Smollet's Escape

Smollet\'s Escape

Original mixed media painting (predominantly watercolour)

363 x 434 mm

In 1588 the surviving galleons of the Spanish Armada attempted to return to Spain by sailing around the north coast of Scotland and down the Irish Atlantic coast. The San Juan de Sicilia, whose crew had fought heroically against Sir Francis Drake’s English fleet, was too damaged to keep up with the other Armada survivors and limped into the shelter of Tobermory Harbour on the Isle of Mull. A little while later it it suddenly blew up and sank.

Since then a legend has persisted that the ship was carrying a fabulous treasure which, over the years, many people from the deluded to the frankly fraudulent have searched for but failed to find. Sadly for them, the San Juan was a warship and the treasure was probably never on board. Today the exact whereabouts of anything that survives of the wreck are unknown.

The ship was probably destroyed when a spark fell on gunpowder left out on the deck to dry – keeping gunpowder dry was a common problem for sailors and soldiers of the time. But this plausible and likely explanation of the explosion is not enough to prevent various competing stories. Some say that the explosion was set by the local lord of the Maclean clan to avenge his wife’s unfaithfulness with the Spanish commander, others that a witch sent fiery fairies to ignite the Spaniards’ gunpowder.

A third version based on English records of the time suggests spies, treachery and sabotage. Spain may have been the enemy of England, but it was the friend of Scotland. A Scottish merchant called Smollet, who was actually an English agent, is said to have gained the confidence of the Spanish by promising to help them obtain the supplies they needed to repair the boat and sail her home.

Once on board, the story says, Smollet laid a gunpowder trail to the ship’s magazine and then set it alight. The smouldering trail gave him just enough time to escape by boat before a massive explosion destroyed the ship.

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