The Battle of Cape St Vincent
Admiral Sir John Jervis’s victory over the much larger Spanish Fleet, combating the threat to Britain; a victory made more decisive by Nelson’s inspired initiative.
War: Napoleonic Wars.
The Battle of Cape St Vincent
Date: 14th February 1797.
Place: Off the south west coast of Portugal, to the north west of the Spanish naval port of Cadiz.
Combatants: The British Fleet against the Spanish Fleet.
Admirals: Admiral Sir John Jervis against Admiral Don Jose de Cordova.
Winner: The British Fleet; capturing 2 of the Spanish 3 deckers and 2 other line of battle ships and severely damaging several other ships of the Spanish Fleet.
Rear Admiral Sir John Jervis
The British Fleet: His Majesty’s Ships Victory (Captain Calder, 100 guns), Britannia (Vice Admiral Thompson: Captain Foley 100 guns), Barfleur (Vice Admiral Waldegrave: Captain Dacres 98 guns), Prince George (Rear Admiral Parker: Captain Irwin 98 guns), Blenheim (Captain Frederick: 90 guns), Namur (Captain
Whitshed 90 guns), Culloden (Captain Troubridge: 74 guns), Orion (Captain Saumarez 74 guns), Colossus (Captain Murray 74 guns), Irresistible (Captain Martin 74 guns), Egmont (Captain Sutton 74 guns), Goliath (Captain Knowles: 74 guns), Captain (Commodore Nelson: Captain Miller: 74 guns), Excellent (Captain Collingwood: 74 guns) and Diadem (Captain Towry: 64 guns).
Frigates: Minerve (Captain Cockburn 38 guns), Lively (Captain Lord Garlies 32 guns), Niger (Captain Foote 32 guns), Southampton (Captain Macnamara 32 guns), La Bonne Citoyenne (Captain Lindsay: 20 guns), Raven, sloop (Commander Prowse 18 guns), Fox, cutter (Lieutenant Gibson 10 guns),
The Spanish Fleet: Santissima Trinidad, 130 guns, Concepcion 112 guns, Conde de Regla 112 guns, Mexicano 112 guns, Principe de Asturias 112 guns, Salvador del Mundo 112 guns, San Josef 112 guns, San Jose 112 guns, Neptuno 80 guns, San Nicolas 80 guns, Atlante 74 guns, Bahama 74 guns, Conquistador 74 guns, Firme 74 guns, Glorioso 74 guns, Oriente 74 guns, Pelayo 74 guns, San Antonia 74
guns, San Domingo 74 guns, San Fermin 74 guns, San Francisco de Paula 74 guns, San Genaro 74 guns, San Ildefenso 74 guns, San Juan Nepomuceno 74 guns, San Pablo 74 guns, San Isidoro 74 guns, Soberano 74 guns and Terrible 74 guns.
Frigates: Ceres, 34 guns, Atocha, 34 guns, Diana, 34 guns, Matilda, 34 guns, Mercedes, 34 guns, Perla, 34 guns and Santa Brigida, 34 guns.
British: 14 line of battle ships, 5 frigates, sloop and cutter with 1,350 guns.
Spanish: 28 line of battle ships and 7 frigates with 2,644 guns.
Ships and Armaments: Sailing warships of the 18th and 19th Century carried their main armaments in broadside batteries along the sides. Ships were classified according to the number of guns carried or the number of decks carrying batteries. The size of gun on the line of battle ships was up to 24 pounder, firing heavy iron balls or chain and link shot designed to wreck rigging. Nile was
a close fleet action. Ships manoeuvred up to the enemy and delivered broadsides at a range of a few yards.
Commodore Nelson's Flagship HMS Captain engages the Spanish Flagship
Santissima Trinidad at
the beginning of the Battle of Cape St Vincent
Ships manoeuvred to deliver broadsides in the most destructive manner; the greatest effect being achieved by firing into an enemy’s stern or bow quarter, so that balls travelled the length of the ship wreaking havoc and destruction. The first broadside, loaded before action began and often, as in the case of Troubridge’s 74 gun Culloden, double shotted, was always the most effective. To
achieve greatest impact the British ships held their fire until alongside the Spanish ships. In some instances broadsides were fired at ranges of less than 10 metres.
Ships carried a variety of smaller weapons on the top deck and in the rigging, from swivel guns firing grape shot or cannister (bags of musket balls) to hand held muskets and pistols, each crew seeking to annihilate the enemy officers and sailors on deck.
British captains expected their ships to clear for action in 10 minutes. Cabin walls were dismantled; gun crews formed up; the gunner and his mates opened the magazine and distributed ammunition to the guns; decks were wetted and sprinkled with sand; the surgeon laid out his implements in the cockpit; the marines assembled to take post on the decks or in the rigging. The final act of
preparation was for the gun ports to be opened and the guns run out, the truck wheels rumbling through the ship.
The Battle of Cape St Vincent
Wounds in Eighteenth Century naval fighting were terrible. Cannon balls ripped off limbs or, striking wooden decks and bulwarks, drove splinter fragments across the ship causing horrific wounds. Falling masts and rigging inflicted crush injuries. Sailors stationed aloft fell into the sea from collapsing masts and rigging to be drowned. Heavy losses were caused when a ship finally
Ships’ crews of all nations were a tough bunch. The British with continual blockade service against the French and Spanish were particularly well drilled, British gun crews firing three broadsides or more to every two fired by the Spanish.
The Spanish ships were particularly handicapped by lack of sea time in which to train crews. Admiral de Cordova’s fleet set sail at short notice with crews made up by pressed and untrained landsmen. Several Spanish ships had insufficient manpower to fire all the guns, guns on the San Jose being found after the battle with the tampions still fitted in the muzzles.
British captains were responsible for recruiting their ship’s crew. Men were taken wherever they could be found, largely by means of the press gang. All nationalities served on British ships including French and Spanish.
Life on a warship, particularly the large ships of the line, was crowded and hard. Discipline was enforced with extreme violence, small infractions punished with public lashings. The food, far from good, deteriorated as ships spent time at sea. Drinking water was in constant short supply and usually brackish. Shortage of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables meant that scurvy easily and quickly
set in. The great weight of guns and equipment and the necessity to climb rigging in adverse weather conditions frequently caused serious injury.
The Battle of Cape St Vincent
On 4th February 1797 the Spanish Fleet set sail from Cartagena on the Mediterranean coast of Spain for Cadiz, the principal Atlantic port, with the intention of sailing on to the French port of Brest to join the French Fleet. The combined fleets would create a powerful threat to Britain. After passing through the
straits of Gibraltar, strong easterly gales blew the Spanish Fleet out into the Atlantic, heading back for Cadiz once the wind veered westerly. Admiral Don Joseph de Cordova, the Spanish commander, learnt from a passing American vessel that Admiral Sir John Jervis’s British Fleet off Cape St Vincent comprised only 9 ships. De Cordova with his 35 ships, including several of the largest battle
ships at sea, resolved to take advantage of the enormous disparity and attack the British. However after the American’s sighting 6 further ships joined the British Fleet.
His Majesty's Ship Captain engages the Spanish Flagship Santissima
Trinidad at the beginning of the
Battle of Cape St Vincent
The knowledge that the Spanish Fleet was at sea, with the likelihood of a fleet action, brought Commodore Horatio Nelson hurrying in the frigate Minerve from Gibraltar to join Jervis; on the night of 11th February 1797 sailing unobserved through the Spanish Fleet. Reaching the British Fleet off Cape St Vincent on 13th February 1797 Nelson informed his admiral that the Spanish Fleet was
approaching and Jervis prepared for battle. Nelson moved his commodore’s pendant from Minerve to the Captain, 74 guns.
The Battle of Cape St Vincent: Nelson
in HMS Captain engages the Spanish line: picture by Richard Beechey.
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Dawn on 14th February 1797 found the opposing fleets converging; the British sailing south, closed up, alerted by the repeated firing of Spanish signal guns during the foggy morning, the Spanish ships sailing east in irregular formation and scattered. The mist concealed from the Spanish the true number of British ships even once the sun had risen. As De Cordova emerged from the fog, Jervis saw
the number of Spanish ships that his fleet faced; twice the number of British ships in two straggling divisions.
Jervis’s plan, the forerunner of Nelson’s aggressive attack at Trafalgar, was to take his fleet in line ahead through the Spanish formation, cutting the Spanish Fleet in two.
His Majesty's Ship Victory raking a Spanish three
decker at the Battle of Cape St Vincent
The battle began at about 11.30am. Jervis ordered the British Fleet into line ahead formed on the flagship, Victory, with Troubridge’s Culloden leading the line; Nelson in Captain third from the rear. Culloden headed for the gap between the two divisions of the Spanish Fleet, cutting off the leading 9 ships. As the line entered the gap Culloden opened fire, followed by the succeeding ships,
the guns being double shotted for the first broadsides.
Each of the two Spanish divisions turned to the North, apparently to sail down the flanks of the British Fleet and escape. To conform Culloden tacked ship to lead the British line in pursuit of the larger Spanish division.
Immediately the difficulty became apparent to Nelson at the rear of the line: The British ships would be forced to pursue the Spanish, their admiral now aware that the British Fleet was significantly stronger than he had expected, even though his force was double its strength. It was unlikely that the pursuit could produce the decisive battle Jervis looked for.
Nelson acted in the ruthlessly aggressive and decisive manner that was his unique hallmark. Disobeying the admiral’s order to sail in line ahead conforming to Victory, Nelson turned the 74 gun Captain hard to port and cutting back through the British line between Diadem and Excellent sailed straight for the van of the Spanish division, attacking the 130 gun Santissima Trinidad, the largest
The Spanish flagship joined by San Josef, 112 guns, Salvador del Mundo, 112 guns, San Nicolas, 80 guns and San Isidoro, 74 guns, engaged Captain.
The Spanish ship Santisima Trinidad; attacked by Nelson in Captain at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. She struck her colours after being bombarded by other
British ships, but escaped capture. Santisima Trinidad was taken at Trafalgar and sank during the storm the following night due to battle damage. Santisima Trinidad was reputed to be the largest ship of her time for many years, finally with 4 decks and 130 guns.
Culloden, leading the British Fleet in pursuit of the Spanish, rushed to Nelson’s assistance, as did the last ship in the line, Excellent, the three British ships battling with the van of the Spanish division until the remaining British ships came up and the engagement became general.
Blenheim, 90 guns, joined the action between the three British ships and their Spanish adversaries, accompanied by Diadem, while Excellent engaged Salvador del Mundo and San Isidoro, causing each of these ships to cease action and haul down their colours. Collingwood on Excellent pushed on without securing the two ships to assist the hard pressed Captain.
The Battle of Cape St
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Collingwood engaged the 80 gun San Nicolas with a heavy fire from a distance of 10 feet, causing the Spanish ship to swing away abruptly and foul the 112 gun, three decker San Josef, before taking Excellent on to engage Santissima Trinidad.
Nelson boarding San Josef at the battle of Cape St Vincent.
Nelson saw his further opportunity. Although the Spanish broadside had completely dismasted Captain, Nelson directed Miller to put the ship alongside the damaged San Nicolas and himself led a strong boarding party onto the Spanish ship. Among the boarders were soldiers from the 69th Regiment and several “Old Agamemnons”. The captain of San Nicolas was in the act of surrender to Nelson after a
vigorous struggle when the crew of San Josef in the towering ship alongside opened fire on the deck. Calling for reinforcements from Captain, Nelson boarded the second Spanish ship and took her, receiving the surrender from the captain, the admiral being a casualty.
Commodore Nelson receives the surrender of the 112 gun
three decker San Josef at the Battle of
Cape St Vincent
Looking to take further part in the battle Nelson transferred to Minerve and called for a launch to take him to the nearest ship of the line, Irresistible; but by the time he reached her the battle was ending and the Spanish Fleet heading for Cadiz.
The heavy damage to the British ships and the presence of the unengaged 9 ships of the Spanish van ruled out any pursuit and Jervis had to be satisfied with the capture of 4 Spanish ships, 2 being first rates, while lamenting that no other captain had taken the initiative to capture the badly damaged Santissima Trinidad in the way Nelson had taken the San Nicolas and the San Josef. But the
action was a decisive victory and the Spanish Fleet failed to join the French in Brest in its threat to mainland Britain, remaining bottled up in Cadiz by Jervis’s resumed blockade.
The crew of His Majesty's Ship Captain led by Commodore Nelson
boarding the Spanish ship San Nicolas at the Battle of Cape St Vincent
Nelson went on board Victory to report to Jervis who hugged and thanked him for the brilliant exercise of initiative that had led to such a success.
Casualties: British casualties were 300. Spanish casualties were 1,000. The captured Spanish ships: San Josef, Salvador del Mundo, San Nicolas and San Isidoro. The flagship Santissima Trinidad and several other Spanish ships were badly damaged.
Anecdotes and traditions:
• At the beginning of the battle as the Spanish Fleet emerged from the mist Jervis listened to the reports from his flag captain reading the signals flown by the British frigate Bonne Citoyenne: Flag Captain: “There are 8 sail of the line, Sir John.” Jervis: “Very well sir.” Flag Captain: “There are 20
sail of the line, Sir John.” Jervis: “Very well sir.” Flag Captain: “There are 25 sail of the line…… 27 sail of the line…. Sir John, near double our own.” Jervis: “Enough of that, sir. If there are 50 sail, I will go through them.”
• Nelson led the boarding party onto San Nicolas with the cry “Westminster Abbey or victory.” He used a
similar form of words at the Battle of the Nile, perhaps showing his obsession with a glorious death in battle, finally achieved at Trafalgar.
• The Royal Navy referred to Nelson’s extraordinary feat in capturing the two Spanish ships as “Nelson’s Patent Bridge for Boarding” i.e. capturing one ship by crossing
• Admiral Sir John Jervis became Earl St Vincent, the title selected for him by King George III. The other admirals received baronetcies or in Waldegrave’s case an Irish peerage. Nelson was made a Companion of the Bath, having specifically asked not to be made a baronet due to his lack of means. Notification of his promotion to
Rear Admiral of the Blue arrived immediately after the battle.
• The Spanish admiral was arrested on his arrival at Cadiz, taken under military escort to Madrid and dismissed the service by King Charles IV. Several of the Spanish captains were tried by court martial and dismissed or reduced in rank.
Life of Nelson by Robert Southey
Nelson by Carola Oman