Juan de Lángara

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Don Juan de Lángara y Huarte
Juan de Lángara Huarte.jpg
Portrait by unknown artist, Museo Naval de Madrid
Born 1736
Died 1806
Allegiance Spain
Rank Admiral (Capitán Generál)
Battles/wars Capture of Santa Catalina Island
Armada of 1779
Moonlight Battle (POW) of 1780
Siege of Toulon (1793)
Action of 14 February 1795

Juan Francisco de Lángara y Huarte (Juan Francisco Langara Uharte in Basque) (1736 in Coruña, Galicia – 1806 in Madrid) was a Spanish naval officer and Minister of Marine.

Life and career[edit]

He was born at Coruña, Galicia, the son of a renowned Basque family. His father was admiral Juan de Langara Arizmendi, who fought as lieutenant (Teniente de Navío) at the victorious Battle of Minorca in 1756, against the British under Admiral Sir John Byng. Having entered the Spanish Navy at a young age, in 1750, as a Guardiamarina, Lángara quickly distinguished himself in various wars. From 1766 until 1771 he made several scientific expeditions, among others, three voyages to the Philippines and the Chinese seas, and made several important contributions in cartography.[1] In 1774 he commanded the frigate La Rosalia on a scientific expedition, which led to several important discoveries with regards to pilotage and navigation.

Anglo-Spanish War (1779–83)[edit]

By 1778, he was a Brigadier or Commodore and participated with distinction in the 1779 naval campaign in the Narrows against Britain, capturing the British letters of marque 26-gun[2] sixth-rate Winchcomb.[3][4] When the combined fleet wintered at Brest and Cádiz respectively, during the winter 1779–80, Lángara was left in command of a small squadron of 11, mostly smaller ships of the line. With this he faced the entire naval strength of 18 battleships and 6 frigates under Sir George Rodney off the stormy, dark cliffs of Cape St. Vincent, in the afternoon of 16 January 1780.

Lángara's intention had been to intercept a British convoy destined for the relief of Gibraltar; but the French authorities, who knew well enough about Rodney's departure and strength, failed to warn the Spanish, who maintained Lángara's fatal orders until it was too late. He and his crews fought remarkably well and with utmost bravery; but could not prevent the British from capturing five of their own number, while the 70-gun Santo Domingo blew up during the early evening. Lángara himself only surrendered at 2 a.m. with his flagship, the 80-gun Fénix, completely battered. This battle is known as the Moonlight Battle, because it was unusual for naval battles in the age of sail to take place at night.

Released soon afterwards from imprisonment, Lángara's career did not suffer. By 1793 he was a Capitán General of the Spanish fleet, after serving for a time as an effective naval minister.

French Revolutionary Wars[edit]

In 1793 he joined Sir Samuel Hood, with 18 Spanish ships-of-the-line, in capturing the French naval arsenal of Toulon (August–December). The mutual cooperation between the two sides was marked by tension and suspicion. Horatio Nelson had acquired a poor opinion of Spanish seamen when he visited the port of Cádiz on his way to the Mediterranean, which is not surprising as the Spanish mercantile marine was so small that only about 10 per cent of the muster role of Spanish warships were filled with experienced seamen.[5] At Toulon, national jealousies between the two combined powers impeded the defence. When Gravina was heavily wounded, a Spanish lieutenant general called Valdez, asserted his own claim to be placed in command of all the allied troops.[5] To support him, Lángara moved his three-decker Reina Luisa flagship into a position broadside on to HMS Victory with two other three-deckers on her bow and quarter.[5] Hood, however, resisted this attempted intimidation.

Before Toulon was evacuated, British and Spanish incendiary parties commanded by Sir Sidney Smith were sent to destroy the arsenal and the ships in the harbour. It was Lángara who conducted a brilliant rear-guard action, his men blowing up the arsenal and refloating a number of warships, later sent to Britain. Anyway, Lángara admitted that he had ensured the Spanish contingent did not play its part, because he did not want Britain to acquire too disproportionate a naval strength.[5] Hood, however, was able to get fifteen French ships out of Toulon before the fall. On 14 February 1795, after 6 hours of chase aboard the tree-decker Reina Luisa he captured the 32-gun French frigate Helène.

For a short while, after the alliance between France and Spain had been concluded, in 1795, Lángara co-operated with Napoléon Bonaparte during his Italian campaign of 1796, and sailed from Cádiz with nineteen ships of the line and ten frigates, brushing aside Rear-Admiral Man's division which Jervis had posted to watch Cádiz, and passed into the Mediterranean Sea. He collected seven ships at Cartagena and cruised as far as Corsica, but did not attack the British squadron lying in San Fiorenzo Bay. He proceeded to Toulon, where the combined Franco-Spanish fleet, totalling 38 ships of the line, heavily outnumbered the British Mediterranean squadron which had lost a third of its strength when Man fled precipitately back to the English Channel. This successful junction between the French and Spanish navies, and with the Francophile Corsicans preparing to rise again the British, orders were sent from London to evacuate Corsica and the Mediterranean Sea.

The same year he, again was appointed Secretary of State for the Navy and made a Counsellor of State. In 1797, he was appointed Inspector-General of the navy. Retiring in 1799, he died in 1806, having had the sad misfortune of witnessing the final eclipse of his proud navy at the Battle of Trafalgar, a few months before his death. By all accounts, Lángara was a highly skilled, brave and scientific and conscientious officer, dedicated to his duty. His one major flaw was, however, that he was also a proud and rather aloof man, treating, especially his later British allies, with a visible contempt, bordering on disgust. His wife, Doña María Lutgarda, the 2nd Marquésa del Real Transporte y de la Victoria, whom he had married in 1758 was the granddaughter of Don Juan José Navarro, 1st Marqués de la Victoria (for his victory over Sir John Byng at Cape Sicié, in 1744) and daughter of the renowned explorer and naval officer Don Antonio de Úlloa.

During Lángara's period at the head of the Spanish navy, Spanish explorers were charting the coast of what is now British Columbia, Canada, and, in their charts, named some land formations after him. His name is still found among place names in BC, including Langara Island, off the coast of northern BC, and Langara College in Vancouver, which was founded in 1970, as the Langara campus of Vancouver Community College, and obtained the status of an independent public college in 1994. In BC place names, the stress is on the second, not the first, syllable.



Further reading[edit]

  • Muñoz, Francisco José Díaz y Díaz y Luis Alberto Gómez (1999). Biografías de los Grandes Marinos al servicio de España
  • Harbron, John D (1988). Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy
  • Saarinen A. (2003). The Moonlight Battle or Battle off Cabo Santa María – 16 January 1780. TBA