Naval battle of the 1701-1714 War of the Spanish Succession.
En route back to England after an unsuccessful attempt to seize Cadiz, the Anglo-Dutch fleet under Admiral Sir George Rooke, carrying troops under command of General James Butler, Duke of Ormonde, attacked the Spanish silver fleet with its French naval escort under Admiral François de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault, anchored behind a protective boom and defended by fortifications at Vigo Bay, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean on the northwestern coast of Spain’s Pontevedra Province.
The silver fleet had sailed from Veracruz, Mexico, with a cargo of silver valued at 13,639,230 pesos. At a contemporary exchange rate of about three pesos to the pound sterling, this equaled £4.5 million. Calling at Havana, where Chateaurenault and his naval escort joined together, the combined fleet of 22 Spanish vessels and 34 French vessels sailed on 24 July 1702. The English and Dutch forces had intelligence of this movement and attempted to intercept the fleet. At Cadiz, the silver fleet’s normal port, Rooke remained on the lookout while Sir Cloudesley Shovell tried intercepting the vessels at sea. Unknown to the allies, Chateaurenault safely anchored his convoy in Vigo Bay on 23 September 1702. Captain Thomas Hardy in the Pembroke heard the news when he called at Lagos Bay, Portugal, and immediately reported it to Rooke, earning Hardy a knighthood and a £1,000-pound reward.
Arriving off Vigo on 22 October, Rooke landed Ormonde’s troops and with Dutch Lieutenant Admiral Philips van Almonde divided the 15 English and 10 Dutch ships into seven squadrons, each headed by a Dutch or English flag officer. On 23 October, the squadrons commanded by Vice Admiral Thomas Hopsonn and Vice Admiral Philips van der Goes approached the narrow entrance of the bay, while the large ships bombarded the fortifications in support of Ormonde’s troops. Captain Andrew Leake in the Torbay broke the boom, for which he and Hopsonn were knighted. Allied forces took the forts and 18 French warships, of which five were incorporated into the Royal Navy and one into the Dutch navy. The remainder were burned.
Shovell’s squadron arrived on 27 October after the main action and stayed behind after Rooke’s departure to manage the final phase. Most of the silver had already been off-loaded and the Spanish treasury recorded the largest amount of silver ever obtained from America in one year: 6,994,293 pesos. Spain contributed 2.2 million of this to the French war effort and soon replaced its lost warships. The allies, however, acquired a sum of silver valued at about £14,000. Modern scholarship has yet to account for the remainder.
François Louis de Rousselet, Marquis de Chateaurenault
French admiral during the wars of Louis XIV. Born at Chateaurenault on 22 September 1637, Chateaurenault, like many young men of his class, favored a military career. He joined the French army in 1658 as a musketeer. The expansion of the Royal French Navy under Minister of Marine Jean Baptiste Colbert offered numerous opportunities to young officers, and Chateaurenault transferred to the naval service in 1661. He proved to be a capable, if somewhat difficult, officer. In the short span of only five years, Chateaurenault advanced to captain.
Chateaurenault saw his first action in the Mediterranean against Barbary pirates. In 1677 and 1678 he commanded small squadrons during fighting between France and Holland. His forces obtained the only two French naval victories during those years.
In 1688 when the War of the Grand Alliance began, Chateaurenault commanded the French fleet at Brest and led the squadron transporting soldiers to Ireland in support of the deposed James II. Chateaurenault also escorted a convoy of 3,000 troops to Bantry Bay in 1689. On 11 May, as the troops were disembarking, an English fleet attacked. Despite poor maneuvering by his captains, Chateaurenault in the Ardent was able to drive the English fleet out to sea. The action was indecisive, but Chateaurenault had accomplished his mission of providing soldiers and stores for James II, and his ships returned safely to Brest.
In June 1690 Chateaurenault led the van division of the combined French fleet under Admiral Anne-Hilarion de Cotentin, Comte de Tourville. On 10 July the opposing Anglo-Dutch fleet attacked off Beachy Head. Chateaurenault was able to double the attacking Dutch ships and he contributed decisively to the defeat of the Allies.
In 1701 upon Tourville’s death, Chateaurenault succeeded him as vice admiral of France. In 1702, during the War of the Spanish Succession, he received the delicate task of protecting the annual Spanish treasure fleet from Anglo-Dutch forces. King Louis XIV’s secret orders instructed him to bring the Spanish fleet into a French port, a difficult task given that some Spanish officers were serving aboard French ships.
Chateaurenault managed to elude a powerful Allied fleet and bring the treasure fleet into Vigo. Believing he would soon be attacked, Chateaurenault ordered the harbor fortified. On 22 October 1702, an Allied fleet under Sir George Rooke broke through the defensive boom. Every ship in the harbor was captured or destroyed, and an enormous amount of treasure was lost. Chateaurenault was not blamed for the defeat and was elevated to marshal of France in 1703. However, he never again commanded at sea. He died at Paris on 15 November 1716
Sir George Rooke
English admiral. Born about 1650, George Rooke was commissioned in 1672. He first served in the London, flagship of Vice Admiral Sir Edward Spragge, and followed Spragge to the Prince Royal, fighting in her at both the 28 May and 4 June 1673 Battles of Schooneveld and the 11 August 1673 Battle of the Texel. After the latter engagement, Rooke earned praise for bringing the damaged ship home. He served with Sir John Narbrough in the Mediterranean from 1678 to 1679, then under Arthur Herbert, First Earl of Torrington, at Tangier, from 1680 to 1681. Commanding the Deptford, he fought in the 1 May 1689 Battle of Bantry Bay. Promoted to rear admiral in 1690, he was in the Duchess at the 30 June 1690 Battle of Beachy Head. Promoted to vice admiral, he served as extra commissioner of the Navy Board from 1692 to 1694.
Rooke fought in the 19 May 1692 Battle of Barfleur under Edward Russell, Earl of Orford, then pursued the French into the Bay of La Hogue, burning 12 French ships of the line. Knighted in 1693, he escorted the 400-ship Smyrna convoy toward the Mediterranean until the French intercepted it at Lagos Bay, taking or destroying 92 ships and scattering the remainder.
Rooke became Admiralty commissioner during 1694-1702 and commander in chief, Mediterranean, from 1695 to 1696. He was appointed admiral of the fleet in 1696 and was elected to Parliament for Portsmouth, serving from 1698 to 1705. In 1700 he commanded the Anglo-Dutch-Swedish Squadron off Copenhagen at the opening of the Great Northern War. He served on the Lord High Admiral’s Council during 1702-1705 and commanded the unsuccessful Anglo-Dutch expedition to Cadiz in 1702, attacking the Spanish galleons at Vigo Bay on his return on 12 October. In 1704 he led the allied attack on Gibraltar and commanded the Anglo-Dutch Fleet in the 13 August 1704 Battle of Vélez-Malaga. Rooke resigned for health reasons in 1705 and died in Canterbury on 24 January 1709.
References Kamen, Henry. “The Destruction of the Spanish Silver Fleet at Vigo in 1702.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 39 (1966): 165-173. Veenendaal, Augustus J., Jr. De Briefwisseling van Anthonie Heinsius, 1702-1720. Vol. 1, 1702. The Hague: Institute for Netherlands History, 1976. Calman-Maison, J. J. R. La Marechal de Chateau-Renault. Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1903. Jenkins, Ernest H. A History of the French Navy: From Its Beginnings to the Present Day. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1973. Symcox, Geoffrey. The Crisis of French Sea Power, 1688-1697. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974. References Hattendorf, John B. “Sir George Rooke and Sir Cloudesley Shovell (c. 1650-1709) and (1659-1707).” In Precursors of Nelson: British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Le Fevre and Richard Harding, 42-77. London: Chatham Publishing, 2000. Hattendorf, John B., ed. The Journal of Sir George Rooke, 1700-1704. Publications of the Navy Records Society. London: Navy Records Society.