Nelson at Santa Cruz

Let's take a look at Britain's seagoing background: we've come a long way from those early days when Britain was attacked and partially occupied by Danish raiders and offered the shameful Danegeld to persuade them to keep their distance; also plagued by the rowed galleys of the Frankish pirates who invaded our shores and inlets, fortunately not interested in grabbing land only capturing slaves. Our Swedish friend Erich described the British of the period as "A boar surrounded by hounds!" It was during the reign of Alfred the Great who, fed-up with paying the Danes to keep their distance, began to establish a British navy, defeating the Danes in the Thames estuary in 897. Thus, the boar stirred, turned on the hounds and escaped certain death. This revolutionary turnabout drove the impetus to establish a navy big enough to protect the island nation and eventually to dominate western European nations. A cocky mental attitude of supremacy dwelt within the huge British navy who, with cannon and cutlass, always expected to win their battles. "Britannia rules the waves" - this widespread climate of superiority encouraged their enemies to believe it also.

Let us also take a look at Nelson at Santa Cruz: in April 1797 there was great anticipation of a rich treasure convoy from Manila arriving at Santa Cruz! There would be much talk 'tween decks of previous captures of Spanish treasure ships going back to the early days of the Tudor navy against the "Inquisition dogs and the devildoms of Spain". Even then a British captain was expected to lay down a great rate of fire then draw alongside grapple and board the enemy. The prospect of "singeing the King of Spain's beard", carried forward from the enterprising days of Drake and Hawkins, still appealed mightily to the British in the days of Nelson.

The Spanish governor of Tenerife might have anticipated a side swipe from the British blockade of Cadiz which was only round the corner from Tenerife. Spanish vessels called regularly at Santa Cruz for orders and to smarten ship before entering mainland ports and, aware of how the British had twice before in recent history attacked Santa Cruz, the Spanish governor may have wisely made preparations for a third attempt and sent a fast cutter to warn oncoming ship-traffic to avoid Tenerife's major port.

H.M. Cutter 'Fox' clears the way

From the British side it was agreed with Admiral Jervis that Nelson should command four ships of the line, three frigates and the cutter Fox. He would take Santa Cruz with a surprise attack and hold it until reinforcements arrived - some four thousand men from the British garrison at Elba. He had also heard that a rich convoy of treasure ships from Manila were presently in the port of Santa Cruz just waiting to be plundered. Nelson was then told that extra troops from Elba would not be ready in the time available and he boldly assured Jervis that "With 200 extra marines, Captain Troubridge ashore and me afloat I am confident of success."

In the days of which we speak signal traffic between the Admiralty and its ships was ponderous and slow. Hardly an exact science - much hearsay would be converted into meaningful intelligence and acted upon without confirmation. How the lumbering passage of nine British warships could effect a surprise attack on Santa Cruz without being spotted by inter-island boat traffic of ferries and fishing vessels we find rather silly, a case of boldness overcoming common sense.

He had also heard that the garrison at Santa Cruz was limited in number and would not stand against his 1000 men of marines and ships' companies.

As for the treasure ships who were now at Santa Cruz, this may have been a ploy to draw on the British in anticipation of prize money, but no matter, a ploy without sufficient military means to gain by it would be useless, for Nelson was anticipating a quick skirmish against a limited body of Spanish. The main objective was the capture of Santa Cruz and the establishment of a British base there. Any prize money would be a bonus.

On 15th July 1797 Nelson sailed with his squadron of four ships of the line, Theseus, Culloden, Zealous and Leander, three frigates Terpsichore, Seahorse and Emerald, the cutter Fox and the mortar boat Cacafuego. Sustained by the belief that the garrison at Santa Cruz was limited in number, he confidently assumed a successful enterprise with 1000 men comprising marines and ships' companies landing in ships' boats. News came in that due to contrary winds and difficult passages this rich treasure convoy from Manila had decided not to sail, but a helpful alternative prize of two ships with rich cargoes from the Philippine Company of Manila were now at Santa Cruz. And so the British came on, hungry for some decisive action and a bit of prize money if only to brighten the doleful days of their wearisome blockade of Cadiz.

Away Boats

Arriving at Santa Cruz on 20th July and experiencing difficulty positioning his ships due to tides and contrary winds, Nelson held a conference on board Theseus on the Friday 21st July. There was probably glory-talk of losses of British ships and men from many previous encounters which contrasted favourably against French losses, "the French build better ships but they ain't got better men!" - Enlivened by these battleground reviews, the British were expecting to win yet again, the balance of probabilities firmly in their favour. These men, hardly a jury of good men and true confined to objectivity and facts, were instead a body of sea-captains imbued with the same naval spirit of victory and with the beckoning lure of two rich vessels from Manila available for grabs. They swept aside any notion that they might lose the battle. Half the size of France, half the size of Spain, Britain was a tiny island and wherever you stood on it you were never more than seventy-two miles from the sea - it's not the size of the hound, it's the size of its teeth that wins the day! - thus the compelling rhetoric of past glories led the British down the path to disaster. Thereafter and with confidence, launching his first assault of ships' companies and marines from the many ships' launches, Nelson was shocked to find his invasion quickly thrown off with heavy loss by the Spanish garrison. The second assault also failed, and on the evening of 24th July the third assault was launched, led by Nelson himself with even more disastrous results - with Nelson's right arm shattered.

The prime mistake was to assume a surprise attack. The Canarian Current runs south-southwest down the coast of north-west Africa and includes the Canary Islands before continuing almost to the Cap Verde Islands before turning west with the prevailing westerly trade winds to America. Nelson's small squadron, in haste to catch the Santa Cruz garrison by surprise, probably made shorter work of the passage to Santa Cruz by changing course out of the Canarian Current, avoiding the time-consuming westerly loop via Cap Verde and tacking along the southern landfall of the Canary Islands, coping with unhelpful light winds and adverse tides, encountering en route local fishing boats, merchant vessels and ferry boats passing between the islands whose alarmed response hastened the news to Santa Cruz long before the British could reach it. The Spanish governor, alerting his garrison, placing his field guns to command every street in the city and blessing the day he requested an enlarged military garrison, merely waited for the British to arrive. On the 20th July, Nelson reached Santa Cruz Bay where adverse wind and current prevented his ships from manoeuvring and laying their guns effectively. No heavy fire could be brought to bear on the Spanish garrison who, probably watching with some amusement the clumsy antics of the British squadron, now had adequate time to check their weapons and prepare for battle.

It was only the chivalrous spirit of the Spanish Governor who supplied boats to return the defeated British to their ships and provided essential water and stores that allowed their enemy to sail away bearing the loss of many smashed boats and the cutter Fox sunk by cannon-fire, 230 dead and 130 wounded (a figure that does not agree with the officially recorded loss of 200 men) and with the gracious support of two schooners and their crews, lent by the Spanish governor, to assist the depleted British now virtually defenceless with insufficient crew to man their ships, and gunpowder now wet and useless from the shallow harbour waters of Santa Cruz, totally reliant on Spanish goodwill to see them back to Cadiz and Admiral Jervis.

Water and Stores

And so we look at Chivalry: A social, moral and religious code of practice between men at arms, a mutuality of respect between foes. It seems to me that the Governor of Santa Cruz piled on goodwill beyond the limited horizon of chivalry to the level of sending Nelson packing - with a flea in his ear: all he needed was a dunce's cap.

This scalding reproof of a kind enemy must have sat hard on Nelson's shoulders, much worse to bear than the fury of Admiral Jervis at the failure of not taking Santa Cruz from the Spanish. Rather bleak quotations are handed down: We learn that Santa Cruz was the worst possible encounter Nelson had ever endured.

Chivalry does not figure largely in warfare, rather its code appears as a plaintiff's call to decency. Examples appear throughout history, even as recently as the second World War where the humanity of German sea-captains, notably Von Langsdorff. And Bernhard Rogge and even the newsreel shots of German U-boat crews tossing canned food to British sailors in lifeboats illustrates the shred of decency that holds humanity above the claws and fur of the lower animal world. Told to me by an ex-sergeant of his night patrol who had already crossed the Rhine making contact with a party of Wehrmacht who were positioned in a ditch, their rear unguarded. Had he approached them from the rear the Germans would have immediately spun round and opened fire. Instead he approached them from the front with a casual wave and gave cigarettes and chocolate to the enemy patrol unit. 'Soon it will be finished' was the topic of conversation, then they said 'goodnight' and went their separate ways. And the German Army doctor who took Peter's driver into his already crowded medical tent and said in perfect English "This man is going home."

Knowing how wrong military planning can be, even in this day and age, rumour carried more substance in the days of the sailing navy when the risk of downfall or disgrace must be considerably greater. "An error if unsuccessful" was the mode of assessment. Nelson had put his head in the lion's mouth and was lucky not to get it bitten off. He escaped ignominy because the previous battle of St. Vincent had earned him the Order of the Bath invested by King George II on 27th September 1797, otherwise he might have suffered the same fate as Admiral Byng who was executed by firing squad on 14th March 1757 for "failing to do his utmost" to prevent the French from taking Fort St. Philip on Minorca. Clearly, Byng's fate demonstrates that the rewards and penalties in naval service were severely uncompromised. The savagery of Byng's execution shocked the French; the great Voltaire himself commented that Byng was executed to encourage the others.

Nelson's bid to take Santa Cruz was the last of three famous forays against the Spanish province beginning with Admiral Blake who destroyed a Spanish treasure fleet in Santa Cruz harbour in 1657, followed by Admiral Jennings who failed to take Santa Cruz in 1706. However, Nelson recovered his glory in the subsequent Battle of the Nile and, of course, the ultimate Battle of Trafalgar.

In the depths of World War 2 there were plans by the British to occupy Santa Cruz as a naval base as a reprisal if the Spanish dared to invade Gibraltar. However, such an event would have dragged Spain into the conflict on the Axis side leading to a Mexican Standoff between Britain, Spain and post-war Germany leading on to Maggie Thatcher who would probably have held Santa Cruz like she held on to the Falkland Islands never agreeing to give it back until the clearer light of European community restored Spanish sovereignty.

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Text & images © Alan Mann 2013