PITT AND THE WEST INDIES II

View of the attack on Martinique showing the disposition of the troops and batteries of guns, from: Richard Gardiner. An account of the expedition to the West Indies, against Martinico: with the reduction of Guadelupe, and other the Leeward Islands, subject to the French King, 1759. Birmingham: printed by John Baskerville; London: for G Steidel, at the Crown and Bible, Maddox-Street, Hanover-Square.

Privateering and smuggling were also big issues in the West Indies. The principal reason that the French sugar islands showed more profit than the British ones was because of contraband between the French islands and British North America. The highly valued rum of Rhode Island was made from French molasses brought in clandestinely; in a word, the American colonists could smuggle in molasses more cheaply from the French West Indies than they could buy it from British sources on the open market. So, in addition to a cheaper labour supply and greater areas of fertile soil, the French had a ready market for their product in British North America, and this was vital to the economic life of the islands, since the French bought food and lumber with the contraband revenue. Molasses from the French West Indies was banned in France to protect native manufacturers of brandy, so without the North American market the island French would have been hard pressed, and could certainly not have basked in the reputation of being the richest and most prosperous colonies of any empire in the world. Faced with this situation, the British West Indies would have gone under but for the monopoly they enjoyed in Britain itself and the great expansion of the home market. But here was one of those ‘contradictions’ that would manifest itself immediately after the Seven Years War in the struggle between home country and North American colonists. In flat contradiction of mercantilism, the economic interests of Britain and her North American colonies were divergent. From the colonists’ point of view, the French supremacy in the islands was desirable. From the metropolitan point of view it was vital that the British colonies in the West Indies survived, since Jamaica alone bought more British manufactures than Virginia and Maryland combined.

Quite apart from the direct economic interests at stake in the islands, Pitt had to weigh two other, even more important, factors. First was the general military, naval and strategic implication of the West Indies, for his new bearing in foreign policy meant moving away from simple commerce protection and the destruction and harrying of enemy commerce towards an outright war of conquest. The general strategic position held by the British in the West Indies was unpromising, for the imperatives of geography favoured the French. At the beginning of the Seven Years War four nations shared the Caribbean islands. Spain possessed Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Bahamas and the eastern half of Hispaniola which they named Santo Domingo (the modern Dominican Republic). The Dutch Republic had Curaçao and shared the Virgin Islands with the British, who additionally had Jamaica, Barbados, St Kitts, Nevis, Antigua and Montserrat. France occupied the western half of Hispaniola (modern Haiti) and most of the other islands as far south as Grenada, including their cynosures of Martinique and Guadeloupe. There were in addition a number of officially neutral islands – St Lucia, St Vincent and Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic) – which were in fact dominated by the French on Martinique.

The British islands were awkwardly distributed, with Jamaica far to the leeward of the rest and Barbados, the most windward island, with no harbour fit for a naval station. Since 1745 the Royal Navy had maintained two stations, one at Jamaica, the other in the Leeward Islands. The French, on the other hand, had their two bases in much more favourable strategic niches: one on the north coast of Santo Domingo dominating the windward passage into the Caribbean, and the other in Martinique. This strategic superiority was reinforced by trade routes. British merchant navy vessels, making for two widely separated landfalls, parted company before entering the Caribbean and were particularly vulnerable as they sailed into the waters to the windward of Barbados and Antigua respectively. French privateers preyed mercilessly on English shipping on both outward and homeward journeys and on vessels plying between the entrepots with a particular fondness for the Antigua passage. Martinique and Guadeloupe were notorious nests of privateers, the indented coastlines making them perfect for predatory raids. British small cruisers were not strong enough to attack these corsairs inland, as their headquarters were too far up the tropical ‘fjords’ for warships to reach them. The French meanwhile were relatively secure, since their islands all lay to the windward of the British base in each area. The Royal Navy’s task was particularly onerous since it additionally had to protect trade between the British West Indies and North America. Naval commanders tried to use the convoy system to counterattack the French threat, and employed a threefold seaborne strategy. Ships of the line watched the French bases at Santo Domingo and Martinique; the biggest warships patrolled the waters to the windward of Barbados and Antigua; and small cruisers and frigates concentrated on surveillance of the privateer nests, with particular emphasis on the Leeward Islands.

But over and above all these complex day-to-day dispositions, Pitt had to fit the West Indies into a mosaic of global strategy and geopolitics. In one sense the West Indies was a locus for convergent economic interests from outside, since the lumber trade of North America and the slave trade of West Africa both had their focus here. Overwhelmingly, fear was the spur for, although the British seemed on paper to be winning the struggle for the Orient – the British East India Company had factories from St Helena to Borneo – they were uneasy about increasing French encroachments and their burgeoning volume of trade. Fear sometimes became paranoia, with the British imagining that the French were trying to ‘encircle’ their North American colonies and the French apprehensive that the British would cut Canada off from the Louisiana territory and then conquer both separately. Each area of the world had its ‘boosters’, but Pitt considered the West Indies a more important theatre than India. The Royal Navy’s commitment was significant: in India the British deployed four ships of the line and three cruisers, but in the West Indies the respective figures were twelve and twenty. Both the objective interests and the sheer volume of trade in the Caribbean were so much greater than on the subcontinent. It was not surprising, then, that when Pitt felt strong enough for warfare on a truly global scale, he opened the second front in the West Indies, not in India.

Pitt had yet another motive for his proposed West Indian campaign. Eighteenth-century warfare was not guerre à outrance, nor would anyone have dreamed of modern war-fighting objectives like ‘unconditional surrender’. Newcastle constantly warned his colleague of the ruinous expense of his projects and advised that the time would come when the financiers of the City of London would no longer lend the government money. When that day arrived, the resulting crisis of credit would force any conceivable government to sue for peace terms. Pitt agreed that the enormous cost of the war alone meant that it would have to end at the earliest plausible moment, and his definition of a good peace was one where the French were driven from North America altogether and British supremacy in the Mediterranean maintained. So, although in 1759 Pitt aimed at a genuine war of conquest in the West Indies, which marked a new departure in the Caribbean, it was not intended as a war of permanent conquest, as the campaign in Canada was. At the peace table Pitt needed Martinique as a powerful bargaining counter, which he could exchange for Minorca. The obvious question then arises: if Minorca was so important, why did Pitt not send an expedition there instead? Here we see clearly the quality of his strategic thinking. In the first place, Minorca was a tougher nut to crack than Martinique and, in the second, he saw an ingenious way to kill two birds with one stone: to take out France’s equivalent of Jamaica and to achieve a conquest which the French would be glad to have back by giving up Minorca. Martinique, after all, was an island that exported 20,000 tons of sugar a year. And France would be desperate to get it back in order to reinforce the tenuous links between the St Lawrence and New Orleans, always assuming that Canada, or New France, was still in existence as a French territory.

Painstakingly Pitt explained his thinking to his inner Cabinet. Newcastle reiterated his opposition to widening the war on the periphery when the military situation in Europe was so parlous and British credit stretched almost to snapping point. It was bad enough that Britain was fighting both on the continent and in North America, but now Pitt was proposing warfare in the West Indies as well. Where would it all end? If Pitt was really serious about Martinique, economies would have to be made in other theatres and the obvious candidate for cutback was the series of ‘descents’ on the French coast, intended to take the pressure off Frederick of Prussia. But Pitt insisted that these attacks would have to go on, to cover the Martinique expedition; otherwise the French could mobilise resources to strike back in the West Indies.

Anson took Newcastle’s side and weighed in with the argument that the Martinique project was dangerously quixotic: too many ships would be absent in the West Indies if the French suddenly decided to launch an invasion of Britain. But Anson was never prepared to push really hard against Pitt once the Prime Minister had made up his mind, so the main opposition in September 1758 continued to come from Newcastle. Things reached the point where Pitt angrily threatened to recall all British troops from the continent if he could not have his way over Martinique. He was surely bluffing, for he could scarcely have made an enemy of George II and Newcastle at the same time. As a sop to Newcastle, he promised that, aside from the expedition to West Africa which had already been despatched, after Martinique there would be no more global adventures. Grudgingly Newcastle acquiesced, encouraged by the change of mind at the Admiralty. By early October Anson was telling Newcastle’s confidant Lord Hardwicke that he foresaw few barriers to a successful outcome in the West Indies. Anson thought the amphibious operation ingenious, and commented that the entire venture was singularly well thought through: there was a good beach for landing marines and failsafe plans were in place in case they had to retreat. Yet whatever opposition there was at the highest level, there was little in Parliament. In November the House of Commons approved a war budget of £13 million for 1759 – the largest wartime appropriation ever granted. Horace Walpole remarked, half-admiringly, half-acidulously: ‘You would as soon hear NO from an old maid as from the House of Commons.’

Pitt’s great West Indian expedition finally cleared from Portsmouth on 12 November 1758: 9,000 men and a handful of women sailed to Barbados in seventy-three ships commanded by General Peregrine Thomas Hopson, a favourite of George II, who liked the fact that the commander was an old man. With a quasi-senile prejudice against young men, George II deliberately chose this method of putting Pitt in his place for, as the gossip-monger Horace Walpole, homosexual son of Sir Robert, put it, the choice of the elderly and reluctant Hopson was ‘not consonant to Mr Pitt’s practice, who, considering that our ancient officers had grown old on a very small portion of experience, which by no means compensated for the decay of fire and vigour, chose to trust his plans to the alertness and hopes of younger men’. Pitt had to be content to see his choice as commander, John Barrington, occupying the second-in-command slot. It was difficult to find adequate officers for the lesser commands, as those who had purchased their commissions or obtained them through influence used their prerogatives to avoid service in dangerous, disease-ridden theatres like the West Indies. On the other hand, the high casualty rates in the Caribbean, especially from disease, meant that a career officer could take a calculated risk: entering as a Captain at the beginning of the year, he could be Colonel by the end of it.

Coffee-house opinion was divided on the wisdom of this venture, especially as it was widely known that half of the war budget was to be borrowed and that half the tax revenues would go in servicing the debt. Walpole, though, with his characteristic pessimism, vastly overrated the odds against success. ‘Martinico is the general notion; a place the strongest in the world with a garrison of ten thousand men. Others now talk of Guadeloupe, almost as strong and of much less consequence. Of both, everybody that knows, despairs.’ The truth was that the French had grown careless and the number of defenders was far, far less than Walpole’s hyperbolic estimate. Guadeloupe, in particular, was almost absurdly ill guarded, to the point where a modern historian has commented that this island in 1759 was ‘one of the few examples in history of a time when the best apple hung lowest on the bough’. Maybe the French had grown over-confident because of the sheer success of their privateering operations; of the 113 enemy ships seized by their corsairs in the West Indies in 1758, eighty-one were prizes taken either to Martinique or Guadeloupe.

The expedition made its way slowly across the Atlantic. The track of the fleet was south-west from Plymouth to latitude 13° north, then due west to Barbados, running before the trade winds. The ships were out of sight of land from the middle of November until they anchored in Carlisle Bay, near Bridgetown, Barbados on 3 January 1759. There were sixty-four transports, eight ships of the line, a frigate, four bomb-ketches and a hospital ship. The idea was that the four regiments and their naval backup would sail first to Barbados, where Commodore John Moore would take over the naval forces. The combined forces would next attack and take Martinique, which would then be garrisoned. But plans began to go awry almost immediately. The fleet suffered badly on the way over, not so much from storms but from disease: scurvy, dysentery, smallpox and ‘shipfever’. And because the fleet had to wait to allow stragglers to catch up – including the all-important hospital ship – it was impossible to take the French by surprise, even if they had not already been aware of what was about to descend on them. In fact Cardinal de Bernis, then acting as French Foreign Minister, knew the fleet’s destination before it had even left Portsmouth, and immediately informed the Marquise de Pompadour (whose creature he was). Captain Gardiner, who left the classic account of the 1759 expedition to the West Indies, produced this purple passage to describe landfall: ‘As the ships approached, the island rose gradually out of the sea with a delightful verdure, presenting a most inviting prospect of the country all around, which looked like a garden; the plantations were amazingly beautiful, interspersed at little distances from each other, and adorned with fruits of various colours.’

Moore assumed command of the naval squadron, and he and Hopson decreed ten days’ rest, revictualling and rewatering, giving the stragglers time to arrive. But by the time the united battalions left the Barbados rendezvous on 13 January, tropical disease had cut a swathe through the armada and the attack force had already been reduced by one-third to little more than 5,000 effectives. Yellow fever, smallpox and scurvy were the principal scourges. ‘Yellow jack’ was the most dreaded disease in the Caribbean. Borne by the Aedes mosquito, yellow fever had as its most common symptoms headache and agonising pain followed by the vomiting of large amounts of blood, made greasy and black by the action of the gastric juices. About half the fever’s victims vomited themselves to death within a few days; those who survived had immunity for life. Yellow fever had already made its presence felt among British invaders of the Caribbean, most notably during Admiral Vernon’s siege of Cartagena in 1741, when two-thirds of the British force besieging the town died of it. Smallpox, a bacteriological rather than insect-borne disease, also caused havoc. Symptoms were high temperatures, followed three days later by purulent blisters; the patient then either died or recovered, bearing disfiguring scars for the rest of his life. Scurvy was the usual effect of the notorious vitamin C deficiency in the diet of the Royal Navy before the late eighteenth century.

While profoundly worried by the growing sickness roster and especially the yellow-fever cases, the British commander pressed on. The attack on Martinique began on 13 January, but it soon transpired that the British had seriously underestimated the problems of a successful assault. The island was fringed with dangerous, rocky and rugged shores, where 300-foot cliffs often beetled almost perpendicularly from the sea. In the interior mountains reaching almost 5,000 feet in altitude, their lower slopes and foothills covered in thick, mosquito-infested rain forest, posed another formidable obstacle. On the western coast, where the British tried to land, there were thorn and cactus forests, alternating with mangrove swamps and salt grass. Moore decided to make his first assault on Fort Royale on the west of the island rather than on St Pierre farther up the coast. To take Fort Royale, an invader first had to silence the battery at Negro Point, and here the redcoated marines acquitted themselves well, even though they were taken aback by the defenders’ novel method of irregular warfare. The French and their mulatto soldiers hid in trees, bushes and cane plantations, often behind entrenchments not visible to the British, from which they directed heavy fire on an enemy that could not see them. When they retreated, and a party of British skirmishers advanced to ‘mop up’ in the bush, the defenders would then open a withering fire from the next of a series of defensive positions, compelling the skirmishers to retreat. Even Highlanders found the terrain – woods, mountains, ravines, sugar-cane plantations – difficult and particularly the steep approach to the mountain passes ‘interrupted by broken rocks and furrowed by a variety of gullies, which were extremely difficult to pass, and which rendered it very hazardous to make any attempt to force it’. These conditions badly affected morale. A British deserter later told a court martial that the reason he and his comrades quit was because they ‘saw no enemy to fight with, and yet bullets were flying about them from every leaf and bough they came near; that the country was afull of ambuscades and that, if they proceeded further, they must all be cut to pieces’.

Nevertheless, on 16 January, after a naval bombardment, the British swarmed ashore, took the fort, spiked the guns and destroyed all gunpowder. They then abandoned the fort and proceeded to land unopposed on the beach at Cas Navires. Pleased with results so far, Moore then changed his mind and decided to land a permanent garrison at Negro Point. On 17 January the French counterattacked. The garrison at Negro Point came under heavy fire, when British troops fanned out from the fort into the nearby woods, hoping to clear a distinctive track towards Fort Royale, French snipers and skirmishers started to take a heavy toll on them. In a foretaste of the conditions redcoats would face less than twenty years later in the American War of Independence, the British soon found themselves in a parlous state, unable to come to grips with an elusive enemy, dropping in their tracks from heat, fatigue and shortage of water.

Hopson began to surmise that Fort Royale might conceivably hold out for ten days or more, during which time his own troops well might melt away, even if they did manage to build a road to the French citadel. Only five miles separated the British beachhead from the fort, but the intervening country was a morass of woods, canes and ravines. The last straw was when Hopson’s engineers reported that, to bring the citadel within cannon range, they would have to cross a ravine. But how was that possible, Hopson asked. Only by making a further five-mile diversion, the engineers replied. Hopson’s calculations quickly showed him that the manpower needed to portage thirty cannon, plus cannon balls, mortar and stores, far exceeded his own labour force. The clincher was that there was no water on the route either. This meant that to build a credible road to the fort so that his heavy artillery could be deployed, Hopson would need 1,000 pioneers for road building and another 1,000 as water carriers. He was in a position remarkably similar to the one General John Burgoyne would confront at Saratoga in 1777: short of water while being unable to deploy his big guns. Not surprisingly, Hopson concluded that this was mission impossible. He ordered an evacuation, having taken losses of twenty-two dead and forty-eight wounded.

But Hopson was still unwilling to admit overall defeat on Martinique, so he decided to probe at St Pierre instead, even though this lacked the strategic significance of Fort Royale. On 19 January the British fleet appeared off the commercial capital, which was built in a crescent along the bay with the volcanic Mount Pelée (which would erupt so devastatingly on 8 May 1902) as the dramatic backdrop. HMS Rippon began shelling the town but St Pierre’s batteries made a vigorous riposte. After exchanging fire for four and a half hours, the Rippon was the worse for wear and in imminent danger of being sunk. Moore withdrew her to safety and hastily conferred with Hopson. Both men were by now pessimistic about the military possibilities on Martinique. Moore repeated his earlier opinion that there was no strategic advantage in taking the town, while Hopson concluded that he could not maintain a garrison there, as it would have to be continually supplied by sea. They were not to know that French morale was low and their resolve signally lacking; and, in general, the British commanders overrated the problems of Martinique, which was captured easily three years later by a British combined operation. What they should have done was what was done in 1762: make a number of feints on the island before delivering the main attack, thus sapping the defenders’ fighting spirit still further; the militia’s initial enthusiasm would soon drain away and, even if he spotted the feint, the French commander would have to disperse his forces against his better judgement to still the laments and clamours of the planters.

Official opinion privately (there was no public censure) blamed Hopson for the debacle at Martinique and absolved Moore, though the Admiralty was simply rewarding him for his fawning attitude over the Byng affair two years earlier, when Admiral John Byng had been shot for neglect of duty after failing ignominiously to relieve Minorca. Perceptive critics outside the establishment saw that Moore was as much to blame as Hopson. Neither man acquitted himself well, but the bizarre events of the early years of the Seven Years War in a sense contrived to let them off the hook. Not to press an attack with full vigour was inevitably to invite comparison with Admiral Byng at Minorca, who had been shot, as Voltaire said, ‘to encourage the others’. But, on the other hand, both Moore and Hopson alleged that to tangle with the guerrillas, snipers and sharpshooters in the ravines outside Fort Royale was to invite Braddock’s fate at Monongahela. Fortunately for them, it was this version of events that was endorsed by the power elite in London.

Hopson and Moore also escaped censure by pressing on to Pitt’s secondary target of Guadeloupe, separated from Martinique by the officially neutral (but really pro-French) island of Dominica. Guadeloupe had many advantages for the British marauders. It was the chief producer of sugar and molasses; it produced more cotton and coffee than any other island in the West Indies except Jamaica; its trade was more valuable than Canada’s; it was a nest of privateers who preyed on British shipping; once taken it would be an invaluable base, enabling the Royal Navy to guard shipping and dominate the Leeward Islands; it was scantily defended, with a population of just 2,000 Europeans and 30,000 blacks; and in short its loss would be an utter disaster for France. But Guadeloupe also had many disadvantages. The heat and humidity were terrific, with temperatures never below 70°F and more usually above 900; malaria and dysentery were frequent in the low-lying areas (below 1,500 feet in altitude); and it would have to be conquered before the hurricane season in July–October. Additionally, Guadeloupe was really two islands in one. There was the volcanic, so-called Basse Terre and, separated from it by a sea arm, the limestone Grande Terre, with an indented coastline full of small inlets and river mouths, the haunts of privateers. The British campaign was therefore planned as a threefold operation: first, destroying resistance on the leeward side of Basse Terre; secondly, crushing the enemy on Grande Terre; and finally the conquest of the windward side of Basse Terre.

The bombardment of the town and citadel of Basse Terre began on 22 January. The Royal Navy had perfected bomb-ketches – sturdy fore-and-aft vessels built with heavier frames and beams – for use against shore installations. Each one contained at least one mortar, which could throw a bomb on a high parabolic trajectory for a distance of two to three miles. Normal bombs were like shells, spherical in shape and packed with powder, with the wall of the shell given an extra thickness so that the bomb would not fall to earth with the fuse on the downward side. British gunners were supposed to cut the wax and gunpowder fuses in such a way that the bomb exploded on contact with the ground or some other object, but eighteenth-century bomb-making was an inexact science and many bombs exploded in the air. A refinement of the ordinary bomb was the carcass, like a shell but incendiary rather than explosive. Used both to gut buildings and as a flare to guide night artillery fire, it was often packed with charged pistol barrels of various lengths, which fired intermittently and irregularly, so that even experienced members of bomb squads approached them with caution. The best ordnance evidence from 1759 suggests that the carcasses in use during the West Indies campaign were loaded with a mixture of wax, sulphur, nitre and gunpowder, making them inextinguishable by water.

Even with the help of these formidable weapons, the British at first experienced tough going. The numbers of shore batteries initially made the spirits of the attackers quail, and the British chief of engineers gloomily declared the place impregnable. Moore persisted and ordered a day-long fusillade from his warships. Finally the French batteries were silenced but by this time darkness was falling and Moore postponed the amphibious landing to the next day. At 10 p.m. that night, the British bomb vessels began lobbing carcasses into the town – whether through simple boredom or to keep the enemy guessing appears uncertain. At any rate the wooden houses and laden warehouses were soon ablaze and both citadel and town gutted. Vast amounts of sugar, rum, tar and other produce were needlessly destroyed in a peculiarly mindless act of vandalism. Although Moore later assured Pitt that the inferno was an accident, the fact is that the bombing continued all night. The terrified enemy fled to the hills from the scenes of a Hieronymus Bosch horror, even abandoning the wounded in their panic, and a good general would have capitalised on their confusion and demoralisation. But Hopson had his men stood to all night, fearing a French counterattack or some underhand ruse. In the morning he counted the cost. He had lost seventeen killed and thirty wounded; the Royal Navy ships had been badly damaged in their rigging and because of the fire no loot or significant prizes had been taken. Worst of all, Hopson now decided to dig in and retrench, condemning his men to idleness, inactivity or deadening boredom while labouring on the citadel’s fortifications.

The result was what all old West India hands would have expected. Disease cut a swathe through the army and by 30 January 1,500 men were on sick parade. Mosquitoes, untreated sewage, contaminated water, back-breaking toil in the heat, incompetent surgeons and poor diet all played their part. By early February Hopson was down to just 2,796 men fit for duty. By mid-February eight transports cleared for Antigua bearing 600 of the most seriously ill, the majority of whom died during the passage or soon after arrival. Hopson sent out companies of redcoats to scour the countryside, but the French, adopting guerrilla warfare, easily evaded them and began to harry them with hit-and-run attacks. Every day snipers and sharpshooters became more of a menace and on 30 January a French guerrilla group, hidden in lofty sugar cane, showed its mettle by ambushing and killing four sailors. Emboldened by this success, the French became over-confident and sustained a bad check on i February, when thirty prisoners fell into British hands. Skirmish and counter-skirmish continued but there was no decisive breakthrough. Secretly champing at the bit over Hopson’s incompetence, Moore tried to fight his own war by sending his cruisers out to blockade the entire island and prevent food reaching the guerrillas. His mood grew blacker by the day as the army continued to be decimated by disease.

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