Battle of Cape Saint Vincent

Battle of Cape Saint Vincent

Military History
Admiral Sir George Rodney. Portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds.

16 January 1780 marks the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent in the American Revolutionary War when Admiral Sir George Rodney’s 18 British ships-of-the-line & 6 frigates defeated Admiral Don Juan de Lángara’s 9 Spanish ships-of-the-line & 2 frigates. 

This allowed Rodney to deliver much needed supplies to Gibraltar’s besieged garrison, letting it fight on. This battle was notable in that much of it was fought in the dark – rare for naval battles in the Age of Sail.

The Siege of Gibraltar was a military blockade conducted by American and French forces against the British-held Gibraltar during the American Revolutionary War. The siege began in 1779, with the failure of the American and French forces to capture the fortress.

Rodney’s squadron escorted supply ships to relieve Gibraltar’s siege.
George Brydges Rodney, by Joshua Reynolds in 1789

Lángara sailed north to stop him. He saw Rodney on 16 January. He formed a line-of-battle. And then retreated upon seeing he was outnumbered 2-1.

Rodney was confined by illness to his bunk. At 14:00, he ordered his fleet to pursue Lángara. His ships’ copper hulls made them faster. He sailed on Lángara’s lee side. This prevented the Spanish from opening their lower gun ports. Battle began at 16:00. 3 ships engaged 74-gun Santo Domingo, at the back of Lángara’s line. It exploded at 16:40. All but 1 of the crew died. 74-gun HMS Bedford captured 74-gun Princessa (next in Lángara’s line) at 17:30.

Dusk fell at 18:00. The chase continued. At 19:30, 74-gun HMS Defense engaged Lángara’s flagship, 80-gun Fenix. During the hour-long fight, 3 passing British ships broadsided Fenix. After losing his mainmast, a wounded Lángara surrendered. At 21:15, 74-gun HMS Montagu engaged 74-gun Diligente. Diligente lost her mainmast. She surrendered. At 23:00, 74-gun HMS Cumberland captured 74-gun San Eugenio after dismasting her.

2 British ships captured the 64-gun San Julián at 01:00. 
Don Juan de Lángara, portrait by an unknown artist.

74-gun Monarca almost escaped after destroying 74-gun HMS Alcide’s topmast. 32-gun HMS Apollo pursued her, slowing her down. At 02:00, Rodney’s flagship, 90-gun HMS Sandwich, caught up & fired a broadside. Monarca surrendered.

2 of the ships couldn’t be boarded immediately. HMS Bienfaisant’s crew had smallpox. Instead of infecting Lángara’s crew, Captain MacBride accepted his parole. 

San Eugenio couldn’t become boarded until daylight due to rough seas. At daybreak, Rodney saw he was dangerously close to a lee shore. He wrote that 2 ships, San Julián & San Eugenio, became beached and in addition destroyed. Spanish history claims the British prize crews put their prisoners to work. The prisoners retook the ships & escaped.

The moonlight Battle of Cape St Vincent, 16 January 1780 by Francis Holman. Painted 1780. The moonlight Battle off Cape St Vincent, 16 January 1780 by Francis Holman, painted 1780 shows Santo Domingo exploding. With Rodney’s flagship Sandwich in the foreground.…
Rodney lost 32 dead, 102 wounded.

Lángara lost 600 dead when Santo Domingo exploded. Furthermore, Lángara also lost 2,500 dead, wounded or captive from the 4 ships Rodney captured & an unknown number from San Julián & San Eugenio. 

Rodney’s Fleet Taking in Prizes After the Moonlight Battle, 16 January 1780, by Dominic Serres.

Rodney’s supply convoy reached Gibraltar on 19 January. Rodney arrived several days later. 

In conclusion, the supplies allowed Gibraltar’s defenders to fight on. Lángara became released on parole and promoted to Lieutenant General. Lastly, Rodney won great praise for his victory. Gibraltar’s siege ended in February 1783.

The British were able to hold on to Gibraltar due to its strong fortifications, and the siege ultimately had little impact on the overall outcome of the war. However, the siege did place significant strain on the British navy and military resources, and it was one of the longest sieges of the 18th century.

La Battalla de Cabo de San Vincente. Furthermore, painted by an unknown Spanish artist.

Written by Garrett Anderson

Written by Garrett Anderson

Military History

Battle of Cape Saint Vincent