Saturday, 27 April 2013

Minerve and Blanche Vs. Santa Sabina and Ceres

Towards the end of 1796, Spain joined the war on the side of revolutionary France.  The British fleet under Admiral John Jervis had far too few ships compared to the combined French and Spanish, so were forced to leave the Mediterranean.  In December, Jervis' fleet reached Gibraltar, where he found Admiralty orders to move his base to Lisbon in neutral Portugal.  He sent Nelson in the frigate Minerve, along with the Blanche, to evacuate the British garrison at Porto Ferrajo on the island of Elba, near Corsica, as the retreat of the British fleet would leave them stranded and at the mercy of the French.

So on the 10th December 1796, Commodore Nelson joined the Minerve, whose captain was George Cockburn, and set off for Elba.

On the 19th, at 10.20pm, Captain D'Arcy Preston in the Blanche saw two Spanish frigates, the Santa Sabina and the Ceres.  Eager to leap into action, Nelson handled Minerve himself (an unusual move for a flag officer, as this would normally be the Captain's job) and got to Santa Sabina's stern, close enough that he could hail the captain and ask him to surrender.  The captain who, surprisingly, spoke very good English, refused with the remarkable reply,

"This is a Spanish frigate and you may begin as soon as you please."

So Nelson began, and the fight was vicious and close-run.  In terms of men and guns, there wasn't much difference between the two frigates.  They remained at such close-range that Nelson was able to hail the captain several more times, but each time received a refusal.  Eventually, however, the Spanish were forced to surrender.  As it turned out, the English-speaking captain of the Santa Sabina was Don Jacobo Stuart, a great grandson of the English king James II!  Taking such a prestigious prisoner was something that Nelson was understandably very proud of.  Meanwhile, the Blanche fought and took the Ceres.

Nelson sent Minerve's 1st Lieutenant John Culverhouse, along with Lieutenant Thomas Hardy, with a boarding party to take possession of the Santa Sabina after they had tied her to La Minerve with a tow rope.  However, another Spanish frigate suddenly appeared and opened fire on Santa Sabina, while the two British lieutenants were on board.  Minerve cast off the tow rope to free herself from the Santa Sabina and so be able to fight the approaching enemy.  But then another two Spanish ships of the line, with two more frigates, appeared.  Minerve was badly damaged and so Nelson and Cockburn were forced to abandon the prize entirely, along with Culverhouse and Hardy, and the prize crew.  But this did mean that the prize crew aboard Santa Sabina were able to hoist English colours and thus distract the Spanish ships, giving Minerve a head start so she was able to get away.

Much later, when the British prisoners had been taken to the Spanish town of Cartagena, Nelson exchanged Don Jacobo Stuart for Lieutenants Culverhouse and Hardy, and sent back all the Spanish prisoners from Elba in exchange for the rest of the British prize crew.