PITT AND THE WEST INDIES I

The mixture of science and mysticism in Swedenborg is an apt symbolisation of the Janus face of the eighteenth century in general. While philosophers like Berkeley, Kant and Hume raised epistemological issues that still baffle the world’s best minds today, ordinary people went to public executions, and the thief who stole an apple could be hanged at Tyburn Tree under England’s ‘Bloody Code’. Hume’s devastating Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion were so subversive of normal Christian belief that the great Scottish philosopher did not dare publish them in his lifetime. But meanwhile, in benighted areas of the world coming within the European orbit, primitive people worshipped sharks, crocodiles and snakes. These primitive beliefs were borne in on Europeans very forcibly in 1759 when France and Britain contended for mastery of the West Indies. Of the fifteen million slaves taken from West Africa to the New World in the eighteenth century, at the height of the slave trade, about 42 per cent went to the West Indies, and many of these (10,000–12,000 a year) were uplifted from the kingdom of Dahomey, whose great period was in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Along with the slaves Dahomey exported the dark pagan religion of voodoo or snake worship, which underwent various changes in the Caribbean and was in turn re-exported to French Louisiana. The island of Martinique, the cockpit for Anglo-French rivalry in the Caribbean, was second only to French-speaking Haiti as a centre for voodoo, to the point where in 1782 the Governor of New Orleans, alarmed at the arrival in North America of this new devil-cult, forbade the import of slaves from that island. His alarm was understandable. Voodoo involves snakes, animal sacrifice and the drinking of blood. In the classic voodoo ceremony, priests designated as a ‘king’ or ‘queen’ would open a box inside which was a snake. A boiling cauldron would then be prepared into which chickens, frogs, cats, snails and, always, the snake, would be thrown. A male dancer, representing ‘the Great Zombi’ (‘Le Grand Zombi’) would then officiate and all participants in the rite would drink from the cauldron, washing down the disgusting mixture with raw alcohol; the evening would then end in an orgy. The white rulers feared voodoo, not so much that black magic would actually be used against them but that voodoo could be used by troublemakers to ‘legitimate’ plots, slave revolts and revolution itself.

The West Indies were widely perceived as a prize supremely worth fighting for, since sugar was the biggest business of eighteenth-century colonial empires. In 1775 sugar made up one-fifth of all British imports and was worth five times Britain’s tobacco imports. What this meant was that to British ministerial minds, the West Indies was a more important area than North America and Britain’s great leader in 1759, William Pitt explicitly stated that he thought the French sugar island of Guadeloupe was worth more than the whole of Canada and that the West Indies were worth more than North America: ‘The state of the existing trade in the conquests of North America is extremely low; the speculations of their future are precarious, and the prospect, at the very best, very remote.’ He had a point, even though a limited and unimaginative one – since even at the time of the Boston Tea Party in 1773 the value of British imports from Jamaica was five times greater than from all the American colonies. The island of Nevis on its own produced three times more British imports than New York in the years 1714–73, and Antigua three times more than New England. But trade between North America and the West Indies was equally important to the white plantocracy in the islands; whether we are talking of the Dutch in the seventeenth century or the British and French in the eighteenth, North America and the Caribbean had complementary economies, with each depending on the other. The French supplied the Antilles from Louisbourg and vice versa, and for the British the trade fulcrum was New York, which supplied the British West Indies with food and allowed the islands to devote more land to their cash crops. New York’s shipping took beef, lamb, pork, wheat, rye, corn, bread, butter, cheese, apples, peas, onions and pickled oysters to the islands and returned with sugar, molasses, hides, lumber and silver together with bills of exchange (credit notes) that enabled New York’s merchants to buy manufactured goods from Britain. New York also participated in the triangular slave trade, joining ships from Bristol and Liverpool on the West African coast, where they traded rum and manufactures for slaves to be sold in the West Indies.

The French slave trade was carried on from its Atlantic ports but by 1759 the position of the islands in the French Antilles was not nearly so favourable as its British-controlled counterparts in the Caribbean. The French Antilles trade concentrated on white sugar, indigo, cotton and coffee, with brown sugar very much a poor relation; but Martinique, the jewel of the French West Indies, suffered badly during the early period of the Seven Years War, both because of the British blockade (particularly effective in 1758 under Admiral Sir John Moore) and because of lack of shipping in which to export its crops. There was scant sympathy in Versailles for the plight of the Antilles. Navy Minister Machault told the islands in 1756 that Louis XV would not protect their ships by the old convoy system as he had better uses for His Majesty’s warships, but would simply station squadrons at landfalls, to protect the entry and departure of shipping. In 1759 Minister Berryer stopped payment on all colonial bills of exchange, thus drying up the credit of the Antilles. He recommended that the islands seek their salvation through neutral shipping; unlike his predecessors Maurepas, Machault and Moras, he thought that not enough neutrals were admitted to the islands; they had all thought too many were. There was considerable disillusionment in the French islands by early 1759 and William Pitt thought he saw an opportunity to capitalise on their lack of morale.

William Pitt, Prime Minister in all but name, was one of Britain’s greatest assets in the Seven Years War. Although his arrogance and aloofness could alienate even close friends (or at any rate those who thought themselves friends), as a politician he possessed a formidable arsenal of weapons. He was cynical and ruthless: the original ‘desiccated calculating machine’, he only ever did anything out of political considerations. He was the perfect Machiavellian, in that he understood that in politics one must ‘look like the innocent flower but be the serpent under’t’. He would never lift a finger to help even those supposedly close to him if it did not serve his political ends, but he was a great hand at feigning concern and pretending to help. He had many of the attributes of a natural actor, with an imposing physical presence and a powerful voice: his bell-throated oratory was said to have been second only to Danton in the entire eighteenth century. Always the most histrionic of statesmen, he gave himself theatrical airs, could pose and preen like the most hammy thespian and was even said to flash stage lightning from his eyes. His command of actorly gestures was complete, from the raised and supercilious eyebrow to the dismissive wave of the hand. He had the vanity and narcissism of the great actor-managers. But, like the famous French Marshal Villars, who boasted that he could fight the Duke of Marlborough to a standstill, was universally disbelieved, and then proved his point at the Battle of Malplaquet, Pitt was a man equal to his vainglorious posturings. ‘I am sure that I can save this country and that nobody else can,’ he bragged. His ingenious mind was essentially pragmatic; he was flexible and open to new suggestions and could think divergently. He could temper contempt with political know-how, as he proved in his notoriously difficult relations with George II and in his (on paper) implausible alliance with the Duke of Newcastle.

Aged 50 in 1759, Pitt had served in a previous administration as Paymaster-General, but his big break came at the outbreak of war in 1756 when he was appointed Secretary of State in a coalition government. Violent antipathy from George II forced his resignation in April 1757 but popular clamour led to his recall just two months later. George IPs dislike was a compound of three main factors. In the first place, Pitt favoured a war against France on the imperial periphery and was against continental entanglements, whereas for the monarch the defence of his beloved Hanover was always the priority. Second, Pitt felt dislike and contempt for George II’s favourite son, the Duke of Cumberland, and added insult to injury by favouring Prince Frederick (George IPs eldest son) and his coterie at Leicester House; the King, on the other hand, following the fashion of the Hanoverians, loathed Frederick, who returned the hatred with interest. Yet even George II had to endure the unendurable when reasons of state were involved, and it was clear to everyone that Pitt was indispensable to the war effort. To many contemporaries the political alliance with the Duke of Newcastle was the more amazing phenomenon. The sixty-six-year-old Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, was a veteran of more than thirty years with his hands on the levers of power. As an ally of the avatar of ‘Old Corruption’, Sir Robert Walpole, he had often been the target for Pitt’s acidulous tongue. But for all his manifold faults, his venality and mediocre intellect, Newcastle was, in his own way, a shrewd operator. He realised that Britain needed Pitt, so he swallowed the taunts, forgot the insults and allowed the go-between Lord Chesterfield to forge an alliance between himself and the ‘Great Commoner’.

Pitt’s common sense and flexibility emerge most clearly in this alliance with Newcastle, whom in his heart he must have despised. Newcastle was a pure machine politician, described by one historian as ‘ignorant of most things except the art of managing the House of Commons and careless of all things that could not help his party and himself. Congenitally timid, he lived in terror of personal unpleasantness and devoted much of his political skill to avoiding ‘scenes’, even if this meant ducking the issue. Essentially an amoral, cowardly, unprincipled, vacuous man, Newcastle was one of those people who was never nasty to anyone until he felt sure it was safe; sycophantic to the powerful and influential, he could be merciless to those who he was sure had no power, nor ever would have. His jerky physical movements, rapid and garbled speech, neurotic restlessness and air of always being in a hurry, his taste for hyperbole and impossible promises, were much commented on, parodied and burlesqued. Horace Walpole said of him: ‘A borrowed importance and real insignificance gave him the perpetual air of a solicitor . . . He had no pride, though infinite self-love. He loved business immoderately; yet was only always doing it, never did it. When left to himself, he always plunged into difficulties, and then shuddered for the consequences.’ An age that values political fixing over principle or ideology, such as our own, has seen unconvincing revisionist attempts to rehabilitate Newcastle, but it is difficult to argue with Parkman’s verdict that ‘a more preposterous figure than the Duke of Newcastle never stood at the head of a great nation’.

To Newcastle, America was a distant and unimportant blur on the map. The story is told that General Ligonier once suggested that Annapolis should be defended, to which Newcastle replied: ‘Annapolis, Annapolis! Oh, yes, Annapolis must be defended; to be sure. Annapolis should be defended, – where is Annapolis?’ According to Tobias Smollett, Newcastle was entirely ignorant of all geography, and Smollett reports the following ‘exchange’ in his novel Humphry Clinker.

Captain C treated the Duke’s character without any ceremony. ‘This wiseacre,’ said he ‘is still abed; and I think the best thing he can do is to sleep on till Christmas; for when he gets up he does nothing but expose his own folly. In the beginning of the war he told me in a great fright that thirty thousand French had marched from Acadia to Cape Breton. “Where did they find transports?” said I. “Transports!” cried he. “I tell you they marched by land.”

“By land to the island of Cape Breton!”

“What, is Cape Breton an island?” said the Duke.

“Certainly.”

“Ha. Are you sure of that?”

When I pointed it out in the map, he examined it earnestly with his spectacles; then, taking me in his arm, “My dear C – !” (cried he), “you always bring us good news – egad! I’ll go directly and tell the king that Cape Breton is an island!”’

But Newcastle admired Pitt’s willingness to shoulder responsibility and perform well under stress, and was content with a division of labour whereby Pitt occupied the public stage while he was the behind-the-scenes fixer: intriguing, bribing, cooking up shady political deals, dispensing patronage, places and pensions. Pitt, for his part, took the line that as long as he could appoint generals, admirals and ambassadors, Newcastle could have the rest. ‘I will borrow the Duke’s majorities to carry on the government,’ he declared. The two men drew closer together. While considering Pitt a child in financial matters, Newcastle gradually evolved into a stubborn defender of his old tormentor. He was happy with the title of First Lord of the Treasury while Pitt was Secretary of State. Pitt, on the other hand, came to appreciate Newcastle’s expertise in finance and patronage. It was, as the historian Francis Parkman remarked, ‘a partnership of magpie and eagle’.

Pitt’s power base was unusually secure for someone operating in a parliamentary rather than absolutist system. The key to his power was threefold. In the first place, the alliance with Newcastle made him impregnable in the House of Commons since Newcastle was the only man in Britain who could topple him and Newcastle refused to grant offices to Pitt’s opponents and critics. It was difficult even for an informal opposition to arise, for Pitt, with his track record of previous opposition to Newcastle and Walpole, could claim to be above party, a patriot who believed in wartime coalition rather than strife and faction. Pitt also neutralised the potential opposition among ‘country’ MPs by refusing to increase taxes on land and relying on the militia rather than regulars to defend the island against invasion, thus heading off the pressure for further revenue through taxation. The 1757 Militia Act, controversial though it was, was a clever piece of politics. As the cynical Horace Walpole pointed out, the country squires ‘by the silent douceurs of commissions in the Militia . . . were weaned from their opposition, without a sudden transition to ministerial employment’. Secondly, Pitt set himself to court and flatter George II and began laying it on with a trowel. He started by ruthlessly severing his contacts with Prince Frederick and Leicester House, to the fury of the Prince who regarded him as a backstabber. Pitt committed substantial subsidies and troops to the defence of the monarch’s beloved Hanover, while simultaneously (and paradoxically) enthusing the King about his grand scheme for the conquest of Canada. He even manipulated George so that Newcastle’s complaints about the multiplying costs of the war fell on deaf ears. Thirdly, because British institutions, and particularly the armed forces, had not yet become bureaucratised, a powerful individual could gather immense decision-making power to himself. Pitt took full advantage of the situation, working in small ad hoc committees with men he really trusted, like Admiral Lord Anson of the navy and Field Marshal Lord Ligonier in the army. Major military expeditions were despatched by Pitt after a lack of consultation that looks incredible to modern eyes; sometimes an entire army corps could be sent to a destination on what looked like no more than one man’s whim. The inevitable quid pro quo was a workload that even a titan like Pitt could not sustain indefinitely. One-man rule, even in a not quite modern state like eighteenth-century Britain, is an impossibility in the micro-managing sense.

Pitt’s versatility and adaptability meant that he often seemed to be able to square the circle. One of the oldest debates in English foreign policy in the eighteenth century was whether to make affairs in the wider world or overseas empire the priority or to concentrate on the balance of power in Europe. Pitt’s preference was overwhelmingly for defeating France in North America, India or wherever the two powers came into conflict. But he was nudged back towards Europe not just by George II’s obsession with Hanover but by the general military situation there. By late 1758 Frederick the Great had lost 100,000 fighting men to death, wounds, disease, desertion and capture and seemed close to collapse. Pitt showed solidarity in two ways. He sent more troops to Europe to ease the pressure on his ally, and he began a policy of ‘descents’ on the French coast, that is to say, landing armies in some strength on the western coast of France to harry, destroy and irritate coastal defences and generally to undermine the credibility of Louis XV’s war effort. But he failed to ride the two incompatible horses of the monarch and Prince Frederick. Pitt needed George II’s confidence, as even the favourite son Cumberland had learned to his cost when he was disgraced in 1757. Since Frederick and the Leicester House clique opposed making Hanover a cornerstone of foreign policy, Pitt was increasingly forced to choose between his old and new patrons. As a realpolitiker he chose the King, but his cold, callous and offhand reply to overtures from Leicester House angered Frederick and made him vow vengeance on the viperous ingrate he had previously nurtured.

By January 1759 William Pitt could derive some satisfaction from the shift in policy he had engineered the year before. The first plum to be plucked from the French orchard was in West Africa. A Quaker merchant from New York named Thomas Cumming suggested to Pitt that there were easy pickings to be had in Senegal and the Gambia, where the French guarded colossal wealth – in slaves, gold dust, ivory, silver and gum arabic – with minuscule military forces. The opportunistic Cumming offered to put his local expertise at the service of the British in return for a trade monopoly in Senegal. Pitt accepted and sent a nugatory force – two ships of the line and some 200 marines – to West Africa. The French commandant at Fort Louis on the Senegal river had evidently grown used to a sinecure, for when this tiny force appeared outside his walls he promptly surrendered. The resident traders swore allegiance to their new British masters and Cumming got his heart’s desire. When his ships duly returned to England laden with the promised spoils, Pitt woke up to the scale of what could be achieved on the African coast. He was particularly impressed by the 400 tons of gum Cumming brought back. Gum arabic, the sap of the acacia tree, was crucial in silk manufacture but hitherto British textile makers had had to buy it from the Dutch at premium rates. Equally impressive was the haul of slaves bound for the West Indies: the sugar planters there had been complaining for years about the shortage of slave labour. Euphoric at this African serendipity, Pitt sent out two more expeditions. One seized the French post of Fort St Michael on the island of Goree, and the other took over the slave-trading factory on the River Gambia.

Maybe it was the association of ideas between West African slavery and the sugar plantations, but Pitt’s next idea was to knock out French power in the West Indies as he had expunged it in West Africa. Once again the proximate ‘push’ for the exploit was a profit-hungry entrepreneur. William Beckford, MP, an absentee landlord of Jamaica and a crony of Pitt’s, wrote to his friend to point out the vulnerable position of the French on the island of Martinique: it was entirely dependent on French control of the sea lanes, could not support itself and its slaves without food convoys from France, but at the same time contained a body of slaves and stores of wealth worth more than £4 million (at least £200 million in today’s money). Arguing that Pitt would have a walkover victory every bit as easy as that in Senegal, Beckford concluded his exhortation with the words: ‘For God’s sake, attempt it without delay’ Yet Pitt was very aware that all analogies between West Africa and the West Indies were facile. The former could be acquired by opportunism, but the latter would need a formidable effort. His position was complicated by the need to further his true objectives – the expulsion of France from the Americas – while conciliating both Newcastle, who fretted about the costs of global warfare, and George II, who insisted on making Europe the primary theatre. To keep them happy Pitt had already given hostages to fortune by promising that the attacks on Goree and Senegal would be the only significant new overseas venture in late 1758.

Yet a host of other considerations tugged Pitt towards a campaign in the West Indies. At the most basic level, he was under pressure from a powerful coalition of economic and financial interests to take decisive action in the West Indies where competition with France for slaves, sugar and furs was intense. The ‘golden age’ for French sugar began at the end of the seventeenth century when French planters switched their endeavours to sugar cane and began to undersell the British West Indies in much the same way as the British had undersold the original sugar planters of Brazil. Slavery was another bone of contention. French competition in the 1750s had thrown the slave trade into crisis; until Pitt’s expeditions against West Africa, British planters in the Indies had experienced severe labour shortages, mainly occasioned by the odious fact that the life expectancy of black slaves in the plantations was no more than seven years. The French, by contrast, had made the West Indies a prime target for economic warfare. Not only did they subsidise their own slave trade but since the early 1700s they had controlled the beaver catch of the Hudson Bay, making them serious rivals in the hat trade. The French also had the edge in world fishery markets. The Treaty of Utrecht gave them the northern shores of Newfoundland as a base for curing and drying cod, while the British, confined to the more humid southern side, could not match the quality of cured cod and therefore suffered by comparison in the global fish trade.

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