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The Glorious First of June. Cape St. Vincent. Camperdown. The Nile. Trafalgar. These
names are etched forever in the string of victories at sea that allowed Britannia to rule the waves.
Over the course of the French Revolutionary Wars, Britain was able to not only defend the
strength at sea she already enjoyed, but expanded her dominion over the waves. The Royal Navy
achieved naval superiority over her enemies by systematically preventing their joining into larger
fleets and defeating them in kind, as is evidenced by actions with the Dutch, Spanish, and
French.
The United Dutch Provinces had been invaded by the French Republic in the War of the
First Coalition, eventually forcing its de facto executive, the Stadtholder William V, into exile
and in his place a Revolutionary Republic was proclaimed in 1795. The Batavian Republic
inherited the former Dutch Navy that was docked in ports at home, while William V directed the
governors of Dutch colonies to temporarily cede control of Dutch colonies to the British. There
was a divide in adherence to this command with some colonies declaring for Batavia and some
for the Prince. The British eventually seized several holdings by force, namely the Cape Colony.
A relief force of nine ships was dispatched to retake the colony, but surrendered to a superior
British Squadron at Saldanha Bay.1 These events contributed to a feeling of restlessness in the
Batavian leadership with calls being made for a show of force against the Royal Navy.
On the 6th of October a south easterly wind allowed a Batavian Fleet of sixteen ships of the line
under Vice Admiral de Winter to put out into the North Sea, where they were met by a British
Fleet of fourteen Ships of the Line under Admiral Duncan. A hotly contested battle ensued with
the Dutch formed into a line, and the British two divisions breaking it forcing separate melees.
1 Sam Willis, In the Hour of Victory: The Royal Navy at War in the Age of Nelson (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 2013), 120.

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De Winter's flagship was eventually boarded and he taken prisoner. The aftermath of the battle
saw seven Batavian ships of the line, along with a handful of smaller vessels, in the hands of the
British.2 The Batavian navy was far from destroyed by this action, but when the aforementioned
surrender at Saldanha Bay and the latter surrender of a squadron of twelve ships during the
Anglo-Russian invasion of the Netherlands in 1799, the capacity for the Batavians to exert
strength at sea was severely hindered. Britain had effectively removed any hostile threat from
shipping interests in the North sea. This series of defeats had the subsequent effect of paralyzing
the leadership of the Batavian Republic to such a degree that in 1806 Napoleon crowned his
brother King of Holland, essentially turning the Dutch into a French Vassal.3
Spain entered into the War of the First Coalition in 1793 by invading France through the
Pyrenees. The Spanish armies were soon halted, and eventually pushed back into Catalonia. By
the summer of 1795 the Spanish Monarchy had decided to make peace with the Revolutionaries
and, as per the Treaty of San Ildefonso, declared war on Great Britain in the summer of 1796.4
This put the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet, newly under the command of Admiral John
Jervis, in jeopardy. It made little strategic sense to maintain a costly Fleet with no allies to
support, and so Corsica was abandoned and the Fleet made sail for Gibraltar. The battered fleet,
which had run into very foul weather in its month-long cruise from Corsica to the straits of
Gibraltar, was hit by a hurricane that pushed it further west than was intended. Jervis eventually
reassembled his ships and made for Lisbon to repair and resupply. Around this time, the entire
2 Willis, In the Hour of Victory, 126.
3 Willis, In the Hour of Victory, 153.
4 N.A.M. Rodgers, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (New York:
W.W. Norton & Company, 2004), 436.

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Spanish Mediterranean Fleet had been ordered to escort a vital convoy of four ships mercury
from Cartagena in the Mediterranean to Cadiz in the Atlantic. It too ran into a storm as it passed
through the straits, though this time it was a levanter, a strong easterly wind, that pushed them far
into the Atlantic than was hoped. Admiral Jervis had caught wind of the Spanish Ships, and had
made sail for Cape St. Vincent to find the Spaniards. Commodore Horatio Nelson, in a frigate,
was returning from the Mediterranean when he passed through the Spanish fleet during a heavy
fog. He made his way to Jervis' Fleet, relayed its position, and transferred to the larger ship of the
line HMS Captain. With this new intelligence, Jervis made immediate sail to intercept the
Spanish Fleet of unknown strength.
The morning of the 14th of February found the Jervis' Fleet of fifteen Ships of the Line north of
the Spanish Fleet of twenty-three Ships of the Line. Whereas The British Fleet was formed in a
single line, the Spanish Fleet was spread apart in two divisions; The larger of the two (the Van)
was further north and contained the flagship, with the smaller (the Rear) to the south containing
the mercury ships.5 A divided enemy fleet is a godsend for any commander, and Jervis was
determined to make the most of it. He ordered his fleet to sail between the two Spanish divisions,
preventing their joining, and then to wear and attack the back of the Spanish Van. As the British
line was making this manoeuvre, Commodore Nelson, towards the rear of the British line, saw
that if the Spanish Van was not hindered it would be able to out sail the British line. He therefore
disregarded orders and broke from the line, making strait for the center of the Spanish ships
which far outnumbered him in size and guns. Other ships eventually followed him and prevented
the Larger Van Division from out sailing the British as they wore up to attack the rear. The
poorly led and poorly trained Spanish were completely caught off guard, and in the ensuing
5 Terry Coleman, The Nelson Touch: The Life and Legend of Horatio Nelson (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2002), 126.

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melee four of their ships were captured with the remainder make all available sail for Cadiz,
sapped of any enthusiasm for seeking a confrontation with the Royal Navy.6 The Spanish
Officers had been brave, but they lacked the experience to effectively lead the ratings. Not that
this mattered, as the majority of the ratings were either landsmen or soldiers, both with little to
no knowledge of how to run a ship.7 In contrast was the superbly drilled and led British Fleet.
Nelson remarked on the state of the Fleet as such:
They at home do not know what this fleet is capable of performing; anything and everything...of
all the fleets I ever saw, I never saw one, in point of officers and men

equal to Sir John

Jervis's, who is a commander able to lead them to glory.8


Superior British seamanship had accounted for more than larger numbers, and helped in
pacifying one more enemy for the time being. With the Spanish Mediterranean Fleet blockaded
in Cadiz, the only potential threat was the rebuilt and reinforced French Fleet at Toulon, allowing
for the possibility of the deployment of another British Squadron in the middle sea. Indeed,
rumours had been filtering to the Admiralty that a large French expedition was fitting out, in
what would eventually be Nelson's and Napoleon's Mediterranean Campaign of 1798. 9
The summer of 1794 found Revolutionary France was under the sway of the Jacobins, a radical
band who distrusted anyone and everyone who showed the slightest sign of disloyalty. The Reign
6 Coleman, The Nelson Touch, 126.
7 Willis, In the Hour of Victory, 86.
8 Steven E. Maffeo, Seize, Burn, or Sink: The Thoughts and Words of Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson
(Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2007), 295.
9 Coleman, The Nelson Touch, 149.

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of Terror was at its bloody zenith, guillotining all those who wished the Revolution to fail. While
all segments of society felt its sting, the Navy suffered tremendously. The Navy had particularly
strong ties with the Ancien Rgime, to the extent that those seeking commissions as officers had
to prove their nobility back four generations. 10 Though the French Atlantic Fleet, bases at Brest,
had been in near total mutiny and disorder for most of 1793, Jacobin delegate had executed and
punished with such fervor that by May of 1794 the Fleet had been brought under control. A vital
grain shipment was due from the United States, and such was the need for bread in Paris that
twenty-six ships of the line were dispatched to cover its passage.11 Admiral Lord Howe had
twenty-five of the line in the Channel Fleet, setting out as soon as word reached him from the
inshore blockading squadron that the French had put to sea. The two fleets met far out in the
Atlantic, and the first fleet action of the war began on the first of June. Howe attempted to break
the French line at every point by sailing parallel to the French, and then having every British ship
turn hard to starboard and close with the French ship nearest them. Once the line was broken,
and every ship raked from stem to stern (firing not at the sides of the ship, but into their bows
and sterns), the British ships would engage the French in a melee where no mutual support was
possible to the defender. The manoeuvre worked, and seven ships were captured before the
French made all hast back to Brest. Though they had been soundly defeated, the French had
succeeded in preventing the British from intercepting the grain convoy, thus preserving for
Jacobin regime for the moment. The Glorious First of June demoralized the French navy, whose
fighting capabilities had already been shattered with the defection of Toulon and the French
Mediterranean Fleet the year before to Admiral Hood.
10 Willis, In the Hour of Victory, 32-33.
11 Rodgers, The Command of the Ocean, 429-430.

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With the Spanish fleet blockaded in Cadiz, Admiral John Jervis, newly the Earl St. Vincent, was
in a position to dispatch a powerful squadron into the Mediterranean with the intention of
preventing the rebuilt French Fleet in Toulon from embarking on whatever enterprise it was
intending to. This independent command, thirteen third-rate ships of the line (perhaps the most
capable ships of the era, with 74 guns and fantastic speed and manoeuvrability, true hunterkillers), was entrusted to the recently promoted Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson. Missed
rendezvous and bad weather plagued Nelson's Squadron, who continually failed to intercept
Napoleon's fleet. For six months Napoleon and his 'Band of Brothers' (as he had come to call the
captains under his command) sailed from one end of the Mediterranean to the other in search of
the elusive French Armada. At Alexandria, the eventual site of the French landings, Nelson's
departed back towards Sicily only one day before Napoleon sailed into the harbour. After taking
in provisions in Syracuse Nelson set sail eastward once more on the 25th of July, with word
finally arriving three days later that the French had indeed landed at Alexandria.12 Nelson had
lost the chance at engaging not only the warships of the fleet, but the transports that carried
Napoleon's Army. However, all was not lost and after scouting along the coast the French fleet
was found at anchor in Aboukir Bay, just east of Alexandria. Nelson's squadron entered Aboukir
Bay on the 1st of August with their guns run out prepared for battle. The Bay presented a natural
defensive perimeter with its shoals, which the French made great use of by deploying their ships
in a strong defensive line. Ordered were given to secure strong cables between each ship,
creating a theoretically impenetrable battery; however this order, like many others given by the
French Admiral, were ignored and the British were able to break the line at several points
rendering the French broadsides mute. Of perhaps greater hindrance to the French was the need

12 Rodgers, The Command of the Ocean, 454-458.

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to send numerous shore parties ashore in search of food and water, as Napoleon had removed
nearly all the Fleet's stores to feed his army. This reduced the ability of the ships to work their
guns, and allowed superior British gunnery to take its toll once they closed with and broke the
French line. The battle raged on for three days, though the heaviest fighting happened on the first
day and night, culminating when the magazine of the French flagship Orient caught fire and
exploded killing nearly all of her crew instantly. At the close of the battle on the third day, two
French ships of the line had been sunk with nine in the hands of the British. Nelson's squadron
had severed Napoleon's lines of communication with France and stranded it in Egypt.13 The
French Mediterranean fleet had been virtually destroyed at the Nile and British influence in the
Mediterranean restored. For the next seven years the French rebuilt their fleet at Toulon, finally
emerging from their berths and sailing to Cadiz to join with the Spanish in an attempt to clear the
English Channel to allow for an invasion of the British Isles.
Complete naval superiority would not be achieved by the British until the Battle of Trafalgar in
1805, but by the end of the French Revolutionary wars at the Peace of Amiens Britain was the
dominant naval power in the North Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. This
allowed the Royal Navy to maintain as full a blockade as was possible for the times, and protect
the trade routes that financed the numerous continental coalitions that eventually forced the selfproclaimed Emperor Napoleon into abdication and exile.

13 Rodgers, The Command of the Ocean, 460-461.