The Battle of Cape St. Vincent – 14th February, 1797

HMS Captain capturing the San Nicolas and the San Josef – Source:

By February 1797 the revolutionary war with France had entered its fourth 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 remaining) and a fleet made up of only 15 ships of the line, they were vastly outnumbered, with the Franco-Spanish fleet amassing 38, in comparison.

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 in order to sail and 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 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 serving as Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet 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

Cape St Vincent – February 1797

On February the 4th, the Spanish Fleet, commanded by Don Jose de Cordoba sailed with his fleet from Cartagena, bound for Cadiz, the predominant Spanish port on the Atlantic coast. The intention? To sail for Brest, join the French and create a combined fleet with which to fight the British. Cordoba had heard that Jervis was off Cape St Vincent with an estimated 9 ships. Cordoba had 35, an easy match, he thought… Unfortunately for Cordoba, 6 further ships joined Jervis.

On February the 11th 1797, Commodore Horatio Nelson, on board HMS Minerve, passed through the Spanish fleet, to join Jervis. Fortunately, he was unseen thanks to thick fog and he reached the British fleet on 13th February 1797. Nelson informed  Jervis that the Spanish Fleet was approaching and Jervis comminicated with the fleet and made them prepare for battle. Nelson moved his commodore’s pendant from Minerve to the Captain of 74 guns.

On 14th February 1797 the British and Spanish fleets, commanded by Jervis and Admiral Don Jose de Cordoba , caught sight of each other off Cape St Vincent, north west of Cadiz, Spain. The British sailed south, closed up, alerted by firing of Spanish signal guns during the foggy morning, the Spanish ships sailing east in irregular formation and scattered. Thanks to the fog and mist, the Spanish were, at this point, still unaware of how many British ships they were to meet…

De Cordoba sailed closer and Jervis was aware that he was outnumbered almost 2:1.

A famous story from the battle?

Jervis and his Flag Captain Robert Calder (who became famous for his own reasons in 1805) were counting the ships before realising that, once more, the British were outnumbered, this time 24 to 15… I’m unsure on how true the below is, as with most of these “heroic” quotes. It’s referenced in a number of places, however, and perhaps it was a miscount as it appears that different sources list 24 and 27. Either way, the British fleet were 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.”

The Spanish ships were in two divisions, one in front of the other. The plan Jervis had in mind was not dissimilar to that used by Nelson at Trafalgar 8 years later (no, Nelson did not come up with it). He would take his fleet in line ahead, cutting the Spanish line and separating them in to two.

At around 1100 Jervis signalled his ships to ‘form in a line of battle ahead and astern of Victory as most convenient’.Troubridge’s Culloden was at the front of the line and Nelson in Captain was third from the rear. Jervis signalled his intention to ‘engage the enemy more closely’ around 15 minutes later. At 1130 the signal was made to pass through enemy lines’.

Battle had begun…

Troubridge made for the space between the Spanish divisions, cutting off the leading 9 ships. As the British ships joined him, Troubridge opened fire, followed by the following ships, all of which had double shotted their guns for the first broadside.

Jervis was delighterd with the seamanship skills of Troubridge and famously said, “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

Both Spanish divisions turned north, presumably to escape. Troubridge veered to follow.

‘All Hands to Board’: Nelson boarding the San Nicolas at the The Battle of Cape St Vincent: 14th February 1797 – Robert Hillingford

Now for some classic Nelson… At the rear of the line, Nelson realised that the British would soon begin to chase the Spanish and, by the time the British fleet had tacked, the Spanish fleet would have the weather gage (the advantage of the wind) and more importantly, the Spanish were about to break the British line. Cordoba was becoming increasingly aware that, despite the fact his fleet was twice as large, that the British fleet was far larger and stronger than anticipated. Nelson ignored Jervis’ order to sail in line ahead, realising that he could give Jervis time to reach the main group of ships by attaciking where he was.

He turned the Captain hard to port, cutting through the British line and sailed straight for the van of the Spanish division, taking on the 130 gun Spanish flagship, the Santissima Trinidad at the same time Victory took on a Spanish hree-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’.

​Collingwood, onboard Excellent engaged the Salvador del Mundo and San Isidoro, causing each of these ships to take down their colours, before sailing to assist Nelson on the Captain.

Collingwood engaged the San Nicolas from around 10 feet away, causing the Spanish ship to swing and foul the three decker, San Josef, before Collingwood took Excellent on to engage Santissima Trinidad. Nelson, on the now dismasted Captain put the ship alongside the San Nicolas and led a boarding party, famously shouting, “Westminster Abbey or glorious victory” as he jumped on board.


Nelson’s patent bridge for boarding first rates

The San José, of 112 guns, quickly came to the aid of the San Nicolas, and so Nelson called for another boarding party and cross decked to the other ship, sword in hand, in a move that came to be known as ‘Nelson’s patent bridge for boarding first rates’. He forced the surrender of both ships. The Santisima Trinidad, despite the best efforts of the Spanish fleet, was heavily damaged after having been attacked the entire afternoon eventually surrendered. Nelson had strictly disobeyed the orders given to him by Jervis. He was never disciplined for this feat of tactical mastery, but his actions were not in the official report for the Admiralty.
Nelson accepting the surrender of the San Nicolas at the Battle of Cape St Vincent – R. Golding

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 was bound for Cadiz.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.”

The action was a decisive victory. 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.

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, Admiral Sir John Jervis became Earl St Vincent. Other admirals received baronetcies and 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. Cordoba was arrested and dismissed from the Spanish navy, with many of his captains facing Court Martial

The next year Jervis once more sent a squadron under Nelson to the Mediterranean and the rest, as they say, is history…