The picturesquely named islands of Rum and Eigg became targets for the Sicilians and their Spanish counterparts. They even reached the more prosaic Muck in combat for their clan master. The mainland, however, was a step too far and they were forced to retreat from Kilchoan and its fortified Mingarry Castle. The trouble started for the Sicilians when they received supplies from a merchant who hailed from Dumbarton, a certain John Smollet. It can’t have been a secret that a band of Mediterraneans were settling MacLean’s scores in the Highlands and Islands, so it is perhaps remarkable the number of weeks that had passed before news started to leak out. In truth, Smollet was the man responsible given he was in the pay of Englishman Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s devious spymaster. Walsingham soon put in place plans to move against the San Juan de Sicilia.

On the 5th November 1588, well over a month after the San Juan came ashore at Tobermory, it was blown to pieces in an act of cold-hearted destruction. All those on board, including the majority of the Sicilian contingent were killed. It is thought that some 50 of the original crew survived, most of whom weren’t on the ship at the time. The situation was now desperate owing to the fact that the strength of numbers, which gave the Armada stragglers some clout, had now disappeared. They had no choice but to adhere to MacLean’s every whim. They would fight on in the Hebrides for another year before the clan chieftain decided it might be fair to send them to Spain. Any Sicilians left in this small band of brothers would have had the additional task of finding passage back to their home island. It’s not known if any of them made it.

Rumours have abounded ever since that this area of Scotland and the west coast of Ireland have more than the average number of dark-haired inhabitants for such northern latitudes. It would not be a great surprise if a few of the crew decided to stay and raise a family. It would be even less of a surprise if, during the course of a year or more, some of the Sicilians and Spaniards fathered a number of Siculo or Hispano-Scots. It is probable that any names would have been mangled and anglicised over the generations therefore masking their origins, although there is a British detective series on the BBC, Shetland, whose main protagonist is called Jimmy Perez, thereby drawing on the legend of descent from the Spanish Armada.

This isn’t the only legend surrounding the San Juan de Sicilia. Over time, the name and location of the ship were forgotten, but not the fact that the remains might contain treasure. In the proceeding centuries, everyone from the Swedes to the Argyll family went in search of what may lay beneath the waves. Some of the methods were somewhat destructive; divers attached winches and strategically placed explosives, as if the poor crew and vessel hadn’t already suffered enough indignity. Twentieth century approaches were more sympathetic. Apart from a few medals, no treasure, in the traditional sense, has come to the surface, but a canon, anchor and a few pistols have been recovered. Perhaps the most poignant objects to surface have been the pewter items, table ware such as plates and trays. At some point a Sicilian from Messina would have picked his food from said pewter, looking towards the grey horizon and wondering what the hell he was doing there.
The image at the head of the page is the Destrucción de la Armada Invencible (José Gartner de la Peña, 1892) and the second image is Defeat of the Spanish Armada, August 8, 1588 (Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1796)

Andrew and Suzanne’s two latest books are Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean, which deals with the time the poet Coleridge spent in Sicily, Malta, Gibraltar and the rest of Italy, and Ghosts of the Belle Époque: The History of the Grand Hôtel et des Palmes, Palermo.

Previous article
Next article
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
Andrew and Suzanne Edwards
In addition to freelance writing, Andy and Suzanne both work in education. Andy is also a translator who gets most enjoyment from translating literary works and Suzanne is a lecturer and linguistics graduate. They are frequent visitors to Sicily and have spent a great deal of time exploring its back roads in search of the landscapes that inspired the imaginations of many writers, both Sicilian and from overseas. Literature, art, food and society are their focus and their passion. Sicily has it all. They are the authors of the books - Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers, His Master's Reflection: Travels with John Polidori, Lord Byron's Doctor, Ghosts of the Belle Epoque: The History of the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, Palermo and Down to the Sunless Sea: A Troubled Samuel Taylor Coleridge in the Mediterranean. Andy is the translator of Borges in Sicily and Federico De Roberto's Agony.

Related Articles


Comments are closed.

Stay Connected

Digital nomads? Time off? Retiring? Here your place.. in Sicilyspot_img

Latest Articles