Battle of Cape St Vincent (1797)

Cape st Vincent moment of surrender

The Battle of Cape St Vincent (14 February 1797) was one of the opening battles of the Anglo-Spanish War (1796–1808), as part of the French Revolutionary Wars, where a British fleet under Admiral Sir John Jervis defeated a larger Spanish fleet under Admiral Don José de Córdoba y Ramos near Cape St. Vincent, Portugal.

Prior to the Battle

The Spanish declaration of war on Britain and Portugal in October 1796 made the British position in the Mediterranean untenable. The combined Franco-Spanish fleet of 38 ships of the line heavily outnumbered the British Mediterranean Fleet of 15 ships of the line, forcing the British to evacuate their positions in first Corsica and then Elba.

Early in 1797, the Spanish fleet of 27 ships of the line, which were supposed to join the French fleet at Brest, lay at Cartagena, on the Mediterranean Sea, with the intention of sailing to Cádiz as an escort of a 57 merchant convoy.

In the meantime, the British Mediterranean Fleet, under Admiral Sir John Jervis, had sailed from the Tagus with 10 ships of the line to try to intercept the Spanish fleet. On 6 February, Jervis was joined off Cape St. Vincent by a reinforcement of five ships of the line from the Channel Fleet under Rear-Admiral William Parker.

On 11 February, the British frigate HMS Minerve, under the command of Commodore Horatio Nelson, passed through the Spanish fleet unseen thanks to heavy fog. Nelson reached the British fleet of 15 ships off Spain on 13 February, and passed the location of the Spanish fleet to Jervis, commanding the fleet from his flagship HMS Victory. Unaware of the size of his opponent's fleet—in the fog, Nelson had not been able to count them—Jervis's squadron immediately sailed to intercept.

Unaware of the British presence, the Spanish continued toward Cádiz. Early on the 14th, Jervis learnt that the Spanish fleet was 35 miles to windward.

The Battle

During the night of the 14th of February came the sounds that the British fleet had been waiting to hear – the signal guns of the Spanish ships in the fog. By early morning, at 5:30 a.m., Niger reported them to be closer still. As the dawn came, it brought a cold and foggy February morning. In the increasing light, Jervis saw his fleet around him, formed into two lines of battle. He turned to his officers on the quarter-deck of HMS Victory and said, "A victory to England is very essential at this moment." Jervis gave orders for the fleet to prepare for the coming action.

Jervis had no idea of the size of the fleet he was up against. As they loomed up out of the fog, a signal lieutenant in Barfleur described them as "thumpers, looming like Beachy Head in a fog. Seeing that it would be difficult to disengage, Jervis decided to continue because the situation would only get worse were the Spanish fleet to join up with the French. 

To the British advantage, the Spanish fleet was formed into two groups and was unprepared for battle, while the British were already in line. Jervis ordered the British fleet to pass between the two groups, minimizing the fire they could put into him, while letting him fire in both directions.

The Spanish lee division now put about to the port tack with the intention of breaking the British line at the point where the ships were tacking in succession. Orion came round but Colossus was in the course of going about when her foreyard and foretop yard were shot away. She was forced to wear ship instead of tack and the leading Spanish vessel came close enough to threaten her with a broadside. Saumarez in Orion saw the danger to his friends and backed his sails to give covering fire.

As HMS Victory came to the tacking point, another attempt was made to break the British line. HMS Victory, however, was too fast and Principe de Asturias had to tack close to HMS Victory and received two raking broadsides as she did so. "We gave them their Valentine in style" later wrote a gunner in Goliath.

As the last ship in the British line passed the Spanish, the British line had formed a U shape with Culloden in the lead and on the reverse course but chasing the rear of the Spanish. At this point the Spanish lee division bore up to make an effort to join their compatriots to windward. Had they managed to do this, the battle would have ended indecisively and with the Spanish fleet running for Cádiz. 

At 1:05 p.m., Jervis hoisted a signal: ‘Take suitable stations for mutual support and engage the enemy as coming up in succession’.

Nelson found himself towards the rear of the British line and realized that it would be a long time before he could bring Captain into action. Unless the movements of the Spanish ships could be thwarted, everything so far gained would be lost. Instead of continuing to follow the line, Nelson disobeyed Jervis’ orders and gave orders to Captain Ralph Miller to wear ship and to take Captain out of line while engaging the smaller group, heading to engage the Spanish van, which consisted of the 112-gun San Josef, the 80-gun San Nicolas and the 130-gun Santísima Trinidad. Captain engaged all three, assisted by HMS Culloden which had come to Nelson's aid. 

Nelson's decision to wear ship was significant. As a junior commander, he was subject to the orders of his Commander in Chief (Admiral Jervis); in taking this action he was acting against the "form line ahead and astern of HMS Victory" order and using his own wide interpretation of "take suitable stations" in the later signal. Had the action failed, he would have been subject to court-martial for disobeying orders in the face of the enemy, with subsequent loss of command and disgrace.

After an hour of exchanging broadsides which left both Captain and Culloden badly damaged, Nelson found himself alongside San Nicolas and forced her to surrender. San Josef attempted to come to the San Nicolas’s aid, but became entangled with her compatriot and was left immobile. 

At 3:20, with a cry of "Westminster Abbey or Glorious Victory!", Nelson led his party from the deck of San Nicolas onto San Josef and captured her as well..  Both Spanish vessels were successfully captured. This manoeuvre was so unusual and so widely admired in the Royal Navy that using one enemy ship to cross to another became known facetiously as "Nelson's patent bridge for boarding first rates.” As night fell, the Spanish fleet broke off and sailed for Cadiz. Four ships had surrendered to the British and two of them were Nelson's.

Jervis signalled his fleet to cover the prizes and disabled vessels and at 4:15 the frigates were directed to take the prizes in tow. At 4:39 the fleet was ordered to take station in line astern of HMS Victory. The battle was by now almost over with only some remaining skirmishing between Britannia, Orion and the departing Spanish covering Santísima Trinidad (which was to later serve as the Spanish flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar).

Nelson was again victorious, but had disobeyed direct orders. Jervis liked Nelson and so did not officially reprimand him, but did not mention Nelson's actions in his official report of the battle. He did write a private letter to George Spencer in which he said that Nelson "contributed very much to the fortune of the day". Nelson also wrote several letters about his victory, reporting that his action was being referred to amongst the fleet as "Nelson's Patent Bridge for boarding first rates”. Nelson's account was later challenged by Rear Admiral William Parker, who had been aboard HMS Prince George. Parker claimed that Nelson had been supported by several more ships than he acknowledged, and that San Josef had already struck her colours by the time Nelson boarded her. Nelson's account of his role prevailed, and the victory was well received in Britain: Jervis was made Earl St Vincent and Nelson, on 17 May, was made a Knight of the Bath. On 20 February, in a standard promotion according to his seniority and unrelated to the battle, he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue.

After the Battle

Nelson remained on board the captured Spanish ships while they were made secure – and was cheered by the British ships as they passed. He returned to the Captain to thank Captain Miller and presented him with the sword of the captain of the San Nicolás. Then, still black with smoke and with his uniform in shreds, Nelson went on board HMS Victory where he was received on the quarter-deck by Admiral Jervis – "The Admiral embraced me, said he could not sufficiently thank me, and used every kind expression which could not fail to make me happy."

The Battle of Cape St. Vincent had cost the lives of 73 men of the Royal Navy and wounded a further 227. Casualties amongst the Spanish ships were far higher – aboard San Nicolás alone 144 were killed. It was a great and welcome victory for the Royal Navy – 15 British ships had defeated a Spanish fleet of 27, and the Spanish ships had a greater number of guns and men. But, Admiral Jervis had trained a highly disciplined force and this was pitted against an inexperienced Spanish navy under Don José Córdoba. The confusion amongst the Spanish fleet was so great that they were unable to use their guns without causing more damage to their own ships than to the British. Cordóba was dismissed from the Spanish navy and forbidden from appearing at court.

Jervis was made Baron Jervis of Meaford and Earl St Vincent. Nelson was knighted as a member of the Order of the Bath. Nelson's promotion to Rear-Admiral was not a reward for his services, but simply a happy coincidence: promotion to flag rank in the Navy of the time was based on seniority on the Captain's list and not on achievement. The City of London awarded both Jervis and Nelson a ceremonial sword. The sword is currently held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Jervis resumed his blockade of the Spanish fleet in Cadiz. The continuation of the blockade for most of the following three years, largely curtailed the operations of the Spanish fleet until the Peace of Amiens in 1802.

The containment of the Spanish threat, and the further reinforcement of his command, enabled Jervis to send a squadron under Nelson back into the Mediterranean the following year. That squadron, including Saumarez’s Orion, Troubridge’s Culloden, and the Goliath, now under Foley, re-established British command of the Mediterranean at the Battle of the Nile.