Canada v Santa Leocadia – 2 May 1781
Having been detached from Vice-Admiral George Darby’s Channel fleet on its return from the relief of Gibraltar in order to scout ahead in the Bay of Biscay, the Canada 74, Captain Sir George Collier, had the good fortune to fall in with the Spanish frigate Santa Leocadia 34, Captain Don Francisco Javier Winthuysen y Pineda, at 7 a.m. on 1 May. When sighted the Spanish vessel, in company with the sloop Santa Natalia, Captain Don Baltasar Hidalgo de Cisneros, was showing every intention of attacking a passing British merchant convoy of some sixty-odd ships over which they held the weather-gage, but upon the appearance of the Canada the Spaniards brought too before recognising the strength of the larger ship and setting sail.
The Canada boasted twenty-eight 32-pounder cannon on her lower deck, twenty-eight 18-pounders on her upper deck, and twenty 9-pounder cannon on her quarterdeck and forecastle. Construction of her had began at Woolwich under the watchful eye of the master shipwright Israel Pownall in 1760, but she had only been completed after the end of the Seven Years War, and thus her first commission had not occurred until 1779. She had been coppered at Plymouth in the following year, but her nominal complement of five hundred and fifty men had seen precious little action aboard her. The same could not be said of her experienced and well-regarded commander, the 42 year-old Sir George Collier, a man of many and varied talents, not least of which were his abilities as a sea warrior.
The Santa Leocadia had been built four years earlier and had sailed from Ferrol in the last week of April bound for Cartagena de Indias on the Spanish Main. Manned by some two hundred and eighty officers and men, and the first Spanish vessel to have been copper-bottomed, she carried twenty-six pounders on her upper deck and ten 6-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle. Captain Winthuysen was an experienced 37 year-old from the province of Cadiz who had seen almost constant duty in protection of the far flung Spanish Empire, and who had commanded the Santa Leocadia since March 1780.
Discounting the Santa Natalia which made her escape in the opposite direction, the Canada set off after the frigate, and once the wind began to drop off to the disadvantage of the Spaniard she came up with her towards midnight after a chase of some two hundred miles. A bright moon negated any possibility of the Santa Leocadia changing course, and in the calm the Canada drifted to within musket shot, with Captain Collier fully expecting the lighter vessel to put up a token defence before striking her colours.
Suspecting that the feeble wind and heavy swell would prevent the wallowing Canada from opening her lower-deck gun ports, Winthuysen had other ideas, and he opened fire without even waiting for a warning shot from the British sail of the line. Despite this impudence there could be little doubt as to the outcome of the action, but nevertheless the Santa Leocadia bravely defended herself from the onslaught, even though Captain Winthuysen was forced to go below after thirty-five minutes with his right arm shattered by a cannonball. Bizarrely his immediate subordinate, Juan Perez Monte, was also forced below with a tongue wound, and the command of the Santa Leocadia passed onto Don Joaquin Moscoco.
With the ship suffering two holes below the waterline and being unable to manoeuvre, her remaining officers were left with little option but to surrender after a brave resistance of ninety minutes. There were only a handful of reported casualties on the Canada, but the immense Spanish losses were subsequently reported as eighty men dead and one hundred and six wounded. Captain Winthuysen’s arm had to be amputated by the Canada’s surgeon, and after being taken to Portsmouth he was released on parole and returned to Cadiz to effect an exchange.
The Santa Leocadia was bought into the navy as a 36-gun frigate, and under the command of Captain Charles Hope she captured several privateers prior to being paid off at the peace. A further commission on the Newfoundland station followed before she was paid off again in the autumn of 1785, and she was eventually sold out of the service in 1794.
Captain Winthuysen was to reappear in the history books when he lost his life at the Battle of St. Vincent sixteen years later, but by contrast the gifted Captain Collier largely disappeared from the public eye once he resigned his command shortly after the capture of the Santa Leocadia on political grounds.