In 1797 Admiral Nelson, commanding a fleet of eight men-o'war, launched a bungling, unsuccessful and ultimately embarrassing attack on Santa Cruz, that cost the lives of many of his men and, more famously, the admiral's right arm.
The assault on Santa Cruz was carried out after four years of war against Spain, with the intention of capturing New World gold from the galleon San José , currently sheltering in the town's harbour. Nelson based his battle plan on the successful capture of Caprina the previous September, and wrote that the planned assault "could not fail&[It will] immortalise the undertakers, ruin Spain and has every prospect of raising our country to a higher pitch of wealth than she has ever attained".
On June 22 a party was landed east of Santa Cruz, with the intention of encircling the town before battleships were moved into bombarding position. But the island's predictably unsettled local weather conditions, particularly strong winds and swirls known by local fishermen as "the white sheet", caused the attack to be slowed down, removing the element of surprise and causing panic and a mass exodus of the town's populace and administration to La Laguna.
Nevertheless, the landing party stuck to its plans and laboured up the loose rocky slopes of Jurada, mistakenly assuming this hill to be an extension of a ridge. Tired and frustrated, the men camped on top, positioning and firing their artillery at the town and its hastily assembled militia, both of which were out of range.
Despite the failure of his landing-party's mission, Nelson decided to continue with a full frontal attack. Under heavy cannon fire from the shore's 84 guns, the British landing force separated along the seafront in some disarray, unable to communicate with each other, or retaliate thanks to damp gunpowder. Many of Nelson's men were sucked into the town's dark alleys to be picked off by snipers, but the Admiral, never one to shrink from the action, was among the second wave of landing craft. He was about to land when he was struck by grapeshot on his right arm, shattering the bone and severing a major artery. By all accounts, Nelson bore this stoically, his first action being to switch his sword to his good hand, even before the life-saving tourniquet had been strapped to his arm.
Returning to his own ship, Nelson sent a message to the ship's surgeon to ready his instruments, knowing that he must lose his arm, and that the sooner it was off the better. Nevertheless, on arrival at the ship's surgery, Nelson is said to have insisted on waiting in line for treatment, rather than pulling rank on the other wounded. Within half an hour of the amputation, the admiral was up, giving orders and practising his left-handed signature for an ultimatum demanding the town give up the galleon. The letter would never be sent, however, since by daylight a boat returned from the shore informing him that all seven hundred English on shore had holed up in the Convent of Santo Domingo and decided to surrender on condition that they would be returned to their ships accompanied by "full military honours with beating of drums, flags and arms &". This Governor Don Antonio Gutiérrez of Santa Cruz granted, lending the attackers boats with which to return to their ships, having given treatment to their wounded.
In recognition of this honourable conduct, Nelson sent the Spaniard a gift of beer and cheese, a gesture which was returned by sending back a barrel of Malmsey wine. With only a dozen Spanish dead, over one hundred and fifty English killed, a further hundred wounded and his enterprise having failed, Nelson left the scene deeply regretful of his misjudgement and depressed that the whole affair and his own disablement might spell the end of his naval days