On 1 February 1793, France declared war on Britain and Holland, signalling the start of a struggle of global dimensions which was to last almost twenty-five years. In 1796, the French invaded the north of Italy, and Spain made an alliance with the French republic. Nelson, at this time, had already been involved in important British actions against the French, at Corsica (where a shot had struck the gravel bank where he stood, driving debris into his right eye and destroying his sight in that eye, and in frustrating French movement and trade in the Gulf of Genoa. The Battle of Cape St. Vincent, fought on 14 February 1797, against the Spanish fleet was to show him as a man of quite exceptional ability and tactical brilliance.
At a certain point in the battle, the English line had cut the Spanish fleet into two parts. Nelson, who was commanding the rear in the Captain, observed that the Spanish leading ships were bearing up so as to pass astern of the English line and regroup. He set the course of the Captain to obstruct their progress and engaged the largest ship then afloat, the Spanish flagship Santisima Trinidad, providing a delay which enabled other English ships to come up in support. The Captain suffered many losses in the engagement and Nelson, finding her unmanageable, laid her alongside the San Nicholas which he carried by boarding. The San Nicholas had itself fallen on the San Josef and Nelson therefore boarded the San Josef and took her surrender.
This picture shows the captain of the San Josef presenting his sword to Nelson on the quarter-deck (the Admiral of the ship was below, mortally wounded). Nelson afterwards wrote of the occasion,
'I desired him to call to his first officers, and on the quarter-deck of a Spanish first-rate, extravagant as the story may seem, did I receive the swords of vanquished Spaniards, which, as I received, I gave to one my bargemen, who put them with the greatest sang-froid under his arm.'
When the fighting was over, he boarded the Victory, where the Admiral of the British Fleet, Sir John Jervis, gratefully embraced him. In recognition of his conduct he was made a Knight Companion of the Bath and was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral.