West Indies in the Revolution

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West Indies in the Revolution

WEST INDIES IN THE REVOLUTION. The West Indies were a major theater of the American Revolutionary War. This was because they were divided among the colonial powers of Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, all of whom were belligerents at some stage of the Revolutionary War. Furthermore, they were economically important as the principal market for the slave trade in the Americas and as the primary source of the sugar and rum consumed in Europe and America.

The six British colonies in the Caribbean—Jamaica; Grenada, which included Tobago; Barbados; the Leeward Islands; St. Vincent; and Dominica—did not ally themselves with the thirteen mainland colonies, even though they were tied closely to the rebel colonies by trade before the war. Their political systems, including elected assemblies, were similar to those of the mainland colonies, and their plantation systems shared much in common with the southern mainland colonies, especially South Carolina. Nevertheless, they did not unite in even a limited campaign of opposition to Britain or engage in a pamphlet war with Britain. They continued to affirm their belief in parliamentary sovereignty. Unlike Bermuda, they did not send delegates to the Continental Congress. It was only on the eve of the war that they made sympathetic gestures to the mainland cause, but this sudden change of tone was motivated primarily by their desire to prevent a war that was likely to have adverse economic consequences for the British West Indies. Their loyalty during the imperial crisis was based on their reliance upon the home government for defense owing to their greater vulnerability to slave revolts and foreign attack. In addition, they were economically dependent upon their monopoly of the sugar market in Britain. The white colonists on the islands were also more closely connected with the mother country; many of the elite returned to Britain for their education and even settled there as wealthy absentees.

From the outset, the Revolutionary War involved the West Indies. The islands became an essential channel of gunpowder and military supplies provided by the French and Dutch for the state militias and the Continental army. American privateers were also active in attempting to destroy Britain's lucrative trade with the Caribbean. The British islands did not initially face a threat of invasion, although privateers raided Nassau (New Providence) in the Bahamas in 1776 and twice attacked Tobago in 1777. The first foreign salute of the American flag occurred in the Caribbean in 1776 in the Danish island of St. Croix in October and by the Dutch Fort Orange at St. Eustatius, which saluted the flag flying from a ship of the Continental navy, the Andrew Doria, on 16 November. General Sir William Howe attempted with little success to obtain troops from Jamaica and supplies from Barbados. He did not receive the troops from Jamaica, where their embarkation coincided with a major slave revolt that an inquiry by the local assembly concluded to be inspired by the anticipated withdrawal of the troops. Howe received some food provisions from Barbados, but the island was on the verge of famine. In the Leeward Islands, which had previously relied on food imports from British North America, there were such shortages that an estimated one-fifth of the slave population died in Antigua. Agents of the Continental Congress and the state governments were dispersed throughout the French and Dutch islands, including William Bingham, who operated in Martinique. His mission was not only to procure supplies and to assist privateers but also to create incidents likely to provoke war between Britain and France.


The war in the West Indies was transformed by the entry into the war of France in 1778 and Spain in 1779. The islands became a major theater of the conflict and the relative strength of the respective navies became critical. The British navy was overstretched, with often fewer ships than islands in the eastern Caribbean. The navy had to provide convoys for merchants ships in both the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. It not only had to protect the home waters and to blockade the coast of North America, but also to defend British colonies in the Mediterranean, India, and the Caribbean along with slave trading posts on the west coast of Africa. The colonists in the British islands regarded the navy as their only means of defense and were inclined to submit to invasion rather than risk the destruction of their plantations. The reliance on the navy was greater still owing to the inadequacy of the size of the army garrisons. However, the earl of Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty, was primarily concerned with the defense of Britain. His strategy was largely reactive, with British fleets countering their opponents by shadowing and pursuing enemy fleets. His caution was due to the uncertainty about whether the destination of the enemy fleets was the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic, the North Sea, the Mediterranean, or the English Channel. The danger of this policy was that a superior enemy fleet might gain naval superiority for sufficient time to inflict a major blow before the arrival of the pursuing British fleet.

The climate and wind directions also presented particular problems for strategy in the West Indies. The fleets were unsafe in the islands during the hurricane months from the beginning of August to early November. It was therefore customary to leave only a minimal presence during the hurricane season. The trade winds blew from east to west for much of the year, which had the effect of dividing the small islands of the eastern Caribbean, known as the Lesser Antilles, which included the Leeward and Windward Islands, from the large islands to the west, the Greater Antilles, which included Cuba, Puerto Rico, St. Domingue (Haiti), Santo Domingo, and Jamaica. A ship could sail from Barbados to Jamaica in about a week, but the return journey against adverse winds might take as long as a voyage across the Atlantic. The possession of the most easterly islands was therefore particularly desirable. The primary naval bases of Britain and France were in the Lesser Antilles, at English Harbour in Antigua and Fort Royal in Martinique.

France was more concerned with strategic objectives in the Caribbean than in North America. On the outbreak of war with Britain in 1778, it seized the initiative in the Caribbean, where the marquis de Bouillé, the governor of Martinique, conquered Dominica in September. The small local defense force was easily overwhelmed by an invasion army of two thousand. There were no casualties on either side. The French conquered the island before news of the expedition reached the British admiral in the eastern Caribbean, who was unable to come to the rescue because of orders to remain in Barbados, where he was to join a secret expedition for the conquest of St. Lucia. The fall of Dominica enabled the French to consolidate their own colonial possessions and to divide the British islands in the eastern Caribbean. The British, however, more than compensated themselves for this loss by capturing St. Lucia.

Britain persisted in the war for America partly in the belief that the loss of the thirteen colonies might be followed by the loss of the British West Indies. George III regarded the possession of the island colonies as essential for generating the wealth to wage the war and to preserve national greatness. There was even discussion within the cabinet of withdrawing from America to launch an offensive war in the Caribbean. The strategic importance of the islands explains why the British temporarily subordinated military activities in North America for objectives in the West Indies in 1778. The government withdrew five thousand troops from New York for the conquest of St. Lucia, a strategic priority given its fine harbor at Gros Islet Bay, which enabled the British navy to observe the movements of the French navy around the neighboring island of Martinique. However, the divisions within the government about strategic priorities and the fatal delays in mounting the expedition allowed France to take Dominica before the arrival of the expedition from New York.


The war in the Caribbean gradually deteriorated for the British during 1779. In the summer, France again seized the initiative in the West Indies. On 18 June, St. Vincent surrendered without a shot fired to Admiral Charles D'Estaing and four hundred troops under the chevalier du Romain. There was not a single British artillery officer on the island nor anyone else with knowledge of artillery. There was virtually no gunpowder or provisions in the islands. The French landed less than two miles from Kingston, where there were forty-four British soldiers and the governor was only able to assemble an additional thirty-five militiamen. Less than a month later on 4 July, the French seized Grenada, the largest sugar producer after Jamaica in the British West Indies. Governor Lord Macartney attempted to defend the island with a force of only 150 regulars and 300 militia against 3,000 French troops. The predominantly French free black and free colored population hastened his surrender by deserting the garrison.

The British loss of St. Vincent and Grenada illustrated the problems facing the Royal Navy in the Caribbean. Vice Admiral John Byron had to leave Barbados and St. Lucia twice in a month to go to the defense of St. Kitts, which was under apprehension of an attack by the French Admiral D'Estaing. It was while he was escorting the homeward-bound convoy from St. Kitts that D'Estaing attacked St. Vincent and Grenada. Byron was unable to reach Grenada until two days after the surrender. The French, in the meantime, had gained naval supremacy with reinforcements from Commodore la Motte-Picquet in June. Off Grenada, the inferior fleet of Byron fought an indecisive sea battle against D'Estaing's fleet and then returned to St. Kitts with 183 killed and 340 wounded, as well as considerable damage to masts and rigging. The condition of the British fleet left the way open for D'Estaing to attack the remaining British colonies in the Caribbean. The latter were under constant apprehension of an invasion throughout the rest of the summer. In September, the importance of the islands to Britain was demonstrated by the willingness of Sir Henry Clinton to send Lord Cornwallis and four thousand troops to the defense of Jamaica in response to an invasion scare. The expedition was called off when the alarm proved false; D'Estaing intended instead to retake Georgia.


The entry of Spain into the war further expanded British operations in the Caribbean in 1779. There were informal British settlements along the coasts of Nicaragua and the Gulf of Honduras. In retaliation for a raid by the Spanish, the British seized the port of Omoa in the Gulf of Honduras. The success of the assault, which included the capture of large amounts of bullion, emboldened more ambitious plans that were attempted in 1780. The object was no less than to divide the Spanish Empire in the Americas and to open commercial routes with the Pacific by an expedition along the San Juan River through Lake Nicaragua to Grenada andLeón. The plan was conceived by the governor of Jamaica, Major General John Dalling. On 3 February 1780 a force of four hundred regulars under Captain Polson sailed from Jamaica. They were accompanied by HMS Hinchinbrook, commanded by Captain Horatio Nelson, the future victor of Trafalgar. The enterprise proved a fiasco. It succeeded in the capture of Fort St. Juan but failed to reach the lake and was called off in May. The fort was subsequently evacuated and partly demolished on 4 January 1781.


The French were less successful in 1780. In the last week of March, Admiral De Guichen arrived at Martinique with large reinforcements to take command of French forces in the West Indies. The British, meanwhile, had appointed Major General John Vaughan to be commander in chief in the Leeward Islands. A veteran of campaigns in America, he arrived in Barbados on 14 February. De Guichen attempted to attack St. Lucia with twenty-one ships of the line, but Sir Hyde Parker's sixteen ships and Vaughan's defenses forced him to abandon the attempt and return to Martinique. On 17 April, Admiral Sir George Rodney fought an indecisive naval battle with twenty ships of the line against De Guichen's superior French fleet of twenty-three. Although outnumbered, he regarded the battle as a great missed opportunity to defeat the French. He variously blamed some of his captains for failing to follow his orders during the battle and the Dutch at St. Eustatius who refitted the French fleet but refused the British. Rodney confronted De Guichen again with similarly inconclusive exchanges between the two fleets during 15-20 May. After De Guichen sailed for Europe, Rodney left for New York.

Rodney returned to St. Lucia in December. On the 16th he sailed for St. Vincent with a force of soldiers under Vaughan, but the French defenses were found to be too strong for any prospect of a successful attack. On 27 January 1781, Rodney and Vaughan received orders for the immediate capture of St. Eustatius; they carried out the attack before the inhabitants were even aware of the outbreak of war between Britain and the Netherlands. The war was partly motivated by British anger at the assistance given by the Dutch to the rebel cause in America through St. Eustatius. On 3 February 1781, St. Eustatius surrendered unconditionally to the combined British forces. The island was incapable of resistance, with a garrison of less than sixty men and a single frigate against fifteen British warships and three thousand troops. The British proceeded to capture most of the remaining Dutch territories in the Caribbean, including the islands of St. Martin and Saba, and the South American colonies of Demerara and Essequibo (Guyana). They also took French St. Bartholomew.

The British successes in the Caribbean were short lived. Rodney failed to mount any more offensives but instead spent weeks presiding over the indiscriminate plunder of St. Eustatius. He treated all the inhabitants, who included some British subjects, as smugglers, pirates, and traitors and therefore denied them the usual protection of their private property according to the laws of war. The episode caused an outcry, led in Parliament by Edmund Burke. In the meantime, Rodney delegated the task of intercepting the arrival of the French fleet of Admiral De Grasse to Admiral Sir Samuel Hood off Martinique. De Grasse, the new French commander in chief, avoided the British fleet and sailed his ships into Fort Royal on 29 April, where they joined four other ships that the British had blockaded at Martinique. On the night of the 10 May, the French again attempted St. Lucia but reembarked after finding it too well defended. A few days later, De Grasse sent a small squadron and twelve hundred troops to Tobago; they landed unopposed on the 23rd and forced its surrender on 2 June. Rodney appeared two days later but was unable to reverse the victory. De Grasse avoided a naval engagement and sailed via St. Domingue to play a critical role at the Battle of Yorktown.


The British defeat at Yorktown in October 1781 marked an escalation of the war in the Caribbean, leaving the French to resume the offensive. France and Spain planned to attack Jamaica. While awaiting the return of De Grasse from Virginia, the marquis de Bouillé seized the opportunity to recapture the British-occupied Dutch islands of St. Martin and Saba. On 15 November he also recaptured St. Eustatius from the British. Unable to land his 2,000 troops owing to a heavy surf, he made a bold surprise attack with only 300 men against a garrison of 723 troops under Colonel Cockburn and captured prizes of two million livres, including pay for the British army in North America. In the meantime, De Grasse had declined the request of George Washington that he and the French fleet remain in North America and assist in an attack on Charleston. He had already overstayed his orders to return to the Caribbean with the object of a combined attack with the Spanish fleet against Jamaica. De Grasse reached Martinique the day after De Bouillé's capture of St. Eustatius. While waiting for reinforcements and the juncture of the Spanish fleet, he made several attempts on British islands in the Lesser Antilles, but bad weather foiled his designs on Barbados and a determined defense twice repulsed his efforts to take St. Lucia. Accompanied by the same victorious French army and commanders that had served at Yorktown, De Grasse landed at St. Kitts on 11 January 1782, but he faced a determined opposition from the garrison of Brimstone Hill and did not secure the surrender of the island until 11 February. The fall of St. Kitts was quickly followed by Nevis and Montserrat and then Demerara and Essequibo.

The Caribbean became the main theater of military operations in the final year of the war. Hood's fleet was reinforced by Rodney on the 25th, preceding the departure of De Grasse from Martinique for St. Domingue, where he planned to join the Spanish fleet and to embark French troops for the invasion of Jamaica. With additional reinforcements, Rodney enjoyed naval superiority with thirty-seven ships of the line against De Grasse's thirty-three effective sail of the line and two fifty-gun ships. On 12 April 1782, in a passage of islands between Dominica and Guadeloupe called the Saintes, he encountered Rodney and the British fleet in what proved to be one of the most decisive British naval victories before Trafalgar. During the Battle of the Saintes, Rodney captured the French flagship, the Ville de Paris, together with Admiral de Grasse and four ships carrying the siege artillery intended for Jamaica.

Rodney consequently became one of the few heroes of the Revolutionary War, although there was some criticism of his failure to continue the pursuit of the French fleet after the battle. The victory did not allay fears of an Franco-Spanish invasion of Jamaica. While Rodney sailed for Jamaica in May, a Spanish force captured the Bahamas. The British, therefore, continued to prepare for the continuation of the war and even sent orders to Guy Carleton, the commander in chief in America, to move to the Caribbean. Nevertheless, the only significant action was the recapture of Honduras by the British in October. The peace preliminaries in Europe ended the military preparations for new campaigns in the Caribbean. Rodney's victory helped Britain obtain generous terms from France and Spain at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The British had lost seven islands and made only one conquest, but they were forced by the terms of the peace to cede only Tobago and St. Lucia to France and the coastal settlements along the shore of Nicaragua to Spain.


The war in the Caribbean was inextricably linked with the war in North America. Rodney and Clinton had even suggested a supreme commander in chief for both the Caribbean and North America. Many British officers who served in North America also served in the Caribbean, including Colonel Archibald Campbell, Major John Dalrymple, Colonel William Dalrymple, Major General George Garth, Major General James Grant, Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Kemble, Major General Alexander Leslie, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Musgrave, Major General Charles O'Hara, Lord Charles Montagu, Major General Edward Mathew, Major General Robert Prescott, Major General Augustine Prevost, and Major General John Vaughan.

The defense of the West Indies contributed to the British defeat in North America. Britain had to deploy resources in the former that might otherwise have served in the latter. These included naval convoys to protect merchant ships against privateers and enemy fleets. In 1778 Sir Henry Clinton withdrew from Philadelphia to free five thousand troops for the conquest of St. Lucia, together with an additional three thousand troops for service in Florida and Canada. Clinton resented their loss, particularly because the German mercenary regiments were debarred by their contracts from serving in the Caribbean, which forced him to send British regiments that he regarded as much superior. Clinton was promised the return of the troops from the Caribbean, and he later blamed their absence for his subsequent failure to aggressively engage the Continental army. Historians have long criticized Lord George Germain or the commanding officers in the Caribbean for the dispersion of these troops throughout the Leeward Islands, but the British had little choice, since the islands had insufficient garrisons to withstand attacks and the cabinet was under constant political pressure for better protection from the opposition parties and the powerful West India lobby in London.

The troops that served on other campaigns in the West Indies might similarly have reinforced Clinton. Furthermore, the British regiments in the islands had to be continually replenished owing to the high mortality rates due primarily to malaria. During the American War, 11 percent of the troops died on the voyage to the Caribbean. The annual mortality rate of soldiers in the Caribbean was 15 percent, compared to 6 percent for those stationed in New York and 1 percent in Canada. Without a single short being fired, the British lost 3,500 troops in three and one-half years in Jamaica. Of the 1,008 men of the Seventy-eighth Regiment stationed at Kingston in 1779, only 18 were still alive in 1783. Of 7,000 troops sent to Jamaica, only 2,000 were fit for duty in April 1782.

Rodney's failure to intercept the arrival of De Grasse's fleet at Martinique before the Battle of Yorktown had the greatest strategic implications for the British war in America. Sir Henry Clinton and Lord Cornwallis were led to expect by the ministry in London that Rodney would either check De Grasse in the Caribbean or follow him to North America. Rodney instead spent three months presiding over the sale of goods at St. Eustatius and left Hood to prevent De Grasse's entry into Martinique. Hood argued with Rodney about his orders for positioning the British fleet outside Martinique, orders that he believed were motivated by Rodney's greater interest in protecting prize convoys from St. Eustatius to Britain than in inhibiting the movements of De Grasse. Rodney compounded the failure by not following De Grasse to America, which again delegated the responsibility of the pursuit to Hood. Rodney instead pleaded ill-health and returned to England, where his first priority was to defend himself in Parliament against critics like Edmund Burke, who were demanding an inquiry into his behavior at St. Eustatius. His departure contributed to the numerical inferiority of the British fleet at the Battle of the Virginia Capes (in the Chesapeake), which sealed the fate of Cornwallis. His absence also deprived the navy of the most brilliant and the most senior British naval commander in the Americas.

SEE ALSO Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, Comte d'; French Alliance; Grasse, François Joseph Paul, Comte de; Jamaica (West Indies); Naval Operations, French; Nicaragua; Rodney, George Bridges; Spanish Participation in the American Revolution; St. Eustatius; St. Kitts, Captured by the French; St. Lucia, Captured by the British; Vaughan, John.


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             revised by Andrew Jackson O'Shaughnessy

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