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West Indies 1793-1798

The Campaigns in The West Indies (1793-1798)

The situation was little better in the West Indies. As soon as war declared in February 1793, local British forces succeeded in seizing the island of Tobago, occupied by the French since 1781 and landed on Saint-Domingue, but attempts to exploit the royalist-republican split among French colonists on Martinique failed. This meant that if the traditional strategy of colonial campaigning was to be followed, an expeditionary force would have to be despatched from England, ideally to arrive in the Caribbean in November, before the onset of the ‘sickly season’. Henry Dundas, as secretary of State for Home and Colonies was responsible for organising such a force, but he was overworked and the relevant orders were delayed.

the capture of fort saint louis, martinique
The Capture of Fort Saint Louis, Martinique, 20th March 1794 – painting by William Anderson

In addition, it proved difficult to put the force together quickly, partly because of a shortage of troops in Britain and partly because of the demand for units to fight in Flanders, at Toulon and on board the fleet as marines. As a result, when the force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Grey, finally set sail on 26th November it was eight weeks behind schedule and comprised only of 7,000 men, about half the number originally envisaged. The transports carrying the troops did not arrive in Barbados until early January 1794, leaving little time in which to mount a campaign.

In the event, Grey did achieve results. By 25th March he had seized Martinique at a cost of fewer than 100 men killed; on 4th April he accepted the surrender of St Lucia and on the 22nd the same month he defeated a French garrison on Guadeloupe, the capitulation of which also included the smaller islands of Marie-Galante and Desiderada. But he was incapable of going further. No more reinforcements were available from Britain and the troops he already had were suffering badly from yellow fever. Thus, when the French attacked Grande Terre (the eastern half of Guadeloupe) in June 1794, the British garrison was down to 13 officers and 174 men fit for service, incapable of doing a great deal to prevent defeat. Even when Grey managed to reinforce his remaining foothold on Basse Terre (the western half of the island), mounting a counter-attack on Grande Terre on 1st July, it was obvious that his soldiers had lost there edge. Repulsed by the French, the British suffered 543 casualties for no appreciable gain; the men were, in Grey’s own words, ‘quite exhausted by the unparalleled services of fatigue and fire they had gone through, for such a length of time, in the worst climate’.

As the sickly season progressed, the combination of torrential rain and oppressive heat took his toll. By 1st September, for example the garrison at Basse Terre had only 470 men fit for duty out of a nominal roll of 2,249, while by the end of the year, of the 4,000 men who had landed on Saint-Domingue, fewer than 1,800 were still alive. Nor were reinforcements easy to find, for although Henry Dundas (by now Secretary of State for War) did gather about 4,400 extra troops in England, chiefly by robbing York in Flanders, they did not set sail for the West Indies for until 22nd October 1794. By then, the remnants of the British garrison on Guadeloupe were close to surrender, and Saint-Domingue was under threat. To make matters worse, the troop reinforcements were delayed by gales. Lieutenant-General Sir John Vaughan, who replaced Grey when the latter returned to England in the late 1794, had no choice but to assume the defensive.

The campaign had gone from success to stalemate in a very short time, because the Army was being asked to do too much, not merely in the Caribbean but world-wide. In early 1795 a number of British possessions in the West Indies, taken the French during the Seven Years War and still containing substantial French-speaking populations, rose in revolt. By March Vaughan was having to deal with insurrections in Grenada and St Vincent, in June the island of St Lucia had to be abandoned and two months later a separate revolt, this time involving freed slaves known as ‘Maroons’, broke out in Jamaica. Each required an extra commitment of troops making any renewed Caribbean offensive unthinkable, part as reinforcements from England were being delayed and disease was still rampant.

Dundas response was to organise the largest expedition mounted to date from the shores of Britain (a total of more than 30,000 men under the command of Major-General Sir Ralph Abercromby) with the aim of recovering St Lucia and Guadeloupe and seizing the whole of St Domingo (comprising French Saint-Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo, recently ceded to France). His main problem was one of manpower, but with the Flanders expedition over and a poor harvest in 1794 producing distress throughout the country, recruits were being raised. In addition, German and Swiss mercenaries could be hired to make up the numbers. By September 1795, 23 battalions of British infantry had been assembled at Southampton and Cork., but difficulties in providing the necessary shipping caused delays, although some of the transports set sail in October, others were still being prepared in January 1796. Even so, it was an impressive achievement and one that promised success.

This was not to be realised easily. Severe gales disrupted the first troop convoys in November 1795 and again in January/February 1796, with some of the ships returning to port and others battling through to the Caribbean. Abercromby himself did not reach Barbados until 21st April. By then, the garrisons on St Vincent and Grenada urgently needed reinforcement and the Dutch possessions of Demerara and Essequibo were demanding protection now that the French were occupying Holland. Abercromby had therefore to divert part of his force, although this did not prevent him from mounting an attack on St Lucia, taken after heavy fighting on 26th May.

In 1797, one more Caribbean expedition was mounted. In February Abercromby took the Spanish colony of Trinidad, but three months later he was forced to abandon an attack on Puerto Rico. By then, disease and enemy action had added another 6,000 to the death list and Britain had no more soldiers to give. Despite the relative success in the West Indies, denying her enemies the wealth and trade of the region, the campaign as a whole had been poorly managed and exceptionally costly. More to the point, it had done nothing to prevent French advances in Europe, for although small incursions had been made onto the continent, notably at Quiberon in September/October 1795, they achieved little leaving Pitt to face the fact that however effective colonial campaigns might be, it was in Europe that the fight against Revolutionary France had to be conducted. If the Army was ever to contribute to that fight, it would have to be virtually rebuilt and on the evidence of expeditions to Flanders and the Caribbean, made significantly more efficient. The British pattern of fighting the first battles of a war with an outmoded and obsolete army, requiring reform after inevitable early defeats was being repeated.

Published by on 25th September 2020
Last updated on 25th September 2020