The Battle of Cape St Vincent, took place off the southern coast of Portugal on 16 January 1780 during the American War of Independence. A British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney defeated a Spanish squadron under Don Juan de Lángara. The battle is sometimes referred to as the Moonlight Battle, because it was unusual for naval battles in the Age of Sail to take place at night. It was also the first major naval victory for the British over their European enemies in the war, and proved the value of copper sheathing the hulls of warships.
Admiral Rodney was escorting a fleet of supply ships to relieve the Spanish siege of Gibraltar with a fleet of about twenty ships of the line when he encountered Lángara's squadron south of Cape St. Vincent. When Lángara saw the size of the British fleet, he attempted to make for the safety of Cadiz, but the copper-sheathed British ships chased his fleet down. In a running battle that lasted from mid-afternoon until after midnight, the British captured four Spanish ships, including Lángara's flagship. Two other ships were also captured, but their final disposition is unclear: some Spanish sources indicate they were retaken by their Spanish crews, while Rodney's report indicates the ships were grounded and destroyed.
After the battle Rodney successfully resupplied Gibraltar and Minorca before continuing on to the West Indies station. Lángara was released on parole, and was promoted to lieutenant general by King Carlos III.
One of Spain's principal goals upon its entry into the American War of Independence in 1779 was the recovery of Gibraltar, which had been lost to England in 1704. The Spanish planned to retake Gibraltar by blockading and starving out its garrison, which included troops from Britain and the Electorate of Hanover. The siege formally began in June 1779, with the Spanish establishing a land blockade around the Rock of Gibraltar. The matching naval blockade was comparatively weak, however, and the British discovered that small fast ships could evade the blockaders, while slower and larger supply ships generally could not. By late 1779, however, supplies in Gibraltar had become seriously depleted, and its commander, General George Eliott, appealed to London for relief.
A supply convoy was organized, and in late December 1779 a large fleet sailed from England under the command of Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney. Although Rodney's ultimate orders were to command the West Indies fleet, he had secret instructions to first resupply Gibraltar and Minorca. On 4 January 1780 the fleet divided, with ships headed for the West Indies sailing westward. This left Rodney in command of 19 ships of the line, which were to accompany the supply ships to Gibraltar.
On 8 January 1780 ships from Rodney's fleet spotted a group of sails. Giving chase with their faster copper clad ships, the British determined these to be a Spanish supply convoy that was protected by a single ship of the line and several frigates. The entire convoy was captured, with the lone ship of the line, the Guipuzcoana, striking her colours after a perfunctory exchange of fire. The Guipuzcoana was renamed HMS Prince William, in honour of Prince William, the third son of the King, who was serving as midshipman in the fleet, and staffed with a small prize crew. Rodney then detached HMS America and the frigate HMS Pearl to escort most of the captured ships back to England; the Prince William was added to his fleet, as were some of the supply ships that carried items likely to be of use to the Gibraltar garrison. On 12 January HMS Dublin, which had lost part of her topmast on 3 January, suffered additional damage and raised a distress flag. Assisted by HMS Shrewsbury, she limped into Lisbon on 16 January.
The Spanish had learnt of the British relief effort. From the blockading squadron a fleet comprising 11 ships of the line under Admiral Juan de Lángara was despatched to intercept Rodney's convoy, and the Atlantic fleet of Admiral Luis de Córdova at Cadiz was also alerted to try to catch him. Córdova learnt of the strength of Rodney's fleet, and returned to Cadiz rather than giving chase. On 16 January the fleets of Lángara and Rodney spotted each other around 1:00 pm south of Cape St. Vincent, the southwestern point of Portugal and the Iberian Peninsula. The weather was hazy, with heavy swells and occasional squalls.
Rodney was ill, and spent the entire action in his bunk. His flag captain, Walter Young, urged Rodney to give orders to engage when the Spanish fleet was first spotted, but Rodney only gave orders to form a line abreast. Lángara started to establish a line of battle, but when he realised the size of Rodney's fleet, he gave orders make all sail for Cadiz. Around 2:00 pm, when Rodney felt certain that the ships seen were not the vanguard of a larger fleet, he issued commands for a general chase. Rodney's instructions to his fleet were to chase at their best speed, and engage the Spanish ships from the rear as they came upon them. They were also instructed to sail to the lee side to interfere with Spanish attempts to gain the safety of a harbour, a tactic that also prevented the Spanish ships from opening their lowest gun ports. Because of their copper-sheathed hulls (which reduced marine growths and drag), the ships of the Royal Navy were faster and soon gained on the Spanish.
The chase lasted for about two hours, and the battle finally began around 4:00 pm. The Santo Domingo, trailing in the Spanish fleet, received broadsides from HMS Edgar, HMS Marlborough, and HMS Ajax before blowing up around 4:40, with the loss of all but one of her crew. Marlborough and Ajax then passed Princessa to engage other Spanish ships. Princessa was eventually engaged in an hour-long battle with HMS Bedford before striking her colours at about 5:30. By 6:00 pm it was getting dark, and there was a discussion aboard HMS Sandwich, Rodney's flagship, about whether to continue the pursuit. Although Captain Young is credited in some accounts with pushing Rodney to do so, Dr. Gilbert Blane, the fleet physician, reported it as a decision of the council.
The chase continued into the dark and squally night, leading it to later become known as the "Moonlight Battle", since it was uncommon at the time for naval battles to continue after sunset. At 7:30 pm, HMS Defence came upon Lángara's flagship Fenix, engaging her in a battle lasting over an hour. She was broadsided in passing by HMS Montagu and HMS Prince George, and Lángara was wounded in the battle. Fenix finally surrendered to HMS Bienfaisant, which arrived late in the battle and shot away her mainmast. Fenix's takeover was complicated by an outbreak of smallpox aboard Bienfaisant. Captain John MacBride, rather than sending over a possibly infected prize crew, apprised Lángara of the situation and put him and his crew on parole.
At 9:15 the Montagu engaged the Diligente, which struck after her maintopmast was shot away. Around 11:00 pm San Eugenio surrendered after having all of her masts shot away by HMS Cumberland, but the difficult seas made it impossible to board a prize crew until morning. That duel was passed by HMS Culloden and Prince George, which engaged San Julián and compelled her to surrender around 1:00 am. The last ship to surrender was Monarca. She nearly escaped, shooting away HMS Alcide's topmast, but was engaged in a running battle with the frigate HMS Apollo. Apollo managed to keep up the unequal engagement until about the time that Rodney's flagship Sandwich came upon the scene around 2:00 am. Sandwich fired a broadside, unaware that Monarca had already hauled down her flag.
The British took six ships. Four Spanish ships of the line and the fleet's two frigates escaped, although sources are unclear if two of the Spanish ships were even present with the fleet at the time of the battle. Lángara's report states that San Justo and San Genaro were not in his line of battle (although they are listed in Spanish records as part of his fleet). Rodney's report states that San Justo escaped but was damaged in battle, and that San Genaro escaped without damage. According to one account two of Lángara's ships (unspecified which two) were despatched to investigate other unidentified sails sometime before the action.
With the arrival of daylight, it was clear that the British fleet and their prize ships were dangerously close to a lee shore with an onshore breeze. One of the prizes, San Julián, was recorded by Rodney as too badly damaged to save, and was driven ashore. The fate of another prize, San Eugenio, is unclear. Some sources report that she too was grounded, but others report that she was retaken by her crew and managed to reach Cadiz. A Spanish history claims that the prize crews of both ships appealed to their Spanish captives for help escaping the lee shore. The Spanish captains retook control of their ships, imprisoned the British crews, and sailed to Cadiz.
The British reported their casualties in the battle as 32 killed and 102 wounded. The supply convoy sailed into Gibraltar on 19 January, driving the smaller blockading fleet to retreat to the safety of Algeciras. Rodney arrived several days later, after first stopping in Tangier. The wounded Spanish prisoners, who included Admiral Lángara, were offloaded there, and the British garrison was heartened by the arrival of the supplies and the presence of Prince William Henry. After also resupplying Minorca, Rodney sailed for the West Indies in February, detaching part of the fleet for service in the Channel. This homebound fleet intercepted a French fleet destined for the East Indies, capturing one warship and three supply ships. Gibraltar was resupplied twice more before the siege was lifted at the end of the war in 1783.
Admiral Lángara and other Spanish officers were eventually released on parole, the admiral receiving a promotion to lieutenant general. He continued his distinguished career, becoming Spanish marine minister in the French Revolutionary Wars.
Admiral Rodney was lauded for his victory, the first major victory of the war by the Royal Navy over its European opponents. He distinguished himself for the remainder of the war, notably winning the 1782 Battle of the Saintes in which he captured the French Admiral Comte de Grasse. He was, however, criticised by Captain Young, who portrayed him as weak and indecisive in the battle with Lángara. (He was also rebuked by the admiralty for leaving a ship of the line at Gibraltar, against his express orders.) Rodney's observations on the benefits of copper sheathing in the victory were influential in British Admiralty decisions to deploy the technology more widely.
Order of battle
None of the listed sources give an accurate accounting of the ships in Rodney's fleet at the time of the action. Robert Beatson lists the composition of the fleet at its departure from England, and notes which ships separated to go to the West Indies, as well as those detached to return the prizes captured on 8 January to England. He does not list two ships (Dublin and Shrewsbury, identified in despatches reprinted by Syrett) that were separated from the fleet on 13 January. Furthermore, HMS Prince William is sometimes misunderstood to have been part of the prize escort back to England, but she was present at Gibraltar after the action. Beatson also fails to list a number of frigates, including HMS Apollo, which played a key role in the capture of the Monarca.
|Sandwich||Second rate||90||Admiral of the White Sir George Rodney (fleet commander)
|Royal George||First rate||100||Rear Admiral of the Blue Robert Digby
|Prince George||Second rate||90||Rear Admiral of the Blue Sir John Lockhart-Ross
|Ajax||Third rate||74||Samuel Uvedale||0||6||6|
|Alcide||Third rate||74||John Brisbane||0||0||0|
|Bedford||Third rate||74||Edmund Affleck||3||9||12|
|Culloden||Third rate||74||George Balfour||0||0||0|
|Cumberland||Third rate||74||Joseph Peyton||0||1||1|
|Defence||Third rate||74||James Cranston||10||12||22|
|Edgar||Third rate||74||John Elliot||6||20||26|
|Invincible||Third rate||74||S. Cornish||3||4||7|
|Marlborough||Third rate||74||Taylor Penny||0||0||0|
|Monarch||Third rate||74||Adam Duncan||3||26||29|
|Montagu||Third rate||74||John Houlton||0||0||0|
|Resolution||Third rate||74||Sir Chaloner Ogle||0||0||0|
|Terrible||Third rate||74||John Leigh Douglas||6||12||18|
|Bienfaisant||Third rate||64||John MacBride||0||0||0|
|Prince William||Third rate||64||Unknown|
|Unless otherwise cited, table information is from Beatson, pp. 232, 234, and Syrett, p. 274. Full captain names are from Syrett, p. 259.|
Blank casualty report fields mean there was no report listed for that ship.
There are some discrepancies between the English and Spanish sources listing the Spanish fleet, principally in the number of guns most of the vessels are claimed to mount. The table below lists the Spanish records describing Lángara's fleet. Beatson lists all of the Spanish ships of the line at 70 guns, except Fenix, which he lists at 80 guns. One frigate, the Santa Rosalia, is listed by Beatson at 28 guns. The identify of the second Spanish frigate is different in the two listings. Beatson records her as the Santa Gertrudie, 26 guns, with captain Don Annibal Cassoni, while Duro's listing describes her as Santa Cecilia, 34, captain Don Domingo Grandallana. Both frigates, whatever their identity, escaped the battle.
|Fenix||Third rate||80||Don Juan de Lángara (fleet commander)
Don Francisco Melgarejo
|Captured, 700 men.|
|Princesa||Third rate||74||Don Manuel León||Captured, 600 men.|
|Diligente||Third rate||74||Don Antonio Albornoz||Captured, 600 men.|
|Monarca||Third rate||74||Don Antonio Oyarvide||Captured, 600 men.|
|Santo Domingo||Third rate||74||Don Ignacio Mendizábal||Blown up.|
|San Agustín||Third rate||74||Don Vicente Doz||Escaped.|
|San Lorenzo||Third rate||74||Don Juan Araoz||Escaped with damage.|
|San Julián||Third rate||64||Marqués de Medina||Captured (600 men), either grounded or retaken.|
|San Eugenio||Third rate||74||Don Antonio Damonte||Captured (600 men), either grounded or retaken.|
|San Jenaro||Third rate||74||Don Félix de Tejada||Not listed in Lángara's line of battle. Listed by Beatson as escaping.|
|San Justo||Third rate||74||Don Francisco Urreiztieta||Not listed in Lángara's line of battle. Listed by Beatson as escaping with damage.|
|Santa Cecilia||Frigate||34||Don Domingo Grandallana||Identified as Santa Gertrudis in Beatson. Escaped.|
|Santa Rosalia||Frigate||34||Don Antonio Ortega||Escaped.|
|Unless otherwise cited, table information is from Duro, pp. 259, 263, and Beatson, p. 233.|
- Battle of Cape St. Vincent (disambiguation), for several other naval battles fought off Cape St Vincent, the best known in 1797
- Michael Duffy (1992). Parameters of British Naval Power, 1650-1850. University of Exeter Press. p. 105. ISBN 978-0-85989-385-5. http://books.google.com/books?id=ysC9rOCxGhgC&pg=PA105. Retrieved 12 April 2013.
- Beatson, p. 232, as modified by Syrett, pp. 241, 306, 311
- Ulloa and Pérez-Mallaína Bueno, p. 33
- Beatson, p. 234
- Beatson, p. 233
- Chartrand, pp. 12, 30
- Chartrand, pp. 23, 30–31, 37
- Chartrand, p. 30
- Chartrand, p. 37
- Syrett, pp. 234, 237
- Syrett, pp. 238, 306
- Syrett, p. 311
- Chartrand, p. 38
- Syrett, p. 239
- Syrett, pp. 238–239
- Mahan, p. 449
- Willis, p. 34
- Syrett, pp. 240, 313
- Syrett, p. 240
- Mahan, p. 450
- Stewart, p. 131
- "MacBride, John (d. 1800)". Dictionary of National Biography. 1893. p. 428.
- Syrett, p. 241
- Duro, pp. 259, 263
- Lafuente, p. 440
- Mahan, p. 451
- Chartrand, p. 31
- Syrett, p. 366
- Harbron, p. 85
- Mahan, p. 535
- Mahan, p. 452
- Syrett, p. 244
- Beatson, pp. 232–233
- See Rodney's despatch (Syrett, p. 305) describing her commissioning, and later references to her in orders at Gibraltar (e.g. Syrett, p. 341).
- Syrett, pp. 241, 274
- Syrett, p. 314
- Duro, p. 263
- Beatson, Robert (1804). Naval and Military Memoirs of Great Britain, from 1727 to 1783, Volume 6. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees and Orme. OCLC 4643956. http://books.google.com/books?id=btEHAAAAIAAJ&ie=ISO-8859-1&pg=PA233#v=onepage&f=false.
- Chartrand, René (2006). Gibraltar 1779–1783: The Great Siege. Courcelle, Patrice (1st Edition ed.). Oxford: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-977-6. OCLC 255272192. http://www.ospreypublishing.com/title_detail.php/title=S9770.
- Duro, Cesáreo Fernández (1901) (in Spanish). Armada Española Desde la Unión de los Reinos de Castilla y de León, Volume 7. Madrid: Establecimiento Tipográfico. OCLC 4413652. http://books.google.com/books?id=G1y3VAtRHTIC&ie=ISO-8859-1&pg=PA259#v=onepage&q&f=false. Reprints Lángara's report.
- Harbron, John (1988). Trafalgar and the Spanish Navy. London: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 978-0-85177-477-0. OCLC 19096677.
- Lafuente, Modesto (1858) (in Spanish). Historia General de España, Volume 20. Madrid: Establecimiento Tipográfico de Mellado. OCLC 611596. http://books.google.com/books?id=kBUJAAAAQAAJ&ie=ISO-8859-1&pg=PA440#v=onepage&q&f=false.
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- Stewart, William (2009). Admirals of the World: a Biographical Dictionary, 1500 to the Present. Jefferson, NC: McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-3809-9. OCLC 426390753.
- Syrett, David (2007). The Rodney Papers: Selections From the Correspondence of Admiral Lord Rodney. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7546-6007-1. OCLC 506119281. Reprints numerous British documents concerning Rodney's entire expedition.
- de Ulloa, Antonio; Pérez Mallaína-Bueno, Pablo Emilio (1995) (in Spanish). La campaña de las terceras. Salamanca: Universidad de Sevilla. ISBN 978-84-472-0241-6.
- Willis, Sam (2008). Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: the Art of Sailing Warfare. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press. ISBN 978-1-84383-367-3. OCLC 176925283.
- de Castro, Adolfo (1858) (in Spanish). Historia de Cádiz y su Provincia. Cádiz: Imprenta de la Revista Médica. OCLC 162549293. http://books.google.com/books?id=yoCPa8wHa50C&ie=ISO-8859-1&pg=PA516#v=onepage&f=false.
- Sapherson, C. A. and Lenton, J. R. (1986) Navy Lists from the Age of Sail; Vol. 2: 1776-1783. Leeds: Raider Games
- Spinney, David (1969) Rodney. London: Allen & Unwin ISBN 0-04-920022-4
- Trew, Peter. Rodney and The Breaking of the Line Leo Cooper Ltd (2005) ISBN 978-1-84415-143-1
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