Bringing the past to present times

West Indies Campaign 1793-1798

Britain fought for French and Spanish territories in the West Indies Campaign, biggest killer to the British was disease from the islands.

The West Indies Campaign began during February 1793. Local British forces succeeded in seizing the island of Tobago. The island had been occupied by the French since 1781. They also 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 were to be followed. An expeditionary force would become 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. He had become 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. Also partly because of the demand for units to fight in Flanders, and Toulon.

26th November 1793, The West Indies Campaign force, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Charles Grey, finally set sail on. 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. This left little time in which to mount the West Indies Campaign. In the event, Lieutenant-General Grey did achieve results. By 25th March 1794, he had seized Martinique at a cost of fewer than 100 men killed.

4th April 1794, Lieutenant-General Grey accepted the surrender of St Lucia. 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.

When Lieutenant-General Grey managed to reinforce his remaining foothold on Basse Terre (the western half of the island). He mounted a counter-attack on Grande Terre on 1st July 1794. 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 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 1794, the garrison at Basse Terre had only 470 men fit for duty out of a nominal roll of 2,249. By the end of the year, the 4,000 men who had landed on Saint-Domingue, fewer than 1,800 were still alive.

Reinforcements were not easy to find, 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.

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 became delayed by gales.

Lieutenant-General Sir John Vaughan, who replaced Lieutenant-General Grey when the latter returned to England in the late 1794, had no choice but to assume the defensive.

The West Indies Campaign had gone from success to stalemate in a very short time. The Army became 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 1795, Lieutenant-General Vaughan was having to deal with insurrections in Grenada and St Vincent. In June 1795, the island of St Lucia had become abandoned. 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. The reinforcements from England became 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 had the aim of recovering St. Lucia and Guadeloupe and seizing the whole of St. Domingo. Also comprising French Saint-Domingue and Spanish Santo Domingo, recently ceded to France.

His main problem was one of manpower. With the Flanders expedition over, and a poor harvest in 1794 producing distress throughout the country, recruits became raised. In addition, German and Swiss mercenaries could be hired to make up the numbers.

By September 1795, 23 battalions of British infantry had become assembled at Southampton and Cork. 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.

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

In 1797, one more Caribbean expedition had become mounted. In February Major-General Abercromby took the Spanish colony of Trinidad. Three months later he became forced to abandon an attack on Puerto Rico. 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 West Indies Campaign as a whole had become poorly managed and exceptionally costly. It had done nothing to prevent French advances in Europe.

Although small incursions had been made onto the continent, notably at Quiberon in September/October 1795. They achieved little leaving the Prime Minister William 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. On the evidence of the 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.



By , last updated: 4th January 2021