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The Napoleon Series > Biographies > Biographies

At Trafalgar and Waterloo: Don Miguel-Ricardo de Alava

By Stephen Millar

"It is with great pleasure that I have heard the wound you received in the action [the Battle of Trafalgar] is in a hopeful way of recovery, and that your country may still have the benefit of your future service. But, Sir, you surrendered yourself to me; and it was in consideration only of the state of your wound, that you were not removed into my ship. I could not disturb the repose of a man supposed to be in his last moments; but your sword, the emblem of your service, was delivered to me by your Captain; and I expect that you consider yourself a prisoner of war, until you shall be regularly exchanged by cartel."

            -- Vice-Admiral Collingwood's letter to Vice-Admiral Ignacio Maria de Alava y Saenz de Navarrete in Cadiz, 30 October 1805

"In short, this talisman [Napoleon's military reputation], whose charm had so long operated on the French military, has been completely dashed to pieces. Buonaparte has for ever lost the reputation of being invincible; and, henceforward, this character will belong to an honourable man [the Duke of Wellington], who, far from employing this glorious title in disturbing and enslaving Europe, will convert it into an instrument of her felicity, and in procuring for her that peace which she so much requires."

            -- Lieutenant-General Miguel Ricardo de Alava's report on the Battle of Waterloo to the Spanish Secretary of State, 13 July 1815

"Alava, the Spanish General, so attached and devoted to the Duke (by-the-bye, he was a Captain of a Spanish battleship or frigate, I forget which), told me and Juana two years after the Battle of Waterloo that the night after that eventful day, the Duke got back to his quarters at Waterloo about nine or ten at night. The table was laid for the usual number, while none appeared of the many of his staff but Alava and Fremantle."

            -- Smith, G. C. Moore, "The Autobiography of Harry Smith," 1909

Don Miguel-Ricardo de Alava

Don Miguel-Ricardo de Alava

Don Miguel-Ricardo de Alava holds a unique, but little-known, place in the history of the Napoleonic Wars. This naval officer, army officer, politician and ambassador is reputed to be the only man present at both of this period's two crucial military events: the Battle of Trafalgar (21.10.1805) and the Battle of Waterloo (18.06.1815).

Born in Vittoria in 1770, Alava began his military career in the Spanish Navy. In spite of having risen to the rank of captain (in command of a frigate) Alava subsequently decided to exchange services and continue his career - starting at the rank of captain - in the Spanish Army. So it was s an officer of marines that Alava participated in the first of the two great Napoleonic defeats - that of Trafalgar in 1805.

Alava had been posted to the 'Santa Ana,' the 112-gun flagship of his uncle, Vice-Admiral Ignacio-Maria de Alava y Saenz de Navarrete (1750-1817). At Trafalgar, Alava y Saenz de Navarrete commanded the Cadiz squadron and was second-in-command to Admiral Don Federico-Carlos Gravina y Napoli (1756-09.03.1806) on the 112-gun 'Principe de Asturias' [1].  The third Spanish flag officer present was Rear-Admiral Don Balthasar-Hildalgo Cisneros de la Torre (1758-09.06.1829) on the 136-gun 'Santissima Trinidad' [2].

Heavily damaged by Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood's 100-gun HMS 'Royal Sovereign', Alava y Saenz de Navarrete's flagship was forced to strike her colours to Collingwood [3]. He and his nephew might have remained British prisoners for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars had not the 'Santa Ana' and the French 74-gun 'Algeciras' been recaptured by a French commodore two days later.

The defeat of France and Spain at Trafalgar did not cause Alava to harbour anti-French sentiments; in 1808, he was one of the Spanish nobility to accept King Joseph's new constitution at Bayonne. It was only after the defeat of General de Division Pierre-Antoine Dupont de l'Etang (1765-1840) at Bailen on 19 July that Alava joined the insurrection against the French.

The Spanish Cortes sent him to British Headquarters as their liaison officer and the future Duke of Wellington later appointed him as one of his aides-de-camp. Alava spent the remainder of the Peninsular War attached to Wellington's staff, eventually reaching the rank of brigadier-general.

For reasons that are not entirely clear, the newly-restored King Fernando IV of Spain promptly threw Alava into prison. But Alava had powerful friends and both Wellington and Alava's uncle Raimundo Ethenard - a member of the Spanish Inquisition led by Francisco-Xavier de Mier y Campillo, Bishop of Almeria - successfully secured his release. Fernando (perhaps trying to get Alava as far away from Madrid as possible) subsequently appointed him Spain's Ambassador to the Hague.

By a stroke of luck, Fernando's appointment put Alava in the area of the upcoming 1815 Waterloo Campaign. He returned to Wellington's field staff as Spanish Commissioner (holding the rank of Lieutnant-General) and was present at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June [4].

Alava's report on Waterloo a month later to the Spanish Secretary of State was highly-critical of Napoleon. "His [Napoleon's] military reputation is lost for ever; and, on this occasion, there is no treason on the part of the allies, nor bridges blown up before their time, on which to throw the blame [a reference to the Battle of Leipzig in 1813]: all the shame will fall upon himself," he wrote. "Numerical superiority, superiority of artillery, all was in his favour; and his having commenced the attack, proves that he had sufficient means to execute it."

After Waterloo Alava's career continued to alternate between royal favour and royal disapproval. He was elected to the Cortes, eventually becoming its president in 1822 - but went into self-imposed exile in England several years later. Alava subsequently returned to Spain; Queen Maria Christina [regent for Queen Isabella II] appointed him ambassador to London (1834) and ambassador to Paris (1835). However, the old soldier again went into exile (and retirement) - this time in France.

Alava died at Bareges in 1843.


[1] Alava y Saenz de Navarrete became commander of the Spanish Fleet on 24.02.1817.

[2] The 4,900-ton 'Santissima Trinidad' - her formal name was actually 'Sanctissima Trinidad y Nuestra Senora del Buen Fin' - had originally been built in 1769 in Havana as a 116-gun three-deck warship. In 1795, with the addition of an 8-pounder battery, her armament was increased to 136 guns on four gun-decks.

[3] Cuthbert, 1st Baron Collingwood (26.09.1748-07.03.1810) took over command of the British Fleet after Nelson's death.

[4] In 1815, Alava was one of four Allied commissioners present at the Battle of Waterloo. The three other commissioners were Charles-Andre, comte Pozzo di Borgo (08.03.1764-15.02.1842) representing Russia; Charles, baron de Vincent - a Belgian in Austrian service and former governor-general of Holland from 05.05.1814 to 01.08.1814 - representing Austria and Friedrich-Ferdinand-Karl, Freiherr von Muffling [gen. Weiss] (12.06.1775-16.01.1851) representing Prussia.




Placed on the Napoleon Series: July 2005