Action of 6 May 1801
The Action of 6 May 1801 was a minor naval engagement between the 32-gun xebec-frigate El Gamo of the Spanish Navy under the command of Don Francisco de Torris and the much smaller 14-gun brig HMS Speedy under the command of Thomas, Lord Cochrane. El Gamo was subsequently captured. The skirmish is notable for the large disparity between the size and firepower of El Gamo and Speedy – the former was around four times the size, had much greater firepower and a crew six times the size of Speedy, which had a reduced crew of 54 at the time of the engagement.
Speedy was cruising off Barcelona at dawn on 6 May 1801 when a large enemy frigate was sighted. The frigate, a xebec-rigged vessel named Gamo, commanded by Don Francisco de Torris and carrying 319 men, was armed with 8- and 12-pounder guns, with 24-pounder carronades. This amounted to a total broadside of 190 pounds, more than seven times that of Speedy. ("Cochrane the Dauntless" (2007) gives Gamo "22 long 12-pounders, 8 9-pounders and 2 heavy carronades") Furthermore, Cochrane had only 54 men on board Speedy, having men away as prize crews.
Instead of evading the Spanish frigate, Cochrane closed on her, and at 9.30 am Gamo fired a gun and hoisted Spanish colours. In return Cochrane hoisted American colours. The Spanish hesitated, allowing Cochrane to get closer, hoist British colours, and evade the first broadside. Gamo fired another, which Cochrane again evaded, holding fire until Speedy ran alongside her and locked her yards in her rigging. Gamo attempted to fire upon her smaller opponent, but her guns were mounted too high and could not be depressed sufficiently, causing their shot to pass through Speedy's sails and rigging. Cochrane then opened fire with his 4-pounders double- and treble-shotted, their shots passing up through the sides and decks, the first broadside killing the Spanish captain and boatswain.
Seeing their disadvantage the Spanish second-in-command assembled a boarding party, at which Cochrane drew off, pounded their massed ranks with shot and musket fire, before drawing in close again. After having their attempts to board frustrated three times, the Spanish returned to their guns. Cochrane then decided to board the Gamo, and assembled his entire crew into two parties, leaving only the ship's doctor to command and crew Speedy. The British then rushed the Gamo, boarding from bow and waist, the boarders at the bow had their faces blackened to look like pirates. The Spanish faltered at this, and were then set-upon by the party that had boarded from the waist. There was a hard-fought battle between the two crews, until Cochrane called down to the doctor, at the time the only person on Speedy, ordering him to send the rest of the men over. At the same time he ordered the Spanish colours to be torn down. Thinking that their officers had surrendered the ship, the remaining Spanish seamen stopped fighting.
The British had lost three men killed and nine wounded, while the Spanish had lost fourteen killed and forty-one wounded with the rest captured; a total casualty list exceeding Speedy's entire complement. The British then secured the Spanish prisoners below deck and made their way back to Port Mahon, Menorca. Finding that he had been beaten by such an inferior foe, the Spanish second-in-command asked Cochrane for a certificate assuring him that he had done all he could to defend his ship. Cochrane obliged, with the equivocal wording that he had 'conducted himself like a true Spaniard'. El Gamo was subsequently sold to the ruler of Algiers as a merchantman.
This battle inspired Patrick O'Brian in the novel Master and Commander, where, in a very similar manner, the brig HMS Sophie escapes from, then lures and captures the Spanish Xebeque-frigate Cacafuego, as the first major battle of his main character Jack Aubrey.
- Cordingly p.58.
- Adkins. The War for all the Oceans. p. XXII.
- Adkins. The War for all the Oceans. p. XXIII.
- Henderson. Frigates, Sloops and Brigs. p. 245.
- Henderson. Frigates, Sloops and Brigs. p. 246.
- Adkins. The War for all the Oceans. p. XXIV.
- Adkins. The War for all the Oceans. p. XXV.
- Henderson. Frigates, Sloops and Brigs. p. 247.
- Adkins, Roy; Adkins, Lesley (2007). The War for all the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo. Abacus. ISBN 978-0-349-11916-8.
- Cordingly, David. (2007) (US title)"Cochrane: The Real Master and Commander." Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 448pp, ISBN 1-58234-534-1. (UK title) "Cochrane The Dauntless: The Life and Adventures of Thomas Cochrane, 1775–1860" London: Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-0-7475-8088-1
- Henderson, James (2005) . Frigates, Sloops and Brigs: An Account of the Lesser Warships of the Wars from 1793 to 1815. Barnsley: Pen and Watch. ISBN 1-84415-301-0.