Saturday, January 24, 2009

Rooke’s Battle of Vigo Bay

Admiral Sir George Rooke, an English naval commander of some importance, died three centuries ago today. He is remembered particularly for defeating the Spanish treasure fleet at the Battle of Vigo Bay, and for securing the capture of Gibraltar. His journal, which is freely available online, only covers a couple of years, but includes the days when he was in charge of the attack on Vigo.

Wikipedia and The Diary Junction have short biographies of Rooke. He was born at St Lawrence, near Canterbury, and entered the navy as a volunteer. He served first in the Dutch Wars and rose, eventually, to become a rear-admiral and vice-admiral. He fought at the Battle of Beachy Head, served under Russell at the Battle of Barfleur, and commanded the Smyrna convoy, which was scattered and partly taken by the French near Lagos Bay.

With the opening of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702, he commanded an unsuccessful expedition against Cádiz, but then, on the way home, won an important victory against Spain, at the Battle of Vigo Bay. Wikipedia has a long article on the battle, but, in summary, says this: ‘The engagement was an overwhelming naval success for the Allies: the entire French escort fleet, under the command of Château-Renault, together with the Spanish galleons and transports under Manuel de Velasco, had either been captured or destroyed. Yet, because most of the treasure had been off-loaded before the attack, capturing the bulk of the silver cargo had eluded Rooke. Nevertheless, the victory was a welcome boost to Allied morale and had helped persuade the Portuguese King, Peter II, to abandon his earlier treaty with the French, and join the Grand Alliance.’

Less than two years later, in July 1704, Rooke commanded the allied naval forces in the capture of Gibraltar, and he served briefly as its military governor (the BBC has a brief page on this). On leaving the navy in 1705, he retired to his estate at St Lawrence. He died on 24 January 1709, according to Wikipedia, which is exactly 300 years ago today.

In 1897, the Navy Records Society published The Journal of Sir George Rooke, edited by Oscar Browning. The Society says it is ‘a conflation of correspondence with a journal kept by Rooke’s secretary (which exists in several versions), all covering his Baltic expedition of 1700, and the attack on Cadiz and Vigo in 1702’. Uniquely among the Society’s early issues, it adds intriguingly, the book ‘went out of print almost as soon as it was published, having received some damning reviews’.

The full text of the journal, in several forms, is viewable at the Internet Archive website in several forms. Also, all the extracts concerning the Battle of Vigo Bay can be found on a website maintained by Rafael Ojea. (However, he seems to have adjusted the dates from those in the journal itself, when the British Empire was still using the Julian calendar, to the Gregorian calendar now in use.) Here are a few extracts taken (and dated) from the original Navy Records Society publication.

10 January 1702
‘Delivered a scheme to his Majesty for the prosecution of services at sea, &c., the next summer. That forthwith fifty sail of English and thirty Dutch of the line be appointed for the main fleet, thirty English and twenty Dutch to go abroad with 8,000 English and Dutch soldiers to attempt something on Spain or Portugal, the other thirty sail, with frigates, &c., to remain at home for the security of the Channel.’

11 October 1702
‘Having lain by from eight last night, at four this morning made sail, being about four leagues from the Islands, but it being very dirty, thick weather we had much ado to make the entrance in; and it was not till ten o’clock that the Kent, who had been in with the passage early in the morning, brought to and made the signal; upon which, the wind freshening very much, the whole fleet anchored before 11 o’clock in a range up almost to the chain which the enemy had placed before their ships. The town of Vigo fired some few shot, but none of them reached us, except two or three which did no harm.

Immediately called a Council of War.’

12 October 1702
‘Early this morning the soldiers were got in a readiness to disembark, and all landed in a little bay on the starboard side going up to the Rondello, about a league above Vigo, at 11 o’clock.

At ten weighed with the fleet and stood in close to the two forts at the entrance of the harbour, but proving calm, Vice-Admiral Hopsonn was forced to anchor, the cannon from both sides playing amongst the ships, but did no great damage.

Ordered the Association and Barfleur to lay near the forts and to flank’em, to force the men from the batteries in case our ships should stop at the boom.

The forts were observed to fire about thirty guns on the starboard, and fifteen or sixteen on the larboard. At twelve went aboard the Torbay, and viewed the forts, boom, and position of the French ships, and at one, the wind coming pretty fresh, the Admiral ordered the Vice-Admiral to slip and push for it, which he immediately did, and by half an hour after one, with great success, broke the boom, and notwithstanding the great fire that was from both the forts, and eight of the French that were very conveniently posted, the three first divisions got in. The army got up to the fort just as the ships got past and took it. One, and, soon after, three, of the French ships were set on fire, and all abandoned the ship Monsieur Chateau Renaud was in, being first afire, and those near the boom, so that before our ships began to appear pretty clear, and Vice-Admiral Hopsonn returned to the Somerset to give the Admiral an account as well as he could of the action, that he found all our ships well except the Torbay which had been laid aboard by a French fireship which was luckily got a little off, but blew up and set only their sails and side afire, which also, by the captain’s and men’s good management, was put out; but fifty-three men were drowned, with the first lieutenant, Mr. Graydon, and the purser by the accident of her blowing up.

In the evening went up round the harbour and found by the account of Monsieur le Marquis de Gallisoniere, Captain of the Hope, that the following ships were here viz . . .

He says also that all the King’s plate, about 3,000,000 sterling, was taken out and carried to a town about twenty-five leagues up the country, but that only forty small chests of cutcheneel [cochineal] was carried ashore.’

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