The Battle of St Vincent, fought on the 14th of February 1797, between the British and Spanish fleets, the most famous and important of many encounters which have taken place at the same spot. The battle of 1797 is of peculiar significance in British naval history, not only because it came at a vital moment but because it first revealed the full capacity of Nelson, which was well known in the navy, to all his countrymen.
In the course of 1796 the Spanish government had made the disastrous alliance with the French republic, which reduced its country to the level of a pawn in the game against England. The Spanish fleet, which was in a complete state of neglect, was forced to sea. It consisted of 27 sail of the line under the command of Don Jose de Cordoba, fine ships, but manned in haste by drafts of soldiers, and of landsmen forced on board by the press. Even the flagships had only about eighty sailors each in their crews. Don Jose de Cordoba, who had gone out with no definite aim, was in reality drifting about with his unmanageable ships in two confused divisions separated from one another, in light winds from the west and West-south-west at a distance of from 25 to 30 miles south-west of the Cape. While in this position he was sighted by Sir John Jervis, of whose nearness to himself he was ignorant, and who had sailed from Lisbon to attack him with only 15 sail of the line.
Jervis knew the inefficient condition of the Spaniards, and was aware that the general condition of the war called for vigorous exertions. He did not hesitate to give battle in spite of the numerical superiority of his opponent. Six of the Spanish ships were to the south of him, separated by a long interval from the others which were to the south west. The British squadron was formed into a single line ahead, and was steered to pass between the two divisions of the Spaniards. The six vessels were thus cut off. A feeble attempt was made by them to molest the British, but being now to leeward as Jervis passed to the west of them, and being unable to face the rapid and well directed fire to which they were exposed, they sheered off. One only ran down the British line, and passing to the stern of the last ship succeeded in joining the bulk of her fleet to windward. As the British line passed through the gap between the Spanish divisions the ships were tacked in succession to meet the windward portion of the enemy. If this movement had been carried out fully, all the British ships would have gone through the gap and the Spaniards to windward would have been able to steer unimpeded to the north, and perhaps to avoid being brought to a close general action.
Their chance of escape was baffled by the Independence and promptitude of Nelson. His ship, the Captain (74), was the third from the end of the British line. Without waiting for orders he-made a sweep to the west, threw himself across the bows of the Spaniards. His movement was seen and approved by Jervis, who then ordered the other ships in his rear to follow Nelson's example. The British force was thrown bodily on the enemy. As the Spanish crews were too utterly unpractised to handle their ships, and could not carry out the orders of their officers which they did not understand, their ships were soon driven into a herd, and fell on board of one another. Their incompetence as gunners enabled the Captain to assail their flagship, the huge Santisima Trinidad (130), with comparative impunity. The San Josef (112), and the San Nicolas (50), which fell aboard of one another, were both carried by boarding by the Captain. Four Spanish ships, the Salvador del Mundo and San Josef (112), the San Nicolas (80), and the San Isidro (74), were taken. The Santisima Trinidad is said to have struck, but she was not taken possession of.
By about half-past three the Spaniards were fairly beaten. More prizes might have been taken, but Sir John Jervis put a stop to the action to secure the four which had surrendered. The Spaniards were allowed to retreat to Cadiz. Sir John Jervis was made Earl St Vincent for his victory. The battle, which revealed the worthlessness of the Spanish navy, relieved the British government from a load of anxiety, and may be said to have marked the complete predominance of its fleet on the sea.
AUTHORITIES. A very interesting account of the battle of Cape St Vincent, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the British Fleet, etc. (London, 1797), illustrated by plans, was published immediately afterwards by Colonel Drinkwater Bethune, author of the History of the Siege of Gibraltar, who was an eyewitness from the Lively frigate. See also James's Naval History (London, 1837); and Captain Manan, The Influence of Sea Power on the French Revolution and Empire (London, 1892). (D. H.)
Being the entry for ST VINCENT, BATTLE OF in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.