Sir Horatio Nelson Wounded at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife
24 July 1797
Upon hearing reports that Spanish treasure conveys frequently stopped at the port city of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in the Canary Islands, in July 1797, Admiral John Jervis dispatched a small squadron under recently promoted Rear Admiral Horatio Nelson with the aim of seizing Santa Cruz by means of an amphibious attack. When the expedition arrived in the vicinity of Santa Cruz on 17 July, it numbered 400 guns and nearly 4,000 men.
After the initial landing plans failed on 23 July, Nelson Nelson called his captains on board Theseus and explained how he himself would lead the next move ahead of a boat group followed by five more boats. On the night of 24 July 1797, Nelson led what they hoped would be a surprise amphibious landing. However, the Spanish lookout sounded the alarm when the British troops drew close to land, and the disembarking soldiers were met by a heavy barrage of cannon fire. British forces led by Captain Bowen rushed the battery covering the harbour, captured it and spiked its guns. They began to pursue the fleeing Spanish into the town, but were swept by a hail of grapeshot. Bowen, his first lieutenant and several of his men were killed, while Nelson, who was just landing from his boat, was hit in the right arm.
Nelson was bleeding copiously and his stepson, Lieutenant Nisbet, cut a piece of his own neck handkerchief and tied it tightly around Nelson’s arm to stop the bleeding. The admiral refused to use the frigate Seahorse that was stationed close by, to be taken back to his flagship, as it would imply that Captain Fremantle would have to hoist a flag of distress and thereby demoralise the crews. Instead, the sailors of his boat rowed hard back to the Theseus. The surgeon had been warned of the contingency and got his instruments ready. Nelson was cited as saying, as he pointed to his right arm “Doctor, I want to get rid of this useless piece of flesh here”. Nelson’s operation was quick and aseptic. The limb was thrown over board, despite the admiral’s wish to keep it.
In the end, having sustained heavy losses, Nelson was forced to withdraw from Tenerife and sail back to England with a demoralised force.