After Spain’s entry into the war with Britain in 1779, British leaders had to contend with the threat of a combined French-Spanish fleet right in their own backyard. Only by luck had they avoided a full scale invasion of Britain that year. The combined French and Spanish fleets continued to pose a grave threat to Britain.
Siege of Gibraltar
One of the main reasons that Spain had entered the war was to regain possession of several territories it had lost to Britain in earlier wars. These included Minorca in the Mediterranean and the Floridas in the west indies. But probably the most galling for Spain was British possession of Gibraltar, a mountainous region at the southern tip of Spain itself. Britain used control of Gibraltar to regulate movement of ships in and out of the Mediterranean.
|The Rock of Gibraltar|
The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht gave Gibraltar to Britain, but the Spanish were never happy about an enemy country holding valuable real estate in what they regarded as part of mainland Spain. During the next Anglo-Spanish war in 1727, Spain launched an all-out attempt to dislodge the British, but were once again unsuccessful. Following that war, Spain built a line of fortifications around Gibraltar, cutting it off from the rest of mainland Spain. During the War of Jenkins’ Ear in 1739, the Spanish, once again, attempted to take back Gibraltar, but once again, the British defenses held.
When Spain signed the Treaty of Aranjuez in 1779 with France, marking its entry into the latest war with Britain, the first goal stated in that treaty was to take back Gibraltar once and for all. France agreed that it would not end the war until Spain took back Gibraltar.
As I said, for the prior half century, Spain had used its army to cut off all access from Gibraltar to the rest of Spain to the north. But the dominance of the British Navy had allowed Britain to supply Gibraltar by sea, just as they did many of their island colonies. The British left a relatively large garrison of regulars at Gibraltar, even in peacetime. More than 5000 regulars occupied the rock before the war began. That was more than 10% of the entire British army worldwide. When the war in America began, George III, who was also elector of Hanover, deployed several regiments of Hanoverian soldiers to Gibraltar, in order to free up British regulars for America, but without reducing the overall garrison numbers at Gibraltar.
After Spain formed its alliance with France in April of 1779, it began its siege of Gibraltar in June. Britain could still get its faster military ships past the naval blockade, but the larger and slower supply ships had more trouble getting to Gibraltar.
Spain had deployed about 14,000 soldiers in the land to the north of Gibraltar. Even with these superior numbers, Spain did not dare to attack the British fortifications. They knew from experience that the terrain greatly favored the defenders. The British had built up those fortifications, making use of the centuries-old defenses atop the Rock of Gibraltar, which rose more than a quarter mile above the ground, and defended all possible passages to the top with well-placed artillery.
Lángara was part of the invasion fleet that the French and Spanish deployed against Britain in the spring of 1779. Lángara managed to capture the British ship Winchcomb, the only British warship captured during that campaign.
When most of the French and Spanish fleet went into winter quarters in Brest and Cadiz in late 1779, Lángara was tasked with maintaining the blockade against Gibraltar with nine ships of the line and two frigates.
British Relief Fleet
The Spanish blockade was having its intended effect. By December 1779, six months after the siege began, the British-Hanoverian force of over 5000 soldiers at Gibraltar was running out of food and supplies. Britain would have to find a way to get supplies to the army or risk losing the siege on account of starvation.
Through a combination of capable service, and the patronage of an influential relative, the Duke of Chandos, Rodney commanded the 60-Gun Eagle by the time he was in his early twenties. This was not the same Eagle that would be Lord Howe’s flagship during the Revolution. It was an earlier ship with the same name.
During the War of Austrian Succession, Rodney distinguished himself. He even managed to make some money capturing several valuable enemy ships. By the time the Seven Years War began, Rodney was a Commodore. He carried Major General Jeffery Amherst to America, and participated in the successful siege of Louisbourg.
He received promotion to admiral, and played a key role in the capture of Martinque, Grenada, and St. Lucia near the end of the war. Following the War, the King granted him a Baronetcy. He got married and settled onto a large country estate. He won election to Parliament, and life must have seemed good.
Unfortunately, the cost of running for Parliament and the lifestyle costs of a gentleman ended up bankrupting the admiral. He had hoped to secure an appointment as Governor of Jamaica, but failing that, Rodney had to flee to France in order to avoid creditors. Just after France declared war with Britain in 1778, Rodney convinced a friend to lend him enough money to repay his creditors and return to Britain. By this time he was an admiral of the white.
In December 1779 Rodney received orders to take command in the West Indies. Before sailing there, however, he received secret orders to break the siege of Gibraltar by escorting a fleet of supply ships.
Rodney set out for Gibraltar with nineteen ships of the line in early January 1780. A few days later, his fleet spotted the enemy. It turned out to be a Spanish supply fleet, defended by only one ship of the line. The British managed to capture the entire fleet, including the Spanish ship of the line, the Guipuzcoana. Rodney renamed the ship the Prince William, after the King’s third son, who was serving as a midshipman with his fleet.
Battle of Cape St. Vincent
Following the capture of the Spanish supply fleet, Spanish officials got word of the British fleet headed for Gibraltar. They deployed two fleets, one under Admiral Luis de Córdova and another under Admiral Lángara. Now, you may ask yourself, why did I go through all the trouble of giving background on Lángara, but did not bother to give a background on Córdova? The reason is that Córdova, once he learned of the size of the British fleet, turned around and went right back to Cadiz. He did not even try to contest the attack.
|Battle off Cape St. Vincent|
But the differences were even more stark than that. Most of the British ships of the line were far larger than the Spanish ships, with more guns. The Spanish fleet was also much slower. Spain had done a poor job of keeping up the hulls on their ships, leading to rot and other problems which greatly slowed down the ships. A French admiral had noted that during the failed attempt to move a combined French-Spanish armada against Britain earlier that year, the fastest Spanish ship in the fleet was slower than the slowest French ship. By contrast, the British ships had copper sheathing underneath, which made their ships even faster. So, the British have twice as many ships, with much more firepower per ship, and a much faster fleet.
Admiral Lángara did not know any of this. He only knew that a British fleet was advancing on his position and that he had orders to intercept it.
On January 16, the two fleets spotted each other in the early afternoon. They were just off the southern coast of Portugal, near Cape St. Vincent.
The British Admiral Rodney was sick with gout at the time, and remained in his cabin during the entire action. He gave advice from his bed, but his flagship captain Walter Young commanded the ship on deck.
After the British and Spanish fleets confirmed sight of the enemy, both sides began to form a line of battle. Quickly though, the Spanish realized just how outnumbered they were, Lángara ordered his ships to turn and make a run for it back to Cadiz. The British, at first, hesitated to give chase, but after determining that the smaller Spanish fleet was not trying to lead them into a trap, they pursued the fleeing Spanish.
|British pursue the Spanish fleet|
The Marlborough and Ajax, then sped off in pursuit of others. The next slowest Spanish ship was the Princessa, who they bypassed in order to go after some of the faster ships. The captains calculated, correctly, that other British ships could catch up and take the Princessa. The Bedford soon caught up and engaged, forcing Princessa to strike her colors after about an hour of fighting.
By this time, it was getting close to dusk. The British officers had to decide whether to call off the attack, in which case the remainder of the Spanish fleet would probably slip away, or whether they wanted to risk continuing the attack into the night. A nighttime battle carried numerous more risks of being caught out of position, or misidentifying an allied ship and engaging in friendly fire. In the end, the British thought that the risk was worth continuing the pursuit.
|Santa Maria Demasted|
Normally, in such a situation, the British would send over a prize crew to take control of the ship. However, the Bienfaisant had a raging smallpox epidemic aboard. The British captain informed the Spanish of this case and told them that rather than sending over a prize crew that might infect the Spanish crew, he would allow them parole to continue sailing their own ship. They had to agree to remain with the British fleet, cease all hostile actions, and follow them back to a British port. Rather than risk smallpox infection by a prize crew, the Spanish agreed to the terms.
Over the course of the rest of the night, British ships found and attacked the Diligente, the San Eugenio, and the San Julian. After midnight, the British 80 gun ship the Alcide, caught up with the 74-gun Spanish Monarca. Although smaller, the Monarca managed to get in a fortunate shot which toppled the Alcide's mainmast. By that time though the smaller 32-gun British frigate Apollo had also entered the battle. While probably too small to capture the Monarca on its own, it managed to keep the Spanish ship engaged until the 90-gun flagship Sandwich, sailing toward the sound of cannon fire, arrived on the scene at 2:00 AM and forced the Monarca’s surrender.
Entry into Gibraltar
By dawn, the British managed to capture six of the nine Spanish ships of the line. The remainder of the fleet managed to make it back to Cadiz. Even so, the British were not in the clear yet. Prize crews aboard several of the damaged Spanish ships were close to the shore, with a strong breeze blowing them toward the land. The British gave up on one of the badly damaged prize ships, the San Julián. By late morning, they grounded the ship on the shore, and abandoned her.
|Relief Fleet at Gibraltar|
The victorious British convoy continued on to Gibraltar with the supply ships. They chased away the few smaller Spanish ships guarding the coast near Gibraltar. Even without any further naval opposition, entry into Gibraltar was difficult. Gale-force winds battered the already battle damaged ships trying to make their way into Gibraltar while avoiding Spanish coastal artillery. Most of the fleet arrived at Gibraltar on January 19, two days after the battle. Although Rodney’s flagship, the Sandwich, made a stop in Tangiers before arriving on the 26th.
The supply ships saved the garrison at Gibraltar from starvation. The additional food, munitions and over a thousand reinforcements would secure the fortress for at least another year.
During the relief, Spanish Admiral Córdova still had twenty-four French and Spanish ships of the line under his command at Cadiz. He could have pursued the smaller and damaged British fleet, but for reasons I don’t fully understand, he remained in port.
The result of the battle was a great victory for Britain. The Spanish lost over 2500 men killed, wounded, or captured, while the British suffered only 32 killed and 102 wounded.
The British leadership celebrated news of the lopsided naval victory, and Admiral Rodney became the toast of London. Both Houses of Parliament passed resolutions thanking the Admiral for his service. Admirals Lord Howe and Keppel honored him in public speeches. The ministry offered a more tangible thanks in the form of a lifetime annual pension of two thousand guineas. Although Rodney remained at sea, eight months later voters in Westminster elected him to the House of Commons by the highest popular vote of that year’s election. Two years later, after returning to Britain, Rodney would also receive the title of baron.
Meanwhile the Rodney remained with his fleet at Gibraltar as they completed repairs on their ships. Once ready, the fleet sailed straight to the West Indies as planned. We will pick up those exploits in a future episode.
The captured Spanish Admiral Lángara would receive parole and would return to duty in Spain rather quickly. He received no blame for the loss, given that he was badly outgunned. Rather, he was praised for his efforts in engaging the superior force. He would continue in service with a new ship. After the war, he would eventually become Capitán General of the Spanish fleet, and later serve as minister of the navy.
His captured Spanish flagship, the Fenix was renamed the Gibraltar and entered British service. The newly renamed 80 gun ship of the line would sail to Plymouth to be refitted and would remain in service for more than a half century, seeing extensive service throughout the Napoleonic wars.
Admiral Córdova, who avoided battle entirely, did not seem to suffer any backlash as a result. Instead, a few weeks after the battle, the King appointed the 73 year old admiral the Director General of the Spanish Navy. This appears to be one of those battles where all of the participants get a trophy.
The naval battle at Cape St. Vincent is sometimes called the Midnight battle since most of it was fought over the course of the night. It gave the British a much needed decisive naval victory, which helped morale in London. It also provided much needed relief to Gibraltar, which was stocked up to continue resisting the Spanish siege.
Next week, the British face a new challenge in the League of Armed Neutrals, and launch an attack against the Spanish forces in Central America.
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Battle of Cape St. Vincent, 1780: https://www.britishbattles.com/war-of-the-revolution-1775-to-1783/battle-of-cape-st-vincent-1780
The Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent – 16 January 1780, by Richard Hiscocks Jan 17, 2017: https://morethannelson.com/moonlight-battle-16-january-1780
George Brydges Rodney 1st Baron https://morethannelson.com/officer/george-brydges-rodney-1st-baron
Walter Young: https://morethannelson.com/officer/walter-young
The defeat of the Spanish fleet under Don Juan de Langara, by Sir George Brydges Rodney, Decr. 16th 1779, off Cape St. Vincent - most humbly inscribed to Prince William Henry: https://www.loc.gov/item/2004670175
Harvey, P. D. A. “An Account of the Siege of Gibraltar, 1779-83.” The British Museum Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 4, British Museum, 1961, pp. 93–95, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4422678
(from archive.org unless noted)
The Naval Chronicle, Vol. 6, London: Bunny & Gold,
Ancell, Samuel A Circumstantial Journal of the long and tedious blockade and siege of Gibraltar, from the 12th of September, 1779, ... to the 23rd day of February, 1783, Liverpool: printed by Charles Wosencroft, 1784.
Drinkwater, John A History Of The Siege Of Gibraltar(1779-1783), London: John Murray, 1861.
Rodney, George Brydges Letter-books and order-book of George, lord Rodney, admiral of the White squadron, 1780-1782, Vol. 1, New York : Printed for the New York Historical Society, 1930.
Wood, Walter Famous British War-ships, and their Commanders, London : Hurst and Blackett, Ltd. 1897.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Adkins, Roy Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History, Viking, 2018.
Dull, Jonathan R. The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British and French Navies, 1650-1815, Univ. of Nebraska Press, June 1, 2009
Falkner, James Fire over the Rock: The Great Siege of Gibraltar 1779-1783, Pen and Sword Military, 2009.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.