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Philemon Pownoll by Joshua Reynolds. Painted soon after the battle

Action of 31 May 1762
Part of the Anglo-Spanish War (1762–63)
Date31 May 1762
Locationoff Cadiz, Spain
Result British victory[1]
 Kingdom of Great Britain Spain Spain
Commanders and leaders
Herbert Sawyer
Philemon Pownoll
1 frigate
1 Sloop
1 Frigate
Casualties and losses
Light 1 frigate captured

The Action of 31 May 1762 was a minor naval engagement that took place off Cadiz between a British Royal Naval frigate and a sloop against a Spanish frigate during the recently declared Anglo-Spanish War (1762–63). The British were victorious when the Spanish ship surrendered and subsequently found a large haul of gold and silver which would lead to the greatest amount of prize money awarded.[2]

The war with Spain was only four months old and the Royal Navy had sent a blockading force to the Spanish coast partly to stop any reinforcements to the Caribbean with Havana under British siege and to halt any operations towards Gibraltar and the Mediterranean.[1]

On 15 May 1762 Captain Herbert Sawyer's frigate, the twenty eight gun HMS Active was sailing in company with the eighteen gun sloop Favourite under Philemon Pownoll off the coast of Spain near the port of Cadiz. A twenty six gun Spanish frigate Hermione was soon sighted and chased down.[3]

Hermione, had sailed from Lima on 6 January and was bound for Cadiz with a valuable cargo of bags of dollars, gold coin, ingots of gold and silver, cocoa, and blocks of tin.[3][4] The British vessels caught up and came up beside the Herminone and soon fired a few rounds. The Spanish replied with a broadside and then both Active and Favourite let lose a combined broadside. The damage was enough as casualties soon rose and the ship only had the mizzen mast standing. Realizing he was outnumbered and outgunned the Spanish captain struck her colors and the British soon took possession, only now did they realize this was no ordinary frigate as the riches on board were soon discovered.[1][2] The Hermione was taken into Gibraltar and eventually condemned as a prize, with her contents, hull, and fittings valued at £519,705 10s. 0d., approximately £69.3 million at today's prices.[5] Pownoll and Sawyer each received captain's shares of the prize money of £64,872, approximately £8.65 million at today's prices[5] The ordinary seamen received £480 each, equivalent to thirty years wages.[2] Sawyer and Pownoll now suddenly extremely wealthy had received about £65,000 apiece; Pownoll used his money to buy the Sharpham estate at Ashprington, and to build a large house there designed by Robert Taylor and with gardens designed by Capability Brown.[2][3] It was about this time that he commissioned a portrait from Sir Joshua Reynolds.[2]

It was at the time and still is a record; amounting to one of the largest individual sums obtained in the period.[3][6]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Allen p. 221
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Bradt. Slow Devon & Exmoor. p. 144. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Herbert Sawyer at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "ODNB" defined multiple times with different content
  4. The London Magazine. p. 396. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 UK CPI inflation numbers based on data available from Gregory Clark (2013), "What Were the British Earnings and Prices Then? (New Series)" MeasuringWorth.
  6. "Nelson and His Navy - Prize Money". The Historical Maritime Society. Retrieved 2008-08-04. 


  • Clowes, William Laird. (2003). The Royal Navy: v. 3: A History - From the Earliest Times to 1900. Chatham Publishing. ISBN 978-1861760128. 
  • Allen, Joseph (1852). Battles of the British Navy, Volume 1. Bohn's illustrated library. ASIN B009ZMMQ56. 

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