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An 1890 drawing from La ilustración española e hispanoamericana, then the leading newsmagazine of the Spanish-speaking world. Courtesy of the Biblioteca Nacional de Madrid

That Spain in the late nineteenth century could have won the arms race to develop a military submarine may surprise many. But the genius of a modest naval officer, Isaac Peral y Caballero, might have brought that about.

Born into a naval family in Cartagena, home port for Spain's Mediterranean fleet, Peral entered the Spanish naval academy at 14 and went to sea at 16. He was decorated for bravery in Cuba and carried out hydrographical work in the Philippines. In 1883, his growing scientific reputation won him the chair of physics and chemistry at the naval academy. As an expert in the new field of electricity, he committed himself to the problem of submarine navigation--a common concern among the leading naval powers. By 1884, responding to the revolution in naval warfare caused by improved torpedos, he had outlined a torpedo-launching submarine with an advanced device that controlled the depth of immersion while keeping the vessel level--a major breakthrough.

When Spain's diplomatic skirmish with Germany over the Caroline Islands in 1885 made it obvious the declining nation could never afford enough conventional warships to safeguard its overseas territories, Peral's colleagues persuaded him to submit his project for a military submarine to the Spanish government. The minister of the navy, Manuel de la Pezuela, a practical sailor who immediately recognized its promise, offered funds for further research and for the construction of a prototype. The keel was laid under Peral's direction in the naval shipyards at Cádiz late in 1887, and the innovative submarine was launched in September 1888.

Roughly 71 feet long, with a 9-foot beam and a height of almost 9 feet amidships, with one horizontal and two small vertical propellers, Peral's "cigar," as the workers called it, was state-of-the-art both militarily and scientifically. It had a periscope, a chemical system to oxygenate the air for a crew of six, a speedometer, spotlights, and a launcher at the bow capable of firing three torpedoes. Its two 30-horsepower electrical motors, powered by 613 batteries, gave it a theoretical range of 396 nautical miles and a maximum speed of 10.9 knots an hour at the surface.

Under Peral's command, the submarine operated almost flawlessly during a long series of trials carried out in 1889 and 1890 in the Bay of Cádiz, usually in plain view of thousands of spectators, awed and uncertain at the vessel's submersions and delirious when it resurfaced on schedule, flying its battle standard. On June 7, 1890, the "cigar" successfully spent an hour submerged at a depth of 10 meters, following a set course of three and a half miles. A simulated night attack on the cruiser Colón made it obvious that the most advanced warships were sitting ducks for Peral's submarine and its torpedoes. A wave of enthusiasm swept the country and much of the Spanish-speaking world; Peral became a national hero, acclaimed as the restorer of Spain's long-faded glories. The queen regent, Maria Cristina, who had ordered her naval aide-de-camp to ride in the submarine during the trials, sent Peral a jeweled sword.

But his star sank just as fast. From the start he had many hidden enemies who tried to delay the trials; his submarine was even sabotaged during construction. Then his patron, Pezuela, lost his post in a government shuffle. The official reports of the trials acknowledged his success, but dismissed Peral's idea of building a bigger, more advanced vessel, declaring the submarine a useless curiosity. The navy brass dreamed only of armored battleships and looked askance at this upstart lieutenant. Peral's popularity provoked envy from many quarters, and he and his submarine became targets of a campaign of slander. It is likely that the foxy arbiter of Spanish politics, Antonio Cánovas del Castillo, fretted that a surge in Spanish naval power might antagonize other European nations. (The United States did not then concern him.)

Heartbroken by the meanness of the intrigues swirling around him, Peral left the navy, which had been his life, in January 1891. Newspapers refused to publish his account of his resignation. Finally he had it printed at his own expense, in a magazine with very limited circulation. Foreign offers came his way, but Peral, who had never accepted any income beyond his meager salary, nor taken out patents on his inventions (which he considered state property), rejected them all: his submarine would be Spain's, or nobody's. The navy, meanwhile, ordered his prototype stripped (the hull now graces a park in Cartagena); one of Peral's trusted friends smashed the precious depth-control device.

Peral next tried to enter politics, but was defeated in a rigged parliamentary election. An attempt to start an electrical business also failed. He had no skills beyond his patriotism, his science, and his seamanship. Then, in 1895, an old head wound turned malignant. Treatment by a famous surgeon in Berlin failed; Peral died after surgery. He was lucky at least to miss the Spanish-American War, in which Spanish fleets, hopelessly outgunned by the U.S. Navy, were sent to the slaughterhouse by the Madrid politicians. There has been speculation ever since about whether the outcome would have been different if Spain had had submarines in Manila Bay and Santiago de Cuba harbor in the late spring of 1898.


Francisco Márquez is Porter professor of Romance languages and literatures.

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