American Revolutionary Naval History II


Combat de la Dominique, 17 Avril 1780, by Auguste Louis de Rossel de Cercy (1736–1804)

Planters demanded more soldiers and sailors to repel enemy invasion and suppress maroons. But the empire struggled to sustain a large force of Britons on islands where malaria and yellow fever killed so many newcomers. The 15 percent annual loss of troops to disease in the West Indies exceeded the 6 percent of those serving in New York or the 1 percent in Canada. In Jamaica, one regiment had 1,008 men in 1778 but only 18 survivors in 1783.

Convinced that black people were less vulnerable to tropical diseases, imperial officers proposed recruiting free blacks or slaves (with the promise of freedom) to bolster depleted garrisons. The proposal appalled planters, who wanted only white men as reinforcements because black military service threatened to discredit the myth of white racial superiority that justified slavery. In 1778, the governor of Jamaica organized a black regiment but had to disband it after fierce protests from the West Indian lobby, which insisted that it was “a policy . . . promising relief for the present but pregnant with future evils.” Masters did tolerate conscription of their slaves to build and repair fortifications, so long as they carried no arms and remained enslaved.

The French and Spanish could sustain larger forces in the Caribbean in part because they more readily enlisted and armed free blacks. These empires also had more free blacks to recruit because the Catholic church and their laws encouraged manumissions. A quarter of the blacks in Spanish America were free, compared to less than a twentieth in the British West Indies. More pragmatic in tincturing their racism, the Spanish and French recognized that an armed and intermediary caste of free blacks tended to secure, rather than imperil, the slave system. Struggling to defend their islands, Britons paid a premium to cling to especially rigid racial prejudices.

Despite the pressures and losses of war, British West Indians remained loyal to the empire unlike their North American counterparts. The Barbadian legislature regretted “the delusion of those unhappy people, who have been seduced to exchange their former unbounded happiness for . . . a ruinous state of anarchy and confusion.” West Indian theater performances concluded with rousing sing-alongs to the imperial anthem “Rule Britannia.” West Indian legislatures voted generous subsidies for the military despite the pain of raising taxes during the economic woes of war. British planters expected their mighty empire eventually to triumph yet again. They also hated the French and despised the Spanish, so their entry into the war heightened its stakes and clarified its issues to British West Indians.


In late 1779, George III favored sending more warships and troops to the West Indies, weakening the fleet defending the English Channel. Despite the danger at home, he declared, “We must risk something, otherwise we shall only vegetate in this war. I own I wish either to get through it with spirit, or with a crash be ruined.” In January 1780, the empire dispatched General Sir John Vaughan with 7,000 troops in transports for the West Indies: the largest reinforcement sent across the Atlantic since 1776.

The empire awarded the West Indian naval command to Sir George Rodney, an energetic but controversial admiral. Tall and lean, he had a prominent nose and angular cheeks. Although elegant, voluble, and sociable, he was also egotistical and opinionated, dwelling with delight on his favorite subject: the feats and plans of Sir George Rodney. Victorious during the Seven Years War, Rodney had been knighted and promoted to vice admiral. Elected to Parliament, he became a hard-liner on American issues, favoring taxes and coercion. His expensive tastes in gaming, women, food, drink, and electioneering embarrassed his foolhardy creditors. The admiral’s notoriety for playing fast and loose with public funds made Sandwich reluctant to give him the new command, but Rodney had a champion in Germain, who recognized that the empire needed a more aggressive naval commander in the Caribbean.

Rodney’s self-assurance inspired subordinates and intimidated enemy commanders. Although a stickler for naval discipline, Rodney also took pains to improve the diet and health of his sailors. Far fewer died on his watch than under previous commanders in the West Indies.

In May 1780, he attacked the Comte de Guichen and the French Caribbean fleet near Martinique. For once, Rodney’s luck failed as most of his captains were new to him and easily confused by faulty signals from his flagship. Both fleets suffered severe damage but neither captured any battleships. For the rest of 1780, the two evenly matched fleets (twenty-three battleships each) jockeyed for position and occasionally clashed without decisive consequences.

In December 1780, the British declared war on the Dutch to stop their profitable trade in munitions and naval stores with France and the French West Indies. Reacting quickly to the news, Rodney targeted the Dutch West Indian island of St. Eustatius for attack. Only five miles long by two-and-a-half miles wide, St. Eustatius produced little sugar, but the Dutch had made it a free port, attracting merchants and ships from throughout the Caribbean and Europe. Rodney complained that the little island had done “more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies, and alone supported the infamous American Rebellion.” He longed to plunder the well-stocked warehouses and many merchant ships in the island’s harbor. In early 1781, he attacked with fifteen warships and 3,000 troops. Defended by no warships and only sixty Dutch regulars, the surprised governor of St. Eustatius surrendered on February 3.30

Rather than sailing on to a new target, Rodney settled down for three months to ransack the island’s homes, warehouses, and ships. His men even dug up graves to search for treasure. By keeping the Dutch flag flying over the port during his occupation, Rodney enticed scores of unwary trading ships into his trap. He auctioned the loot to profiteering merchants, who obtained ships and cargoes at half their value. He estimated the returns as £2 million, from which he would reap a sixteenth as his prize share. Rodney hoped to retire his massive debts, buy a London mansion, and procure “the best harpsichord money can purchase.” A subordinate admiral described Rodney and his partner in plunder, General Vaughan, as “wickedly rapacious.” Indeed, they sold plunder to anyone who paid well, including bidders with French and American accents, so many captured munitions reached Britain’s enemies after all. Sadly for Rodney, French warships intercepted much of his own loot in transit back to England.

The long, slow sack of St. Eustatius immobilized Rodney’s fleet at a critical period in the war. He canceled plans to attack the Dutch colonies of Surinam and Curacao. His distraction also enabled a new French fleet of twenty-four battleships from Europe to slip into Martinique under the Comte de Grasse. Awarded naval superiority by Rodney’s negligence, the French seized the island of Tobago in early June. Two days too late, Rodney showed up and then withdrew without a fight, exhibiting uncharacteristic restraint. Evidently, Rodney wanted to live long enough to enjoy his new wealth.

Many of the plundered shipowners at St. Eustatius were British merchants, whom Rodney derided as smugglers and traitors who got what they deserved. Back in London, the merchants sued Rodney in the courts, and the opposition in Parliament launched an investigation of the admiral’s conduct. To defend his financial and political interests, Rodney sailed back to England, departing the Caribbean on August 1 during the fateful summer of 1781. He took away part of his fleet, leaving behind only fourteen serviceable battleships under the command of Sir Samuel Hood. Rodney’s abrupt departure compounded the damage wrought by his failure to intercept de Grasse, who proved unusually daring and resourceful for a French admiral.

In June, de Grasse received an alarming dispatch from the Chevalier de la Luzerne, the French ambassador to the United States. Luzerne worried that the British invasion of Virginia, under Lord Cornwallis, would complete the accelerating collapse of Patriot resolve and unity. Luzerne warned de Grasse, “It is you alone who can deliver the invaded states from that crisis which is so alarming that . . . for their existence it is necessary to do all you can.” The French admiral decided to sail north with his fleet to trap Cornwallis in Virginia. With hurricane season about to begin in the Caribbean, sailing north was also prudent.

To procure supplies and pay his crews, de Grasse got financial assistance from Cuba’s Spanish governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, and his deputy, Francisco de Saavedra. Although no Spanish warships joined de Grasse’s expedition, they assumed responsibility for defending the allies’ islands and shipping in his absence. This financial and naval support proved the most important aid that the Spanish gave to the Patriots during the war. Saavedra recognized that the allies “could not waste the most decisive opportunity in the whole war.” In the summer of 1781, the key French and Spanish officers acted decisively to rescue the faltering United States. In early August, de Grasse’s twenty-eight battle ships, supported by frigates, sailed from Cuba bound for the Chesapeake, bringing along 3,000 troops. That fleet included the largest warship in the Americas, his flagship the Ville de Paris, which mounted 110 guns.

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