When she was launched in 1769, the Santisima Trinidad (Holy Trinity) was the greatest warship the age of sail had seen. She was built as a one-off design in Havana, Cuba, by Matthew Mullan, an Irish naval architect in the service of Spain. Her displacement of 4,950 tons made her comfortably the largest warship in the world. For comparison, Nelson’s flagship the Victory, which was launched a few years earlier, was only 3,500 tons. Originally built as a three decked, first rate, she was redesigned in 1795. By joining up her forecastle to her quarterdeck, she was given a complete battery of small 8pdr cannon on her upper deck, taking the number of cannons she carried to 130, and making her the only four decked warship in the world.
This redesign was largely carried out to bolster Spain’s flagging prestige as a naval power, and was considered among mariners to have spoilt an otherwise fine ship. The addition of a large number of small calibre weapons so high up on the hull made her much less stable, while adding little to her fighting power. Actions between fleets were decided by the heavy cannon carried on a ship’s lower decks, but the Santisima Trinidad still carried the same number of guns (30) in her bottom tier as her British rivals like Victory. It was not for nothing that her poorer sailing characteristics after the rebuild led to Spanish sailors giving her the unwelcome nickname of El Ponderoso.
In July 1779, Spain joined the growing coalition of powers supporting the American colonists in their fight with Great Britain. The Santisima Trinidad was the pride of the Spanish fleet, and helped in the capture of over fifty merchant ships from a large British convoy in 1780, as well as taking part in Spain’s unsuccessful attempt to capture Gibraltar that ended in 1783.
During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the Santisima Trinidad was to lead her country’s navy in two successive fleet actions. The first was the Battle of Cape St Vincent, which almost led to her capture. She was battered by Nelson’s Captain (74), and then found herself isolated and surrounded by Royal Navy ships. Heavily damaged, she had lost all her masts and half of her crew of nearly a thousand men. On the point of surrender, she was saved by the intervention of two other Spanish ships that managed to tow her free of the battle and back to Cadiz for repairs.
Eight years later, she was the flagship of Rear Admiral Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros at the Battle of Trafalgar. Thanks to her ill-judged rebuild, the huge ship was barely able to steer in the light winds on the day. As a result, she fell easy victim to her more nimble Royal Navy opponents. Battered into submission, there was to be no last minute rescue this time, and she surrendered to the Neptune, a 98-gun second rate commanded by Captain Thomas Fremantle.
No sooner had the guns fallen silent, when a savage storm swept out of the Atlantic and drove the battered survivors of Trafalgar, friends and foes alike, towards the coast of Spain. The Santisima Trinidad was being towed by the Prince 98, but the huge, unwieldy ship with her poor sailing characteristics proved stubbornly difficult to get clear. All the while, her crew had to continuously work at her pumps just to keep the damaged ship afloat. After three days and nights the storm showed no sign of easing, and her exhausted crew could do no more. The British abandoned their efforts to save the great ship, and she sunk beneath the waves.
There she has remained, on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean in water over a hundred metres deep for the last two centuries. Her exact position was not known until 2009, when the hydrographic survey vessel Malaspina, operated by the Spanish navy, chanced to be testing a new side-scan sonar in the area. They discovered a shipwreck of just the right size and shape for the giant Spanish ship. Perhaps one day she may yet appear again, from out of those dark waters.