Notes on the Mexican Steamer Guadalupe

Guadalupe NMM

My friend Kazimierz Zygadlo passes along a 2010 essay by Paul Quinn in the Mariner’s Mirror on the Mexican iron-hulled warship Guadalupe, that fought against the Texian Navy off Yucatán in May 1843. While I cannot reproduce the entire piece here, Quinn does a superb job in explaining the role of the British-built Guadalupe as a pioneer in the adoption of iron-hulled steamships by the Royal Navy and other powers:


[Guadalupe’s builder] John Laird [of Birkenhead, England] attempted to force the pace on [adoption of] the iron warship, repeating his speculative action over Nemesis and building another ship (yard no. 42) of 788 tons described by him as an iron steam frigate.  Although the Admiralty sent a Mr Large from Woolwich to examine her, they declined to purchase as she was too small. Nevertheless, she achieved her purpose, as the Admiralty responded with an order for a 1,500-ton iron frigate, launched as the HMS Birkenhead in 1843. She was quickly followed by four other orders for iron frigates, placed on various builders. Vessel no. 42 should therefore be remembered as a vital stepping-stone in the introduction of iron warships into the Royal Navy. The folly of a subsequent government in banning iron warships resulted in Birkenhead (and the other iron frigates) being unsuitably converted to a troopship. She subsequently ran on a rock off South Africa, resulting in an epic story of heroism and rescue in 1853.

This apparently left vessel no. 42 in limbo, but not for long. Admiral Cockburn actively supported her sale to the Mexican government as the Guadelupe in 1842. She was slightly larger than Nemesis, but embodied no fundamentally new ideas, contrary to Texan accounts, which describe her as an ironclad. when she left Birkenhead for her transatlantic voyage Guadalupe was rigged as a brig. On arrival she had two 32-pounders installed on the broadside and two 68-pounders mounted on swivels placed fore-and-aft. The 68-pounder was the most advanced smooth bore gun the Royal Navy used in quantity. it was developed as an answer to the threat of steam gunboats enfilading sailing battleships in calm weather, and also the shell gun developed by Paixhans for the French Navy. later, it was found practical to rifle it, providing an inexpensive muzzle-loading rifle. however, it had its problems, foremost of which was its weight of nearly five tons. Even a fit and experienced gun crew was exhausted after a short while operating it and its aimed rate-of-fire was limited by the difficulty of handling it. . . .

Quinn offers a long discussion about Guadalupe in Mexican service, and why the widely-reported of heavy casualties aboard the Mexican steamers is almost certainly highly exaggerated. He concludes:

[After the Battle of Campeche in May 1843,] Guadalupe remained in the Armada de Mexico until 1847, by which time the fate of Yucatan had been decided, when she and Montezuma were sold to raise money for the continuing land hostilities with the United States. her new owners are described by the Armada de Mexico as ‘The Spaniards in Havana’.  Her subsequent history has not been discovered.

There were numerous falsehoods circulated about Moore’s battle with Guadalupe. These seem to be largely the confections of the press, egged on by politicians, and are not to be taken seriously. They include claims to have sunk her. These false claims were a feature of the American press and politicians. There is an obvious explanation of this consistent lack of veracity by the press and some politicians in both Texas and the USA. Both were trying to form a new nation, with very little glory other than their successful rebellion to parade before their populations, so, in their liking for sensationalism, they invented favourable history quite prolifically. They were not the only nation to indulge in doubtful interpretations of history. Moore’s accounts, on the contrary, have a distinct ring of truth about them, even if  the casualty figures he accepted from his spy are wrong.

Moore had accomplished his purpose, and was therefore the victor, regardless of the relative damage and casualties. Moore also has one unchallengeable distinction – the Battle of Campeche is notable as a rare case of sailing warships defeating steam warships.

Guadalupe should be considered a successful early iron warship, even though she was defeated in battle, she stood up to battle conditions well. She also performed her job as an advertisement for the iron warship.

Image: National Maritime Museum, UK.