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which with a westerly wind was with heads to the southward, towards Cadiz, a hundred miles to the south-east, he changed the orders to a "General Chase," the ships to engage as they came up; "to leeward," so as to get between the enemy and his port, and "in rotation," by which probably was meant that the leading British vessel should attack the sternmost of the Spaniards, and that her followers should pass her to leeward, successively engaging from the enemy's rear towards the van.
At 4 P.m. the signal for battle was made, and a few minutes later the four headmost of the pursuers got into action. At 4.40 one of the Spanish ships, the Santo Domingo, 80, blew up with all on board, and at 6 another struck. By this hour, it being January, darkness had set in. A night action therefore followed, which lasted until 2 A.m., when the headmost of the enemy surrendered, and all firing ceased. Of the eleven hostile ships of the line, only four escaped. Besides the one blown up, six were taken. These were the Fenix, 80, flag of the Spanish Admiral, Don Juan de Langara, the Monarca, 70, the Princesa, 70, the Diligente, 70, the San Julian, 70, and the San Eugenio, 70. The two latter drove ashore and were lost.1 The remaining four were brought into Gibraltar, and were ultimately added to the Navy. All retained their old names, save the Fenix, which was renamed Gibraltar. "The weather during the night," by Rodney's report, "was at times very tempestuous, with a great sea. It continued very bad weather the next day, when the Royal George, 100, Prince George, 90, Sandwich, 90 (Rodney's flagship), and several other ships were in great danger, and under the necessity of making sail to avoid the shoals of San Lucar, nor did they get into deep water till the next morning."
1 Rodney's Report. Chevalier says that one of them was retaken by her crew and carried into Cadiz.
It was in this danger from a lee shore, which was deliberately though promptly incurred, that the distinction of this action of Rodney's consists. The enemy's squadron, being only eleven ships of the line, was but half the force of the British, and it was taken by surprise; which, to be sure, is no excuse for a body of war-ships in war-time. Caught unawares, the Spaniards took to flight too late. It was Rodney's merit, and no slight one under the conditions of weather and navigation, that they were not permitted to retrieve their mistake. His action left nothing to be desired in resolution or readiness. It is true that Rodney discussed the matter with his flag-captain, Walter Young, and that rumor attributed the merit of the decision to the latter; but this sort of detraction is of too common occurrence to affect opinion. Sir Gilbert Blane, Physician to the Fleet, gives the following account: "When it was close upon sunset, it became a question whether the chase should be continued. After some discussion between the Admiral and Captain, at which I was present, the Admiral being confined with the gout, it was decided to persist in the same course, with the signal to engage to leeward." Rodney at that time was nearly sixty-two, and a constant martyr to gout in both feet and hands.
The two successes by the way imparted a slightly triumphal character to the welcome of the Admiral by the garrison, then sorely in need of some good news. The arrival of muchneeded supplies from home was itself a matter of rejoicing; but it was more inspiriting still to see following in the train of the friendly fleet five hostile ships of the line, one of them bearing the flag of a Commander-in-Chief, and to hear that, besides these, three more had been sunk or destroyed. The exultation in England was even greater, and especially at the Admiralty, which was labouring under the just indignation of the people for the unpreparedness of the Navy. "You have taken more line-of-battle ships," wrote the First Lord to Rodney, "than had been captured in any one action in either of the two last preceding wars."
It should be remembered, too, as an element in the triumph, that this advantage over an exposed detachment had been snatched, as it were, in the teeth of a main fleet superior to Rodney's own; for twenty Spanish and four French ships of the line, under Admiral de Cordova, were lying then in Cadiz Bay. During the eighteen days when the British remained in and near the Straits, no attempt was made by Cordova to take revenge for the disaster, or to reap the benefit of superior force. The inaction was due, probably, to the poor condition of the Spanish ships in point of efficiency and equipment, and largely to their having uncoppered bottoms. This element of inferiority in the Spanish navy should be kept in mind as a factor in the general war, although Spanish fleets did not come much into battle. A French Commodore, then with the Spanish fleet in Ferrol, wrote as follows: "Their ships all sail so badly that they can neither overtake an enemy nor escape from one. The Glorieux is a bad sailer in the French navy, but better than the best among the Spaniards." He adds: "The vessels of Langara's squadron were surprised at immense distances one from the other. Thus they always sail, and their negligence and security on this point are incredible."
On approaching Gibraltar, the continuance of bad weather, and the strong easterly current of the Straits, set many of Rodney's ships and convoy to leeward, to the back of the Rock, and it was not till the 26th that the flagship herself anchored. The storeships for Minorca were sent on at once, under charge of three coppered ships of the line. The practice of coppering, though then fully adopted, had not yet been extended to all vessels. As an element of speed, it was an important factor on an occasion like this, when time pressed to get to the West Indies; as it also was in an engagement. The action on the 16th had been opened by the coppered ships of the line, which first overtook the retreating enemy and brought his rear to battle. In the French navy at the time, Suffren was urging the adoption upon an apparently reluctant Minister. It would seem to have been more general among the British, going far to compensate for the otherwise inferior qualities of their ships. "The Spanish men-of-war we have taken," wrote Rodney to his wife concerning these prizes, "are much superior to ours." It may be remembered that Nelson, thirteen years later, said the same of the Spanish vessels which came under his observation. "I never saw finer ships." "I perceive you cry out loudly for coppered ships," wrote the First Lord to Rodney after this action; "and I am therefore determined to stop your mouth. You shall have copper enough."
Upon the return of the Minorca ships, Rodney put to sea again on the 13th of February, for the West Indies. The detachment from the Channel fleet accompanied him three days' sail on his way, and then parted for England with the prizes. On this return voyage it fell in with fifteen French supply vessels, convoyed by two 64's, bound for the He de France,1 in the Indian Ocean. One of the ships of war, the Protee, and three of the storeships were taken. Though trivial, the incident illustrates the effect of operations in Europe upon war in India. It may be mentioned here as indicative of the government's dilemmas, that Rodney was censured for having left one ship of the line at the Rock. "It has given us the trouble and risk of sending a frigate on purpose to order her home immediately; and if you will look into your original instructions, you will find that there was no point more strongly guarded against than that of your leaving any line-of-battle ship behind you." These
1 Now the British Mauritius.