Sir John Jervis, the Spanish Fleet, and a Famous Victory
Apologising for what are considered to be the errors of history seems to be, these
days, the favourite occupation of the politically correct. The fact appears to pass
them by that the freedom they have, to be so sorry, was earned by the fearless and
the brave who fought and defeated the enemies of this country.
The revision of history and the elimination of anything which might possibly offend
the delicately sensitive quite likely explains why there is now no national consciousness
of a famous victory which was won by British Arms in February 1797 when Admiral Sir
John Jervis, and 15 sail, encountered, pursued and defeated the Spanish Fleet of
27 ships of the line, including what was then the world’s largest warship.
Great Britain had been engaged in war with France since the fall of the French monarchy,
and the start of the campaign of aggression and conquest launched by the revolutionary
government, which was intent on overthrowing the established order throughout Europe.
The subjugation of a number of European states, and their control by France, left
Great Britain facing many more enemies, including Spain. Early in 1797, the twenty
seven capital ships of the Spanish Grand Fleet left port and headed westward through
the Straits of Gibraltar with the intention of joining the French navy in an attack
on British territory and interests.
Sir John Jervis and his squadron of fifteen ships intercepted the Spanish off the
southern coast of Portugal as they were running for Cadiz, and the British fleet
divided their line into two parts. From his flagship, HMS Victory, Sir John ordered
his ships to tack in succession and prevent the gap from being closed.
Commodore Horatio Nelson, last but two in the line, saw that this manouevre would
not be completed in time and made a quick decision to turn his ship, HMS Captain,
74 guns, into the gap. Although the Captain was barely half the size of the largest
Spanish vessel, it took on seven Spanish ships, including the Santissima Trinidad,
with 136 guns the largest ship in the world at the time, and two other ships, the
San Nicolas, 80 guns, and San Josef, 112 guns. Through a hail of pistol and musket
fire Nelson led boarding parties on to both and captured both.
By nightfall, four ships had been taken and ten others crippled. The few survivors
limped home to Cadiz where the Spanish Admiral was court-martialled. Admiral Jervis
returned home to much acclaim. He was generous in his praise of Nelson who was given
a Knighthood in the Most Honourable Military Order of the Bath. Commodore Nelson
was to fly his flag as Rear Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson - the promotion had been approved
before the battle but Nelson did not hear of it until after St. Vincent. In turn,
Sir John Jervis was created Earl St Vincent for his significant victory.
[Though badly damaged, Captain survived the battle, and continued to fight the good
fight until she was destroyed by fire in 1813. The Santissima Trinidad was also badly
damaged, but made Cadiz, and remained in service until Nelson succeeded in bringing
about her destruction at Trafalgar in 1805.]
Our token halfpenny was issued payable by Thomas Sharp, of Portsmouth, and shows
Admiral Jervis being crowned with a laurel wreath by Neptune, god of the sea, who
is seen standing in his chariot. Behind are two sea-horses ready to return to the
The reverse features an inscription:
‘SR JOHN JERVIS WITH 15 SAIL PURSUED & DEFEATED THE SPANISH FLEET OF 27 SAIL OF THE
LINE, FEBRUARY 14TH 1797’
I cannot imagine that Thomas Sharp of Portsmouth would have had much truck with our
so-fair-and-reasonable contemporaries. But then, had their views been prevalent in
1797 we would now, no doubt, be speaking French.