On entering the main door of the Museo Naval de la Nación at Tigre, near Buenos Aires, in Argentina, one is confronted with a portrait of Colonel Juan Bautista Azopardo, first commander-in-chief of the revolutionary navy that fought Spain in the first decades of the 19th century. He was a contemporary of Admiral Guillermo Brown, General Manuel Belgrano and Josè de San Martin, revered heroes of South American independence.

Portrait of Colonel Juan Bautista Azopardo (oil on canvas by Eduardo Cerrutti). Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaPortrait of Colonel Juan Bautista Azopardo (oil on canvas by Eduardo Cerrutti). Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Juan Bautista, Fortunato, Ignatio, was born 250 years ago, on February 20, 1772, to Ludovico Azopardo and Rosa née Romano. He was baptised the following day by Fr Ignatio Grimani, vice-parish priest at Senglea parish church.

In 1787, Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan, who recognised the boy’s interest in the sea, sent him to Toulon, France, to study naval architecture for six years. Burning with enthusiasm for seafaring life, he achieved the grade of lieutenant with the Order of St John, followed by subsequent promotion as an officer of the French Navy in 1793.

During these formative years at sea, he made several voyages to Latin America and Caribbean countries where he took part, under the French ensign, in numerous battles, mainly in Guadalupe and Martinique.

Back in the Mediterranean, in 1796, Azopardo offered his services to Sir John Jervis, Admiral Lord St Vincent, commander-in-chief of the English Fleet in the Mediterranean, and commanded the tartana San Antonio l’Anime del Purgatorio. He seemed to change loyalties quite frequently.

Towards the end of the 18th century, probably in 1799, he arrived for the very first time in Buenos Aires. In April 1806, he was appointed second-in-command of the Spanish corvette Reina Luisa, operating from Montevideo. By then, British forces had occupied the Dutch Cape Colony and prepared for an expedition across the Atlantic against Buenos Aires. They besieged the city in June 1806 but the English General William Carr Beresford was rejected by the inhabitants. Azopardo was at the forefront of the fighting.

Azopardo was then under the command of Santiago de Liniers, the commandant-general of the army, a French nobleman and a veteran Knight of Malta. He was given command of a number of ships that guarded the coast and fought a number of engagements with British warships.

When over a year later English troops, under General Whitelock, again attacked Buenos Aires, Azopardo had been appointed to command the coastal batteries at Los Olivos and he immediately moved his battalion and cavalry to the centre of the city, setting up the defence of the Plaza Mayor. The English forces capitulated.

Liniers, noting the fine qualities of this Maltese captain, on February 16, 1808, recommended Azopardo for promotion to lieutenant colonel in the Buenos Aires Militia as a reward for his military bearing.

The colonists took courage after their defence of the city, and on January 1, 1809, rebelled against their Spanish overlords. Liniers was removed by the Spanish authorities for supporting the rebellion, and Azopardo was also removed from his command by the new viceroy, Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros.

On May 25, 1810, a provisional junta was formed that claimed independence for the viceroyalty. The president of the junta, Colonel Don Cornelio Saavedra, enrolled Azopardo in the Corps of the Grenadiers. On August 15, 1810, he was appointed commander of the First Argentine Naval Squadron, taking to sea on his flagship Invincible, incidentally the same title borne by Senglea, his hometown, since the Great Siege of 1565.

On February 10, 1811, he set sail from Buenos Aires in command of a small force of three ships – the schooner Invincible, the brig 25 de Mayo and the sloop Americana. His mission was to sail down the Paranà River towards the estuary of the River Plate. The Spaniards learnt of his movements, and a squadron led by Jacinto Romarata sailed in search of the Argentine warships.

The schooner Invincible, the brig 25 de Mayo and the sloop Americana (oil on canvas by Pablo Pereyra). Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, Argentina.The schooner Invincible, the brig 25 de Mayo and the sloop Americana (oil on canvas by Pablo Pereyra). Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The two squadrons sighted each other on February 28. Azopardo was cruising in the vicinity of the town of San Nicolas in the estuary of the Paranà. The battle took place on March 2 against the superior and more experienced Spanish naval squadron. The crews of 25 de Mayo and Americana, considering discretion the better part of valour, jumped overboard and swam ashore to comparative safety. An appeal by Azopardo to the garrison at San Nicolas for assistance went unheeded.

For some two hours, the Invincible carried on a running fight with the Spanish squadron, consisting of two brigantines, Belen and Cisne, and the feluccas San Martin and Fama.

Azopardo’s intention was to scuttle his ship – he attempted to blow up the ship on three occasions – however, fearing heavier casualties, decided to surrender.

He was taken as a prisoner by a former Spanish comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Jose Maria Robion. Charged with organising a rebellion against the Spanish viceroy, on March 18 he was condemned to imprisonment in exile in Spain.

On July 1, the frigate Efigenia arrived at Cadiz with Azopardo in chains. He was first imprisoned in the fortress of San Sebastian. Here he met Maria Sandalia Perez Rico, 12 years younger than him, who frequently accompanied her parents when they visited another of the prisoners, and they were married.

A hand fan that belonged to Maria Sandalia Perez Rico, the colonel’s wife, at the museum. Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaA hand fan that belonged to Maria Sandalia Perez Rico, the colonel’s wife, at the museum. Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, Argentina

He was eventually transferred to a prison in Ceuta, North Africa. During the period 1811-1820, he was condemned to death on three separate occasions but was pardoned every time. Nonetheless, he was harshly treated and often kept in solitary confinement.

In 1820, at the outbreak of the Spanish Liberal Revolution of General Riego, Azopardo was set free. With a passport to Algeciras, he immediately crossed over to Gibraltar to catch an English ship bound for Buenos Aires, where he was welcomed as a hero.

Argentina, his eventual adoptive motherland, had since 1816 become a republic. A congress of deputies elected Don Martin Pueyrredon supreme dictator of the country. On February 15, 1821, Azopardo was honoured for his valour and integrated back into the navy with his former rank of lieutenant colonel. He was given command of a number of ships that supported the central government in its suppression of various internal uprisings.

In July 1821, Azopardo took part in the Battle of Colastine, where he confronted anarchists from the province of Entre Rios. On December 13, 1821, he was appointed Captain of the Port of Buenos Aires. From 1821 to 1825, he organised the management of the port and ensured its defence, besides framing various regulations meant to control shipping and any abuses in the trafficking of arms.

On May 7, 1824, he was promoted to the full rank of Navy Colonel. On his appointment, he assumed command of the brigantine General Belgrano, thus becoming vice commodore of the National Fleet, led by Admiral William Brown.

He also saw to the construction and arming of various ships. When Brazil declared war on Uruguay on December 10, 1825, Azopardo was appointed second-in-command to Colonel-General Josè Matias Zapiola, the commandant general of the navy.

In February 1826, the Argentine squadron was involved in the fierce Battle of Los Pozos on the River Plate against marauding Brazilian ships.

Azopardo retired from active service in February 1827. By that time, Argentina and Spain had signed an armistice in December 1824, while a peace treaty was also drawn up with Great Britain in February 1825. Argentina later subscribed to a preliminary peace convention with Brazil in August 1828 and a peace accord with France. Azopardo’s life could now be lived in the serene intimacy of his family and without any public duties, in the company of his wife and their son Luis Alberto.

So came to pass a thoroughgoing life on the ocean waves for this gallant mariner who performed his duty unstintingly, successfully and selflessly; putting the flag first and foremost, above all other considerations.

After having sailed the Mediterranean, the South African and South American waters, he died in Buenos Aires on October 23, 1848, and was buried in the Cemeterio de la Recoleta. His wife died in Buenos Aires on August 2, 1851.

A lock of the colonel’s hair in a showcase at the museum. Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, ArgentinaA lock of the colonel’s hair in a showcase at the museum. Photo: Museo Naval De La Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, Argentina

His remains were entrusted by his family to the care of the navy, and in 1878 were removed to the pantheon of the naval command in the Eastern Cemetery. These were re-laid in a coffin of bronze and wood with an inscription: “Here lie in the eternal bosom of the navy the venerable remains of Juan Bautista Azopardo, the first commander of the patriotic squadron and heroic captain of the Invincible in the waters of San Nicolas.”

On March 2, 1947, President Juan Peron inaugurated the monument commemorating the first naval battle at a site overlooking the Paranà River at the town of San Nicolas. Azopardo’s remains were transported there on October 23, 1948, and today lie under a tall obelisk, close to his statue.

The monumental obelisk to Azopardo, in San Nicolás de los Arroyos, where his mortal remains were placed in 1948. Photo: Carlos Berzzi

The monumental obelisk to Azopardo, in San Nicolás de los Arroyos, where his mortal remains were placed in 1948. Photo: Carlos Berzzi

The bust commemorating Azopardo at the Senglea waterfront.

The bust commemorating Azopardo at the Senglea waterfront.

In Argentina, various warships and other auxiliary ships have been named after Azopardo, including a frigate constructed in the Santiago River in 1953. A number of localities and capes also bear his name, as do schools, streets and the naval dockyard in Azul.

In Malta, on June 16, 2001, Argentine Ambassador Elsa Kelly unveiled a bust commemorating Azopardo at the Senglea waterfront, which had also been named after him, in February 1999, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death.

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