Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797)

Battle santa cruz tenerife nelson loses arm

Action off Cadiz

Nelson was given HMS Theseus as his flagship, and on 27 May 1797 was ordered to lie off Cadiz, monitoring the Spanish fleet and awaiting the arrival of Spanish treasure ships from the American colonies. He carried out a bombardment and personally led an amphibious assault on 3 July. During the action Nelson's barge collided with that of the Spanish commander, and a hand-to-hand struggle ensued between the two crews. Twice Nelson was nearly cut down and both times his life was saved by a seaman named John Sykes who took the blows and was badly wounded. The British raiding force captured the Spanish boat and towed her back to Theseus. During this period Nelson developed a scheme to capture Santa Cruz de Tenerife, aiming to seize a large quantity of specie from the treasure ship Principe de Asturias, which was reported to have recently arrived.

Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife

The battle plan called for a combination of naval bombardments and an amphibious landing. The initial attempt was called off after adverse currents hampered the assault and the element of surprise was lost. Nelson immediately ordered another assault but this was beaten back. He prepared for a third attempt, to take place during the night. Although he personally led one of the battalions, the operation ended in failure: the Spanish were better prepared than had been expected and had secured strong defensive positions. Several of the boats failed to land at the correct positions in the confusion, while those that did were swept by gunfire and grapeshot. Nelson's boat reached its intended landing point but as he stepped ashore he was hit in the right arm by a musket ball, which fractured his humerus bone in multiple places. He was rowed back to Theseus to be attended to by the surgeon, Thomas Eshelby. On arriving at his ship he refused to be helped aboard, declaring "Let me alone! I have got my legs left and one arm." He was taken to surgeon Eshelby, instructing him to prepare his instruments and "the sooner it was off the better". Most of the right arm was amputated and within half an hour Nelson had returned to issuing orders to his captains. Years later he would excuse himself to Commodore John Thomas Duckworth for not writing longer letters due to not being naturally left-handed. He developed the sensation of phantom limb in his lost arm later on and declared that he had "found the direct evidence of the existence of soul".

Meanwhile, a force under Sir Thomas Troubridge had fought their way to the main square but could go no further. Unable to return to the fleet because their boats had been sunk, Troubridge was forced to enter into negotiations with the Spanish commander, and the British were subsequently allowed to withdraw. The expedition had failed to achieve any of its objectives and had left a quarter of the landing force dead or wounded. The squadron remained off Tenerife for a further three days and by 16 August had re-joined Jervis's fleet off Cadiz. Despondently Nelson wrote to Jervis: "A left-handed Admiral will never again be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve the state". He returned to England aboard HMS Seahorse, arriving at Spithead on 1 September. He was met with a hero's welcome: the British public had lionized Nelson after Cape St Vincent and his wound earned him sympathy. They refused to attribute the defeat at Tenerife to him, preferring instead to blame poor planning on the part of St Vincent, the Secretary at War or even William Pitt.

Return to England

Nelson returned to Bath with Fanny, before moving to London in October to seek expert medical attention concerning his amputated arm. Whilst in London news reached him that Admiral Duncan had defeated the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown. Nelson exclaimed that he would have given his other arm to have been present. He spent the last months of 1797 recuperating in London, during which he was awarded the Freedom of the City of London and a pension of £1,000 a year. He used the money to buy Round Wood Farm near Ipswich, and intended to retire there with Fanny. Despite his plans, Nelson was never to live there.

Although surgeons had been unable to remove the central ligature in his amputated arm, which had caused considerable inflammation and poisoning, in early December it came out of its own accord and Nelson rapidly began to recover. Eager to return to sea, he began agitating for a command and was promised the 80-gun HMS Foudroyant. As she was not yet ready for sea, Nelson was instead given command of the 74-gun HMS Vanguard, to which he appointed Edward Berry as his flag captain. French activities in the Mediterranean theatre were raising concern among the Admiralty: Napoleon was gathering forces in Southern France but the destination of his army was unknown. Nelson and the Vanguard were to be dispatched to Cadiz to reinforce the fleet. On 28 March 1798, Nelson hoisted his flag and sailed to join Earl St Vincent. St Vincent sent him on to Toulon with a small force to reconnoitre French activities.