"British powder, British shot, and British steel, wielded by the hands of British officers and seamen.” - "Mad Charlie" Napier and the Third Battle of St Vincent in 1833

5 July 1833, Sir Charles Napier, Royal Navy captain and acting Admiral of Dom Pedro’s small Loyalist fleet in Portugal’s Liberal Wars, defeated the superior forces of the reactionary Miguelists in the Third Battle of St Vincent, one of the last naval actions fought under sail.

“It is not for me to comment on this action; I shall leave that to the world; simply observing, that at no time was a naval action fought with such a disparity of force, and in no naval action was there so severe a loss in so short a time. It has been said by our detractors that the fleet was bought; I answer that they were, but with the same coin that Earl St. Vincent bought the Spanish fleet, viz. British powder, British shot, and British steel, wielded by the hands of British officers and seamen.” (Sir Charles Napier, “An Account of the War in Portugal between Dom Pedro and Dom Miguel“)

An imagination of the battle by the French naval painter Antoine Léon Morel-Fatio (1810 – 1871) from 1842

Civil War had broken out in Portugal in 1828 over the legitimacy of Queen Maria II’s rule as a constitutional monarch and her uncle, now proclaimed as King Miguel I, who favoured an absolutistic approach on kingship and had the full support of major landowners and the Church. Five years later, the situation looked bleak for the supporters of Maria. Most of their army was trapped in Oporto under Maria’s father Pedro, who had abandoned his throne as Emperor of Brazil and had returned to Europe to fight for his daughter.

Arriving on the Azores in HMS “Galatea”, Charles Napier was asked by the loyalist Duke of Terceira to relieve the current admiral of the small squadron still available to the Liberals, George Sartorius, the future Admiral of the Fleet of Queen Victoria, and Napier accepted.

Thomas Whitcombe (1763 - 1824): "H.M. Frigate Galatea, 38 Guns off the Needles, Isle Of Wight"

Under the nom du guerre Carlos de Ponza (after the Mediterranean island of Ponza he captured during the Napoleonic Wars, Napier, as a commissioned naval officer, was actually not allowed to serve in a foreign army or navy under the Foreign Enlistment Act of 1819), “Mad Charlie”, who had a reputation of being a gangly, untidy and eccentric, took overall command of the three loyalist frigates and smaller vessels anchored off the Azores, already crewed mostly by British officers and sailors.

After landing a small contingent of troops near Lisbon to relieve the pressure on the Loyalists in Oporto, Napier’s squadron encountered a fleet of two Miguelist battleships-of-the-line, two large frigates and four smaller corvettes off Cape St Vincent. Raising his broad pennant on “Rainha de Portugal“ (46), Napier brought the numerically superior force to battle in historic waters where Rodney as well as Jervis and Nelson defeated superior Spanish squadrons in 1780 and 1797.

A take on the climax of the Battle of St Vincent by an unknown 19th century artist, showing the two Miguelists' ships of the line "Nau Rainha" and "Dom João" in the centre and on the far right, towering over Napier's frigates

In best Nelson fashion, who stated that “no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy and fight”, Napier didn’t expose his smaller ships to the fire especially of the two battleships, gave orders to close and board the enemy – in a skillfully executed and finally successful maneuver. All Miguelist capital ships were captured by the Loyalists, their surviving crews sworn into the service of Maria II and despite a severe outbreak of cholera, Napier managed to sail the entire fleet to Lisbon. The capital had been captured by the Loyalists under the Duke of Terceira in the meanwhile and Napier was created Count of St Vincent by Pedro, quite like Old Jarvie, who had been made Earl of St Vincent after his victory.

Almirante Carlos de Ponza, visconde do Cabo de São Vicente, née Charlie Napier from Falkirk, returned to England after the final loyalist victory in 1834 and assumed his role as a liberal politician and captain in the RN, stationed off Syria, where he negotiated a treaty that established the ancestors of King Farouk of Egypt without any official handle and leading the Royal Naval in the Baltic Campaign during the Crimean War, this time as a real admiral.

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