PITT AND THE WEST INDIES III

The campaign of Guadeloupe and Martinique, January–May 1759

During this period of ‘phoney war’ there was one notable success. To sever all communications between Basse Terre and Grande Terre and so prevent any aid from reaching the guerrillas, the English had to capture Fort Louis. By begging a few companies of Highlanders from Hopson to add to his own marines, Moore thought he had the strength to do it. On 6 February the commandos set sail and on the 13th the military action began. For six hours Moore’s task force bombarded Fort Louis and took out both the shore batteries and the four-gun redoubts on each of the nearby hills. Initially all went to plan, and the Highlanders and the marines of the landing party were happy to watch while the two ships of the line blew the fort apart. But once the assault party clambered into the flat-bottomed landing craft – each carrying sixty-three men, rowed with twelve oars and drawing no more than two feet of water – the barrage was lifted for fear of hitting the invaders with ‘friendly fire’. Whereupon hundreds of French troops reoccupied the battered positions and opened such a heavy fire that the Colonel of marines ordered the boats to retreat.

This led to one of those bad-tempered scenes that should act as a cautionary tale for triumphalist theorists of combined operations. As the flat-bottoms returned alongside HMS Berwick, the irascible commodore Captain William Harman shouted: ‘Don’t give the damned cowardly felloes a rope.’

Enraged, Captain William Murray of the Highlanders stood up and yelled back: ‘Captain Harman, we are under command and were forced to obey, but rest assured that you shall answer to me for the expression you have used.’ Not fancying a duel with a claymore-wielding Highlander, Harman blustered that he was not referring to the Highlanders but to the marines. Yet Murray was so indignant that he ordered his boats to put about for the shore; the marines were then shamed into following him. As Fort Louis suddenly seemed to burst into spontaneous combustion – actually the pent-up impact of yet more deadly carcasses – the Highlanders and the English marines waded ashore under cover of the thick pall of smoke. They too had been pent up – cramped in readiness for five hours in the longboats – but now they surged through the foam with gusto, making for the sandy strand.

There were some nasty moments when they hit the booby-trapped shoreline – for the French had driven pilings into the seabed and interlaced them with mangroves, which acted as a home for the dreaded Anopheles mosquito; there was therefore a chance of malaria at the very moment of securing a beachhead. But finally the beachhead was secured and the marines and the Highlanders, who could have been deadly enemies just thirteen years earlier in the last Jacobite rising, came boiling out of the foam like sea monsters. To their consternation, French veterans and black irregulars heard the dreaded cry ‘Claymore’, as the Highlanders were on them in a trice with broadsword and bayonet. Lieutenant Grant of the Black Watch, who ached to be a hero, came a spectacular cropper. ‘Getting out of the boat, I stumbled over a stone and fell forward into the water. My servant, thinking me mortally wounded, seized me and was dragging me on shore, in doing so he scraped my shins against the grapwall. We all rushed on pell-mell, and the French ran like hares up the hill at the back of the battery.’ Not without some deaths among the landing party by dusk the deed was done and Basse Terre could no longer be reinforced from the other side of the island. But it had been a grim affair, with terrible wounds inflicted. The British did not open fire with their muskets until the French were ten yards away, at which range the volley was devastating and murderous. All in all, it had been a close-run thing. As Grant rightly remarked of amphibious operations: ‘Of all species of warfare that of landing is the most unpleasant

[as]

you present a mark for your enemy and you are not in your element.’

Yet as long as the ailing Hopson lived, and more and more men went down to tropical disease, stalemate was still the most likely long-term result. Again Moore chafed and fretted at the lack of action. But at last, on 27 February, his prayers were answered when the despised Hopson succumbed to fever. His replacement, General Barrington, whom Pitt had originally wanted to command the expedition, proved as energetic as Hopson had been listless, although from the first day of his command he had a mountain to climb. Moore and Barrington, who enjoyed an amazing unanimity on the way forward, agreed that the next step was to transfer the bulk of the force to Fort Louis, leaving just a garrison of 500 to oversee Basse Terre. Leaving behind one battalion and transferring the worst of the sick cases to Antigua, the commanders effected the move on 11 March, after having been at sea for a full four days, beating up against the trade winds. To mask their departure from Basse Terre they used a ruse worthy of Greek mythology, for Barrington ordered tents struck and huts built as though they were settling in for a long stay. They were now in a race against time in a double sense: they had to complete the conquest of Guadeloupe before the hurricane season and while they still had a credible army. Tropical disease seemed to become more virulent every day, so that by the time they landed at Fort Louis, their effectives numbered no more than 1,500.

Scarcely had the British landed at Fort Louis than they received a piece of dramatically bad news. Despite the urgings of many of the ministers on Louis XV’s Council, who despaired of ever making inroads against British seapower and wanted to concentrate on the war in Europe, the King had sent Admiral Maximin de Bompart to the Leeward Islands with a powerful counterattacking task force, comprising eight ships of the line, three frigates and a battalion of Swiss and other troops. Even though the British enjoyed the incontestable advantages of naval dockyards in the West Indies and being provisioned from North America, Versailles was determined that Martinique would not be abandoned without a fight – the ministers were of course unaware that the British had now switched operations to Guadeloupe. Moore and Barrington were placed in a peculiarly difficult position by this new development. With the hurricane season approaching, Moore would soon have to detach some of his warships for convoy duties and the protection of the homeward merchant fleet. Even worse, when Barrington opened Pitt’s sealed instructions to Hopson, he read that Pitt ordered the Highlanders to be sent to North America once the Martinique operation was complete. If he stuck to the letter of the orders, Barrington would leave himself far too weak to maintain himself against Bompart’s incursions.

Yet another of the numerous councils of war that beset this West Indies expedition was convened. The idea of taking the offensive and blockading Bompart in Martinique was ruled out, on the grounds of supply and communication lines; for a start, there could be no search-and-destroy mission against the French armada without an adequate water supply, which not even the troops at Fort Louis had. Instead the commanders hit on the idea of concentrating the British fleet at Prince Rupert’s Bay in the north of the neutral island of Dominica so that it could intercept any French move against Fort Louis. Meanwhile Barrington, aware that he was vulnerable at Fort Louis to possible French attacks from a number of directions, opted for the strategy of offence as the best means of defence. He reasoned that the enemy could never unite for a push against Fort Louis if he kept them disunited by striking at several points at the same time; accordingly in the third week of March he sent 600 men to attack the towns of Le Gosier, Ste Anne and St François simultaneously. The strategy was a brilliant success and the thrust against Le Gosier even produced an unexpected bonus when the jubilant attackers pressed on and took in the rear a French force moving against Fort Louis. Barrington followed this up with a brilliantly executed war of movement, continually harrying the French, forever appearing in their rear when they were expected in the van, continually switching the angle of attack and the military objective. The French became more and more demoralised, and desertions from the militia reached record levels.

By the beginning of April Barrington was satisfied that he had completed the first two phases of his campaign. He had wiped out resistance on the leeward side of Basse Terre and had crushed the defenders on Grande Terre even more effectively. There remained the windward side of Basse Terre, the most populous area and the region where all the richest plantations were located. Barrington had done the difficult parts first, for this final phase favoured conventional forces more than the other two phases. A gently rising coastal plain extended from one to three miles to the foothills of the mountains, and on this fertile paradise between the sea and the peaks lay a series of wealthy sugar plantations that probably generated more wealth per acre than any other terrain in the world in 1759. On 12 April the British disembarked some 1,450 men at Arnouville. A hard-fought action followed, with British artillerymen and the Highlanders particularly distinguishing themselves. They won the day but left fourteen of their men dead on the field and carried off fifty-four wounded. The French retreated only slightly before digging in again. They proved doughty defenders, pegging the British back to an advance of just two miles a day. Yet in the end the combat between regulars and militiamen in open terrain could have only one ending. On 21 April the brave but demoralised defenders finally surrendered. The formal capitulation was signed on 1 May, allowing for an immediate exchange of prisoners.

Incredibly, the very next day (within hours of the capitulation according to some melodramatic reports) Bompart suddenly landed at Ste Anne, now no more than a burnt-out shell after its recent destruction. He arrived from Martinique with his fleet, 600 Swiss regulars, spare arms and ammunition for another 2,000 fighters and a large force of irregulars, described in some reports as ‘2,000 buccaneers’. Whether these militiamen and volunteers quite numbered 2,000 or in any way merited the bloodthirsty (and at this date somewhat anachronistic) description of buccaneers is doubtful, but the fact remains that they made up a formidable fighting force. Learning of the capitulation and the prisoner cartel, Bompart apparently tried to persuade the French Governor of Guadeloupe, Nadau du Treil, to find some technicality for reneging on the deal, but du Treil refused. Bompart accepted the inevitable and sailed back to Martinique. Learning of his arrival to the east, Moore tried to get his ships under way to bring Bompart to a decisive action, but the winds were against him and he spent five frustrating days trying to reach the island of Marie Galante. But not even a Nelson could make easting against the trade winds, and in fifty-seven hours Moore’s ships managed to beat eastward just six miles. What had happened? How was Bompart able to sail from Martinique to Guadeloupe and back again without being intercepted? Moore’s main mistake was to base himself at Rupert’s Bay in Dominica. His critics said he should have sailed for Martinique and attacked Bompart at Fort Royale, but Moore knew the strength of the defences there and did not want to tangle with an enemy fleet and shore batteries. That decision was sound enough, but basing himself at Rupert’s Bay meant that Moore lost contact with the French. The usual view is that he should have positioned himself to windward of the enemy and within sight, ready to pursue wherever Bompart went. But Moore thought he had all the options covered. He expected Bompart either to attack Basse Terre and Fort Louis or to proceed to Jamaica. Nobody on the British side had considered the possibility that the French might land on the windward side of Grande Terre. So it was that Moore failed to intercept Bompart both on the outward and return journey between Martinique and Guadeloupe. Moore had got to the windward of the enemy’s putative objective but not of the enemy himself. His later protestations were of the same kind as those of the punter who complains that the favourite in a horse race did not win: reason, logic and the form book did not prevail. Bompart defied all normal expectations by passing round the southern end of Martinique instead of coming inside the islands.

The British had won the battle for Guadeloupe, but it had been touch and go. If the French commanders had cooperated better and shown more energy, the British would have been defeated. If Bompart had arrived just a day earlier, the balance of forces would have shifted irremediably in the French favour. Barrington admitted that he was at the limit of his resources and could not have fought much longer. He told Pitt that disease was making such inroads on the expeditionary force that he would soon not have a credible fighting body and he therefore dreaded the consequences. Aware that he could be criticised for having agreed to very lenient terms of capitulation, he wrote to the Prime Minister on 9 May: ‘I hope you will approve of the arrangements for I can assure you that by force alone I could not have made myself master of these islands nor even of maintaining a garrison at Fort Louis, which I would have had to blow up after withdrawing the garrison . . . [whatever troops I left behind] would have succumbed as soon as my army departed.’ Whatever criticisms can be made of Moore, Barrington emerges with a clean sheet from the Guadeloupe campaign. He has been criticised, anachronistically, for not fighting a war of attrition instead of accepting a negotiated surrender. But it is simply a fact that eighteenth-century armies aimed at victory but not annihilation, and still less at unconditional surrender. Moreover, if Hopson had simply accepted a truce and allowed experienced negotiators time to arrive, Bompart’s force would have reinforced the defenders and ultimately defeated him.

Meanwhile new orders arrived from London. Pitt, having learned about the switch from Martinique to Guadeloupe, ordered Barrington to take the island of St Lucia and to that end rescinded his previous orders about sending the Highlanders to Louisbourg. Barrington, though, did not have nearly enough manpower for the conquest of St Lucia. He sent the Highland regiments to Louisbourg, having first conducted a face-saving exercise by conquering the small islands in the Guadeloupe group – Marie Galante, Deseada, The Saints, Petit Terre. On 25 July he sailed for home with three battalions.

Moore moved on to Antigua to protect merchant navy commerce, which had been preyed on incessantly by the privateers once they saw the Royal Navy preoccupied with Bompart. Moore was not able to make any further contact with his French rival, but sailed for home with a huge convoy of 300 merchantmen in September. He took with him a blackened reputation. Not only was he in bad odour for failing to search and destroy Bompart but, as the Barbados authorities complained bitterly to London, he had failed to protect their commerce, as the facts proved: the privateers had taken ninety British ships between January and July. Moore’s defence was twofold. Dealing with the privateers was a Herculean labour against the hydra’s heads, as the terms negotiated required a simple exchange of prisoners; since the corsairs had to be released as soon as they were caught, they simply went back to their piratical activities. As for his unpopularity in Barbados, this was because Moore had tried to find out who was running the illegal but highly profitable slave trade between Barbados and St Vincent as well as the commerce in foodstuffs to the neutral islands which the French had occupied.

The armed forces of George II had learned a lot from their tropical campaign in the West Indies. Richard Gardiner of the marines testified that the Martinique and Guadeloupe campaigning was particularly arduous. The troops were ‘exposed to dangers they had never known, to disorders they had never felt, to a climate more fatal than the enemy, and to a method of fighting they had never seen’. If by the end of the campaign they knew nothing about fighting irregulars in the bush, they also had no answer to the ravages of yellow fever and other diseases. From Barrington’s departure after the conquest of Guadeloupe in June to October 1759 eight officers and 577 men had succumbed to disease while performing nothing more strenuous than garrison duty. In such a context admirers of the landscape were rare, yet George Durant, one of the British officers, contributed to the growing cult of the picturesque, finding the island ‘prospects both noble and romantic . . . hills whose tops reached the clouds, covered with stately woods of ten thousand different shades of green’.

Yet in the short term the many critics of Moore took a back seat, while euphoria in London at the conquest of Guadeloupe was given free rein. Newcastle was in full burbling mood, writing to the Admiralty of ‘great good news . . . I want something to revive my spirits and this has done it . . . must be great in its consequences . . . hope will refresh our stocks . . . great affair.’ Pitt remarked more sparingly: ‘Louisbourgh and Guadeloupe are the best plenipos at a Congress.’ The news was particularly welcome as Pitt’s government had been under great strain through financial crisis. Ministers could not agree which taxes should be earmarked to finance the massive debt voted so facilely by Parliament the previous autumn; and the kingdom was seriously short of specie, since gold and silver coins had been exported in large numbers to maintain the war in Germany and North America. Financial confidence was shaken and government bonds began selling at the steepest discounts since the Glorious Revolution. The conquest of Guadeloupe proved a massive shot in the arm, even though London was at first slow to appreciate the wealth of the sugar islands. The 350 plantation owners of Guadeloupe and Marie Galante began shipping their sugar, coffee, cocoa, cotton and other products to Britain in return for much-needed slaves and manufactured goods. Within a year of the conquest, from 1759 to mid-1760, Guadeloupe sent 10,000 tons of sugar, valued at £425,000, to Britain and imported 5,000 slaves plus wrought iron and other manufactures. Guadeloupe also supplied Massachusetts rum distillers with half the molasses they needed – three times the volume exported from Jamaica.

If Britain achieved the serendipity of riches gained while pursuing what were primarily military ends, France by contrast was sunk in the deepest gloom by the news from the West Indies. Marshal Belle-Isle at the War Office confessed himself devastated by the loss of Guadeloupe. The French took the setback hard and went looking for scapegoats. They fastened on the Governor of Guadeloupe, Nadau du Treil, whom they blamed for signing the articles of capitulation to Barrington. Du Treil received a sentence of life imprisonment. But the real culprit, François, Marquis de Beauharnois, Governor of Martinique, who took three months to decide to help Guadeloupe, even though the island was just a few hours’ sail away, escaped serious censure on the grounds that he had repelled an attempted British invasion of his island. The French position in the West Indies was bedevilled by a number of factors, principally the lack of inter-island cooperation and the militia system. Because of the class system on the islands (out of Guadeloupe’s population of 50,000 more than 80 per cent were black slaves), most of the Frenchmen were grandees of one sort or another, who would not take orders willingly; it was a classic case of too many chiefs and not enough French West Indians. And the different islands failed to cooperate with each other largely because militiamen and their native levies would not serve ‘abroad’ – that is, away from their own islands.

Bompart, who eventually returned to France in November and slipped through a British naval blockade to reach Brest, is a good source for the endemic French weaknesses. Two weeks after anchoring in Fort Royale, on 20 March, he wrote to the Navy Minister Berryer as follows: ‘I have found everything chaotic and disorganised, the people terrified, order and hierarchy virtually annihilated . . . I have not been consulted or warned about conditions here and the governor lets everything go to pot and does nothing.’ Two months later, after the capitulation, Bompart was even more acidulous, wrote despairingly of the loss of French prestige and spoke of the way the neutral islands were going over wholesale to the British side. A letter to Berryer on 22 May contains the following: ‘Dominica is now removed from the orbit of His Most Christian Majesty and has signed a pact of neutrality (i.e. friendship) with the British. The French on that island sell our enemies their best produce . . . Guadeloupe’s favourable economic position now under the British is making people in Martinique think . . . Grenada now has a glut of sugar and the French West Indies are now in economic crisis, since exports to Canada and Louisbourg have ceased.’ Now the only outlet for French sugar and coffee was France itself, with whom the islands had secure communications only in neutral Danish or Dutch shipping. And even the neutral flag did not protect such shipping against British privateers. Needless to say, British tribunals invariably declared such captures lawful prizes.

The letter to Berryer is worth following up, for it expresses the fundamental truth that Guadeloupe did very well out of the four-year British occupation from 1759 to 1763. The planters in the islands of the British West Indies wanted and expected draconian treatment of the conquered Antilles isles and required as an absolute minimum some of the following: expulsions, high taxation, oaths of allegiance, land expropriation, a ban on the production of sugar, cocoa and coffee. Yet almost the reverse happened. In the four years of their occupation, the British developed Pointe-à-Pitre as a major harbour, opened English and North American markets to Guadeloupean sugar and allowed the planters to import cheap American lumber and food. After being boosted by imports, Guadeloupe overtook Martinique’s slave population, and until 1763 half of all French slave carriers had Martinique and Guadeloupe as their destination (the other main ones being Guyana and Grenada). To general stupefaction in the islands, the French planters were not expelled. How was this possible? The main reason was that Moore and Barrington allowed exceptionally generous terms at the surrender, which in turn reflected uncertainty in London as to whether Guadeloupe was to be taken over as a permanent conquest or simply subject to temporary occupation.

In the articles of capitulation, Moore and Barrington allowed the Guadeloupeans to be neutral, to have complete religious freedom and security for both church and lay property, to enjoy their old laws, to pay no more duties than at present and, if Guadeloupe was retained after the peace, to pay no more than 4.5 per cent taxes on exports (the lowest rate in the Leeward Islands) – in effect granting the island most-favoured-nation status; moreover the people would not have to provide barracks for the British army or supply forced labour – all labour would be paid for and blacks employed only with the consent of their masters. This last was a remarkable concession, as it put Guadeloupe planters ahead of any other slave-owners in the West Indies, whether British or French. As an added bonus, it was agreed that anyone free of debt could leave at once for Martinique and/or send their children to be educated in France. The most remarkable concession of all was Article Eleven of the capitulation which promised that, until peace came, no British subject could acquire land in Guadeloupe.

Guadeloupe’s position improved almost magically once removed from the domination of Martinique. American merchants supplied all the goods of which the island had hitherto been starved. The only problems remaining for the French planters were how to export coffee to England and how to import wine from France, and they solved these easily by smuggling. Slave merchants did particularly well, and there were 7,500 more black slaves on Guadeloupe in February 1762 than there had been in 1759. In the general atmosphere of bonanza the British authorities had one overriding problem: tightening up the nexus that bound debtors and creditors. Under the lax pre-1759 laws, creditors had rarely been paid, and the British feared that if they advanced credit to the planters and Guadeloupe was returned to France as part of a general peace, they would not get their money back. Indeed, certain shrewd operators in the French mercantile community had worked out that, having escaped their French creditors when the British took over, they might in turn escape their British ones once peace came, and thus complete a double-whammy of debt evasion.

Soon the prosperity and special concessions made to Guadeloupe led to jealousy and bitterness in the other islands of the West Indies, both British and French. Barbados began to complain that market prices had increased because of the huge demand in Guadeloupe, while in London absentee West Indies planters were angry at plummeting prices when Guadeloupe sugar starting flooding the market in 1760. Martinique was deeply resentful of the favourable deal obtained by its fellow countrymen in Guadeloupe, and this may have been a factor in the speedy surrender of Martinique to the British in 1762. Martinique, however, managed to live on the proceeds of privateering in the three years between the first and second British attack, partly because its own corsairs were more successful after 1759 than previously and partly because British privateers, discouraged by a recent decision in the Court of Prize Appeals in England, largely ceased their depredations; moreover, the Royal Navy blockaders spread themselves too thinly among the islands. Besides, Versailles belatedly decided to do something for the Antilles and, as a reward for repelling the British, Martinique was opened to neutral shipping after February 1759; no special trading licence was required and the normal fee of 3,000 livres was waived. For all these reasons Martinique was able, if not quite to hold its own against Guadeloupe, at least to enjoy, paradoxically, greater prosperity after 1759 than before.

The West Indian campaign was an unusual venture in eighteenth-century terms, when amphibious operations were rare. Anachronism is the enemy of history and 1759 can be understood only if we realise how far the mentality of warriors of that time was from the twentieth-century sensibility, inured to combined land and sea assaults like those in Operation TORCH in North Africa in 1942, the assault on Sicily in 1943, the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944, to say nothing of an entire chapter of seaborne invasions in the Pacific War (in the Gilberts, Marshalls, New Guinea, the Philippines and Okinawa). Nonetheless, all the elements of modern combined operations were there in primitive form in 1759: naval bombardments, flat-bottomed naval craft, perilous landings in the teeth of underwater obstacles, beachheads secured only at great cost in human life.

Although Pitt’s conception of Guadeloupe as a trading counter for Minorca inspired the enterprise, when peace negotiations to end the Seven Years War began in 1762, the British proved remarkably reluctant to give up their acquisitions in the French West Indies. There was a powerful lobby that wanted to hang on to Guadeloupe and was even prepared to return Canada to France if that could be accomplished. The Canada-versus-Guadeloupe debate became one of history’s most famous controversies. There are even those who argue that if Britain had retained Guadeloupe and returned Canada to France, the impossibility of an independent United States would have been doubly determined, both by the French presence in North America and by the absence of the French seapower in the Caribbean that ultimately made Yorktown in 1781 possible. 1759 changed world history in more ways than one.

1759 – British expedition against Martinique and Guadeloupe

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