Extract from HMS Agamemnon’s captain’s log describing the naval action with the Ça Ira
In March 1795 a French fleet of 17 ships was ordered from Toulon to retake Corsica. On 10 March 1795 it fell in with a British fleet of 15 ships in the Gulf of Genoa, led by Admiral William Hotham. The British fleet chased the French ships. In the course of this flight, two French ships collided. HMS Agamemnon attacked one of these ships, Ça Ira, in a risky action, turning her into a wreck. HMS Agamemnon was recalled by Hotham. On 14 March 1795 the Ça Ira and the Censeur were captured. Nelson, who had previously informed his wife that ‘life with disgrace is dreadful…a glorious death is to be envied’ (Nicolas, Volume 2, page 18), had risked his life in this action and, although pleased with the captures, was disgusted at Hotham for not attacking the French fleet more vigorously.
Hotham was replaced by Sir John Jervis, the new Mediterranean commander-in-chief, in November 1795. Jervis set about lifting the spirits and morale of a disillusioned Nelson. It was not long before Nelson claimed that Jervis treated him ‘more like an associate than a subordinate officer’ (Morriss, page 65). Jervis recognised Nelson’s previous successes and ability by promoting him to acting commodore (a rank of temporary admiral status) on 8 April 1796 - before 45 other post captains whose seniority placed them ahead of Nelson - and gave him command of a small squadron off Genoa. Nelson was ordered to support the Austrian army fighting the French and capture all ships sailing to France regardless of their nationality. This was a delicate task as Genoa remained politically neutral. Nelson performed his task well. Jervis, determined to get Nelson promoted, gave him command of a larger ship, HMS Captain.
Britain’s former ally Spain joined France in October 1796. This put Britain’s fleet in the Mediterranean under increasing pressure. Nelson was ordered to evacuate Corsica and Elba, while the fleet itself sailed to Gibraltar. In HMS La Minerve, Nelson, together with HMS Blanche en route to Elba from Gibraltar, engaged two Spanish frigates. Nelson described the encounter in a despatch to Sir Gilbert Elliot: ‘on the 19th [December 1796], at night, took a Spanish frigate [Santa Sabina] of 40 guns, 18-pounders, larger than Minerve. On the 20th, in the morning, fought another [Ceres] as large, beat her, and she run from us: but there is no certainty in this world: two Sail of the Line and two frigates surrounded us, took our Prize…and we narrowly escaped visiting a Spanish prison’ (Nicolas, Volume 2, page 318). On 29 January 1797, whilst in Gibraltar, Nelson learnt that the Spanish fleet from Cartagena had been sighted sailing towards Cadiz. Nelson immediately sailed there in HMS La Minerve to inform Jervis who was blockading the port.
The Battle of St Vincent