On this day in 1780, the stage is set for a naval conflict among British, French, and Spanish ships. The British did not fare so well—which proved a huge boon to Americans on the other side of the Atlantic!
At this point in the American Revolution, of course, both France and Spain were helping the American effort. Who knew that so much of our Revolution was affected by events in other parts of the world?
Late in July, a large convoy of 63 British ships and merchant vessels had left Portsmouth, England, headed toward the West Indies. The ships were brimming with recruits, provisions, arms, and ammunition. They were escorted by British Captain John Moutray, aboard HMS Ramillies.
Unfortunately for Britain, Spain learned of the effort and decided to take action.
A group of about three dozen French and Spanish ships soon left from Cádiz, Spain. These combined forces, led by Spanish Admiral Luis de Córdova y Córdova, caught up to the British convoy on the evening of August 8.
The lights on Córdova y Córdova’s flagship managed to fool much of the British convoy. They believed HE was their lead ship. They began following him, instead of Moutray. When dawn broke, the British convoy discovered its mistake. And it also discovered that it was surrounded by French and Spanish ships! One officer later described the discovery: “[A]t day-light we found ourselves in the centre of thirty ships of the line and four frigates. We tried to run, but found it impossible.”
Córdova y Córdova captured most of the convoy—at least 55 ships, along with the soldiers, seamen, and cargo on board. The cost to the British was estimated at 1.5 million pounds.
It would prove to be one of the largest naval captures in history!
Interestingly, reliable details on this incident are pretty hard to come by, despite the size of the capture. Hence, the relatively high-level version of this story. But one really cool thing? It helps to illustrate just how many different moving parts there were during the American Revolution. We are used to hearing about George Washington and a few big battles on American soil. But there is more to the story.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1913)
Intelligence from Paris and Other Places (Benjamin Franklin papers; July 1, 1780)
Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (1975)
Piers Mackesy, The War for America: 1775-1783 (1964)