Nelson and VADM Gravina

VADM Federico Carlos Gravina y Nápoli (1756-1806)

Compared with Villeneuve, about whom much has been written, his junior Spanish counterpart at Trafalgar, VADM Gravina, remains a brave but shadowy figure. Gravina was born not Spanish, but into a noble Sicilian family. He first went to sea at age 12 and quickly developed a reputation as a fighting commander and reliable administrator.

After studying astronomy in Constantinople in 1788, he was appointed Commodore.

During a dispute over Nootka Sound with the British, he helped to raise the biggest Spanish Fleet since the Armada, but the dispute was resolved diplomatically. In 1796, alongside and supporting Hood, he was involved in the capture of Toulon.

Sent to the West Indies in 1801, he liaised with the French Navy. In 1804 he was appointed the Spanish Ambassador to France, where he played a major role in negotiating the January 1805 Franco-Spanish pact. Returning to Spain, he became the Commander-in-Chief of the Spanish Navy and set about revitalising the Service.

One major problem was a skilled manpower shortage due in no small part to a yellow fever epidemic raging in the Iberian Peninsula’s coastal towns since 1803. Nevertheless, he sailed with six ships from Cadiz for the West Indies with Villeneuve in April 1805.

El Ferrol

During their return to Europe, his six Spanish ships were in the vanguard of a combined French and Spanish Fleet when they fell in with Sir Robert Calder’s 15 ships of the line off El Ferrol on 22 July. The British captured two Spanish ships and Gravina was later openly critical of Villeneuve because only three of the 14 French ships made any attempt to get heavily involved in the battle. “That damned Gravina is all genius and action in battle … If only Villeneuve had those qualities,” Napoleon is reported to have observed.

It required all of Gravina’s diplomatic and leadership skills to re-establish some sort of harmony between the French and Spanish captains after Ferrol. In Cadiz, he had to restrain one Spanish captain from challenging a French admiral to a duel.

Finally, when Villeneuve departed Cadiz for Naples on 19-20 October, Gravina accompanied him with 15 Spanish ships, including 12 under Gravina’s direct command acting as a Corps of Observation. This group could act independently or join the main body as required.


Initially deployed at the head of the Allied line, Gravina’s formation found itself in the rear when Villeneuve suddenly reversed course in the early forenoon of the day of the Battle of Trafalgar. Gravina’s squadron therefore met the brunt of Collingwood’s attack around noon. In the Principe de Asturias he sometimes found himself fighting three British ships at a time.

With masts, sails and rigging shot through and through, Gravina himself was wounded badly in his left arm by grapeshot from Dreadnought about 1530. He collected ten ships about him and, with the battle clearly lost, headed back to Cadiz under tow.

Back in Cadiz, surgeons bickered whether to amputate his arm. Gangrene eventually set in and he died on 9 March the following year. “I am a dying man,” he said on his death bed. “But I die happy. I am going, I hope and trust, to join Nelson, the greatest hero the world perhaps has produced.”

Some British reports were equally gallant about Gravina. The Gibraltar Chronicle called him “the most distinguished officer in the (Spanish) navy.”

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