Action of 19 December 1796

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Action of 19 December 1796
Part of the French Revolutionary Wars
Date 19 December 1796
Location off Cartagena, Murcia, Spain


  • Sabina captured but later recaptured
 Great Britain  Spain
Commanders and leaders
Horatio Nelson[1] Don Jacobo Stuart

2 Frigates

1 Ship of the Line

4 Frigates

Casualties and losses
7 killed,
34 wounded,
42 captured
10 killed,
45 wounded

The Action of 19 December 1796 was a minor naval engagement of the French Revolutionary Wars, fought off the coast of Murcia between a small squadron of two British frigates under Commodore Horatio Nelson and a small squadron of two Spanish frigates under Commodore Don Jacobo Stuart, who was descendent of the British royal house of Stuart.[2] Nelson managed to capture one of the Spanish frigates, but the unexpected appearance of superior Spanish forces forced him to withdraw hurriedly abandoning his prize.


By October 1796, the Genoese position in Corsica and continued French advances led the British to decide that the Mediterranean fleet could no longer be supplied and so they ordered it to be evacuated to Gibraltar. Commodore Nelson was then required to cover the evacuation of the British garrison at the island of Elba. He sailed from Gibraltar aboard the frigate HMS Minerve of 42 guns commanded by Captain George Cockburn. They were accompanied by the frigate HMS Blanche of 32 guns, commanded by Captain d’Arcy Preston in substitution of Charles Sawyer who had been court-martialled for homosexuality.[3] At 10 pm on December 19 two Spanish frigates were sighted cruising off Cartagena. These frigates were the Sabina of 40 guns, flagship of Commodore Don Jacobo Stuart, who was descendant of James II of England, and the Matilde, commanded by Miguel Gastón, later commander of the ship of line San Justo at Trafalgar.


The action started at midnight. The Minerve engaged the Sabina while the Blanche, agreeably to Nelson's directions, began a persecution of the Matilde, keeping off the action. The Sabina struck her colours after a hard resistance of three hours which was later praised by Nelson in his official letter about the combat. The loss aboard the Spanish frigate amounted to ten men killed and forty five wounded,[4] although Nelson claimed to have inflicted 164 casualties.[2] She lost her mizenmast, and had her fore and main masts shot through in several places.[5] The Minerve, whose masts were, as well as her rigging and sails, much wounded, had seven men killed and thirty four wounded.[4]

The first and second lieutenants of the Minerve, John Culverhouse and Thomas Masterman Hardy, along with 40 petty-officers and seamen, were put aboard the Sabina,[4] which was taken in tow, when at 4 pm the Matilde returned to the action and attacked the Minerve. After half an hour the Matilde retreated damaged, but three other Spanish ships, the Príncipe de Asturias of 112 guns, and the frigates Ceres (40 guns), and Perla (34 guns), hove in sight. Nelson, seeing that he had no chance of victory, withdrew leaving behind the Sabina and his prize crew, who fell in Spanish hands.


The Minerve managed to escape from her pursuers despite suffering heavy damage to her rigging and sails, and reached Porto-Ferrajo on 27 December, three days before the Blanche.[6] Hardy and Culverhouse were almost immediately and were able to rejoin Minerve at Gibraltar on 9 February 1797.[7] On 29 January Culverhouse, Hardy and the seamen in the prize crew from the Santa Sabina were taken to Gibraltar aboard the Spanish ship of line Terrible and were part of a prisoner exchange which included the captain of the Santa Sabina, Don Jacobo Stuart.[8] They returned to the Minerve at Nelson's arrival on 9 February. During her departure two days later, the British frigate was pursued by the Terrible and the Neptuno, another Spanish ship of line.[8]

The Sabina would later be repaired, being in service for many years in the Royal Spanish Navy. In 1823, renamed Constitución, she was in command of Ángel Laborde with the same Ceres which took part in the 1796 action, when they succeeded in defeat a squadron commanded by Commodore Danells, who was the service of the American insurgents. In that battle, they captured two corvettes and put to flight the rest of the squadron: a brig, four schooners and two transports.


  1. ^ Jones p.106
  2. ^ a b Knight p.209
  3. ^ Knight p.208
  4. ^ a b c James p.365
  5. ^ James p.364
  6. ^ Knight p.210
  7. ^ Broadley, p. 28
  8. ^ a b Knight p.217


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