Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1780)

There were also three other naval battles of St Vincent, the most well known in 1797.

The naval Battle of Cape St Vincent, or Battle of Cape Santa Maria, took place on 16 January 1780, during the American Revolutionary War and was a victory of a British fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney over a Spanish squadron under Don Juan de Lángara. It is also known as the Moonlight Battle, because it was unusual for naval battles in the age of sail to take place at night.


Rodney's fleet, on its way to relieve Gibraltar which was under siege by the Spanish, caught de Langara's smaller squadron of nine ships of the line. De Langara's squadron had comprised eleven ships until San Genaro 74 and San Justo 74 were separated from it two days earlier owing to a raging gale, off Cape St Vincent in southwestern Portugal.


Rodney formed his fleet of 18 ships of the line into line of battle abreast and bore down on the Spanish ships. de Langara initially ordered his ships to form line of battle ahead but, realizing that the British fleet outnumbered his own, ordered his ships to crowd on all sail to escape for their home port of Cádiz, 100 miles (160 km) to the south. At two o’clock, Rodney ordered a general chase, allowing his ships to chase at their best speed and engage as they came up to the Spanish ships. Thanks to their copper sheathed hulls (which reduced marine growths), the ships of the Royal Navy were faster and soon gained on the Spanish.

At around 4 p.m., after two hours of chasing, the British Defence, Bedford, Resolution and Edgar began the action. At 4:40 p.m., the Spanish Santo Domingo 70, blew up just as Bienfaisant came up to engage her; all hands were lost. Darkness fell soon afterwards. The chase continued through the dark and squally night until 2 a.m. the following morning, when all firing ceased after the headmost of the Spanish squadron surrendered. Four Spanish ships of the line and the two frigates escaped but six were taken including De Lángara's flagship Fénix, 80. By morning, Rodney's own fleet was in shoal water. The necessity of getting the ships off shore prevented Rodney from continuing the chase.


Two of the prizes—San Julián and San Eugenio—were lost because of the ignorance on the shore line of the British officers who commanded them since they had to ask the Spanish captains to help them sail the taken ships through a gale. The captain of San Julian, who had remained on board, refused to help unless the ship was again under his command, to which the British officers agreed. Both Spanish sails were retaken by their crews. The San Julián and the San Eugenio then sailed for Gibraltar. The British casualties in the Battle of St. Vincent were 32 killed and 102 wounded.

Ships involved


Royal George 100
Ajax 74
Culloden 74
Defence 74


Fénix 80
Diligente 70
Monarca 70
San Agustín 70
Santo Domingo 70
San Eugenio 70
San Lorenzo 70
San Julian 70
Princesa 70
2 frigates


  • Navy Lists from the Age of Sail, 1776-1783 - Sapherson, C.A. and Lenton, J.R. (Leeds 1986)
  • Rodney - Spinney, David (London 1969)

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