Cape St Vincent and the English

Peter Kingdon Booker 


The remote southwestern corner of Europe attracted English interest when the Sallee Rovers grabbed attention during the reign of James I of Great Britain (1603-25). These early forerunners of the Barbary corsairs terrorised the coasts of Europe, taking thousands of white Christian slaves from Iceland and Ireland to Italy, and certainly including the English west country. Salé is a port on the northwestern coast of Atlantic Morocco, close to Rabat. The Rovers with their swift boarding ships (xebecs) were also adept at capturing trading ships of the European nations. In the first decades of the seventeenth century, England alone lost nearly 500 ships to this Moroccan menace.


As a counter to the menace, from 1661 England tried to make a success of the port of Tangier, after it had been given as part of the dowry of Catherine of Bragança to Charles II. After twenty years of fruitless effort, it was completely abandoned in 1684, but twenty years later in 1704 an English fleet under Admiral Rooke was able to conquer Gibraltar from the kingdom of Spain. Spain insisted at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 that Her Britannic Majesty promise not to allow any Jew or Moslem to live permanently on the Rock, a promise that the British famously failed to keep. Gibraltar and Tangier are separated by 40 miles of sea, and for over 250 years, Gibraltar and not Tangier became the fulcrum of the Royal Navy´s domination of European seas.


In the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ships of the Royal Navy must have been a familiar sight off the coast of the Algarve as they made their way to and from Gibraltar and other naval stations in the Mediterranean, and on occasion defeated enemies were driven ashore at Lagos. Even before the taking of Gibraltar, during the war of the League of Augsburg, on 27 June 1693 the French Admiral Tourville defeated a combined English and Dutch fleet off Cape St Vincent, capturing over 40 merchant ships from Admiral Rooke´s convoy and dispersing over 90 others; and during the Seven Years´ War, on 19 August 1759 Admiral Boscawen´s fleet drove into Lagos bay four French warships, and there captured two and destroyed the others. In the bay, marine archaeologists have recently recovered a gun, probably from one of those ships. On 16 January 1780, in the Battle of Cape St Vincent during the War of the American Revolution, Admiral Rodney defeated a Spanish fleet under D Juan de Lángara.


On St Valentine´s Day in 1797, Admiral Sir John Jervis defeated another Spanish fleet under D José de Córdoba off the same cape. The Spaniards, outnumbering the British by two to one, were on their way to invade Ireland. “We gave them their Valentines in style!” wrote a British gunner, as Commodore Horatio Nelson invented “Nelson´s patent bridge for boarding battleships” and captured both San Nicolas and San Josef. Jervis was ennobled as Earl St Vincent and awarded an annual pension of £3,000 and the Freedom of the City. He served under Addington as First Lord of the Admiralty and before Trafalgar was criticised by Pitt the Younger for not building enough battleships. Lord St Vincent visited Lisbon in 1806 and devised a plan to kidnap D João, the Prince Regent, to Brazil. Had his plan been followed, history might well have taken quite a different course.


The German doctor and natural historian Heinrich Friedrich Link (1767 – 1851) wrote in 1801 that he had visited Cape St Vincent in 1798. “Toward Cape St Vincent the hills constantly grow flatter, and that promontory itself is a desert plain, consisting of a grey limestone, so naked and rough near the point that it is very difficult to travel over it. In other parts it is merely covered with sand……. At the utmost extremity in this desert country is a monastery of Capuchins. Ships can approach very near the rock, and the monks assured us that sometimes in fine weather they speak with them. They also related to us many particulars of the engagement between the Spaniards and Lord St Vincent, which they distinctly saw from the monastery. Such incidents alone can render a residence on this remote point of land interesting.”


There was yet another action off the cape during the Civil War fought between the liberal D Pedro IV and his brother D Miguel the absolutist usurper. "Black Charley", Charles Napier, an outstandingly eccentric member of the redoubtable Scots Napier family, arrived in Portugal in June 1833 and was appointed major-general and vice-admiral of D Pedro´s fleet. He sailed south and landed the troops of the dukes of Palmela and Terceira at Cacela in the Algarve to march on Tavira. Later in Faro Napier bought a monkey as a present for his daughter.


D Miguel sent his fleet, twice the size of Napier´s, to crush this invasion, and the two fleets met off Cape St Vincent on 5 July 1833. “I´ll give you half an hour to take ´em,” shouted Napier to his men and after a brief action, the Miguelites surrendered. Napier later commented, “We had 176 guns against 372, and they were thrashed.” The victorious Napier put ashore at Lagos, and was received generously, despite the fact that the all-British squadron had defeated an all-Portuguese fleet.


This strange encounter was a significant event in the defeat and overthrow of D Miguel and his absolutist forces. Napier was subsequently ennobled in the Portuguese peerage as Visconde Cabo de São Vicente. Just as well, for he was immediately struck off the navy list by the Tory government.


The Sallee Rovers (and the Barbary Corsairs) were eventually brought to heel by the Royal Navy in August 1816; twenty-four battleships under Sir Edward Pellew bombarded Algiers to destruction, firing more than 50,000 cannon balls in a day.


Cape St Vincent has seen more than its share of action, but on a visit to this beautifully remote spot, you might be forgiven for doubting it.