By February 1797 the revolutionary war with France had entered its 4th year. Spain had declared war on England the year before, in October 1796, and with a lack of bases in the Mediterranean under British command (only Corsica and Elba remained) and a fleet made up of only 15 ships of the line, they were vastly outnumbered, with the Franco-Spanish fleet amassing 38 ships of the line.
The British fleet was forced to make a hasty retreat and evacuate their bases at Corsica and Elba. The latter evacuation was made by then Commodore Horatio Nelson, in December 1796. As part of this evacuation he fought and captured two Spanish ships, including the Santa Sabina, but unfortunately had to abandon the prizes and head to meet Sir John Jervis in the Straits.
Jervis, then Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean, had an illustrious past and future. As part of the American War of Independence, under the command of Admiral Augustus Keppel, he was given command of HMS Foudroyant and was present at the First Battle of Ushant. Keppel had positioned himself 100 miles west of Ushant on his flagship, HMS Victory. The British chased the French fleet and engaged them. Jervis later went on to play a large part in the second relief of Gibraltar, in 1781. After a chase and short engagement with the French 74-gun Pégase in 1782 Jervis was wounded, but due to his action was invested as a Knight of the Bath later that year.
Whilst in his role as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet, later in 1797, Jervis created a set of standing orders for both officers and seaman, to avoid mutinies. This was a very controversial move and when he later became First Lord of the Admiralty he introduced a number of reforms, unpopular at the time, but which benefited the Royal Navy greatly.
“His importance lies in his being the organiser of victories; the creator of well-equipped, highly efficient fleets; and in training a school of officers as professional, energetic, and devoted to the service as himself.” – P.K Crimmin on Jervis
The Battle of Cape St Vincent
On February the 11th 1797, Commodore Horatio Nelson, on board HMS Minerve, passed through the Spanish fleet, unseen thanks to thick fog. He sailed to meet Jervis and passed the Spanish position, 35 miles to windward, on to Jervis.
Nelson was unaware of the size of the Spanish fleet, and Jervis, on board flagship HMS Victory immediately sailed to intercept them. At dawn on the 14th of February 1797, the British and Spanish fleets, commanded by Jervis and Admiral Don José de Córdoba y Ramos, caught sight of each other.
A famous story from the battle was the discussion between Jervis and his Flag Captain Robert Calder, who counted the ships, before realising that once more, the British were outnumbered, this time 24 ships to 15.
I’m unsure on how true the below is. It’s referenced in a number of places, and perhaps it was a miscount as it appears that different sources list 24 and 27. Either way, the British fleet was outnumbered!
”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 of the line, Sir John”
“Enough, sir, no more of that; the die is cast, and if there are fifty sail I will go through them.”
At around 1100 Jervis signalled his ships to ‘form in a line of battle ahead and astern of Victory as most convenient’ before signalling his intention to ‘engage the enemy more closely’ around 15 minutes later. At 1130 the signal was made to ‘pass through enemy lines’.
The Spanish realised what was happening and Cordoba altered his course in order to pass astern of the British fleet.
“Look at Troubridge there! He tacks his ship in battle as if the eyes o’ England were upon him; and would to God they were, for they would see him to be, what I know him to be, and, by Heaven, sir, as the Dons will soon feel him to be!” – Sir John Jervis
Horatio Nelson received some notoriety for his actions at the Battle of Cape St Vincent. Instead of following the orders issued by Jervis, he decided to disobey them as he could see what was about to unfold. He headed out on the 74-gun HMS Captain and informed Captain Miller of the Captain to take the ship out of line and engage the Spanish fleet, thus forcing the enemy to alter course, giving Jervis time to reach the main group of ships. As Victory reached the same point she engaged a Spanish 3 decker. The Spanish ship took heavy fire from the Victory and a gunner on board HMS Goliath later wrote that ‘we gave them their Valentine in style’. Nelson engaged three of the largest Spanish ships including the 130 gun Santisima Trinidad (now famous for being the Spanish flagship at Trafalgar in 1805). Troubridge, on board HMS Culloden, came to his aid and both ships received extensive damage.
By the evening of the 14th the order was given to secure the prizes and tow the heavily damaged HMS Captain, the British fleet lay to during the evening and the Spanish remained in close proximity, huddled together. Nelson embarked the Victory, and met Jervis. Nelson, in his usual humble manner 🙂 stated that “the Admiral embraced me, said he could not sufficiently thank me, and used every kind expression which could not fail to make me happy.”
15 Royal Navy ships took on 27 ships of the Spanish fleet and won. This was not the first time the Royal Navy had a victory in this way, nor would it be the last.
After the battle, Nelson became a naval hero, was knighted and promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue. Jervis was given the title of Earl St. Vincent. Cordoba was dismissed from the Spanish navy. The next year Jervis once more sent a squadron under Nelson to the Mediterranean and the rest, as they say, is history…