In the late summer of 1588 one of the most important naval confrontations in European history took place.  On the orders of Philip II a fleet of 130 ships sailed from Spain, in principle to escort armed forces from the Spanish Netherlands that had been amassed with the purpose of invading England and overthrowing the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. Significant parts of the Armada were led by two prominent Basque admirals: Juan Martínez de Recalde Larrinaga from Bilbao and Miguel de Oquendo y Segura from Donostia-San Sebastián. However, the fleet delayed attacking the English, then became unstuck in unfavorable weather conditions. Harried by the counter-attacking English fleet, the ships of the Armada were forced away from the southern English coast.

Miguel de Oquendo y Segura (1534-1588)

One of the tactics used by the English and their Dutch allies was to set empty ships alight and send them into the anchored counterparts of the Armada, and in doing so numerous ships caught fire. One of those was the Capitana, Oquendo’s own ship, which fell victim to the attack, killing many of the crew. While it was claimed at the time that Oquendo managed to return to the port of Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, in another ship on September 24, it seems more likely that he died at sea on September 22. Recalde suffered a similar fate, although he did manage to return the port of A Coruña in Galicia, where he dies from wounds sustained at sea.

Basque involvement in global maritime history is discussed in some detail by William A. Douglass in his Basque Explorers in the Pacific Ocean.