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Cordova in Alaska

by Dr. Arsenio Rey-Tejerina

A lecture given at the Cordova Museum in summer of 1990, the bicentennial of the naming of the community.

Who was Luis de Córdova y Córdova?

    Cordova Cordova, repeated as a poetic anaphora, like Walla Walla, Pago Pago or other cities flaunting a double label, could be the name of this Alaskan place if we would want to adhere to its namesake: Córdova y Córdova. He was a Captain General of the Spanish Royal Navy, the highest military rank to which a Spanish soldier could aspire.

    Luis de Córdova y Córdova, born in Seville in 1706, survived many life dangers, living to be a nonagenarian. His father was a navy captain and, before he reached thirteen, took his son along on two of his voyages to America. As a lad of 15 he entered the Naval Academy of San Fernando for guardiamarinas, something similar to a midshipman cadet in our Naval Academy of Annapolis. He was initiating a long career in the Royal Navy that would take him to fight against Algerian, Austrian and English navies for almost 70 years throughout Europe and the Caribbean. He was frequently involved in keeping at bay corsair ships and in the protection of convoys.

    As a gallant young mariner he was chosen to escort Prince Carlos of Bourbon into Italy in 1730 and two years later was at the re-conquest of Orán, a nest of pirates in the Africa coast. Two more years passed and he is at the re-conquest of the kingdom of Naples and Sicily for the same Don Carlos.

    He went through all the lower echelons with distinction and by 1740 was Capitán de Fragata. He defended Cartagena in Colombia from the pestering attacks of English pirates, and later, while fighting against Algerian pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, was elevated to the rank of Capitán de Navío. Eleven years later he sank an Algerian battleship -the Danzik- armed with 62 cannons in the Bay of Cádiz, a feat that earned him the prestigious Cross of Calatrava.

    In 1760 he became the chief-commander of a fleet going to North America, which did not return to Cádiz until 14 years later, at which time Luis became a Lieutenant General. Having been in charge of several assignments in Europe and crisscrossed the Atlantic nine times, Luis de Córdova was elevated to the rank of Lieutenant General in 1775, being then worthy of a well-deserved retirement. But he continued on active duty and, in 1779, when Spain declared war to England, he was made the co-commander of a joint Spanish-French squadron counting as many as 70 battleships to attack the English coasts. The combined forces reigned over the English Channel. They created a certain panic in Plymouth and Portsmouth but were unsuccessful in achieving any landing due to bad weather and a pandemic of typhus that had decimated 5000 of their sailors. His French partner, Count of Orvilliers, abandoned the scene and took refuge in Brest, a fact for which he was bitterly criticized. He quit the Navy and disappeared.

    This was the time of the American War of Independence and the British Navy was at low ebb, not being able to replace and upkeep their battered ships with the abundant Vermont timber as in the past. Don Luis captured a convoy of 55 British ships and their three accompanying frigates north of the Azores and brought them all to Cádiz in the summer of 1780.

    This defeat of the English Navy, a long-awaited compulsion for many European nations, made Don Luis the hero of the day. The future explorers of Alaska, young mariners at the time, must have been enthralled by his feats. And during the following decades, when they came to the Pacific Northwest, it was not surprising that his name was at the top of their choices to distinguish the various geographical spots they were discovering.

    The following summer Córdova y Córdova was back again in the English Channel or La Manche, as most Europeans call it, causing terror among the English who were having nightmares of another Invincible Armada ready to take over their country. And again he captured 24 more ships from England but circumstances prevented him from setting foot on the island.

    After these victories in the English Channel, Don Luis went back to his own country to set siege to Gibraltar, where he was not so successful. In the next three years the French and the Spanish navies were keeping a tighter and tighter siege around the Rock of Gibraltar, but our General was not able to impede its break by British navy men like George Rodney (December, 1780), George Darby (March '81) and Richard Howe (Oct. '82). Neither was he able to avoid the sinking of their smart "floating batteries" attacking the Rock.

    The great Howe, who had distinguished himself along his brother, Sir William Howe, in the American Revolution, and would later become First Lord of the Admiralty for his valor during his encounter with Córdova's fleet, outwitted the Spaniards and finally broke the siege of the Gibraltarians. Howe gained the admiration of Frederick the Great, the King of Prussia, and the French and the Spaniards acknowledged they had been outmaneuvered by a much smaller fleet.

    In spite of these failures, Luis de Córdova was given the title of Captain General, the highest-ranking file in the Spanish Navy and entrusted with the direction of the Armada. Treaties of Peace were signed in Paris (1783) stopping the fighting and conceding independence to America. It is worth noticing that these fights were distracting the British lion from the American shores, thus helping the 13 colonies gain their independence. The lion would let go from its paws the vast territories across the Atlantic, but would not give up the small Rock where it is still entrenched.

    Brimming with great deeds and covered with glory, the venerable Don Luis, already an octogenarian, retired from the Navy after more than 65 years of uninterrupted service. He had rightfully captured the admiration of all the budding Spanish mariners, who were being trained at the Naval Academy of San Fernando, near the city of Cádiz.

Page 2 - The Spaniards arrive and name it Córdova
Page 3 - The naming of Valdez
Page 4 - Other places named Cordova