THE BATTLE OF CAPE ST. VINCENT

14th. FEBRUARY, 1797

Nelson (left) is greeted by Admiral Jarvis (right) on board Victory and is congratulated for his decisive contribution to the battle

Victory (100) Admiral Sir John Jarvis, Commander-in-Chief
Captain Robert Calder (Captain of The Fleet)
Captain George Gregg (Flag Captain)
Britannia (100) Vice Admiral Charles Thompson
Captain Thomas Foley (Flag Captain)*
Barfleur (98) Vice Admiral Hon. William Waldegrave
Captain Richard Dacre (Flag Captain)
Prince George (98) Rear Admiral William Parker
Namur (98) Captain James Whitshed
Blenheim (98) Captain Thomas Frederick
Captain (74 ) Commodore Horatio Nelson
Captain Ralph Miller (Flag Captain)*
Goliath (74) Captain Sir Charles Knowles
Excellent (74) Captain Cuthbert Collingwood**
Orion (74) Captain Sir James Saumarez*
Collosus (74) Captain George Murray
Egmont (74) Captain John Sutton
Culloden (74) Captain Thomas Troubridge*
Irresistible (74) Captain George Martin
Diadem (74) Captain George Towry
Lively (32) frigate Captain Lord Garlies
Niger (32) frigate Captain Edward Foote
Southampton (32) frigate Captain James Macnamara
Minerve (38) frigate Captain George Cockburn
La Bonne Citoyenne (18) sloop Captain Charles Lindsay
Raven (18) sloop Captain William Prowse
Fox (12) cutter Lieutenant Gibson

* Captains later served under Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson’s command at the epic Battle of The Nile some eighteen months later. Also present at St. Vincent were Lieutenant Thomas Hardy serving as Nelson’s First Lieutenant and Captain Edward Berry who later commanded HMS Vanguard as Nelson’s Flag Captain at The Nile.

** Vice Admiral Sir Cuthbert Collingwood, a life-long friend of Nelson, served as his Second in Command at the Battle of Trafalgar. On Nelson’s death, he succeeded to the Command of the Mediterranean Fleet which, as Lord Collingwood, he served faithfully. He was a lonely figure who paced the quarterdeck for five more years before he died, at sea, of what is thought to have been stomach cancer. His body lies close to Nelson’s in the beautiful crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent

By John Nelson

“A victory is very essential to England at this moment,” remarked Admiral Sir John Jervis, Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean fleet, as he led his ships to the reported position of the Spanish fleet. The words could not have been more appropriate, as they expressed very well England’s current predicament in Europe. England was at war with France, who had forced Spain to a peace in 1795 and the Treaty of San Ildefonso in the same year.

Pressure was now being put on the Spaniards to undertake joint operations against the British in the English Channel. London received advance warning of this development by a letter from the Queen of Naples, copied by Emma Hamilton, and sent to Nelson. London decided the British fleet could not cope with France and Spain in the Mediterranean and also respond to the invasion threat in the Channel. The fleet was therefore withdrawn from the Mediterranean, an action much criticised by Nelson, who considered that “at home they know not what this fleet is capable of performing.” With the British out of the Mediterranean, Naples was left to negotiate the best terms for peace with France, and Austria followed suit.

February 13th. 1797 found Jervis off the Cape of St. Vincent in South West Spain, with 15 sail of the line ships (of which 6 were three-deckers), 4 frigates, a sloop and cutter. He was awaiting Nelson’s return from the Mediterranean where he had been evacuating Elba, with hopefully more definite news of the Spanish fleet. Jervis was not to be disappointed. Nelson, upon his rendezvous with Jervis, was able to report the Spanish fleet as being 17 leagues away, and he said he had sailed undetected through the middle of them on the 11th.

The Spanish fleet consisting of 27 sail of the line ships (of which the Santissima Trinidada was a four-decker, and no less than 6 others were three-deckers), 10 frigates and .a brig, apart from 4 big urcas carrying mercury in a convoy, was commanded by Lieut. General Don Jose de Cordova. The fleet had left Carthagena on 1st. February, short of men and stores, and expecting only a short time at sea and no interference from the enemy. The fleet had passed through the Straits on February 5th. to convey the mercury from Malaga to Cadiz. The 68-gun ship, San Domingo was also carrying mercury. This ore came from one of the few mercury mines in Europe, at Almaden, 100 miles north of Malaga. Large supplies were required for amalgamating the silver from the new world, on which the Spanish and French economy now depended. Had Jervis known about this mercury, he would undoubtedly have found ships to pursue this convoy at the end of the battle. Having destroyed them, he would have struck a severe blow at Spain’s economy. These urcas and their escorts were to remain in the lee division throughout the battle of 14th. February, and were not to get involved at all. A change of wind had driven the Spanish fleet to leeward of Cadiz.”Seeing how uncertain was the weather” says Cordova “I could not take up our correct course until the morning of the 14th.”

Nelson transferred his Commodore’s pendant from the Minerve frigate, to the 74-gun Captain which was commanded by Captain Miller. Jervis took every precaution on the night of February 13th. against what the morning might bring. Frigates were dispersed, and the signal “PREPARE FOR BATTLE” had been sent to all the ships of the line, together with orders to sail in close order. During the night, signal guns of the Spanish fleet were heard, and a Portuguese frigate reported it was 15 miles to windward.

Cordova’s fleet, on the other hand, was in no order whatsoever, though there was little sea running and hardly any wind. Part of his fleet, the convoy of mercury laden urcas and their escorts, had separated from the main body, and were a long way to leeward. When the mist began to lift on the morning of the 14th. Jervis could see a gap between the two bodies. The Minerve frigate began signalling that the main body of the fleet was in sight to windward, and Calder as captain of the fleet, gave news to Jervis as it came in:

“There are eight sail of the line, Sir John” “Very well, Sir”
“There are twenty sail of the line, Sir John” “Very well, Sir”
“There are twenty-five sail of the line, Sir John”
“Very well, Sir”
“There are twenty seven sail, Sir John”
“Enough, Sir, no more of that, the die is cast and if there are fifty sail I will go through them”

Jervis had originally sent some ships towards the leeward division of the Spanish fleet, but as the main body came in sight these ships were recalled, and the signal for the fleet “TO FORM A SINGLE LINE OF BATTLE AHEAD AND ASTERN AS MOST CONVENIENT” was made. Jervis aimed to go through the gap between the Spanish leeward and weather divisions. As the full force of the Spanish fleet emerged from the mist, those fine ships were described by the signal lieutenant of the Barfleur as “thumpers, looming like Beachy Head in a fog”. The Culloden (74) was leading the line under Captain Thomas Troubridge and was the first to open fire as she passed through the gap. An observer of the Culloden’s broadside speaks of guns as fired “as by a seconds watch and in the silence of a port Admiral’s inspection.”

Battle Of Cape St Vincent

Battle Of Cape St Vincent

Cordova, realising the British line now lay between him and his leeward division, altered course in order to pass astern of Jervis’s fleet. The lifting of the morning mist found the forward ships all engaged with the enemy, and smoke prevented Jervis from seeing what was happening. When he realised Cordova’s intention, Jervis decided to order all his ships to tack in succession in order to engage the enemy on the same tack. The main body of the Spanish fleet was now formless, and all they could do was follow astern their towering flagship.

The exception among the Spanish leeward division ships to engage in action on the day, was Vice-Admiral Joaquin Moreno in the Prince d’ Asturias (112) accompanied by 2 three-deckers and a 74. Moreno, instead of wearing before the wind, held on towards the Victory, (Jervis’s flagship of 100 guns). A collision seemed imminent until Moreno turned away. As he turned, the Victory raked her with two thunderous broadsides, and Moreno withdrew to leeward in some confusion, and with a badly damaged ship. Moreno’s interference had the effect of delaying the progress of the British fleet to tack through the gap between the two Spanish divisions. All the British ships succeeded in tacking through the gap, except for the Colossus (74) which due to a chance shot from Moreno’s ship, missed stays and swerved heavily across the Irresistible (74) astern of her. The Colossus ended up falling out of the line, and took no further part in the battle.

Nelson, who was third from the rear in the Captain (74) perceived the Spaniards trying to get astern of the fleet, and to prevent this he told Captain Miller to wear the ship out of the line in order to stand on the other tack himself, and therefore anticipate the Spanish move. Nelson did not wait to be told to carry out this bold move by Jervis, but later he declared he anticipated Jervis’s later signal to take suitable stations for mutual support and engage the enemy as arriving up with them in succession. In other words, Jervis was encouraging his ships to use their own initiative. Nelson could have been court-martialled for leaving the line of battle, but after the battle, Jervis thanked Nelson most sincerely for what he had done. Mahan’s comments on the issue sum up Nelson’s actions very well, “in this well -timed, but most daring move, which illustrates to the highest degree the immense difference between a desperate and a reckless action, Nelson passed to the head of the British column, crossing the bows of five large Spanish vessels, and with his 74 engaged the Santissima Trinidada of 136 guns, the biggest ship afloat at that time.”

The two ships behind Nelson in the line, the Diadem (64) and Excellent (74) were to follow Nelson’s example and wear out of the line of battle. For a time Nelson found himself to be the leading ship of the line, ahead of the Culloden and now engaged himself with the Santissima Trinidada (136), closely supported by the San Josef (112), the Salvador del Mundo (112) and the San Nicolas (80). Fortunately, the Culloden was fighting her way through the ships astern to come to Nelson’s support, and the rest of Rear Admiral, Sir William Parker’s ships were not far away.

Parker signalled to “FILL AND STAND ON” and the Culloden moved to engage Spanish ships forward of Nelson’s Captain. All seven ships in the van were now engaged with the enemy, and Jervis with the remaining seven was coming up on the weather quarter. For the next hour the battle was a melee Cordova was to signal his van to bear up and shorten sail and hoisted the signal for a general attack on the enemy. The signal was an order for the ships not already engaged to take whatever action was necessary to get into action.

Nelson’s Captain by this time became so much mauled as to be incapable of further service. Rather than surrender the ship, Nelson laid the Captain aboard the starboard quarter of the San Nicolas. Her spritsail yard, passed over the Spaniard’s poop, and hooked in her mizzen shrouds. A boarding party was called for, and Captain Edward Berry (only recently promoted to Captain under Nelson’s influence) was first to board the enemy. Nelson came on board with his boarding party and after some brief skirmishing found Berry in possession of the poop, engaged in hauling down the Spanish ensign. Nelson passed towards the forecastle; several Spanish officers delivered their swords to him on his way. However, there was an interruption of musket fire coming from the Admiral’s stern gallery of the San Josef The much larger ship had entangled itself aloft with the San Nicolas which was now on fire. Seven of the boarding party were killed and several wounded. Provoked by this, Nelson determined to bring into operation what was afterwards called “Nelson’s Patent Bridge for boarding First rates”. More men were ordered aboard the San Nicolas and, to the cry of “Westminster Abbey or glorious victory” charged on to the San Josef using the San Nicolas as a stepping stone. A Spanish officer appeared over from the quarter deck rail to say they had surrendered. This was most welcome news to Nelson, who then received the sword of the dying Admiral Don F. J. Winthuysen, from Spanish Flag Captain, Don Jose Delkenna. (Nelson presented this sword to the City of Norwich, where it is on show in the Guildhall). A signal was now made by the Captain for boats to assist in separating her prizes, and as the Captain was incapable of further action, so Nelson shifted his pendant to the Minerve frigate.

The British fleet was now in possession of four enemy ships. The van of the British line continued to press hard the Santissima Trindada, which sustained the heaviest damage of all, having been attacked all afternoon by a three-decker and three ships of 74 guns that raked her fore and aft at pistol shot range. Despite having upwards of 200 men killed and wounded, she continued in battle for most of the afternoon until she could continue no longer, which was towards the end of the battle. The Santissema Trinidada did strike her colours, but what prevented her from falling into British possession was the emergence, for the first time during the day, of the Spanish lee division of what looked like eight ships of the line, exchanging long range fire with the Britannia (100). Two further ships detached in the early morning were coming down from the S.W. Two ships from the van had at last wore round to support the flag, and there were nine more ships to windward.

Jervis had only eleven ships left fit for action, with four disabled ships and four prizes to cover. The signal was therefore made for the British fleet to “BRING TO” . Even Nelson had to admit “the day was too advanced to venture on taking possession of the Santissima Trinidada, although she had long ceased to resist, as it must have brought on a night action with a still very superior fleet. “The frigates had orders to take charge of the prizes not already taken possession of, and the British fleet was again formed in a most admirable line of battle which protected the prizes from any interference from the Spanish fleet. The British fleet ‘laid to’ during the night of the 14th. They were some distance to leeward of the Spanish fleet, which they could see huddled in great confusion. The next day, Jervis awaited a renewal of the battle as he was in no position to attack himself, but the Spaniards decided against resuming the conflict.

The “essential victory” Jervis had hoped for, had been obtained, and four prizes had been taken. The victory had been obtained against a Spanish force of 27 ships mounting 2308 guns against a British force of 15 ships mounting 1232 guns – a difference of 1076 guns in favour of the Spanish. British seamanship came to the fore on the day. Jervis had said, “it is men, not ships that win battles. “The British had a better rate of fire than their Spanish counterparts, as can be seen by an examination of the casualty list. The British total was 300 killed and wounded against a Spanish total killed and wounded of 1092. Some 2300 Spanish prisoners were landed at Lagos by Jervis two days later.

After the battle the prisoners from the prizes reported that their Captains and officers were unable to persuade the crew, after the first broadside, to go aloft to repair the injured rigging, despite threats of punishments. Some also admitted that the Spanish fleet was unsea-worthy.

Jervis was most satisfied with the conduct of all his men during the battle, although in his despatch to the Admiralty, he did not single anybody out for particular praise. Only Captain Calder was named, and it was runioured that he influenced Jervis in not giving special mention to Nelson, because Nelson had disobeyed orders, and it would only encourage other officers to do the same. Jervis’s despatch was, therefore, a very bare and impersonal narrative of events, and a more detailed account was called for. A Colonel Drinkwater Bethune, part of Sir Gilbert Elliot’s entourage brought back from Elba by Nelson, produced an anonymous eye-witness account just after the battle, before reproducing a second version in 1840. It should be noted that Nelson had the chance to speak with Colonel Drinkwater Bethune the day after the battle, and gave him a glowing account of his own exploits in the battle. We must therefore read this account very aware of Nelson’s influence on it.

During the battle, Nelson showed two examples of what was later to be known as the “Nelson Touch”, which was to be Nelson’s individual stamp on future battles. The first example was his instinctive perception to anticipate what was required in a fleet action, without being told. Nelson tacked out of the line of battle before Jervis signalled the fleet to “TAKE SUITABLE STATIONS FOR MUTUAL SUPPORT”, and he therefore risked a court martial if things had not worked out satisfactorily. Fortunately for Nelson, his manoeuvre delivered the coup-de-grace. Nelson also developed his philosophy of engaging opponents, and on no account to quit them until they were so disabled that they could not get away. One of Nelson’s favourite signals was to become “ENGAGE THE ENEMY MORE CLOSELY.”

As a result of the battle Jervis was raised in the peerage to an Earl, and was afterwards known as Earl St. Vincent. Nelson had the Order of the Bath conferred upon him, which enabled him to wear the first of the many decorations he was to receive in later life.

On February 24th. Jervis took his fleet to Lisbon, which for the next two years was to be his base in watching any threat on the part of the Spanish at Cadiz. He had defeated the first stage of the Grand Design to invade the British Isles by a combination of the fleets of France and Spain. The Mediterranean lay open once more to British shipping.