Spanish Gunboats of the Nineties

Alvarado class - read on.    |    Pampanga    |    Elcano    |    Quiros

Gunboat Fiction    |    Isla de Luzón    |    Don Juan de Austria    |    Yangtze Patrol

SMS PIZARRO, Alvarado class gunboat, on trials in 1895

SNS Pizarro was the low-end, utility gunboat of the Spanish navy: 100-ton Alvarado class boats, capable of 19 knots when new, cheaply manufactured in Scotland -- in this case at the Clydebank Engine and Shipbuilding Co (i.e. John Brown & Co.), near the trial course where this photo was taken. Even this miniature warship had a ram. For Spain's colonial subjects -- and later America's --, ships like this 116-foot piece of misery were the day-in, day-out face of imperialist oppression around the globe for more than 50 years. The Alvarado herself wrote a footnote in history when she was spotted the day before Cervera's sortie from Santiago, removing mines from the channel to clear the way for the admiral's suicide charge.

Specifications for the Alvarado Class:
Dimensions: 116'10" x 15'6" x 5'6"   Displacement: 106 tons. Armament: (2) 3-pounder guns and (2) Colt machine guns. Propulsion: One single-ended coal-fired boiler; one vertical compound engine (replaced by a vertical triple-expansion engine in 1899 refit), single screw. Speed: 19 kts. Crew: 23 (1918).

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 35.6m x 4.7m x 1.68m   Displacement: 106 tons. Armament: (2) 3-pounder guns and (2) Colt machine guns. Propulsion: One single-ended coal-fired boiler; one vertical compound engine (replaced by a vertical triple-expansion engine in 1899 refit), single screw. Speed: 35.2 km/hr. Crew: 23 (1918).

Two of the Alvarado class were captured by the U.S. in the Spanish-American War. The name ship served America through 1912 and was scrapped in 1916. The Sandoval's story was typical: after capture she made her way to Florida in company with the Alvarado and thence by easy stages up the eastern seaboard to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Both ships were there decommissioned May 10, 1899 and placed in reserve. Recommissioned in 1900, Sandoval became a training vessel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis through 1906. After that, she was loaned to the New York Naval Militia and became a training vessel on the Great Lakes, cruising the region from her base on Lake Ontario every summer through the end of WWI. In Nov. 1918 she was declared surplus. The onetime gunboat was sold to Charles S. Neff of Milwaukee for conversion to a private yacht on Sept. 30, 1919.

USS SANDOVAL being taken over from Spain

The Sandoval was an Alvarado class gunboat. She is shown above shortly after commissioning in the U.S. Navy at Santiago de Cuba, Sept. 2, 1898, afer that fortress' surrender during the war. This shot shows the size and layout of the class: arrow-thin, just big enough to work a couple of 3-pounders, just fast enough to use her ram on an uppity sampan.

Country-Built Craft: The Philippines

Spain built a numerous fleet of small, wooden and iron gunboats at the Manila Shipbuilding Co., located in their Cavite yard, in the 1880s. There were six Ayat class boats, 69 feet long and 60 tons (21 m); and two each in the 100-foot and 143-foot (43.6-m) sizes. The largest of these were constructed of locally made iron frames with iron shell plates imported from Hong Kong. The extremely soft nature of the iron frames made them especially vulnerable to damage from grounding. The entire native-built fleet was taken over by the U.S. after the American conquest; most were purchased as part of the peace terms. The boats were used in suppressing the Philippine Insurrection and later in administering the territory. As a rule these were not especially well-made boats. Most were sold or junked after 1912, as was the Mindoro (below): 100 feet (30.5 m), 142 tons, built 1886. She is seen hauled out for repairs at the Cavite Navy Yard in 1899. Few pictures of these country-built boats have come down to us.

USS MINDORO hauled out on the marine railways at Cavite

USS MINDORO hauled out on the marine railways at Cavite

Above, the Pampanga, an iron gunboat built at the Manila Shipbuilding Co., Cavite, from 1887-8. At 121 feet and 243 tons, she was one of the yard's more ambitous efforts under Spanish management. She was among the many gunboats captured by the Americans at Manila Bay and promptly put into service putting down the indigenous Philippine revolt. During this phase of her career, she was based at Olangapo Naval Station (where she is seen above) and patrolled Lingayen Gulf, Cebu, and Samar. From 1909-10, the ship was loaned to the Army to ferry personnel and supplies to Corregidor. That duty completed, she was back stamping out the smoldering sparks of revolt in the south Philippine islands. In 1911 one of her officers, Ensign Charles E. Hovey, was killed by insurgents and 3 of his men injured in an ambush. Their small party had been bringing supplies overland to an Army base on Basilan Island. According to the DANFS, "Retaliatory action by the Army troops punished the attackers." Pampanga continued in this duty until 1915, when she was decommissioned. Recommissioning the following year, she was assigned to the South China patrol, protecting American lives and property in the Canton region and patrolling the West River. This was to remain her beat for the rest of her career, 12 years. In 1928 she was decommissioned and expended as a target for two of the Asiatic Fleet's cruisers.

Specifications for the Pampanga:
Dimensions: 121' x 17'10" x 7'6"   Displacement: 243 tons. Armament: one 6-pounder and three 3-pounder guns. (1918) one 6-pounder and four 3-pounders. Propulsion: one coal-fired single-ended cylindrical boiler; vertical compound engine developing 250 IHP; single screw. Speed: 10 kts. Crew: 30.

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 36.88m x 5.5m x 2.29m   Displacement: 243 tons. Armament: one 6-pounder and three 3-pounder guns. (1918) one 6-pounder and four 3-pounders. Propulsion: one coal-fired single-ended cylindrical boiler; vertical compound engine developing 186.4 kW; single screw. Speed: 18.5 km/hr. Crew: 30.

China Gunboats

USS ELCANO, China gunboat captured from Spain

Named for Magellan's Spanish navigator who completed the first voyage of circumnavigation after Magellan himself was killed by angry natives in the Philippines, the 156-foot, 520-ton Juan Sebastián de Elcano was laid down by Forges et Chantiers de la Mediterranée, La Seyne (Toulon), France in 1882 and commissioned in the Armada Española in 1885. She was of all-iron construction, armed during her Spanish service with three 4.7" Hontoria BLRs and initially four 25 mm machine guns, and capable of 13 kts when new. In French style, she carried two of the "big guns" in sponsons under the bridge wings, the third on her foredeck. She was stationed in the Philippines. There she not only avoided capture in 1898, but actually took an American prize: the collier Savannah, with a full load of coal from Australia. Soon after the war was over. The U.S. purchased Elcano from Spain, along with most of Spain's remaining colonial gunboats, under the terms of the peace agreement. After undergoing a leisurely refit, she was commissioned as USS Elcano, Gunboat No. 30, in 1902. Her captain from 1902-05 was Lt. Cdr. A.G. Winterhalter, who later rose to become a four-star admiral and commandant of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.

Like many of the ex-Spaniards, the Elcano ended up having a second career enforcing American treaty rights in China from 1910 - 1928. During this time she was designated PG-38. One of the larger Spanish gunboats acquired, Elcano was somewhat underwhelming as a warship, but packed more firepower than most of the Spanish gunboats now in the U.S. fold. Alone among them, Elcano had a prominent ram bow. A faint echo of the huge beaks on contemporary French battleships, the Elcano's ram served to remind the natives that she meant business. She could respond with an 11-knot ramming run that would sink any uppity sampan, or with a hail of hot lead if they insisted on confrontation. After a total of 20 years as a Yangtze River rat, Elcano was sunk as a target for Asiatic Fleet destroyers in 1928.

Specifications for the Elcano:
Dimensions: 165'6" x 26' x 10'   Displacement: 620 tons. Armament: (3) 4.7" Hontoria BLR, (4) 25 mm MG, and (1) 11 mm MG, (2) Schwartzkopff TT (1898); four 4"/50 and four 6-pounder guns (1910); four 4"/50 and four 3-pounder guns (1918). Propulsion: (2) single-ended Scotch boilers; (2) vertical compound engines developing 660 IHP, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 13 kts (1885), 11 kts (1910). Crew: 101. Cost: 227,490 pesetas at 1885 valuation.

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 50.55m x 7.92m x 3.05m   Displacement: 620 tons. Armament: Three 120 mm Hontoria BLR, (4) 25 mm MG, and (1) 11 mm MG, (2) Schwartzkopff TT (1898); four 102 mm/50 and four 6-pounder guns (1910); four 102 mm/50 and four 3-pounder gus (1918). Propulsion: (2) single-ended Scotch boilers; (2) vertical compound engines developing 492 kW, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 24 km/hr (1885); 20.4 km/hr (1910). Crew: 101. Cost: 227,490 pesetas at 1885 valuation.

The Quiros Class

USS QUIROS, China gunboat captured from Spain

The 148-foot, 350-ton Quiros was a steel gunboat built at the Whampoa Dock Co. in Hong Kong for Spain in 1895-6. Her namesake, Portuguese navigator Pedro Fernández de Quirós, rescued a five-ship expedition that was down to its last ship in the Pacific, bringing that one home. He also was the one who named the Philippine Islands (1543). Armed only with two 6-pdrs and capable of only 11 kts., the Quiros was strictly a colonial warship intended to cow restless natives, not to engage a first-rate European navy. She was stationed in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War and sold to the Americans in 1900, becoming USS Quiros (Gunboat No. 40). As she had under the Spanish flag, she worked to suppress the native insurrectos in the Philippines her first years under Old Glory. Once more, she ended up enforcing American treaty rights in China as part of the Yangtze Patrol from 1904 - 1933. One of the larger but less formidable Spanish gunboats acquired, Quiros was ill-adapted to tropical service, but nevertheless performed that duty for nearly 20 years. Few modifications were allowed beyond improved wireless sets and electric fans in the crew quarters. Quiros was sunk as a target in 1933.

USS Villalobos, ex_spanish gunboat of 1896The Quiros' sister-ship, the Villalobos (PG-42 - left), was among the original ex-Spaniards sent to China to establish the Yangtze Patrol in 1902. Under American operation her armament included four 3-pdrs and two 1-pdrs. Stationed far in the Chinese interior, she reputedly harbored a shadow crew of coolies to do all the dirty work, leaving the American sailors free to play soldier all day, encouraged by a by-the-book skipper who slept in pajamas trimmed with gold braid. This situation, representing in microcosm the oppressive imperial system, inspired the fictional San Pablo in Richard McKenna's Harper Prize-winning novel of naval life in China, The Sand Pebbles (see also below).

Specifications for the Quiros:
Dimensions: 148' x 22'9" x 7'9"   Displacement: 350 tons. Armament: (2) 25 mm/42 cal rapid-firing 6-pounder guns and (2) 3-pounders. Fuel capacity: 54 tons of coal. Propulsion: (2) single-ended cylindrical boilers; one vertical triple-expansion engine developing 450 IHP; single screw. Speed: 11 kts. Crew: 44.

Ships in Class: Quirós · Villalobos

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 45.1m x 66.9m x 2.36m   Displacement: 350 tons. Armament: (2) 6-pounder 25mm/42cal rapid-firing guns and (2) 3-pounders. Fuel capacity: 54 tons of coal. Propulsion: (2) single-ended cylindrical boilers; one vertical triple-expansion engine developing 335.6 kW; single screw. Speed: 20.37 km/hr. Crew: 44.

USS SAN PABLO going into action on the Chien River (from the film THE SAND PEBBLES) - copyright (c) 1966 by 20th-c FoxThe Gunboats in Fiction

Photos in this section copyright © 1966 by 20th Century Fox

In McKenna's book, the San Pablo is described as having been built in Hong Kong for the Spaniards in the indefinite past. Her hull is of iron, her engine forgings extra massive but not very powerful for their size -- pointing to the 1880s as a likely date of origin. She has bunkerage for about 90 tons of coal. Her engines, kept very clean, operate a bit out of adjustment with a huge thump in every turn of the LP crank; she can barely make 10 knots. The offending bearing has to be repacked every week or so while cruising, a "rice bowl," or source of steady income, for the coolie engine-room crew. Jake Holman, the wizard with a wrench, tears down the entire engine and reconstructs it from scratch during the course of a long season wintering at Changsha. The next season, the engine room is transformed and the ship steams at 12 knots without a quiver.

Try to visualize the San Pablo as McKenna saw her. Using the Quiros above as a starting point, one can imagine the successive layers of wooden superstructure added topside, the tall stovepipe funnel jostling with new deckhouses; the ship's original symmetry irreparably marred. With native-carved dragons and eagles, and four Chinese buglers adding noisy spit-and-polish to her drills, the San Pablo in her own way becomes as colorful a craft as the storied Pequod in Moby Dick.

San Pablo was decidedly among the least powerful and most antiquated of American warships. This is part of the point -- she is in country to intimidate ignorant Chinese peasants and warlords by a show of force, in a continual pantomime of power; despite the captain's gung-ho rhetoric in his many pep talks to the crew, the ship is not actually expected to fight; merely to show a modern gun was to win in a land that had none with which to reply. Despite the candy-cane striped ensign streaming at the gaff, San Pablo has become a floating microcosm of Chinese society, with perhaps 50 coolies to augment her crew of 40-some U.S. bluejackets (below left, the coolie crew in quasi-naval uniforms -- at right, the coolie commander, Lop-eye Shing, played by Henry Wang). Just as in the semi-colonial society on land, the white crewmen are pampered by their many servants, the coolies. And it's easy to be a tiger and shoot up the pirates, bandits, or usual suspects when you are accustomed to a diet of spicy Hunanese food, artfully prepared by the ship's Chinese mess cook, Big Chew; garbed by the ship's tailor coolie; shaved by the ship's barber coolie; and so on. Shing paces the bridge and consults with the Captain, acts as interpreter with Chinese ashore. The top coolies jostle for position within the ship's hierarchy.

USS SAN PABLO's coolie crew, from the SAND PEBBLES (copyright 1966 by 20th-c Fox)San Pablo has been so far up the creek for so long (23 years) that practices alien to the Navy Manual have been adopted to keep her operating. For instance, locally-procured food and coal are purchased with enough fat built into the price to support 50 full-time laborers, and enrich several labor contractors, with no doubt a cut for the local warlord as well. A tolerant naval bureaucracy dismisses the custom as "just squeeze" and pays the invoices without question. Controls are as loose as Paulson and Bernanke's oversight of Wall St. And through the labor situation on board, the ship has become a source of wealth and power for Chinese gangsters, undercutting all Lt. Collins' huffery about "remaining very carefully neutral."

The story is embellished with bits of naval lore only a seasoned river rat would appreciate: pictures of the old paddlewheeler Monocacy hang on the wall of a sailors' bar (when he sees the paddle wheels start to revolve, a bar patron knows it's time to head for the hammock). The diligent delver will uncover mentions of several historic personalities, actual river gunboats, and military incidents in which they were involved. But it is in the evocation of a time and place that McKenna's novel notches its most signal triumphs. Unlike the movie, whose catalog of dramatic and shocking scenes makes for a rather heavy viewing experience, the novel has a mischievous admixture of puckish humor; entire sections of the novel, such as the shoreside interactions of Frenchy and Holman with their Chinese friends, were eliminated from the screenplay. McKenna's observations and insights -- wrapped in spare, Hemingwayesque prose -- stay with the reader long after the book has been closed.

The Isla Class

USS ISLA DE LUZON, large gunboat captured from Spain at Manila Bay, 1898

Two of the ships classified as cruisers in the Battle of Manila Bay were the Isla de Luzon and her sister, the Isla de Cuba, both scuttled by the Spaniards in the latter phase of the battle and thus counted in Dewey's perfect score of all Spanish warships sunk that day. Better regarded as large gunboats than small cruisers, as they had no armor protection beyond the gun shields, both Islas were built at Elswick on the River Tyne in 1887, where the Isla de Cuba is seen above with several merchant windjammers in the background, no doubt awaiting the graving dock. The Isla de Luzon was identical in appearance to her sister. The main guns were carried in sponsoned single mounts. During the Manila battle, the two gunboats were anchored in the inner harbor at Cavite, but the Isla de Luzon bravely sallied to assist the badly distressed flagship Reina Cristina and take off her crew before she sank.

Unlike the larger Spanish warships which were burnt down and completely wrecked in the battle, the two gunboats were quite easy salvage jobs, having been scuttled by their crews during the battle. Sturdy late-model ships with only a few weeks immersion, they were refloated, refitted at Hong Kong, and pressed into American service after the war; as prizes of war, they were not purchased from Spain like most of the other Philippine gunboats. Their careers under the Stars and Stripes were spent mainly in American waters, where they were used as training ships for the state naval militias. 1914, for instance, found the Cuba serving the State of Maryland and the Luzon operating as a training ship for the Missouri State Naval Militia, where she is seen in the photo below, in the Ozarks around 1905. In a 1911 refit, both vessels received new Babcock boilers and slender twin funnels. In 1912 the Cuba was sold to the Venezuelan navy and renamed the Mariscal Sucre. After many decades in Venezuelan service, she was eventually scrapped in 1940. After WWI the Luzon was decommissioned. Sold out of the service in 1920, she became a merchant steamer in the West Indies trade afterwards. In her new rôle, she sailed under the name Reviver.

A third member of the class, the Marqués de la Enseñada, was stationed at Havana and returned to Spain after the Spanish-American War.

USS ISLA DE LUZON in Louisiana naval militia service, c. 1905

SNS ISLA DE CUBA in Spanish livery, c. 1897
Cyber Ironclad

Dimensions: 195' x 30' x 11'4½"   Displacement: 1,030 tons. Armament (1914): (4) 4", (4) 6-pdr, (2) 3-pdr, (2) 1-pdr; (3) 15" torpedo tubes. Coal capacity: 159 tons. Propulsion: (2) coal-fired Scotch boilers (original), (2) Babcock boilers (1911); (2) 3-cyl vertical triple expansion engines developing 1,030 HP, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 14 kts. Crew: 137.

Ships in class: Isla de Luzon · Isla de Cuba · Marqués de la Enseñada

Metric specs:
Dimensions: 59.4m x 9.14m x 3.46m   Displacement: 1,030 tons. Armament (1914): (4) 102 mm, (4) 6-pdr, (2) 3-pdr, (2) 1-pdr; (3) 381 mm torpedo tubes. Coal capacity: 159 tons. Propulsion: (2) coal-fired Scotch boilers (original), (2) Babcock boilers (1911); (2) 3-cyl vertical triple expansion engines developing 746 kW, shafted to twin screw. Speed: 25.9 km/hr. Crew: 137.

USS ISLA DE CUBA at Portsmouth
The Isla de Cuba at Portsmouth Naval Station after the war.

The Don Juan de Austria

USS DON JUAN DE AUSTRIA, China gunboat captured from Spain

The 215-foot, 1,000-ton Don Juan de Austria was named for the naval hero and bastard half-brother of Philip II. In command of the combined galley fleets of Christendom in 1571, Don Juan secured a great naval victory over the Turks at Lepanto. Don Juan was also a legendary lady-killer, whose reputation has survived to our time -- his name is a household word, a synonym for the male heart-throb, even when his naval exploits are generally forgotten. In its time, though, Lepanto inspired as many canvases and tapestries across Europe as the lesser Spanish-American War victories inspired lithographs in the fin-de-siècle U.S.A. This 215-foot gunboat was the name ship of a class of three built at the Royal Dockyard in Cartagena, Spain for the Armada Española. She retained her unlikely name in U.S. service after being captured in 1898.

After completing in 1887, the ship was posted to Manila, where she was sunk at anchor by Commodore Dewey's squadron on May 1, 1898. She was raised and repaired at Hong Kong, then spent nine years in and out of the yard. Evidently she was never the same after her adventure in battle, as the record of almost continuous repairs and refits attests. In 1907 she was loaned to the Michigan State Naval Militia. This gig lasted ten years, until the ship was recommissioned in the navy in the scramble of 1917-19. After that, the antiquated Don Juan was struck from the register and sold for scrapping.

Spain's war fleet sunk at Manila Bay, May 1898
Spain's Asiatic Squadron sunk at Cavite after the Battle of Manila Bay.

Specifications for the Don Juan de Austria:
Dimensions: 215'6" x 32' x 12'6"   Displacement: 1,015 tons. Armament: two 4", eight rapid-firing 6-pounders, and two rapid-firing 1-pounder guns. Propulsion: (2) coal-fired cylindrical boilers; (2) vertical compound engines shafted to twin screw. Speed: 12 kts. Crew: 153.

Metric specifications:
Dimensions: 65.7m x 9.75m x 3.8m   Displacement: 1,015 tons. Armament: two 102 mm, eight rapid-firing 6-pounders, and two rapid-firing 1-pounder guns. Propulsion: (2) coal-fired cylindrical boilers; (2) vertical compound engines shafted to twin screw. Speed: 22.2 km/hr. Crew: 153.

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