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  • James Houser

February 14, 1797 - The Battle of Cape St. Vincent & the Rise of Horatio Nelson

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 14, 1797. A small British fleet confronts a much larger Spanish fleet off the coast of Portugal. As it looks like the Spanish are prepared to win the battle, one ship breaks away from the British and drives headlong at the Spanish line of battle, in violation of orders. Its young Captain, Horatio Nelson, is ready to make a name for himself.

The French Revolutionary Wars were raging. After declaring war against most of Europe in 1792, the French Republic had somehow prevailed over almost every opponent. One of its youngest generals, a brilliant, mercurial little man named Bonaparte, had just overrun Italy. Great Britain, France's main enemy, found itself with very few allies left standing.

To make things worse for Britain, Spain - previously part of the anti-French alliance - had just signed an alliance with France in 1796. The Spanish and French fleets together outnumbered the Royal Navy, and Britain's livelihood depended on control of the sea. Without it, they could be open to invasion. With Spain joining the war the British would have to withdraw their fleet from the Mediterranean or risk it being cut off - the combined French and Spanish fleets outnumbered theirs, 15 to 38.

The British Mediterranean Fleet withdrew to Portugal to block the Spanish from sailing towards the English Channel. Admiral John Jervis, a strict disciplinarian, expert organizer, and firm mentor to his younger officers, led this small force. Jervis was an absolute sovereign in his fleet, crushing mutinies with an iron hand - but he ensured his men were fed and clothed better than any in the fleet. He was made of harder wood than the ships.

"The Earl of St. Vincent", John Jervis, by Lemuel Abbott c. 1795

Early in 1797, the Spanish fleet set out from the Mediterranean to begin the journey west and north so they could rendezvous with the French Channel Fleet and prepare for the invasion of England. Jervis knew the Spanish had more ships than him, but didn't know where they were or what they were trying to do. He believed they were making for the port of Cadiz on the Atlantic, but sent out a single frigate, the Minerva, under his protégé Commodore Horatio Nelson to detect the enemy.

Nelson didn't find the Spanish near Cadiz. Unbeknownst to him or Jervis, a wild westerly wind had blown the Spanish off course. When Nelson searched west into a thick fog, he suddenly found himself in the midst of the Spanish fleet. They were struggling eastward against the wind, and in the thick mist they couldn't tell that the Minerva was British. Nelson slipped through their line and hurried back to the main fleet to tell Jervis that he knew where the Spanish were. He could not, however, tell him how many ships they had due to the thick fog.

Jervis decided to attack. If he could catch the Spanish before they got into port, he could keep them from ever joining the French and threatening England. He set his 15 ships for sail on an intercept course.

Nobody knows where all these capes are, man.

On the morning of February 14, 1797, Jervis's fleet came in sight of the Spanish. From his flagship HMS Victory, his officers counted the ships and began tallying them up. When they reached 27, Jervis told them to cut it out. "Enough, sir, no more of that; the die is cast, and if there are fifty sail I will go through them." Jervis started his fleet into line astern, ships in a single file line, his own flagship at the head blasting straight into the main force of the enemy. Outnumbered 27 to 15 - almost two to one - the British began the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.

"Battle of Cape St. Vincent" by Robert Cleveley, 1801

As the British plowed through the Spanish formation, the greater bulk of the enemy ships began to break away and make for retreat and safety in Cadiz. At the very tail end of the British line, Commodore Nelson spotted this Spanish attempt to flee. His orders were to remain in single file line behind the other ships, but he saw that if he broke away to head off the Spanish he could keep them from escaping.

The problem: it would be his one ship versus eighteen.

But this was Horatio Nelson.

As he broke formation and raced to cut off the Spanish, other British captains looked on in astonishment. Soon Nelson was taking fire from six larger Spanish ships with his 77-gun ship Captain, including the enormous Spanish flagship Santisima Trinidad - the largest warship in the world. The Spanish slowed to a stop to engage the errant little British Commodore as Jervis's main fleet came up their rear and started blasting away. One of Jervis's other rear ships, the Excellent under future Nelson BFF Cuthbert Collingwood rushed forward to help Nelson stave off certain defeat.

Nelson had begun to duel the larger Spanish three-decker San Nicolas. His and Collingwood's fire caused the San Nicolas to collide with the San Jose, but the mainmast of Nelson's Captain was shot away and his ship was set on a collision course with the collided Spanish vessels. Normally a ship might strike anchor, pull away, and lick its wounds.

But this was Horatio Nelson.

"Nelson Boarding the St Nicolas" by E.F. Hodgson

Nelson forced his ship close enough to San Nicolas to catch her with grappling hooks, then he and his marines jumped onto the Spanish ship, firing muskets and pistols and stabbing with their swords. With shot and shell exploding all around them, Nelson gave an insane order - "Keep going. To the other ship!" Somehow he found a loose cable, and - I kid you not - swung from the San Nicolas to the adjacent San Jose, kicking his way through the window of the captain's cabin and shooting two Spanish sailors in the face. He accepted the surrender of both ships in half an hour.

By 5pm, it was over. The rump of the Spanish fleet scattered in all directions. As the rest of the British fleet passed by Nelson's captured prizes, they cheered him mightily; he was worried, though, because he had gone against explicit orders to engage the Spanish. When Jervis finally saw him, though, he embraced him tearfully.

Outnumbered two to one, the British drove the Spanish into Cadiz and kept them there for the rest of the war. Jervis got made an Earl for Saint Vincent, and Nelson received a knighthood. With the defeat of the Spanish, Britain would never be threatened again until 1805 - and then Nelson himself would command the Victory and lead it and the fleet to the final climactic battle of Trafalgar.

But that was in the future. Here, in the choppy Atlantic, the Nelson Legend had begun.

It's important to note that, if the battle had gone some other way, Nelson probably would have been court-martialed for his disobedience instead of knighted. There would be no Nelson's column in Trafalgar Square, no HMS Victory still at anchor to this day in London - maybe a French Empire ruling Europe.

The lesson here is: if you break the rules, you better make sure you WIN.

The best of the many, many Nelson biographies is probably Roger Knight’s The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson (London: Allen Lane, 2005), which shies away from myth and presents a detailed portrait of the man, warts and all, as well as the Navy he served.

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