Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1780)

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For the battle of the French Revolutionary Wars, see Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797)

Missing image
The moonlight Battle off Cape St Vincent, 16 January 1780 by Francis Holman, painted 1780 shows the San Domingo exploding, with Rodney's flagship Sandwich in the foreground.

The naval Battle of Cape St Vincent, or Battle of Cape Santa Maria, took place on 16 January 1780 during the American War of Independence and was a victory of a British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney over a Spanish squadron under Don Juan de Lángara. It is also known as the Moonlight Battle, because it was unusual for naval battles in the age of sail to take place at night.

Rodney's fleet, on its way to relieve Gibraltar which was under siege by the Spanish, caught de Langara's smaller squadron of eleven ships of the line off Cape St Vincent in south-western Spain.

Rodney formed his fleet of 18 ships of the line into line of battle abreast and bore down on the Spanish ships. de Langara initially ordered his ships to form line of battle ahead but, realizing that the British fleet outnumbered his own, ordered his ships to crowd on all sail to escape for their home port of Cádiz, a hundred miles to the south. At two o’clock, Rodney ordered a general chase, allowing his ships to chase at their best speed and engage as they came up to the Spanish ships, resulting in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. Thanks to their copper bottoms, the ships of the Royal Navy were faster and soon gained on the Spanish.

At a few minutes past four o’clock, after two hours of chasing, the British Defence, Bedford, Resolution and Edgar began the action. At 40 minutes past four the Spanish San Domingo, 70, blew up just as Bienfaisant came up to engage her; all hands were lost. Darkness fell soon afterwards. The chase continued through the dark and squally night until two o’clock the following morning, when all firing ceased after the headmost of the Spanish squadron surrendered. Four Spanish ships of the line and the two frigates escaped, but six were taken including De Lángara's flagship Fénix, 80. By morning Rodney's own fleet was in shoal water. The necessity of getting the ships off shore prevented Rodney from continuing the chase. Two of the prizes were lost in the bad weather - one was wrecked on the coast, the other retaken by its crew. The fleet then sailed for Gibraltar. British casualties were 32 killed and 102 wounded.


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