Valentine’s Day isn’t always a day of hearts and flowers. Captain James Cook was killed by the Hawaiians on Valentine’s Day. February 14th also happens to be the anniversary of one of my favorite naval battles—the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. The battle was fought during the French Revolutionary Wars at a time when it seemed like everyone on the planet hated the English. It happened in 1797 when a fleet of 15 British ships battled 25 Spanish ships that were escorting a convoy to Cádiz, Spain.
The head of the British fleet breaking through the Spanish line of battle.Although the British were heavily outnumbered, Admiral John Jervis used a rather unorthodox tactic (at the time) called “breaking the line” to divide the Spanish fleet in half because he thought that gave the British their best chance of winning. He managed to divide the Spanish, but it slowed the British line down so much the front half of the Spanish fleet almost got away. Jervis signaled the rear of the British line to change course and attack the Spanish but guess what? Nobody was paying attention! Thankfully, my favorite British admiral (he was just a commodore at the time), Horatio Nelson, was near the end of the line, saw what was happening, whipped his ship out of the line—without orders I might add—and attacked the Spanish flagship. The Spanish were so surprised by the action they altered course which slowed them down and gave the rest of the British fleet a chance to catch up with them.
Now I know that some of you are rolling your eyes about now because let’s admit it, Nelson had some personal qualities that were just irritating—he cried, he could be a bit of a hypochondriac, he was vane, he was effeminate, he openly cheated on his wife, etc.—but you’ve got to admit he could be a real badass when he needed to. Disobeying orders? Yep. Breaking tradition? Yep. Courage in the face of overwhelming firepower? Loads of it. Doing whatever he thought was necessary to win even if no one else agreed? Not a problem.
After Nelson wheeled his ship out of the line of battle and attacked the Spanish flagship (which, I might add, was significantly larger than his ship—136 guns to 74 guns) you can imagine his ship and crew were pretty beat up. That didn’t stop him, however, from driving his ship, HMS Captain, alongside two Spanish ships that had gotten themselves tangled up during the battle. Once alongside, Nelson led a group of men through a window on the stern of the San Nicholas and fought their way to the quarterdeck forced the ship’s surrender. When crew of the second Spanish vessel began firing on them Nelson led his men up the side of that ship and forced its surrender. That takes some serious nerve! Capturing two ships by crossing over the first to attack the second was completely unprecedented.
Nelson completely saved the day! Think the actions of one guy can’t change the course of history? Think again!