The Battle of Cape St. Vincent

In 1797, the Spanish Empire allied itself with Revolutionary France against Great Britain, just as it did with America twenty years before. The British sent a fleet under Sir John Jervis to blockade the Spanish ports and intercept an important convoy of mercury, which was necessary for gold and silver production.

In the early morning mist of 14 February, 1797, lookouts spotted the convoy off of Cape St Vincent along the Portuguese coast. Jervis ordered his 14 ships to close with the enemy. As the Spanish men of war emerged from the mist, one dutiful midshipman kept a count. When the young man reached 24, Jervis said “Enough, sir, no more of that; the die is cast, and if there are fifty sail I will go through them.” Jervis drove straight into the Spanish line.

Jervis’ confidence was not foolhardy – He knew the quality of the British ships, sailors, and marines were far and above that of the Spanish, who were mostly untrained landsmen and soldiers, with only a few professional sailors to watch over them (part time vs full time). British gunners could fire three rounds for every one the Spanish fired. After less than an hour, and before most of the Jervis’ fleet got into action, the Spanish broke. This wasn’t acceptable to a young up and coming commodore far to the rear in the British line. Commodore Horatio Nelson spotted six Spanish men of war sailing away, so he ordered his ship, the HMS Captain, to break formation and prevent their escape.

The six Spaniards couldn’t flee without going straight past the Captain, so they all attacked. At one point, Nelson was engaged in a broadsides with four ships simultaneously. In the span of 30 minutes, the Captain was a disaster and rudderless, but the destruction and confusion brought on by Nelson’s charge allowed time for other British ships to join the action. The two Spanish ships nearest to the Captain, the San Jose and San Nicolas, had “luffed up and ran afoul” of each other in the confusion (I have no idea what that means, but I’m guessing it’s bad) which locked them together tight. Nelson ordered the closest, the San Nicolas, to be boarded.

Nelson’s sailors and soldiers (He had no Royal Marines, his ship’s company was augmented with soldiers from the 69th Regiment of Foot to act as marines) swarmed the San Nicolas. In a desperate fight, Nelson’s men captured the ship, and pushed the survivors onto the San Jose, a much larger ship. Nelson quickly reorganized his men into a defensive line closer to the Captain as he expected the San Jose’ crew to try and recapture the San Nicolas. When that didn’t happen, Nelson ordered his men to cross over the San Nicolas, and board the San Jose. With Nelson in the van, the British jumped and swung from the San Nicolas and stormed onto the San Jose. After another mass melee of pistols, cutlasses, bayonets, sabers, and boarding pikes, Nelson received another Spanish’s captain’s sword, this time on the forecastle of the San Jose.

The tactic of using an enemy ship to board another enemy ship became known as “Nelson’s Patented Bridge for Boarding”.

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