The Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent – 16 January 1780
On Christmas Day 1779, Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands station, set sail from St. Helens having completed the equipment of fifteen sail of the line and forty-odd troop transports, storeships and well-stocked victuallers for the relief of the Spanish-beleaguered Gibraltar and Minorca. Also in company were over two hundred merchantmen that comprised the huge Portuguese and West Indian convoys which had come around from the Downs. Four days later this fleet was joined by a further seven sail of the line and a handful of transports off Plymouth. Rodney’s men-of-war now numbered twenty-two sail of the line, one 44-gun vessel and seven frigates, and they contained divisions of the Channel fleet under Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart-Ross and Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby, together with a further four ships of the line that would sail with him to the Leeward Islands once he had relieved the Mediterranean fortresses.
Rodney had been appointed to his post on 1st October, but after hastening to Portsmouth he had found few ships ready for sea, little available naval stores to equip them, and a local officialdom ill-prepared to drive forward the fitting out of the fleet. It was the sort of malaise that but a few weeks before his arrival had allowed the frigate Quebec to put to sea with inferior cannon, resulting in her failure to overcome the French frigate Surveillante, and her eventual destruction. Unsurprisingly the morale and discipline within the navy itself was also at an all-time low following the Keppel-Palliser affair, the retreat before the allied armada in the previous summer, and the weak leadership of inferior officers who should never have held senior command in the first place.
In his usual authoritarian, uncompromising, hectoring fashion the imperious Rodney immediately began banging heads together. His determination and drive, albeit qualities that he exaggerated in his communications with the Admiralty, helped get things moving, and to the credit of all concerned the equipping of the force proceeded at an impressive pace, so that by early December the fleet was almost ready to depart. Irksomely, when Rodney did consider sailing under pressure from the Admiralty on the 11th, albeit without his frigates which were still ill-prepared, the wind turned into the west and against him. Stubbornly the elements remained unfavourable for the ensuing fortnight, and only on 23 December did they settle, allowing him to depart with an easterly wind two days later. At least the delay had given him additional time to get the fleet ready, and to begin to instil his own form of deprecatory and censorious discipline upon his captains.
Come New Year’s Day the fleet was out of the Channel and making its southing, much to Rodney’s and the government’s relief, and on 4 January he detached the West Indian trade under the escort of the Hector 74, Captain Sir John Hamilton, Phoenix 44, Captain Sir Hyde Parker, Greyhound 28, Captain Archibald Dickson, and cutter Tapageur14, Lord Charles Fitzgerald.
At dawn on 8 January the first sign of a change in the navy’s fortunes came when a Spanish convoy carrying flour and naval stores from San Sebastian to Cadiz under the command of Commodore Don Juan Augustin de Yardi’s was spotted about three hundred milest o the north-east off Cape Finisterre. With the frigate Pearl 32, Captain George Montagu, being detailed to stand by the British convoy, a chase of several hours aided by a south-easterly breeze followed, resulting in the easy capture of all twenty-two Spanish vessels by midday including the frigates and sloops, San Carlos 32, San Rafael 30, San Bruno 26, Santa Theresa 24, San Fermin 16 and San Vincente 14. Also taken was the newly-built Guipuscoana 64, which surrendered without too much defiance to the Bienfaisant 64 shortly after 11 a.m. She was taken into the fleet as the Prince William 64 in honour of that young royal who was serving aboard Digby’s flagship, the command being given to the Sandwich’s first lieutenant, Erasmus Gower. The captured victuallers were retained with the fleet to boost the supplies for Gibraltar and Minorca, whilst the America 64, Captain Samuel Thompson, and Pearl were sent back to England with the captured storeships. A further weakening of Rodney’s force then occurred on the 13th when the disabled Dublin 74, Captain Samuel Wallis, was sent into Lisbon under the care of the Shrewsbury 74, Captain Mark Robinson.
As Rodney continued his passage south, and with his sail of the line now reduced to eighteen in addition to the short-handed Prince William, he learned from neutral ships heading in the opposite direction that there was a Spanish fleet off St. Vincent which had been stationed to prevent any British relief of Gibraltar. Sure enough, after coming around the cape some fifteen or so miles offshore on the morning of 16 January, a signal ran up the Bedford’s halliards at 1 p.m.to the effect that a fleet was laying to the south-east. This was Admiral Don Juan de Langara’s eleven sail of the line and two small frigates. Believing that the approaching British fleet was only a merchant convoy, and not having been told by their French allies that the Channel fleet divisions had supplemented Rodney’s four sail of the line destined for the Leeward Islands, the Spanish thought there were easy picking to be had and did not attempt to withdraw until it was too late.
At this time Rodney was incapacitated by gout, and after taking to his cot he had to rely upon advice from his flag captain, Walter Young, to direct the forthcoming battle. As with his superior, Young was a complex and difficult character and although Rodney appears to have trusted and admired his subordinate he might have felt differently had he known how frequently the flag-captain and quasi captain of the fleet undermined and criticised him. In the battle that was to follow Young was to play a major part, and his account of it to the other captains in the fleet, and to his patron, the comptroller of the fleet Sir Charles Middleton, did not hold back in its self-appreciation.
Fearing that the inferior Spanish fleet would make a run for it, yet being aware that there were up to two dozen enemy sail of the line in Cadiz which could come out to turn the odds against him if the onshore gale abated, Rodney decided to hedge his bets and initially ordered Young to raise the signal for ‘line abreast’ But in the event neither of these eventualities occurred, for as the British fleet came up over the horizon it could be seen that the ill-informed Langara was beginning to form a line of battle, and that his compatriots in Cadiz had evidently not joined him.
At 2 p.m., apparently on Young’s strong advice, Rodney decided to relax his formal line and signal a general chase, thereby disregarding both the fire of the Spanish stern chasers and the strong westerly wind which was throwing his ships down upon a dangerous lee shore. Again apparently on the advice of Young, Rodney agreed to chase and engage from leeward, being determined to manoeuvre between the fleeing Spanish and the shore to prevent their escape, and to take advantage of the heavy swell that might prevent the Spanish from opening their lower gun ports. Rodney also demanded that his flagship be set alongside the first major opponent she encountered.
By now the Spanish had realised their error and had taken flight to the south, but by 4 p.m., as a wintry full moon began to gleam through hazy, squally skies, the British came up with their rear. Leading the fleet into action was the newly copper-bottomed Bedford, which had been the first to sight the enemy, and which would fight an excellent battle. The other copper-bottomed ships Defence, Resolution and Edgar were quickly into the action, and as they forged ahead to attack the Spanish van the latter gave the rearmost Spanish sail of the line, the Santo Domingo 70 a broadside which was supplemented by the Marlborough, and then the Ajax. The Bienfaisant opened fire on the Santo Domingo with her bow guns only, and then her offices and crew watched in astonishment as after returning a single broadside their enemy took fire and blew up at about 4.40 with one man only surviving to be picked up four hours later. Fortunately the driving rain prevented Captain MacBride’s sails from catching fire but three of his men were wounded by the red-hot debris that crashed down upon the Bienfaisant.
Like wolves attacking a flock of sheep the Ajax and Marlborough next brought the Princesa 70 to heel, allowing the Bedford to engage her for more than an hour, whereupon she surrendered and was taken possession of by the Resolution at about 5.30. The Defence got up with de Langara’s flagship Fenix 80 in the darkness at 7.30 and fought her for an hour and a half from to larboard, being joined by the Montagu, which poured in two broadsides from to windward. The Prince George added her own firepower, bringing down the Spanish flagship’s mizzenmast, and undeterred by his earlier scrape with the Santo Domingo Captain MacBride also threw the Bienfaisant upon the disabled Fenix. After bombarding her for several minutes and bringing down her main topmast he secured her surrender at 8.30.
Meanwhile the busy Montagu had brought the Diligente 70 to action at 9.15, and after a single broadside that brought down her main-topmast secured her surrender, a party from the assailant taking possession. Still the chase in the turbulent seas progressed, with the Cumberland catching the San Eugenio 70 and forcing her to strike after 11 p.m. by shooting down all her masts. It was not until the next morning that men from the Terrible were able to get aboard and take possession however. The Culloden and Prince George got up with the San Julian 70 and pulverised her into submission at 1.05, the latter British ship taking possession. Finally the Monarca 70 struck to the Sandwich after one heavy broadside from musket range at 2 a.m., but not before she had seen off the Alcide by bringing down her main-topmastt. Fortunately, the brilliant Captain Philemon Pownall of the frigate Apollo had hung on grimly to the Monarca for an hour, which had enabled the Sandwich to get up and complete the capture. The San Augustin, which had earlier struck her colours to the Monarch, then fled the battle, and three other Spanish sail of the line also escaped, including two in advance of their consorts which had barely been brought to action. By the time the battle ended at about 4 a.m. British losses totalled thirty-two men killed and one hundred and two wounded, the highest number being aboard the Defence, Edgar and Monarch.
Come the morning, with Captain Cornish’ Invincible so close to Cadiz that she could count the men-of-war in the port, the Royal George and Prince George reported that they were in soundings, and the British now attempted to work away from the hostile lee shore with their six hard-won prizes. The Diligente, Monarca and Princesa were saved, but the disabled San Julian was driven ashore near Cadiz at 10 a.m. with some of the men from the Prince George still aboard. The dismasted San Eugenio drifted on to the breakers at noon, and although the Spanish got her off she was later lost on St. Mary’s Island.
Meanwhile Captain MacBride of the Bienfaisant found his command and the captured Spanish flagship Fenix alone on the gale-ridden seas, and although he was able to place aboard her a prize crew of a hundred men under the orders of Lieutenant Thomas Louis, there was little else he could do but lie-too. A further problem was an outbreak of smallpox on the Bienfaisant which MacBride, displaying a chivalry common to that age, did not want to risk inflicting upon the Spanish. Not to be outdone Admiral Langara, who had been wounded, agreed to the terms of a parole which allowed him and his officers to remain aboard their ship, but not to interfere with her new masters. Furthermore the Spanish actually assisted in affecting repairs and taking the Fenix into Gibraltar where she was bought into the navy under the name of that fortress, being much admired for the cedar and mahogany wood with she had been constructed in Havana.
After being caught in gales and a current that drove them past the rock, Rodney’s ships finally arrived to relieve Gibraltar on 19 January, although his flagship was unable to gain the harbour until the 27th. During their entry to Gibraltar the Terrible, Alcide, Minorca and a transport had to be towed away from under the fire of the Spanish batteries at Algeciras, and Captain John Harvey of the Panther, who was commanding the naval forces on the Rock, went on board the Terrible to pilot the ships home. The Spaniards captured in the battle were detained at Gibraltar whilst Rodney sought the release of British prisoners in Spain, and after a protracted correspondence the sickly Langara and his officers were granted parole on the very day that they were about to be carted off to England. Meanwhile although Admiral Don Luis de Cordova with twenty Spanish and four French sail of the line was still in Cadiz Bay, he decided not to come out and challenge the British because of the poor condition of his ships.
Having refitted at Gibraltar and also replenished Minorca, Rodney sailed out of the Mediterranean with the majority of the fleet on 13th February before parting company five days later for the Leeward Islands with four sail of the line, the Sandwich, Ajax, Terrible and Montagu, together with the frigate Pegasus 32 and the San Vincente 10. He left one sail of the line, the Edgar 74, at Gibraltar to act as the pennant ship for Commodore John Elliot whom he had appointed to this rank, but he was subsequently criticised by the Admiralty, as the re-stationing of even one sail of the line was against their orders.
To Captain MacBride, who had already presented Prince William with the colours of the captured Spanish ship which now bore his name, went the honour of taking home Rodney’s despatches, although to this officer’s misfortune the weather allowed Captain Edward Thompson in possession of the duplicate despatches to arrive before him, despite making a later departure. Not far behind the despatches was an acerbic letter from Rodney to the second secretary of the Admiralty castigating many of his captains for their perceived failures in the action with the Spanish. Even so, the news of the two victories was received with great joy by a people who had become accustomed to bad news, and in London the Tower and Park guns were fired in celebration whilst the city was illuminated.
The victorious Rodney received a great deal of praise for his victory, being thanked by both houses of parliament, awarded the Freedom of the City in a gold casket, and granted a 2,000-guinea pension. Vice-Admiral Lord Howe and Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel made handsome speeches in his favour, and eight months later, although still at sea, he was elected to the House of Commons as the M.P. for Westminster, the borough with the largest popular vote in the land.
British fleet at the battle and casualties in killed and wounded:
Starred ships joined at Plymouth.
1 x 80 guns: Fenix.
9 x 74 guns: Princesa, Diligente, Monarca, San Augustin, San Eugenio, San Jenaro, San Justo, San Lorenzo, Santa Domingo:
1 x 64 guns: San Julián:
Frigates: Santa Cecilia 34, Santa Rosalia 34: