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Art Marine

HMS Victory leading the main squadron at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797 - Commissioned oil on canvas by Geoff Hunt RSMA

HMS Victory leading the main squadron at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797 - Commissioned oil on canvas by Geoff Hunt RSMA

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Part of the fascination of the Battle of St Vincent is the complexity of what was going on, exemplified here in a (literally) pivotal moment of the action, as Admiral Jervis's flagship Victory prepares to tack, following the British van squadron which has already done so; but at this moment the Spanish leeward squadron makes a bid to cut through this part of the British line to re-join their windward squadron.

Their leader was the vice-admiral's Principe de Asturias, 112 guns, which got into some difficulty under Victory's lee and was raked by Victory's full broadside. On the evidence of Victory's log, this seems a simple enough story: "Passing thro the Enemy's Line and engaging them to Windwd ... a Spanish Vice Adm attempted to pass a head of the Victory... the Spanish Vice Adml forced to Tack close under the Victory's lee Bow, Raked her fore and aft, he bore up as did 6 other of the Enemys ships.." but it is not clear from this which way round the Spanish ship was when Victory raked her; and the slight ambiguity of 'fore and aft' has led some accounts to state that Victory hit her both when she was facing the victory and after she had turned away. My close reading of ten log books failed to clarify the situation but did add some quite interesting viewpoints on what took place.
Irresistible (two ships ahead of Victory): "15 minutes past 1 we brought 2 of the Enemys 3 deckers to Action with our Larboard Guns Dischargd four broadsides at them"
Egmont (first ship astern of the Victory): " At 1 Victory made Sigl to pass through the enemy line Two 3 Deckers to leeward opened their fire on us - 10 after 1 One of the Spaniards bore up..."
Goliath (next ship in line, clearly thinking a cunning trap was being laid for them alone):  "... near us to Leeward two of them large three Deckers hove to main topsail to the Mast one on the Larboard Tack the other one on the Starboard do. with an intention of Raking us when in Stays kept up a brisk fire as we approached them.."
At any rate, the painting attempts to depict this moment, Victory firing her broadside at the Principe de Asturias. To the left lies HMS Colossus, temporarily disabled having had her foresails shot away fifteen or twenty minutes earlier; the British line is still under fire from the Spanish windward squadron, out of sight to the left. Victory is followed in line by Egmont, Goliath, Barfleur, Britannia, Namur, Captain, Diadem and Excellent. HMS Captain was commanded by Commodore Nelson, a junior flag officer who was about to make his name in this action by capturing not just one but two Spanish battleships much larger than his own.
Geoff Hunt RSMA
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