1702-08 – Combat off Cape Santa Marta

From Project WSS
Jump to navigationJump to search

Hierarchical Path: War of the Spanish Succession (Main Page) >> Battles and Encounters >> 1702-08 – Combat off Cape Santa Marta

French victory

Prelude to the Battle

When the Grand Alliance was formed on 7 September 1701, a French naval force under M. de Chateaurenault was in the West Indies. Its avowed purpose was to cover the arrival in Europe of the Spanish treasure ships. The secret intention of King Louis XIV was that the treasure should be brought into a French port, and used by him for the general advantage of the House of Bourbon.

On 12 September 1701, a British squadron of 10 ships (2 third0rates, 8 fourth-rates) commanded by Vice-Admiral John Benbow was detached from Sir George Rooke's forces in the Channel and sailed from the Scilly Islands to the West Indies to intercept Chateaurenault, and carry out other attacks on the French and Spaniards.

On 3 November, Benbow's squadron reached Barbados.

On 5 December, after looking into Martinique and visiting Dominica and Nevis, Benbow anchored in tbe harbour of Port Royal, Jamaica, where he remained for some time, chiefly employing himself in collecting intelligence concerning the movements of the French and Spaniards.

At the beginning of May 1702, Benbow was reinforced by several vessels from Great Britain, under Commodore William Whetstone, who assumed the local rank of rear-admiral on the station. Benbow's cruisers were very active, even before the arrival of news of the commencement of formal hostilities; and, as soon as it was known that the rupture had actually occurred, the vice-admiral sent 3 frigates to endeavour to intercept some storeships which, he learnt, were bound for Havana. At the same time, Benbow detached Rear-Admiral Whetstone with 2 third-rates, 3 fourth-rates and a fireship, to look for a small French squadron which, under M. Du Casse, as chef d'escadre, was expected from Brest, at Port Saint-Louis (present-day Cayes in Haiti).

On 11 July, Benbow himself left Port Royal intending to follow Whetstone; but, receiving intelligence that the real destination of Du Casse was not Port Saint-Louis but Léogane, near Port-au-Prince, he proceeded thither.

On 27 July, Benbow arrived at Port-au-Prince. Having taken or destroyed several vessels there, and cruised for a few days in the neighbourhood, he was informed that Du Casse had gone to Cartagena, on the mainland of what is now Columbia, and that he was bound thence to Puerto Bello, in Panama.

The news seems to have been incorrect. Benbow preceded, and did not follow, Du Casse towards the Gulf of Darien. Du Casse did not reach Hispaniola until after the British had quitted the island. He was in inferior force, yet he at once went in search of Benbow.


Contextual map - Copyright: Kronoskaf

Description of Events

On the morning of 19 August, the two squadrons sighted one another off Santa Marta, a little to the eastward of the mouth of the Rio Magdalena.

The French were under topsails, standing along the shore towards the west, and were to eastward of the British.

Benbow had previously given out the line of battle. As some of the vessels were up to 5 km astern, he made the signal for action, and, under easy sail, awaited the stragglers.

Later in the day, he sent an order to the Defiance and Windsor, which betrayed no signs of haste, to make more sail.

Towards nightfall an action began; but, after the Defiance and Windsor had received two or three broadsides, they luffed out of gunshot.

When it was dark, firing ceased.

Benbow kept company with the French squadron during the night. He thought to shame those of his captains who had already misbehaved themselves, by himself leading, and by changing the order of battle to: Breda, Defiance, Windsor, Greenwich, Ruby, Pcndennis, Falmouth.

On 20 August, all the British vessels, except the Ruby, were far astern of the flagship and remained astern during the whole day. Nevertheless, the Breda and Ruby followed the French and used their chase guns as best they could until after dusk.

At daylight on 21 August, the Breda and the Ruby again began action, this time at close quarters, with the French.

In the course of the early morning, the Ruby's spars and rigging were so much mauled that the Breda had to lie to and send boats to tow Captain Walton off.

For some time before 8:00 a.m., the Defiance and Windsor were within point-blank range of the rearmost ship of the French, yet refrained from firing a single gun.

In the afternoon the action recommenced; but, although several of the ships astern of him then fired in a desultory way, the brunt of the fighting fell upon Benbow, whose rigging suffered severely, and who had some of his lower deck guns dismounted.

On the morning of 22 August, despite the fact that the Breda kept up the signal for the line of battle by night as well as by day, the Greenwich was about 14 km astern and, except the Ruby, which behaved admirably throughout, the rest of the ships were not in their stations.

In the afternoon the wind, which had been East, shifted to South, and gave the enemy the weather-gauge. The Breda, by tacking, fetched within gunshot of the sternmost of the French, and once more engaged them; but she had no support, and she could do very little.

On the morning of 23 August, the French, who were 10 km ahead of Benbow, were seen to have detached the Prince de Frise. At that time some of the English ships, and especially the Defiance and Windsor, were 6 km astern of station.

At 10:00 a.m., the wind being E.N.E., but variable, the enemy tacked. The Breda fetched within short range of two of them and then pursued as well as she could.

About noon the Anne, galley, a British prize, which was one of the small craft with Du Casse, was retaken. On the other hand, the Ruby was found to be so disabled that the vice-admiral ordered her to Port Royal.

At 8:00 p.m., the French, steering S.E. with a light and variable wind from N.W., were 3 km ahead of the Breda, which had only the Falmouth near her.

At midnight the French began to separate.

Very early in the morning of 24 August, the Breda and Falmouth got up with, and engaged, the sternmost of the French.

At 3:00 a.m., the vice-admiral's right leg was smashed by a chain shot. Benbow was carried below; but, soon afterwards, he ordered his cot to be taken to the quarter-deck, whence he continued to direct the fight until daybreak. It then appeared that the Apollon which had been immediately engaged was disabled, but that other French ships were coming up to her rescue, with a strong gale from the E. The Windsor, Vendennis, and Greenwich, after running to leeward of the disabled vessel and each firing a broadside, or part of a broadside, at her, passed her and stood to the southward. The Defiance also passed to leeward; and, when the French fired a few guns at her, she put her helm a-weather, and ran away before the wind.

None of these ships returned into action. The French speedily discovered that the majority of the British captains were not serious opponents, and, bearing down between their disabled ship and the Breda, badly damaged her and towed off the Apollon.

The Breda could not renew the pursuit for some time; but, as soon as she had refitted, she went again in chase, with the neglected signal for battle still flying. As it was paid no more attention to than on the previous days, Benbow directed Captain Fogg to send to each ship, and to remind her captain of his duty. Upon this, Kirkby, of the Defiance, visited the Vice-Admiral, and urged him to forego further action.

The Commander-in-Chief, desirous of knowing the views of the other captains, signalled for them also to come on board. Most of them supported Kirkby; and, realising that in the circumstances nothing else could be done, Benbow unwillingly desisted from the pursuit, and headed for Jamaica.


On 8 October and the following days at Jamaica, Kirkby, Wade, and Constable were tried by court-martial for cowardice, disobedience to orders and neglect of duty. The two former were condemned on all counts, and were sentenced to death. Constable, acquitted of cowardice, was convicted on the other counts, and sentenced to be cashiered, and imprisoned during her Majesty's pleasure. Hudson would have been tried with these three officers had he not died on 25 September. Captains Fogg and Vincent were afterwards tried for having signed a protest against continuing the engagement with the French, although there was a reasonable probability that, had the action been properly renewed, a victory would have resulted. They alleged that they had signed the protest solely because, looking to the previous misbehaviour of the other captains, they feared lest, upon a recommencement of the action, the Breda and Falmouth, being wholly deserted, would fall a prey to the French. Benbow and others bore testimony to the courage and general good conduct of these two officers, who, in consequence, were sentenced only to be suspended, and that not until the Lord High Admiral's pleasure should be known. George Walton, alone of the British captains engaged, was not tried. He had borne himself with the most uniform gallantry and loyalty.

Benbow, a brave and capable, if somewhat unconciliatory officer, was obliged to have his right leg amputated. The resultant shock, heightened by fever and he died on 4 November 1702, having lived long enough to bring his captains to court martial.

The treasure fleet sailed for Europe only to fall into the hands of the Allies at Vigo.

Order of Battle

British Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: Vice-Admiral John Benbow

Ships as they were aligned in the order of battle:

  • Defiance (64), Captain Richard Kirkby
  • Pendennis (48), Captain Thomas Hudson
  • Windsor (60), Captain John Constable
  • Breda (70), Captain Christopher Fogg and flagship of Vice-Admiral John Benbow
  • Greenwich (54), Captain Cooper Wade
  • Ruby (48), Captain George Walton
  • Falmouth (48), Captain Samuel Vincent

French Order of Battle

Commander-in-chief: M. Du Casse

  • Heureux (68), Captain Bennet and flagship of M. Du Casse
  • Agréable (50), Captain de Roussy
  • Phénix (60), Captain de Poudens
  • Apollon (50), Captain de Demnin
  • Prince de Frise (30), Lieutenant de Saint-André
  • unidentified fireship
  • 3 unidentified small crafts
  • 1 unidentified transport


This article incorporates texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Clowes, Wm. Laird: The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. II, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 367-372
  • Spanish Succession, War of the, in Encyclopaedia Britannica (c1910-1922), Vol. 25, p. 606