Monday, 23 September 2013

'Nelson's Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates' - The Battle of Cape St Vincent continued

By, the Captain and Culloden were badly damaged.  The Captain had lost her fore-topmast and so became difficult to manoeuvre.  They were right in the thick of the action, receiving fire from several enemy ships.  At 2.15pm, Jervis sent Collingwood in the Excellent to pass through the enemy line and get close to them.  

So Collingwood set off ahead.  The first ship he came to was one of Santisima Trinidad's entourage, the Salvador del Mundo.  The Excellent fired heavily at her, until she surrendered - or, at least, it appeared to Collingwood that she had.  Relying on one of his allies to take possession of her, Collingwood sailed on. 

Next, he came to the San Isidro and let loose broadside after broadside upon her for 10 minutes until she, too, surrendered.  Now, the Excellent was able to come between Nelson's Captain, and the San Nicolas.  She poured a couple of broadsides into San Nicolas at such close range and with such force that they passed straight through and hit the San José on the other side!  As a result of such an onslaught, the San Nicolas and San José collided and their rigging became entangled.  It also meant that the crew of the Captain were given a break, enough to be able to make some hurried repairs to their own rigging. 

The Captain had sustained several casualties, including Nelson himself.  He was hit in the abdomen by a large splinter of wood flung into the air by a cannon shot, which hit him with such force that he would have been knocked off his feet had not Captain Miller caught him and stopped him from falling.  As the Excellent moved away towards Santisima Trinidad, exposing the San Nicolas once more to the Captain, Nelson spotted an opportunity.  With her wheel and rigging shot away, the Captain would be virtually impossible to move away, and the crew of the San Nicolas were temporarily occupied with trying to disengage her rigging from that of the San José.  Nelson ordered Captain Miller to take his ship closer, and rammed the San Nicolas.

Nelson called for a boarding party.  Miller offered to lead it, but Nelson insisted on leading it himself, which was extremely unusual for a commanding officer - but not unusual for him!  As ever, he led by example, knowing that it was a dangerous action and instinctively realising that, by putting himself at the forefront of the attack, his presence would boost the morale and courage of his men.

Clambering up onto the Captain's cathead (a sturdy beam at the bow of the ship which was used to support the anchor), a marine smashed one of San Nicolas' stern windows with the butt of his musket, and Nelson climbed through with the party close behind.  It turned out that he was climbing straight into the Spanish captain's cabin.

The cabin doors were locked and the Spanish fired at them through the windows with pistols.  Nelson's party broke through the doors with axes and stormed onto the quarterdeck, which must have been a shock to the Spanish commanders!  The Spanish commodore, Don Tomas Geraldino, was killed in the process.

Captain Edward Berry, who had not been given a ship and so had been on board the Captain as a volunteer, led another party along the Captain's bowsprit (a long pole extending forward from the prow of the ship) and jumped down onto the poop deck.  

It didn't take long for the officers of the San Nicolas to surrender the ship into Nelson's hands.

But Nelson hadn't finished yet.  The San Nicolas was still entangled with the San José, a larger, 3-decked ship that loomed above her and was being fired upon by the British Prince George and had already been battered by the Captain and Excellent.  Not only that, but Rear-Admiral Winthuysen had had both his legs blown off, and had been carried below deck where he was dying of his wounds.  Another 150 of her crew were killed or wounded.  Still, some of the remaining crew began firing their muskets out of the admiral's cabin at the stern, down onto Nelson's small boarding party.  If Nelson lost the element of surprise, and allowed them to muster a counter-attack, they could easily overwhelm him and his men.

Ever the opportunist, Nelson leapt (literally) at the chance to take another prize, in an action that was as daring and courageous as it was unique and unprecedented.

He ordered some of his marines to fire their muskets into the San José's stern, hailed Miller, still aboard the Captain, and ordered him to send reinforcements onto the San Nicolas to keep her under control, and he placed sentries to keep the officers locked down.  Then, Berry boosting him onto the main chains, he leapt over the side of the San José and onto the deck.  Almost as soon as he landed, the Spanish captain leaned over the quarterdeck rail and called out the surrender of the ship.

Nelson went up onto the quarterdeck where the captain presented him with his sword (the traditional symbolic gesture for a surrender) and informed him that the admiral was dying.  Nelson double-checked that the ship really had surrendered by asking the captain to swear it on his honour, then sent him to gather up the officers of the ship.  In a little ceremony which Nelson described as 'extravagant', the Spanish all handed him their swords, one by one, which he handed to one of his bargemen, William Fearney, who tucked them under his arm.  With him were Edward Berry, Lieutenant Pierson of the 69th regiment (who were serving as marines), and three men - whom Nelson fondly called "old Agamemnons" as they had served with him on that ship - John Sykes, John Thomson and Francis Cook.

This incredible action, of boarding one first-rate and then using her as a springboard from which to board another, became known as 'Nelson's Patent Bridge for Boarding First Rates'.

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