As the Santa Ana rounded Cabo San Lucas, a lookout saw two sails eight leagues to the east. Alzola, unconcerned, assumed they were either Spanish pearlers or the Buena Esperanza. But sharp-eyed Cermeno detected red-and-white British standards snapping in the wind.
Alzola ordered his crew to cover the cargo decks with canvas and camouflage netting, and convert bales and bundles into protective barriers. Officers distributed swords, muskets, and lances. Several men loaded stones from the ballast into giant net sacks, and raised them above the second deck. When rocks slipped out, those few passengers well enough to fight grabbed them for weapons.
For three hours, tacking hard to keep a favorable wind, the Desire chased the Santa Ana. At close range, Cavendish raised his hand, a signal for bugles and horns to blare. The hand came down, and six cannons blasted the galleon at the waterline. As the Desire came alongside, its sailors roaring threats and curses, English muskets opened fire.
No one on the Santa Ana responded. No one was even visible. “Because we did not answer in any way,” recalled Antonio de Sierra, a sailor on the galleon, the general ordered his men to board “and see what there was.”
Cavendish’s men hurled grappling hooks amidships and tugged the vessels together.
When boarding an enemy ship, pirates used “jack tricks” — swift feints and slashing thrusts — to disable opponents quickly. But when 40 pirates leapt from the upper deck of the Desire to the bulwarks of the Santa Ana, ropes released the sacks of rocks. “An innumerable sort of great stones,” writes Pretty, thundered down “upon our heads [and] being so many of them, they put us off the ship.” Cavendish’s men withdrew; some dove into the sea “to escape the wrath of the defenders.”
The Desire drew back. Cavendish ordered weapons reloaded: ramrods tamped gunpowder in muskets; long rammers stuffed cannonballs down cast-iron snouts. Then horns blared, and cannons opened fire. Masts splintered, rigging collapsed, halyards sagged; the hull, made of durable Jolo teak, groaned and cracked.
Cavendish veered his ship toward the galleon’s bow. As muskets fired when ready, the Desire rammed the Santa Ana “with such great force,” wrote De Sierra, it rocked the beams. Six sailors fell to their deaths. Pirates grappled and boarded again. One climbed the mainmast. He cut down the mainsail and many lines before arquebus volleys yanked him from aloft.
Combat became hand-to-hand. Possibly because the decks had so little room, the pirates couldn’t swarm their opponents, who once again drove them off.
As the Desire withdrew, captain Miguel Sanchez — the tortured prisoner and now Cavendish’s ally — shouted from the foredeck: “Demons, why are you acting as the devil’s own? Why do you not ask for mercy now” instead of later, when you will receive none?
For the next three hours, cannons bombarded the Santa Ana.
As seawater spilled through widening holes, and as he realized almost everyone on board was wounded, Alzola lowered the ship’s colors and sent a rowboat to the Desire with a flag of truce.
Cavendish replied: surrender; strike all sails still aloft; hand over the cargo manifest and the keys to every chest on board. Do, and harm will come to no one (within days, he broke his promise: he ordered Father Juan de Almendrales hanged from the mizzen arm, most likely because he was a “heathen” Catholic).
As the crew and passengers came ashore, Cavendish had each stripped of personal possessions, including four women, “without leaving them a single pin.” He gave the prisoners dried beans and wine, and broken masts and sails for tents. Then he ordered the Santa Ana towed into the bay. He kept the “Indios and negros” on board to stuff the holes with leather and pump out water.
The next day, writes Alzola, the prisoners watched their chests and bundles opened “with axes to see if they contained gold,” then hurled overboard. The British committed “destruction and inhumanities never before seen [even from] infidel Lutherans.”
There was so much treasure, the looters had to avoid bulky items like furniture and chinaware (even silver, because it was so heavy, was a nuisance), and take only gold, pearls, silk, brocade, damask, and musk. After five days, the Desire and Content sagged with treasure. Cavendish ordered the remaining cargo thrown overboard, tons and tons (500, by Pretty’s estimate, though most galleons only held 300), including the mail chest. Then he set the Santa Ana on fire. Whatever the total cost, it was the greatest theft from a galleon in the 200 years of Manila-Acapulco trade.
Cavendish signed the Santa Ana’s registry and gave it to Alzola, writes W. Michael Mathes, “as a receipt.”
Although they took no part in the battle, the sailors of the Content demanded a share of the spoils. Cavendish squelched a mutiny by promising his crew would receive one-third (to his two-thirds). As the Santa Ana burned behind them, the Desire and the Content sailed out of the bay. Taking a more northerly direction, the Content fell behind. It was never heard from again. Though probably “eaten by the sea,” as the old saying went, some speculate that, to squelch future uprisings, Cavendish sabotaged the ship.
The Santa Ana burned for four days. When flames severed the anchor cable, the galleon drifted to shore: no masts, no stays, only a smoldering, charcoal-blasted hull, listing leeward on the incoming tide.
Eight men swam out and beached the remains. One of them, a Basque merchant who fought bravely, was Sebastián Vizcaino. The 39-year-old former soldier had lived in Manila for three years and lost a fortune to the privateers.
Vizcaino and Cermeno (who rebuilt the San Augustin at Drake’s Bay) cleared out the ship’s keel and sealed the leaks. They rigged masts and sails, fashioned a rudder, and somehow navigated swirling gulf waters to Acapulco, where, wrote Alzola, “God willed to bring them.”
“Loss of the great treasure of the Santa Ana, writes Mathes, “brought about a more desperate need…for an intermediate port for repair of [galleons] and crews. But the question remained as to where such a port should be located.”
Chapters: 2: Assault | 3: Vermilion Sea | 4: The Crews | 5: Water | 6: San Diego | 7: The Bay | 8: Scurvy | 9: Salvation