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- June 1997 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
“Nobly, Nobly, Cape St. Vincent to the North West died away”
The Canberra Times I note did not let the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1997 pass unnoticed. The significance of this sea battle on the history of Australia is, I believe, worth examining.
History tells us that on 14 February 1797 an English squadron of 15 ships of the line sailing off the south west coast of Spain fell in with a much larger fleet of Spanish warships. Bereft of allies, Britain at the time stood alone against the ambitions of Revolutionary France. Despite the revolutionary fervour which had swept through it, the French Navy was at the time the dominant maritime force in the English Channel, with ambitions of creating a combined French, Spanish and Dutch fleet to defeat anything that England might assemble. Ferment was already, through French intrigue, endemic in Ireland. For England her Navy was at its lowest point for years with mutinies to break out later in the home ports. Furthermore the Royal Navy had been forced to withdraw from the Mediterranean. England’s strategic outlook was parlous, Consols had fallen to 51, with her economy and commerce in disarray.
As the numbers of Spanish warships were reported to the British Admiral: `Twenty five sail of the line sir,…Twenty six sail sir’, he responded firmly ‘Enough, sir, no more of that! … If there are fifty sail I shall go through them! A victory is very essential to England at this moment’.
The outcome of the battle in which the 15 British ships outmanoeuvred and outfought 27 Spanish ships was four Spanish ships captured, and the strategic withdrawal of the mauled Spanish fleet to Cadiz where its Commander (and others) was removed from his command. For England it began a renaissance of their Navy and through the exploits of its captains that day, notably Nelson, Collingwood, Troubridge, Saumarez and others, ushered in a new era of dynamic leadership, inspirational tactics and confidence which culminated eight years later in the great victory at Trafalgar. The nation’s faith in the Royal Navy was restored. For its Commander, Admiral Sir John Jervis, it foreshadowed his pre-eminence as a naval strategist and administrator. Later in the same year, the British Channel fleet under the command of a Scot, Admiral Adam Duncan, resoundingly defeated the Dutch fleet at the Battle of Camperdown, effectively destroying French ambitions of creating a naval alliance to defeat the British.
But what has this to do with Australia, one might ask? It so happens that those first years of the fledgling colonies at Sydney, Hobart and Norfolk Island, with near starvation conditions often experienced, coincided almost with the great struggles in Europe with Revolutionary France (1789-1815). Thus that victory off Cape St Vincent, and the later sea battles of the Napoleonic era, ensured that British seapower became the dominant force outside continental Europe, and thereby secured the continuance of its trade with its colonies overseas and their expansion. That the British Navy was able to eventually determine the outcome of that titanic struggle, and thus usher in 100 years of relative peace in which the Australian colonies flourished, can be traced back to that relatively calm day off the coast of Spain. Furthermore the example of a then unknown, relatively young (38 year old), naval captain, Horatio Nelson, the son of a humble Norfolk clergyman, whose initiative largely won the day for Britain, and who was eventually to become the pre-eminent naval commander in the Napoleonic wars, would provide enduring inspiration down the years for navies around the world, including the Royal Australian Navy, in terms of his humanity, leadership and professionalism.
Appropriately 21 October is recalled as the anniversary of Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar. However it is St Valentine’s Day 1797 which in many ways is equally important as the genesis of that new naval era, which, from Australia’s point of view, ensured the embryo colonies were able to flourish unimpeded by a foreign power. That the island continent of Australia today is the only continent in the world comprising a single nation state might also be traced to that sea victory 200 years ago.