On August 27, 1776, in what is now the New York borough of Brooklyn, the first major battle of the American War of Independence took place. Some 9,000 men commanded by General George Washington faced William Howe’s British Army, with 20,000 soldiers. The combat resulted in the defeat of the rebels, with 300 dead, thousands of wounded and 1,000 prisoners, who were locked up in ships in miserable conditions, along with another 10,000 hapless trapped anywhere throughout the war (1775- 1783). Among them, there were two hundred Spaniards – of whom only 126 names are known – who died of hunger, thirst, and disease in the floating zahúrdas where they were imprisoned.
In 1976, Juan Carlos I placed a plaque in his memory in Fort Greene Park in New York, very close to the place where the ramshackle ships were anchored. But urban vandalism made the plaque disappear, which this Tuesday will be replaced by Spanish ambassador Santiago Cabanas. The event was organized by the Spanish-American cultural association Queen Sofía Spanish Institute, the city of New York, Iberdrola, the consulate, and the Daughters of the American Revolution association.
The metal sheet to be replaced relates that “in the American War of Independence, Spain provided money and soldiers to the United States and led military operations in Florida, Louisiana, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and Europe. An unknown number of Spaniards were captured in the war and died along with the American martyrs ”.
Spain, like France, took the side of the insurgents, since the English pressure on the Hispanic territories in North America did not stop. The Battle of Brooklyn, also known as Long Island, was the first major war episode after the unilateral declaration of independence a month earlier, on July 4, 1776. Analysts agree that if the English had captured George Washington – who had to flee upriver with the forces that he had left, 80% -, the final result of the fight would have changed and accelerated.
Of the 1,000 men captured in the confrontation, a small part was imprisoned in churches and schools, while the rest went directly to the prison ships. Martin Maher, head of Brooklyn parks, recalls in a video from the Queen Sofía Spanish Institute that those arrested by the English “could not be treated as soldiers, because that would mean recognizing the United States as a country, which is why they were declared traitors and they were imprisoned on 16 mastless ships in Wallabout Bay, ”now New York’s dock area.
The prisoners of the battle were thus accumulated with other thousands of detainees, mainly sailors, soldiers, settlers who supported independence, Dutch, French and Spanish, even some religious. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people passed through these ships, of which 11,500 died inside.
The living conditions inside the ships were terrible. The best known of the 16 ships received the name by HMS Jersey and it was built to house 400 sailors, although it served as a dungeon for 1,500 ill-fated at the time, 8,000 throughout the war. The height of the cellars where the inmates survived was only 1.82 meters and they had skylights measuring 50 by 50 centimeters. These people were fed by a man named Loring, who provided them with rotten food, cooked with seawater in a copper cauldron in order to increase food contamination. “There were more deaths on these ships than in any battle in the war,” Maher calculates.
The American historian Laurie D. Ferreiro, author of books such as The American Revolution: A World War, He asserts that not much is known about those incarcerated, “neither their origin nor their circumstances, since the British only wrote –and wrongly, for reasons of phonetic transcription– the name of the prisoners” from other nations. In the list that is preserved, names such as Pedro Azaola, Manuel de Artol, Ignacio Echeverría, Antonio Olive, Juan Ignacio Alcorta, Manuel Sagasta or Francisco Rodrigo are distinguished. All were offered to go over to the British side to avoid this inhuman ordeal, but very few agreed, even knowing that there was a 50% chance of dying in the guts of an enemy ship.