• Si Biggs

Boarding and Capture of 7 Merchants under the Spanish Guns

Blockade duties around Cadiz were still being carried out by the Royal Navy over two years since Trafalgar. The intention was the same as it was in 1805 to keep the Franco-Spanish fleet 'locked up' and also to keep a watchful eye on any movements by sea and attack if necessary.


These included vessels such as that under the command of Captain Murray Maxwell with his 38-gun frigate Alceste, 28-gun frigate Mercury, Captain James Alexander Gordon, and 18-gun brig-sloop Grasshopper (16 carronades, 32-pounders, and two long sixes), under Captain Thomas Searle.


Aboard these warships were of course detachments of Royal Marines.


French frigate Pomone engaging with Alceste and Active on 29 November 1811. Painting by Pierre Julien Gilbert

In the action of 4 April 1808, Alceste, with Mercury and Grasshopper, attacked a Spanish convoy off Rota. While at anchor about three miles to the north-west of the San Sebastián lighthouse, the British ships noticed the large convoy, escorted by 20 gun-boats and sailing close to the land so as to also benefit from the protection of a mobile artillery following on the shore. Coming under heavy fire, the three ships closed with the convoy at around 16:00.


With the shot and shells from the Spanish gun-boats and batteries passing over them, the British ships opened their fire. The Alceste and Mercury devoted their principal attention to the gun boats; while the Grasshopper, drawing much less water, stationed herself upon the shoal to the southward of the town and so close to the batteries.


Using grape shot from her carronade Grasshoper drove the Spaniards from their guns, and at the same time kept in check a division of gun-boats, which had come out from Cadiz to assist those engaged by the two frigates. The situation of the Alceste and Mercury was also rather critical because of the wind direction, as they had to tack every fifteen minutes close to the end of the shoal.


The first Lieutenant of the Alceste Lieutenant Stewart intended to board the convoy with boats.


Accordingly the boats of the Alceste with marines set off and the boats of the Mercury quickly followed. As they came across the convoy, the two divisions of boats, led by Lieutenant Stewart, soon boarded and brought out seven merchants, from under the very muzzles of the Spanish guns and from under the protection of the barges and pinnaces of the Franco-Spanish squadron of seven sail of the line; which barges and pinnaces had also by that time effected their junction with the gunboat.


By early evening the action had ended and the three frigates set off with the captured prizes.


Exclusive of the seven merchants captured, two of the gunboats were destroyed and another seven had run on shore by the fire from the two British frigates and brig. The merchants contained ship timber, gunpowder and weapons. The cost to the British was one dead and two slightly wounded on board the Grasshopper. T


he damage to the latter, however, were extremely severe, as well in hull, masts, rigging and sails. With the exception of an anchor shot away from the Mercury, the damage to the two frigates was confined to their sails and rigging

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