Prelude to the Battle of St Vincent - Nelson's Action of 19 December 1796

19 December 1796, off Cartagena in the Western Mediterranean, Nelson, then commodore in the Mediterranean Squadron under Sir John Jervis, fought a tumultuous frigate action against the Spanish in a prelude to the Battle of St Vincent.
"You are, Sir, thoroughly acquainted with the merits of Captain Cockburne, that is needless for me to express them; but the Discipline of the Minerve does the highest credit to her captain and lieutenants and I wish fully to express the Sense I entertain of their Judgement and Gallantry" (Nelson in his report to Sir John Jervis)

Contemporary Spanish artist Carlos Parilla's imagination of HMS "Minerve" dueling with "La Sabina"

Decisive use of cannon driving the Allied fleet out of the harbour of counterrevolutionary Toulon and a whiff of grapeshot used against the Royalists on 13 Vendémiaire in Paris gave a once obscure Corsican artillery captain the political backing for a meteoric rise through the ranks. In March 1796, young Général Napoléon Bonaparte assumed command of the thus far rather sloppy led and equipped French Army of Italy, deadlocked somewhere in Lombardy. By autumn of the same year, Napoléon had outflanked, outwitted and outfought everything the continental Allies of the First Coalition threw against him. With most footholds in Italy either captured or threatened, the British position in the Mediterranean became precarious. When the self-styled Prince of Peace Manuel Godoy, Prime Minister of Spain, joined the war on the French side for rather unsavoury reasons in October, raising the number of now allied Franco-Spanish battleships of the line to 38 against the Royal Navy’s 15, it became simply untenable. The new commander of the Mediterranean Fleet, Sir John Jervis, ordered his squadron to return back to Gibraltar, blockade the Spanish in Cadiz and evacuate the last British outposts on Corsica and Elba. In December, two frigates under the command of the newly appointed Commodore Horatio Nelson left the Rock for Porto Ferrajo on Elba to cover the retreat, take on board Sir Gilbert Elliot, viceroy of the rather short-lived Anglo-Corsican Kingdom and retrieve desperately needed naval stores. It didn’t come that far, though. Just a couple of days at sea, off Cartagena, two heavy Spanish frigates hove in sight. And Nelson, being Nelson, immediately ordered his brace of cruisers to close for action. Undergunned as in most of the engagements he fought, Nelson never the less directed “Minerve”, rated 42 guns with 28 18-pounders on her main deck, against “La Sabina”, equally equipped, while the smaller HMS “Blanche” with her 26 12-pounders as main armament would engage “Ceres”, like “La Sabina” of 40 guns.

Another hard-fought frigate action: "Capture of La Minerve" off Toulon in 1795,
by Thomas Whithcome (1816)

HMS “Minerve” was originally a French frigate, launched just two years before, captured in 1795 off Toulon and commissioned into the Royal Navy. “La Sabina” was commanded by Don Jacobo Felipe Carlos Fitz-James Stuart y Stolberg-Gedern, 5th Duke of Liria and Jérica and Duke of Berwick after Jacobite reckoning, descendant of an illegitimate son of King James II on the paternal and Christopher Columbus on the maternal side. Certainly one of the most able naval commanders Spain had available at the time, he put up a fight against Nelson and “Minerve” that lasted for three hours and left the two frigates rather battered. “Minerve” had lost her mizzen, main and foremast were shot riddled, her rigging cut to pieces but she had forced Don Jacobo to surrender. “La Sabina” struck her colours, a prize crew of 40 men under “Minerve’s” 1st Lieutenant Thomas Masterman Hardy was rowed over to the Spaniard, while Don Jacobo was transferred to the British frigate. “Blanche”, in the meanwhile, had brought the larger “Ceres” to bay and fought her into submission. The British were busy securing their prizes when, in the wee hours, another Spanish frigate arrived on the scene, “Matilda”, rated 34 guns. Nelson ordered his flag captain George Cockburn to cast off from “La Sabina” and engage “Matilda”. Battered “Minerve” saw her off with a few broadsides, but “Matilda” was just the van of a larger Spanish squadron. When the sun came up, the 1st rate ship of the line “Príncipe de Asturias” of 112 guns flanked by two more frigates came in sight, odds that not even Nelson was willing to face. The general order was “Make Sail” and hasten east to Elba. HMS “Blanche” had come out of her engagement relatively unscathed, teeth-gnashingly abandoned her prize, turned tail and ran. “Minerve” limped to the east as well under her jury rig and then Hardy, commanding aboard the prize “La Sabina”, decided to sail her towards the Spanish squadron, fired a ragged broadside pour l'honneur de pavillon and struck his English colours. While now the Spanish busied themselves with retaking “La Sabina”, “Minerve” and “Blanche” made good their escape and arrived in Porto Ferrajo, Cockburn’s damaged frigate beating her companion to it by three days, arriving on Elba on 27 December.

“Príncipe de Asturias” exchanging broadsides with the British line of battle at St Vincent
(by an unknown artist*)

was exchanged for Don Jacobo on 29 January in Gibraltar, Nelson returned a week later, left the Rock immediately after “Minerve’s” 1st lieutenant had rejoined his ship and promptly lost a man over board. One of “Minerve’s” boats was lowered with Hardy in charge to recover her lost sheep when two Spanish ships of the line appeared, one of them the “Terrible” that had brought Hardy to Gibraltar. Obviously, the two lay in wait for just such an occasion, to intercept British frigates or at least force them back into harbour. Don José de Córdoba and a squadron of 24 battleships and 7 frigates had left Cartagena on 1 February, trying to break out into the Atlantic to either join the French at Brest or escort a large convoy intending to sail for Spanish America from Cadiz. The last thing Don José needed was a nosy reconnoitring frigate alerting Jervis and the British Mediterranean Squadron. Seeing the two battleships approach, “Minerve’s” captain ordered to abandon the boat and escape and Nelson, overruling him, cried: “By God, I'll not lose Hardy, back that mizzen topsail!" Hardy was fished out and the “Minerve” frigate escaped never the less. On 11 February, “Minerve” passed through the Spanish squadron undetected, Nelson did alert Jervis, hoisted his Commodore’s broad pennant on the seventy-four HMS “Captain” and the Mediterranean Squadron set forth to bring Don José to battle, ending in the victory at Cape St Vincent on 14 February. Nelson, Hardy, Don Jacobo and the “Príncipe de Asturias” would all meet again eight years later at Trafalgar. It was, quite obviously, a small world in the Age of Sail.

* The image of Príncipe above was found on:

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