In the summer of 1702, an Anglo/Dutch force under the command of Admiral George Rooke was attempting to capture the Spanish port of Cadiz. The city had been targeted both to use as a naval base, and because it was the main port where their treasure fleets from the New World docked. The Spanish state was financially dependent on silver imported from its American Empire, especially in time of war. But the siege dragged on for longer than expected, and with winter approaching, and no safe base captured, the Allied fleet headed for home. That might have been the end of the matter, but for an indiscrete conversation taking place further up the coast.
In the Portuguese port of Lagos, the Pembroke was taking on fresh water. Many of her officers were ashore, including her chaplain, a Channel Islander called Beauvoir, who spoke perfect French. This clergyman chanced to meet, and befriend, the French Consul, a vain and boastful man, and the two fell into conversation. The Frenchman let slip that the vital annual treasure fleet had been convoyed across the Atlantic by the French navy in secret, and was at anchor in Vigo Bay in the north of Spain. Beauvoir hastened to report this to his captain, and the Pembroke slipped away to rejoin Rooke’s fleet.
Meanwhile, in Vigo Bay, the French commander, Admiral Chateaurenault was leaving nothing to chance. The remote port was far less suitable than Cadiz for unloading colossal amounts of silver, and the huge Spanish galleons he was protecting were taking an age to unload. Fearful of attack, he did his best to fortify his position. He had a large boom constructed from ship’s masts and yards, chained together and strongly anchored. This was stretched across the narrow entrance to the bay, with his seven strongest warships moored inside the boom, protecting it with their broadsides. He then landed more cannon from his ships to create temporary batteries on land at each end of the obstacle. Should all of this not prove sufficient, he commandeered a merchantman loaded with a cargo of snuff, and prepared it as a fireship to deal with any attacker who managed to penetrate his defences.
Booms and fireships, galleons and a treasure fleet; the Battle of Vigo Bay seems to be more like a throwback to the age of the buccaneers than an 18th century fleet action. Drake, Raleigh and Hawkins, would all have felt quite at home taking part in it. When Rooke’s fleet arrived, and saw the elaborate defences the French had organised, they barely hesitated for a heartbeat. Just like those seadogs of old, with the scent of Spanish treasure in their nostrils, they attacked. Rooke sent his two largest ships, the 90 gunned Barfleur and Association to bombard the land defences at the northern end of the boom. On the south side of the bay, he landed troops to capture the earth works and batteries that covered that end of the obstruction. Meanwhile his next largest ship, the Torbay, with a brisk breeze behind her, made all sail possible and bore down on the boom. It was a scenario with only two possible outcomes. Either the warship would burst through, or she would sustain massive, possible fatal, damage. Behind the Torbay, came Rooke with his remaining thirty warships.
The boom broke apart, and the damaged Torbay forced her way through, coming to rest between the French warships Esperance and Bourbon, both of which she promptly started fighting. With more and more British and Dutch warships crowding towards the gap now created in the boom, or attempting to make fresh breaches in it, the French commander played his last card. Chateaurenault lit his fireship, and launched it at the unfortunate Torbay. Already caught in an unequal struggle, she now had to contend with the menace of the blazing ship. Soon her rigging was onfire, and as her crew dealt with this, the French fireship exploded. The blast further damaged the British ship, although the dense clouds of snuff that engulfed her did at least serve to extinguish the fire.
But help was now at hand. The Dutch three-decker, Zeven Provincien arrived to dispatch the Bourbon, and other ships were soon locked in battle. Less than an hour after the action had begun, the much smaller French fleet was staring at defeat. The boom had been destroyed, the fireship was no more and Rooke’s squadrons were flooding into the bay. If Chateaurenault could not protect the treasure, his next priority was to make sure that it did not fall into the hands of the enemy. He ordered all remaining French and Spanish captains in the bay to set fire to their ships, and then abandon them. In many cases this was successfully carried out, although some of the ships were captured. By the end of the battle the French and Spanish fleet had been entirely destroyed or captured. Of the estimated thirteen million pieces of eight in treasure they had carried, most was lost, sunk to the bottom of the sea.
The legend of this vast treasure left in the mud of Vigo Bay has featured in several works of fiction. In Jules Verne’s classic novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, for example, the main character, Captain Nemo, claims to have recovered all this treasure. It was this fabulous wealth that paid for his submarine, the Nautilus.