British interference, 1797
Back in February 1797 Britain had recorded a victory at the battle of Cape St Vincent as part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1796-1808).
Spain had declared war against Britain and Portugal, by treaty France was an ally of Spain and they were seeking to join up their naval forces.
Admiral Sir John Jervis was commanding the British Mediterranean Fleet of just fifteen ships-of-the-line. He was ‘bullied’ by a Franco-Spanish force of thirty-eight ships-of-the-line to move away from Corsica and then later from Elba.
A Spanish fleet of 27 ships from Cartagena was planning to sail to Brest to join up with French ships, the combined force to escort a large convoy of merchant ships.
Jervis sailed with ten of his ships to try to intercept the Spanish force, a further five ships were despatched from the Channel Fleet to try to join up with him. Bad weather had blown the Spanish fleet out further in to the Atlantic than planned.
In a heavy fog a British Frigate commanded by Commodore Horatio Nelson sailed among the Spanish fleet without being discovered. When he found Jervis’s group he was able to tell him where it was, but had not been able to establish its strength. Jervis intercepted the fleet at Cape St Vincent off Portugal, where he was joined by the Channel Fleet group.
Moving to intercept at night they could hear the Spanish fleet firing signal guns in the fog. They engaged the first five sails they encountered only to learn of the overwhelming force they were facing as the fog revealed ever increasing numbers.
They were too committed to withdraw and formed a single column that would sail between the two Spanish columns. In this way the British ships could fire in both directions and the Spanish one-sided fire had to beware of hitting its own ships in the facing column.
Nelson was in HMS Captain towards the rear of the line (Jervis was commanding from HMS Victory). But his reputation was formed in the battle for loosely interpreting the Admiral’s orders to avoid the Spanish fleet fleeing from the battle and attacking three larger ships. He also used an unusual tactical approach when his boarders crossed one Spanish ship and proceeded on to board a second. Both were captured and the Royal Navy subsequently named the tactic as ‘Nelson’s patent bridge’.
Four prizes were taken by the British who had lost 73 men with 227 seriously injured. The Spanish had 1,000 men killed or wounded. Jervis was ennobled and given a pension for life, Nelson was knighted and around the same time received a regular promotion to rear-admiral. The Spanish admiral was cashiered from its Navy and banned from the Spanish court.
The action had stopped the Spanish fleet from linking up with the French. As a result the French and Spanish ports were able subsequently to be blockaded by the British for many years.