Vice Admiral

  Federico Carlos Gravina

(1756-1806)

 

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            Much has been written about Villeneuve. Gravina remains a brave but shadowy figure. First of all he was not Spanish at all but came from a noble Sicilian family. Due to Spain and Sicily (as well as Naples) being ruled by the Bourbon family (although different branches) it was easy for him to enter the Spanish navy, particularly as his father the Duke of San Miguel held a Spanish title. Another advantage which would not have done the young Gravina any harm was the rumour that his actual father was no less a person than Carlos III King of Spain. Be that as it may, Gravina went to sea at the age of 12 and embarked on a distinguished naval career both as a fighting commander and a naval administrator. Between 1779 and 1782 Gravina was present at the Spanish blockade of Gibraltar and commanded one of the battering ships in the final grand attack. In 1782 he was promoted to command the Santissima Trinidad and fought against Lord Howe at the battle of Cape Spartel. 1788 saw him studying astronomy at Constantinople. In 1789 he was promoted Commodore. In that year, when commanding the frigate Paz, he achieved one of the fastest recorded passages from Cadiz to the Spanish possessions in Central America. 1790 saw his administrative talents for the first time. In the crisis with Britain over Nootka Sound, Gravina organised the formation of a Spanish fleet, the largest since the Spanish Armada. Nootka Sound was solved by diplomatic means and in 1793 Gravina, as second in command of the Spanish fleet, served alongside Hood in the capture of Toulon. During this period of the alliance with England he also visited Portsmouth. In 1796 Spain changed sides and Gravina went back to fighting against Britain. At Cadiz his action against the British was described as "brilliant".

            Besides seamanship, fighting and organisational ability he also added diplomatic skills. In 1801 he
was sent to the Spanish part of San Domingo in the West Indies to co-ordinate efforts there with the French navy. In 1804 King Carlos IV made him Spanish Ambassador to France. If you look carefully at the famous painting of Napoleon crowning Josephine you'll see Gravina as one of the coronation guests. He established good relations with both Napoleon and Decres, the French Naval Minister. He played a major part in the negotiations leading to the signing of the Franco-Spanish pact of January 1805 which put the Spanish navy at Napoleon's disposal. For his services King Carlos IV appointed him Commander in Chief of the Spanish navy and later in January Gravina returned to Cadiz to start preparing the fleet. Comments were passed about the "greatly increased activity caused there by his presence" and Gravina wrote optimistically about the number of ships and armaments that would be ready. However he also recognised that he was beset by a fundamental problem. Yellow fever had ravaged the coasts of Spain from 1803 onwards depriving the navy of trained sailors and this caused him to write "I very much doubt that the number of sailors required to complete the ships complements will be found by the time required". Nevertheless when Villeneuve appeared off Cadiz in April 1805 Gravina sailed with 6 ships and joined the French fleet on its journey to the West Indies and its return.
            It was during the return that an incident occurred that was to have a major impact on relations between Villeneuve and Gravina and might have resulted in Nelson fighting only the French at Trafalgar. At the battle of El Ferrol on 22nd July Gravina with his 6 Spanish ships formed the vanguard of the Franco-Spanish fleet and had to fight the British fleet of 15 ships of the line under Sir Robert Calder. He received hardly any French support. As he wrote to Admiral Decres "though I hold the rank of Admiral, that did not prevent me from ordering my ships to form the vanguard, nor from personally taking the lead position in that line during the fighting, as if I were just an ordinary captain." Gravina's ships gave and received the greatest punishment. Indeed, two Spanish ships were captured by Calder. However only 3 of the 14 French ships made an attempt to get heavily involved in the fighting and support Gravina. Villeneuve attempted to hide all this from his superiors but when Napoleon found out the truth he said "that damned Gravina is all genius and action in battle. ..If only Villeneuve had those qualities ...How does he have the nerve to complain about the Spanish? They have fought like lions!" The Spanish felt the French had let them down. The normally accommodating Gravina, complaining of treachery , tried to resign but was prevented from doing so by the Spanish Chief Minister Godoy.
            At a meeting of the French and Spanish commanders one Spanish captain had to be restrained from challenging the French Admiral Magon to a duel and Gravina publicly rebuked Villeneuve. At a lower level the bodies of murdered French sailors were found in the streets of Cadiz. Relations between the supposed allies could not get any worse.
            Nevertheless Gravina's determination and professionalism kept the Spanish loyal. This meant that when Villeneuve left Cadiz his fleet of 33 ships included 15 Spanish. In the pre-battle dispositions Gravina commanded the 12 ship Corps of Observation which was ordered to act independently or join the main body of the fleet as circumstances might require. Originally Gravina's command was at the front of the allied line but when Villeneuve turned back to Cadiz the positions were all reversed and Gravina's command brought up the rear. Gravina therefore found himself against Collingwood' s attack. During the battle Gravina in the Principe de Asturias found himself fighting 3 British ships at once. His flagships' main mast and mizzen were shot through and threatened to fall. The rigging was destroyed and the sails shot through and through. At about half past three Gravina' s left arm was shattered by a broadside of grapeshot from HMS Dreadnought. It was apparent that the battle was lost and Gravina although badly wounded collected 10 other ships and with his flagship under tow headed back to Cadiz. There the doctors disagreed over the need to amputate his arm. Gangrene eventually set in and on 9th March 1806 he died. On his death bed he said " I am a dying man, but I die happy; I am going, I hope and trust, to join Nelson, the greatest hero that the world perhaps has produced." In its turn the Gibraltar Chronicle paid the following tribute. "Spain loses in Gravina the most distinguished officer in her navy; one under whose command her fleets, though sometimes beaten, always fought in such a manner as to merit the encomiums of their conquerors." Gravina now lies buried in the Panteon de Marinos lllustres, San Fernando, Cadiz.
   Was Gravina the right man to command the Spanish at Trafalgar? The answer I feel has to be yes. There were only 2 other potential candidates and neither was in favour with the French. The Spanish Naval Minister Domingo P. Grandallana had been specifically excluded by Napoleon due to his anti-French stance. The very capable Vice Admiral Jose de Mazarredo was excluded because he had publicly criticised the government over the state of the Spanish navy and Spain's foreign policy. Even if either of them had been appointed there are no grounds for believing they would have done any better than Gravina. Indeed, as success had to come from co-operating with, and influencing, Villeneuve their track records suggest they would have done a lot worse.