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Action of Faial

Action of Faial
Part of the Anglo–Spanish War
Ilha do Faial vista da Madalena do Pico, ilha do Pico, Açores, Portugal.JPG
Faial Island, off which the action was fought
Date22–23 June 1594
Off Faial Island, Azores, Atlantic Ocean
Result English victory[1][2]

Spain Iberian Union

England England
Commanders and leaders
Francisco de Melo Canaveado Earl of Cumberland
1 carrack of 2,000 tons,
700 men
3 galleons of 250–300 tons
420 sailors
Casualties and losses
1 carrack destroyed
600 killed or wounded[3]
13 survived/captured
60 killed or wounded (35 killed in explosion)[4]

The Action of Faial or the Battle of Faial Island was a naval engagement that took place on 22–23 June 1594 during the Anglo-Spanish War in which the large and rich 2,000 ton Portuguese carrack Cinco Chagas was destroyed by an English fleet after a long and bitter battle off Faial Island in the Azores. The carrack, which was reputedly one of the richest ever to set sail from the Indies, was lost in an explosion which denied the English, as well as the Portuguese and Spanish, the riches.[1][5]


By virtue of the Iberian Union, the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of 1373 was in abeyance, and as the Anglo–Spanish War was still ongoing, Portuguese shipping was a fair target for the English navy and privateers.[1] At the latter end of 1593 the Earl of Cumberland, hoping to capitalize on the success of the capture of the Madre de Deus; prepared at his own expense three ships of 250 to 300 tons, with two artillery decks each and a total of 420 sailors and soldiers.[2][6] These were the Royal Exchange, owned by London Merchants, William Holliday, Thomas Cordell and William Garraway and of which George Cave was captain,[6] the Mayflower - Vice Admiral under the command of William Anthony, and the Sampson, under Nicholas Downton. There was also a support pinnace, the Violet.[7]:128[8]

George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland

On 6 April 1594 they set sail from Plymouth, heading for the Azores. En route they roamed the coast of Portugal and Spain, capturing a number of ships. Off Viana do Castelo, Portugal, a 28 tonne barque was captured as it headed towards Portuguese Angola. Near the islands of Berlengas another three Portuguese and Spanish caravels were taken, one of which had twelve butts of Spanish wine and another a small chest of silver.[8] These were sent back to England under prize crews aboard the Violet while the rest of the fleet continued towards the Azores. They were hoping to avoid Alonso de Bazán's Spanish fleet which was on the lookout for Cumberland, after his failure to intercept him two years earlier.[7]:130

On 22 June 1594, as they approached Faial island, the Mayflower soon saw a great sail approach them and realized this was a huge Portuguese carrack.[4]

The carrack was the Cinco Chagas (Five wounds) and was a thirty two gun 2000 ton carrack which had departed from Goa heading for Portugal in 1593, under the command of Francisco de Mello, one of the "greatest naus that ever were in the Carreira, loaded with great wealthness and precious stones and all the best of India".[3] Constructed in Goa by the Viceroy Dom Constantino de Braganza in 1559-60, she had made ten voyages being the flagship of five viceroys.[5]

The rest of the fleet had consisted of the Santo Alberto and Nossa Senhora da Nazareth. However the Santo Alberto and Nazareth had sprung fatal leaks and were beached on Mozambique's coast. The Cinco Chagas took aboard such cargo in diamonds and other precious gems as had been salvaged from the two lost ships, as well their 400 passengers and crew members, of which 230 were slaves.[9]:45 Among them were also two VIPs: Nuno Velho Pereira, the former colonial governor of Mozambique, and Dom Braz Correia, the captain of the fleet that had been returning from the Indies.[2] The Chagas called in at Luanda, in Portuguese Angola, for supplies, where they took aboard more slaves which constituted more mouths to feed. By the time the Chagas reached the Azores, disease had claimed almost half the complement, many of which were women and children, and much of the food provision had already been thrown overboard in order to lighten the ship during gales off South Africa.[9]:47 The carrack attempted to reach the island of Corvo in order to replenish these lost provisions, but contrary winds forbade this, and so she tacked towards Faial. Soon afterwards however, the lookouts on Chagas spotted the English ships, and prepared for battle.[8]


At noon all four ships exchanged broadsides and musket volleys in a battle that lasted for nearly a whole day. The English ships tried to board the Cinco Chagas but were repelled by the larger Portuguese numbers. As casualties mounted on both sides the decks of the carrack were cluttered with dead and wounded.[3]

The battle went on with the English trying to board the ship three times. All three attempts however were repelled by the Portuguese - putting up a brave fight knowing the riches were too great to lose. The captain of the Mayflower George Cave was killed which discouraged his men from attacking.[2] The crew of Sampson was repulsed with losses and fighting continued for several hours with the four ships moored to each other.[4] Shortly after, the other two ships, having lost hope of mastering Chagas drifted off and Nicholas Downton was severely wounded and William Antony later was mortally wounded.[8]

Typical Portuguese carrack during most of the 16th century. By the end of 16th century, the "Cinco Chagas", had already differed from this design.

However, on having noticed that Cinco Chagas had no guns aft, in a deft maneuver the English returned to the attack concentrating their fire on the stern panel of Portuguese ship.[4] The Royal Exchange made another boarding attack this time succeeding in carrying the ship after bitter fighting. Whilst heavy hand-to-hand fighting was ongoing a fire had started on a tarpaulin during the exchange of fire and then spread further to the rigging and the masts.[7]:132 The fire could not be put out because sharpshooters on board the English ships were taking the Portuguese one by one as they tried to man the pumps.[3]

According to the only eyewitness account available, written by Melchior Estácio do Amaral in 1604:

the sea was purple with blood dripping from the scuppers, the decks cluttered with the dead and the fire raging in some parts of the ships, and the air so filled with smoke that, not only we could sometimes not see each other but we could not recognize each other.[9]:52

Seeing the fire spreading out of control and with the English gaining the upper hand, the Portuguese decided to abandon the ship, grabbing anything that could float.[9]:53 At the same time the English came among them in some armed boats, and began shooting or lancing the helpless Portuguese in the water.[10] It became apparent that the only people being spared this butchery were women who were stripping off their outer clothing, "in the hope of piety from the English"[11] However one lady, Dona Isabel Pereira, whose late husband Diogo de Melo Coutinho had been Captain-major and Tanadar-mor of Ceylon, and her 16-year-old daughter Dona Luisa de Melo Coutinho, steadfastly refused to undress for the privateers and, tying themselves together with a sash of St. Francis (i.e. the cord which a Franciscan friar would tie around his waist), they went to the opposite side of the ship from the English, and they leapt into the sea. They were buried on Faial where their dead bodies washed ashore, still bound together, the next day.[12]

When the fire became completely out of control the English decided to lay off from the Chagas, and "worked furiously to disengage their ships"[11] The carrack burned all through the night until just after dawn, when the flames reached the powder magazine in her lower hold, which contained "her poulder which was lowest being 60 barrels" which igniting, "blew her abroad, so that most of the ship did swim in parts above the water"[13]

The explosion was enormous, killing hundreds of Portuguese which included men, women and children; nearly 35 English were still aboard when the ship exploded. Most were killed outright and the battle ended with the total loss of the Chagas and its cargo.[8]


The crew grabbed any floating remains that were of any use, which proved to be little, and the English began picking up any survivors, of which there were only thirteen out of 600 Portuguese.[7]:134 The English sailed further West in the hope of rich pickings, and encountered another carrack, the San Fellipe, two weeks later.[6] With heavy losses already due to disease, and with officers wounded or killed, supplies running low, and a gale forcing them apart, Cumberland decided against engaging the carrack and sailed home.[8]

The cargo of Cinco Chagas (along with the salvaged cargo from the two other ships) was worth well in excess of 2,000,000 ducats, and in addition there were twenty-two treasure chests of diamonds, rubies, and pearls estimated to be worth US$15–20 billion by 2017 values.[14] The prisoners that were saved told their captors that yielding had been impossible as the riches were for the king of Spain and Portugal and that the captain, being highly in the king's favor, would upon his return have been made viceroy in the Indies.[3][9]:56

With the destruction of the Chagas, Cumberland had to satisfy himself that the Portuguese and Spanish were denied any of the riches on board.[3] He successfully evaded attempts by the Spanish navy to find him.[4] Alonso de Bazán failed to intercept Cumberland partly because he was hoping to protect the West Indian treasure fleet which was still in the Caribbean.[9]:57 Another fleet under Don Antonio De Urquiola also failed to find the English, despite his having been in the same area when they headed home past Cape St. Vincent in September.[8]

The fleet arrived in Portsmouth on 28 August, and the ships were thoroughly searched when they arrived by the Queens troops, a consequence of the mass theft from the Madre de Deus two years earlier. Dom Nuno Velho Pereira and Dom Braz Correia had survived the explosion of the Chagas and were brought ashore as prisoners, where the Earl treated them well and entertained them for a whole year as his guests. They were then ransomed for 2500 ducats each; Pereira paid for both making Cumberland's 1594 expedition gain at least some reward.[2][7]:132 With this money the Earl then decided to finance and build a new, larger ship, rather than borrowing from the Queen; the new ship was launched in 1595 and was named by the Queen the Scourge of Malice.[15]


According to the Venetian ambassador to Spain, it was the richest ship ever to sail from the East Indies.[7]:136

Estimates of the Cinco Chagas's location suggest that it lies in seas over one mile deep in the Atlantic Ocean eighteen miles south of the channel between Pico Island and Faial along with its precious cargo of diamonds and gems.[5] The wreck has been searched for by treasure hunters but no signs have been found partly due to the depth.[16]

However some of the other reasons for no sign of the Chagas having yet been found, are more compelling. One of the English captains, Nicholas Downton, recorded, "This fight was open off the Sound between Faial and Pico 6 leagues to the Southward",[17] a league being 3 nautical miles (3.45 statute miles), placing the scene of the battle 18 nautical miles (or 20.71 statute miles) from the Sound.

This has been taken to mean that the battle was fought south of Faial.

However, the currents in these waters form part of the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, and flow through the Azores from NE to SW,[18] and hundreds of bodies washed ashore on Faial the day after the battle[19] which can only therefore have originated from a point north of Faial.

Closer inspection of Downton's statement suggests that it may have been misread; it does not say, "This fight was open off the Sound between Faial and Pico, 6 leagues to the Southward" (note the comma), or " This fight was open off the Sound between Faial and Pico and 6 leagues to the Southward", it says that the battle took place off "...the Sound ... 6 leagues to the southward".

In other words, it may be the Sound, not the battle, that was 6 leagues to the south. This explains the bodies washing up on Faial the next day, as Horner describes.[19] Further, the Chagas had sailed towards Faial from Corvo, which she could not close due to contrary winds, but was apparently on the way to Terceira, the direct course to which passes just 20 miles -- 6 leagues -- north of the Faial-Pico channel.[20]

A further reason for the lack of serious search and salvage efforts is the fact that the Chagas' cargo was mainly loose gems which, upon the ship exploding, would have flown everywhere, before cascading down through approximately one mile of water and then settling into phytodetritic ooze, which is itself in the long and slow process of sliding down a mountain (Faial Island).[21] This process has been aggravated by very devastating earthquakes which struck Faial in 1672, 1760, and particularly in 1926, a violent and prolonged underwater event at Pico in 1963 and a powerful event under both Pico and Faial in 1973 which had numerous aftershocks. Each of these events shuffles and shakes the entire region, triggering large and powerful submarine landslides, so that the remains of the Chagas and its cargo would slide further down the mountain and deeper under the mud.[21] It would appear unlikely in the extreme that gemstones only millimeters across, small artifacts of interest or value or even the ship's large pieces of ordnance would presently remain at the surface of the sediment, and consequently, despite the fabulous wealth of the ship, the values of recovered treasures may not (2020) exceed the expense of salvaging them.


  1. ^ a b c Andrews pg. 219
  2. ^ a b c d e Lediard & de Puisieux pg. 644–47
  3. ^ a b c d e f Hakluyt, Richard (2002) [1598]. The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation. p. 571.
  4. ^ a b c d e Southey 28–33
  5. ^ a b c Horner pg. 229
  6. ^ a b c Andrews pg. 76
  7. ^ a b c d e f Williamson 126–37
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Oppenheim 310–11
  9. ^ a b c d e f Amaral pp. 45–57
  10. ^ Bernardo Gomes de Brito: Historia Tragico Maritima p520
  11. ^ a b Horner, 1973 p109
  12. ^ Bernardo Gomes de Brito, Historia Tragico Maritima, p521.
  13. ^ Downton,The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, edited by Richard Hakluyt.
  14. ^ Horner on pg 229 quotes $1 billion, but he wrote in 1971 when monetary values were approximately one twentieth of 2017 values.
  15. ^ Nichols (1823), pp 496–497.
  16. ^ "Still Sunk: The Last Great Mystery Wrecks of the Ocean Floor". Gizmodo. Retrieved 7 November 2013.
  17. ^ The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques, and Discoveries of the English Nation, by Richard Hakluyt
  18. ^,38.40,2048 Select "currents" and double click to zoom in.
  19. ^ a b Horner, 1973 p112
  20. ^ Bernardo Gomez de Brito, "Historia Tragico Maritima" (The Tragic History of the Sea), 1735 p.517)
  21. ^ a b Holcomb and Searle,"Large Landslides from Oceanic Volcanoes", 1991

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