Sir John Jervis’s Report of Cape St. Vincent

The Captain Capturing the San Nicolas and the San Jose at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent by Nicholas Pocock

Captain Robert Calder of HMS Victory arrived at the Admiralty on March 8th 1797 with dispatches from Admiral Sir John Jervis:

Victory, in Lagos Bay, February 16th, 1797.

Sir,

The hopes of falling in with the Spanish fleet, expressed in my letter to you of the 13th instant, were confirmed that night by my distinctly hearing the report of their signal-guns, an by intelligence received from Captain Foote of his Majesty’s ship the Niger, who had, with equal judgment and perseverance, kept company with them for several days, on my prescribed rendezvous (which, from the strong south-east winds, I had never been able to reach), and that they were not more than the distance of three or four leagues from us. I anxiously awaited the dawn of day, when, on the starboard tack, Cape St. Vincent bearing east by north eight leagues, I had the satisfaction of seeing a number of ships extending from south-west to south, the wind then at west and by south. At forty-nine minutes past ten, the weather being extremely hazy, La Bonne Citoyenne made the signal, that the ships seen were of the line, twenty five in number. His Majesty’s squadron under my command, consisting of fifteen ships of the line, happily formed in the most compact order of sailing in two lines. By carrying a press of sail, I was fortunate in getting in with the enemy’s fleet at half past eleven o’clock, before it had time to command, and judging that the honour of his Majesty’s arms and the circumstances of the war in these seas required a considerable degree of enterprise, I felt myself justified in departing from the regular system; and passing through their fleet in a line, formed with the utmost celerity, tacked, and thereby separated one-third from the main body, after a partial cannonade, which prevented their rejunction till the evening; and by the very great exertions of the ships who had the good fortune to arrive up with the enemy on the larboard tack, four ships were captured, and the action ceased about five o’clock in the evening.

I enclose the most correct list I have been able to obtain of the Spanish fleet opposed to me, amounting to twenty seven sail of the line; and an account of the killed and wounded in his Majesty’s ships, as well as those taken from the enemy. The moment the latter (almost totally dismasted), and his Majesty’s ships the Captain and Culloden, are in a state to put to sea, I shall avail myself of the first favourable wind to proceed of Cape St. Vincent, in my way to Lisbon.

Captain Calder, whose able assistance has greatly contributed to the public service during my command, is the bearer of this, and will more particularly describe to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty the movements of the squadron on the 14th and the present state of it.

I am, &c

J. Jervis

Recent research evidence suggests that the numbers of Spanish vessels quoted by Jervis (and subsequent reports of the battle) may be higher than were actually involved. It now appears (evidence from Spanish sources) that the likely number of vessels in the Spanish line was 23, and that one of them was only lightly armed if armed at all. In the confusion of battle, and with the Spanish in two divisions, it is understandable that Jervis may have counted more ships. Jervis was still outnumbered – and it must be remembered that some of the Spanish ships were of considerable size and firepower.

Courtesy of Mackenzie Gregory.

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