The French Navy After 1815 Part I

In the post-1815 era the French Navy was employed on numerous overseas operations, supporting French colonial expansion or in the service of foreign policy objectives. In 1837-38, for example, France demanded reparations from Mexico for the sufferings of its expatriate citizens caught up in Mexico’s political upheavals. Failing to obtain satisfaction, France sent a squadron of frigates and smaller vessels to bombard the fortress of San Juan de Ulua (Saint Jean d’Ulloa) at Veracruz on 27 November 1838, which surrendered. It was an early outing for Paixhans’ new shell guns, and combined with mortar fire from bomb vessels, their success against strong stone-built fortifications took naval observers by surprise. This print is after a painting by Théodore Gudin.

A eyewitness pencil drawing from the sketchbook of Captain George Pechell Mends, RN depicting the fifteen-strong French fleet rendezvousing with the British in Besika Bay on 14 June 1853, prior to the joint squadrons entering the Black Sea. As a naval officer Mends meticulously recorded the details of the French ships, which he listed (from the head of the line, right to left) as: Ville de Paris 130 Vice Flag, Sané [paddle frigate], Jupiter 90, Bayard 100, Caton, Henri IV 100, Magellan, Valmy 130 screw Rear Flag, Napoleon screw 90, Mogador, Montebello 120, Charlemagne screw 90.

1816 to 1830: Rebuilding a Fleet

The French navy emerged from the Napoleonic Wars in a gravely weakened condition. It had lost almost a third of its ships of the line in the fall of Napoleon’s empire. Its personnel were in disarray because of a shortage of seamen and the return from exile of many royalist officers. It had no money, because France was bankrupt from the war and had to pay an enormous indemnity to the victors before their troops would leave her soil. Most important, its naval policy had not worked: after 22 years of concerted French efforts to destroy the British navy and merchant marine, at 1 January 1815 Britain had 214 ships of the line built and building and a merchant marine that was larger and more prosperous than ever, while France was left with a navy and a merchant marine that had been all but driven from the seas.

The navy’s main remaining assets were its ships and its administrative structure, but the ships disappeared rapidly. In mid-April 1814 the navy still had a large force of 104 ships of the line and 54 frigates afloat or under construction. By August this had fallen to 73 of the line and 42 frigates, due primarily to the surrender of ships located in European ports and building in shipyards outside France’s new borders. By late 1819 the fleet had shrunk to 58 of the line and 34 frigates afloat or on the ways, most of the others having been found to be too rotten to be worth repairing. In 1817 the navy estimated that, at this rate of decay, the fleet would disappear completely in ten years.

In response Pierre Barthelémy, Baron Portal, Minister of Marine from 1818 to 1821, developed the Programme of 1820, the first of the comprehensive plans that shaped the evolution of the navy during the next forty years. This programme defined the composition of a realistically attainable fleet, set a target date for its completion, and determined the amount of money required per year to meet the target. In its final form, promulgated in 1824, the programme provided for a fleet of 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates afloat. Portal calculated that this force could be created in ten years with an annual budget of 65 million francs (of which 6 million were for the colonies). He secured a political consensus to work towards this fiscal goal, even though only 50 million francs could be provided in 1820.

Portal’s programme took advantage of the few weaknesses that could be seen in Britain’s naval position. It reversed the traditional relationship between battleships and cruising ships in the fleet – as recently as 1814, France had had twice as many ships of the line as frigates. The new programme emphasised frigates to exploit the enormous problems that Britain would face in trying to defend worldwide trade and colonies. It retained a battle fleet, not to stand up to Britain alone, but to serve as a nucleus for an anti-British coalition fleet. This battle fleet was also designed to ensure that France would face no other maritime challenges: if she could not be number one, she could at least be an undisputed number two.

Refinements were soon made to the programme. The navy realised that ships left on the building ways, if properly ventilated and covered by a protective shed, would last almost indefinitely without decaying and would also have a longer service life after launching because their timbers would be better seasoned. Equally important, maintaining ships in this way was highly economical. The navy eventually decided that a third of the planned 40 ships of the line and 50 frigates would not be launched but would be kept complete on the ways. An additional 13 battleships and 16 frigates would be on the ways at less advanced stages of construction. These decisions led to a large increase during the 1820s in the number of building ways in the dockyards and in the number of ships laid down on them. At the same time the navy’s ordinary budget slowly increased, finally reaching the 65 million franc goal in 1830.

One reason the French navy survived the lean years after the Napoleonic Wars was the constant demand for its services. Within a few years naval stations were established in the Antilles, the Levant, and off the east coast of South America, and others were later created in the Pacific and in the Far East. Reoccupation and development of the few colonies left to France was given high priority. One of the navy’s most famous shipwrecks occurred when the frigate Méduse was lost in 1816 while leading a force to reoccupy Senegal. A few small ships were assigned to each of the reoccupied colonies for local duties. Among these were the navy’s first two steamers, Voyageur and Africain, built for Senegal in 1819. Scientific activities were also prominent. In 1820 (a relatively typical year), one corvette was in the process of circumnavigating the globe, two ships were surveying the Brazilian coast, three were producing definitive charts of the French coast, and one was charting the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

A series of crises gave the navy some new operational experience. In 1823 French troops invaded Spain to put down a revolution which had begun in 1820. Over 90 ships including four ships of the line supported this operation. In 1827, during the Greek war for independence, a French squadron joined British and Russian forces in annihilating the Turco-Egyptian fleet in the Battle of Navarino. In 1830, following several years of diplomatic disputes, the navy landed an army and took the city of Algiers. The invasion force included 11 ships of the line and 25 frigates.

Less sensational activities, including support for French occupation troops in Spain, Greece, and Algeria, large diplomatic missions to Haiti in 1825 and Brazil in 1828, and an expedition to Madagascar in 1829, created constant demands for additional ships and men. The active fleet of 76 ships planned in the 1820 budget exceeded the number of ships in commission in 1789, and unanticipated requirements increased the number of ships actually used during all or part of 1820 to 103. By 1828 this figure had exactly doubled to 206 ships, and it remained at this high level during the extensive operations in 1829 and 1830.

1830 to 1840: Retrenchment and Experimentation

In 1830 a liberal revolution brought to power King Louis-Philippe. The new king’s backers believed that high government spending was one of the main causes of economic distress and political disorder, and they immediately imposed major budget cuts. The navy, which had just reached the expenditure level of 65 million francs per year called for by the Programme of 1820, was ordered to cut its budget request for 1831 to 60.5 million francs. The restrictions on spending continued in effect throughout the 1830s, and the ordinary navy budget did not again reach 65 million francs until 1838. Even more serious, extraordinary appropriations, which had funded the remarkable expansion of the navy’s operations in the 1820s, were even more severely limited and did not reach the level of 1828-30 again until the crisis of 1840.

The impact of these cuts was particularly evident in the shipbuilding programme because the navy’s other expenses, notably personnel and operations, were relatively inflexible. In late 1834 the navy increased the proportion of Portal’s fleet to be kept on the ways from one-third to one-half to allow the dockyards to begin a few new ships with funds that otherwise would have been used to maintain some older ships. This change, along with other changes made to Portal’s programme during the 1820s, was formalised in a new programme promulgated by royal ordinance on 1 February 1837. The programme also confirmed the navy’s need for two ship classes, the 74-gun ship of the line and the 3rd Class frigate, which some politicians wanted to abolish.

Despite the new programme, the strength of the fleet declined in the late 1830s. The programme called for 53 ships of the line and 66 frigates afloat and on the ways, but between December 1834 and December 1839 the total number of battleships fell from 51 to 46 while frigates fell from 60 to 56. The deficit was in the number of ships under construction, a situation which was aggravated by the fact that operational requirements kept the number of frigates afloat substantially higher than in the new plan.

The distribution of the fleet during the 1830s remained essentially as it had been at the end of the 1820s. The station cruisers remained busy, and were augmented by special forces sent in response to disputes with Colombia, Haiti, Mexico, and Argentina. An expeditionary force bombarded the fortifications of Veracruz in Mexico in 1838. The South Atlantic station began a blockade of Buenos Aires in the same year, and a special expedition finally secured a treaty from the Argentines in 1840. In Africa, the navy took possession of the mouth of the Gabon River in 1839 and subsequently established a few trading posts in the Gulf of Guinea. The navy was particularly active in scientific expeditions in the late 1830s, undertaking several circumnavigations of the globe.

The navy was also very active in Europe. In 1831 a squadron fought its way up the Tagus to Lisbon in a dispute with Portugal. Another squadron supported Belgian independence against the Dutch between 1831 and 1833, and another occupied Ancona following insurrections in Italy in 1832. Naval stations in Spain were re-established in 1834 in response to the Carlist revolution in Spain. In 1836 and 1837 a fleet was maintained off Tunis to prevent interference with the French occupation of the interior of Algeria. In 1838 this force was shifted to the Levant as relations between the Sultan of Turkey and his nominal vassal, Mohammed Ali of Egypt, approached breaking point.

1840 to 1852: Ferment

The Levant crisis gave the French navy its biggest test between 1815 and the Crimean War in 1854. War between Turkey and Egypt broke out in 1839, generating a crisis between France, which supported Mohammed Ali, and Britain, which supported Turkey. The French Levant squadron reached an average level of 16 ships, including 9 ships of the line, during the first half of 1840. It also reached a level of operational readiness that was admired even by British naval officers. In the meantime, the French decided to launch three ships of the line from its reserve of ships on the ways and take other measures to raise the number in commission to the twenty called for under the Programme of 1837.

Despite this demonstration of French naval strength, the British in July 1840 succeeded in forming a coalition with Austria, Prussia, and Russia to force Mohammed Ali to withdraw. An intense diplomatic crisis between Britain and France ensued, but France found it had no choice but to back down. The British squadron in the Levant was larger than the French (it contained about 14 ships of the line to the French 9) and it was backed by much greater resources at home in money and men. France tried to launch and commission 12 frigates then on the ways but suspended the effort when it realised it would not be able to find enough seamen to man them until the fishing fleet returned from the Grand Banks at the end of the year.

The crisis showed that the naval policy followed by France since 1815 had grave weaknesses that could no longer be ignored. It demonstrated that the fleet of the 1837 programme could not cope with the British battle fleet in cases such as 1840 in which France had no allies. It also showed that the policy of retaining ships on the ways for rapid launch during a crisis was an illusion. On the positive side, the crisis led to a relaxation of the fiscal constraints on the navy-it was clear that the navy’s requirements had outgrown Portal’s standard 65 million franc budget.

In the 1840s the navy focused its attention on steam as an alternative way to offset British sea power. The programme of 1837 had included 40 steamers of 150nhp and above, but since then much larger steamers had become practicable. In 1842 the French navy established a programme for a steam navy that would parallel the sail navy. It was to include 40 combat steamers: five `steam frigates’ of 540nhp, fifteen of 450nhp, and twenty `steam corvettes’ of 220nhp. The smaller ships already on hand (mostly the 160nhp Sphinx class) remained useful for messenger, transport, and colonial duties, and thirty were included in the programme.

At first, not much progress was made with the new programme because of lack of construction facilities and money, but studies of the role of steam in the fleet continued. The most famous was a pamphlet published in 1844 by François Ferdinand Philippe Louis Marie d’Orleans, Prince de Joinville, a son of the king who had chosen the navy as his career. Joinville claimed that steam would allow France to offset British supremacy in numbers by concentrating its forces at a point of its choosing, overwhelming local opposition, and either ravaging the coast or landing an army. His pamphlet triggered a major naval scare in Britain and the construction of many new fortifications along the British coast. Joinville went on to direct a commission whose work led to a new steamer programme at the end of 1845. This programme increased the size of the planned steam fleet to 100 ships, including 10 frigates and 20 corvettes.

Joinville wanted steam frigates to be true combatants, with an armament of 30 large guns and engines of 600nhp or more. His steam corvettes were also to be combatants, but were expected to serve primarily as avisos. They were to have around eight large guns and engines of 400nhp. The plans for the frigate Isly and the corvette Roland conformed to these guidelines. The remaining 70 ships were to carry out the now-traditional messenger and transport duties of steamers and were assigned two guns at most and engines ranging from 300 to 90nhp.

The main strength of the navy remained in the sailing fleet, however. In the mid-1840s Parliament became concerned about its deterioration. The Minister of Marine, Vice-Adm. Ange-René-Armand, Baron de Mackau, took advantage of the opportunity and presented a new naval programme in 1846. In essence, it combined Portal’s sail fleet and Joinville’s steam fleet in a single programme which was to be achieved in seven years with the navy’s regular budgets and special appropriations totalling 93 million francs.

The programme contained several innovative features, all involving steam. While drawing up the programme, the navy decided to reduce the number of ships of the line under construction over and above the programmemed 40 from 13 to 4, on the grounds that the progress of steam made it prudent not to build up too big a reserve of these expensive ships. (The corresponding reserve of 16 sail frigates was retained.) It also decided to adopt one of Joinville’s recommendations and give part of the sailing fleet auxiliary steam propulsion. Parliamentary pressure caused the navy to increase the horsepower of these ships, and the final plan (not incorporated in the royal ordinance) called for four ships of the line with 500nhp engines, four frigates with 250nhp machinery, and four corvettes with 120nhp auxiliary machinery. This decision led, through many permutations, to the conversion of the ships of the line Austerlitz and Jean Bart and the construction of the corvettes Biche and Sentinelle. Parliamentary pressure also caused the navy to add to the programme two floating batteries of around 450nhp in response to the British blockships of the Blenheim type. These, however, were soon cancelled.

The execution of the Programme of 1846 was interrupted by the revolution of 1848, in which Louis-Philippe was overthrown and replaced by a second republic. The revolution ushered in a new period of fiscal retrenchment, which severely slowed down naval shipbuilding. The budgets of 1847 and 1848 had each included the planned annual instalments of 13.3 million francs, but the 1849 budget included only 2.7 million for the programme and later budgets included nothing. By the time naval activity revived in the early 1850s, further advances in steam technology had rendered the Programme of 1846 obsolete.

The navy’s operations in the 1840s were concentrated first and foremost in the Mediterranean. The Levant crisis of 1840 was succeeded by a series of operations associated with the conquest of North Africa, including an expedition led by Joinville which bombarded the Moroccan port of Mogador in 1844. A new crisis in Portugal caused the French to send another expedition to the Tagus in 1847. Elsewhere, Joinville in the frigate Belle Poule brought the ashes of Napoleon back to Paris from St. Helena in 1840. Expeditions were dispatched in 1842 and 1843 to occupy the Marquesas Islands in the Pacific, and French control was extended to the Society Islands in 1844. In 1843 the French occupied the islands of Nossi Bé and Mayotte off Madagascar, and a joint Anglo- French force bombarded Tamatave in 1845. In 1845 the French signed a treaty with Britain which required them to retain a force of 26 ships on the West African coast to help suppress the slave trade. Between 1845 and 1852 the navy was also involved in operations in Argentina, the dispute with that country having flared up again.

The 1848 revolution in France triggered revolutions throughout Europe, which kept the navy busy in European waters, especially in Sicily, at Rome, and in the Adriatic. Fiscal retrenchment, however, soon led to a substantial reduction in the number of ships in commission. Among the casualties was the West African station, which declined from 26 ships at the end of 1847 to its pre-treaty strength of around 8 ships at the end of 1849 and then to 3 ships at the end of 1851.

The French Navy After 1815 Part II

An Anglo-French squadron of steamers bombards Odessa in the Black Sea, 22 April 1854. Left to right, the attacking ships are: Terrible (RN), Vauban, Mogador, Sampson (RN), Descartes, Retribution (RN), Tiger (RN) and Furious (RN).

Impératrice Éugenie with the Escadre de la Méditerranée between May and December 1859. When this fleet anchored off Venice on 9 July 1859, without Impératrice Éugenie but with her sister Impétueuse, included the fast three-decker Bretagne, the fast 90-gunners Algésiras, and Arcole, and the corvette Monge, all of which are probably visible here. Impératrice Éugenie sailed in May 1860 for the Far East where she remained until 1867

1852 to 1861: Towards a New Fleet

On 2 December 1851 Louis Napoleon carried out a coup d’état which gave him control of the government and made him, a year later, Emperor Napoleon III. The new regime quickly embarked on a revolutionary transformation of the battle fleet from sail to steam, which it finally codified in 1857 in a new naval programme just before another technological revolution took place.

In early 1852, the first French screw ship of the line to run trials, Charlemagne, demonstrated that the large screw-propelled warship was a practical reality. At this time, the navy estimated that Britain had afloat or under construction 10 such ships compared to 3 for France. Shortly thereafter, the new French government substantially increased the funds available to the navy for shipbuilding in 1852 and 1853, and in mid-1852 the navy decided to use the funds to convert seven more ships of the line along the lines of Charlemagne.

In justifying this programme, the Minister of Marine (then Théodore Ducos) told his senior advisory council in May 1852 that he felt France’s strategy in a war with Britain should be to strike hard at British commerce while threatening a rapid, unexpected landing on the coasts of the United Kingdom. The need for speed and carefully coordinated operations ruled out the construction of additional sailing ships. Converted ships like Charlemagne could make a substantial contribution with their dependable speed of around 8 knots. (They were also a practical necessity, as they made use of existing materiel and could be completed more quickly than new ships.) Fast ships of the line like Napoléon would be even more appropriate, but the navy avoided committing itself to this type before the trials of the prototype. The sensational success of Napoléon in August 1852 caused the navy to start additional ships of the type as quickly as possible. Five new ships and one conversion (Eylau) were begun in 1853 alone.

In Britain, the return of a Bonaparte to absolute power in France aroused old fears and triggered a full-blown naval scare in 1852 and 1853. Between August and November 1852 the Admiralty responded to developments in France by ordering the conversion to steam of eleven additional ships of the line, and more soon followed.

Ironically, this period of rivalry soon gave way to a period of close cooperation as the two nations combined their efforts in the Crimean War against Russia. In September 1853 the fleets of the two powers entered the Dardanelles together, and they continued to coordinate their operations in the Black Sea and the Baltic until the end of the war in 1856. They also shared some of their latest technological developments, the British receiving the plans of the French armoured floating batteries and the French receiving plans of British gunboats.

In October 1853 Napoléon gave dramatic proof of the importance of steam by towing the three-decker sailing French flagship Ville de Paris up the Turkish straits against both wind and current while the British fleet had to wait for more favourable conditions. Subsequent operations reinforced the lesson that only screw steamers could be considered combatant warships. In October 1854, while preparing the list of construction work to be undertaken in 1855, the ministry of marine proposed converting to steam all 33 of its remaining sailing ships of the line in the next several years. One-third of the resultant fleet was to be fast battleships like Napoléon (including a few conversions like Eylau), and the remainder were to be conversions like Charlemagne. Conversions of existing ships of the line were carried out as quickly as the ships could be spared from war operations.

The Crimean War placed heavy operational demands on the navy. Fleets were required in both the Black Sea and the Baltic. The French used 12 ships of the line in the Baltic during 1854 and 3 in 1855; they used 16 in the Black Sea in 1854 and 31 during 1855 (including about 19 as transports). The principal naval engagements involving the French were all against fortifications: the capture of Bomarsund in the Baltic in August 1854, the bombardment of Sevastopol in the Black Sea in October 1854, the capture of Kinburn in the Black Sea in October 1855, and the bombardment of Sveaborg in the Baltic in November 1855. The bombardment of Sevastopol was carried out by ships of the line and was a failure – Napoléon, one of many ships damaged, was forced to withdraw after a shell produced a large leak in her side. In contrast, the bombardment of Kinburn exactly a year later made extensive use of technology developed during the war and was a success. The French armoured floating batteries proved practically impervious to the Russian shells, while groups of gunboats, mortar vessels, and armed paddle steamers also inflicted heavy damage on the defenders.

In May 1855 the Minister, Admiral of France Ferdinand-Alphonse Hamelin, circulated to the ports a list of questions raised by the October 1854 memo regarding the composition of the battle fleet. In August 1855 a navy commission, formed at the Emperor’s direction to examine the responses, drafted a formal programme for the modernisation of the fleet. The key elements of its programme were a combat fleet of 40 fast battleships and 20 fast frigates and a fleet of transports large enough to transport an army of 40,000 men. While the combat fleet was being built, the navy was to rely on a transitional fleet of screw ships converted from sail, which was to be completed as quickly as possible. This plan called for the expenditure of 245 million francs in 13 years beginning in 1857. The commission was reconvened in December 1855 to consider the implications of the success of the armoured floating batteries at the bombardment of Kinburn in October. It completed the technical and fiscal details of the programme in November 1856, and the Emperor referred the plan to the Conseil d’Etat in January 1857 for study. Three changes were made during 1857. Two ship of the line conversions were deleted (Friedland and Jemmapes). The number of transports was reduced from 94 to 72, probably reflecting a decision to abandon all but five of the frigate conversions and instead convert some sailing frigates to steam frigates. The financial arrangements were also changed to provide for the expenditure of 235 million francs over 14 years beginning in 1858. The final programme was promulgated by imperial decree on 23 November 1857.

While refining the technical portion of the programme in late 1856, the navy’s engineers under Stanislas-Charles-Henri-Laur Dupuy de Lome, designer of Napoléon, had included a clause allowing the Minister of Marine to replace ship types in the programme with others equivalent in military strength and construction cost. Dupuy de Lome knew better than most how quickly the programme would become obsolete, because he was already working on the plans for the world’s first `armoured frigates’. In March 1858 the Minister (Hamelin) ordered the first three of these, including Gloire, and simultaneously cancelled construction of two fast 70-gun ships of the line, Desaix and Sébastopol, which had not yet been laid down and a proposed class of fast 40-gun steam frigates. By October 1858 the navy had decided that the new armoured frigates were not just equivalent but superior to line of battle ships. At the same time, it replaced the fast frigates in the programme with smaller `cruising frigates’. (Two similar `station frigates’, Vénus and Minerve, followed by a series of `armoured corvettes’, were eventually built in the 1860s.) The Programme of 1857 remained the legal basis for the modernisation of the French fleet to the end of the 1860s, but the ships built under it bore little resemblance to those in the initial 1855 proposal.

The navy saw considerable action in the 1850s besides the Crimean War. In 1851 a French force carried out a reprisal bombardment of the Moroccan port of Salé. In 1853 the navy occupied the Pacific island of New Caledonia. In 1855 the French in Senegal began to expand their control upriver into the interior of Africa. In 1856 Britain and France agreed upon joint operations for the revision of their treaties with China, and two joint naval and military campaigns were conducted before another treaty settlement was made in 1860. During this operation, the French occupied Saigon in 1859 and over the next few years took control of all of Cochinchina.

Elsewhere, the traditional Anglo-French rivalry was quick to revive. A French naval and military intervention in the Danube principalities after the Crimean War aroused British fears of a Franco-Russian alliance. The Franco-Austrian war of 1859, in which France helped Italy become independent, antagonised British conservatives as much as it delighted liberals. The French navy helped transport and supply the French armies in Italy and blockaded the northern Adriatic ports. Such activity focused British attention on the naval balance, and they found that France had reached near parity in fast steam ships of the line and had an advantage in the number of ironclad warships under construction. In February 1859 the Admiralty triggered the third major Anglo-French naval scare since 1844, which intensified in 1860-61 as France led the world into the ironclad era.


The massacre on the forecourt and in the church of Madeleine in Beziers July 22, 1209


The twenty-four-year-old Viscount of Béziers knew by the time the crusader army left Montpellier on 20 July that his city was the first military objective of the crusade. By the morning of 21 July, before the army’s arrival, the viscount had arrived in Béziers to discuss what to do with its inhabitants. At a gathering of citizens he exhorted the people of the city to defend themselves against the crusaders and promised them quick reinforcement. After delivering this pep talk he rode on to Carcassonne to prepare the defenses there. Our two main chroniclers interpret Raimon- Roger’s quick exit from Béziers differently. William of Tudela suggests the viscount’s personal leadership was necessary at Carcassonne, and this certainly sounds plausible. Evidently Raimon-Roger believed, as did everyone on either side, that the citizens of Béziers did not need his actual presence in order to resist the crusade. Peter Vaux-de-Cernay believes Raimon-Roger fled his duties out of fear of the approaching army. Based on Raimon-Roger’s solid conduct later that summer defending Carcassonne the former source is probably more accurate here. The viscount’s advance warning of the army was evidently sufficient to allow those who wished to flee the city to do so, because the Jews of Béziers left with their viscount and traveled to Carcassonne and points west. The Jews apparently believed that they would be especially vulnerable to the depredations of a crusade, based on crusader conduct dating back to the First Crusade.

By the time the crusader army reached Béziers on the evening of 21 July few residents had opted to flee. Renaud of Montpeyroux, Bishop of Béziers, had accompanied the northern army on part of its journey and now entered his episcopal city in a last effort to convince his flock to give up before blood was spilled. At a large public gathering, probably in the cathedral church of Saint Nazaire, the bishop strongly urged the citizens of Béziers to make their peace with the crusade, even if it meant some despoliation of their goods. He urged them to hand over all heretics to the crusade and even had a list of Cathars to help facilitate their removal. Failing that, he encouraged loyal Catholics to flee the city in order to avoid being lumped in with the heretics. His words did not meet with a favorable reception. Well aware of the army’s size, since they could see it before them, and fully warned by their own bishop, why did the citizens of Béziers not comply with the demands of the crusade? First, there was the obvious reluctance to hand neighbors, friends, and relatives over to a crusading army that would certainly not treat them well. Secondly, there was the common though unexpressed belief that the odds were with them because it was hard for an army to take a city quickly, particularly one of Béziers’s size and geographic location atop high hills above the Orb river. The Bitterois had had time to strengthen the city’s defensive works, as related in an anecdote by Peter Vaux-de- Cernay. Indeed the citizens assumed they could still hold out even after a month of sieging. Third, the townspeople were sure that the huge size of the crusading army would actually be its downfall, believing it could last no more than two weeks. Any substantial pre-modern western army would quickly outstrip its food supply, and this, along with the fact that the undisciplined nature of any army of this polyglot composition and large size meant it would dissolve as quickly as it formed, was something the people of Béziers counted on. Finally there were the tactical and geographical difficulties inherent in besieging a city, particularly one like Béziers, a town of between 10,000 and 14,500 people. William of Tudela’s account and the legates’ letter reported how strong and well defended it was.

The army encamped on the left side of the Orb at least 220 meters from the walls. The siting of the crusader camp, down below the heights where the cathedral church stood and deceptively far away across the river, lulled the people of Béziers into a false sense of security. The Orb cannot be forded anywhere close by, so the crusaders had to cross a single bridge which would have been under close surveillance by the citizens. To get into the castrum required climbing a steep hill, on top of which perched the cathedral church. The advantage clearly lay with the people of Béziers even though they were outnumbered by the crusade army.

Even though the storm and sack of Béziers is an infamous incident it is not well served by the sources. The only eyewitness account was left by the papal legates Milo and Arnaud-Amaury, but their exuberance reduces their accuracy. Our main chroniclers all left unsatisfactory accounts, though there is fairly wide agreement among modern scholars as to the sequence of events. The day after the arrival of the crusade army, trouble began almost immediately between the crusaders and the Biterrois. Behind their high walls and strong defenses, the citizens of Béziers badgered the crusader army camped across the river with jeers, sorties, and arrow fire. In a scuffle on the single bridge over the Orb, a crusader was hacked to death and thrown over the bridge. The main brunt of the citizens’ harassment fell on the thousands of pilgrims and camp followers of both sexes who had encamped closest to the bridge and walls. The sources consistently use the same type of words to describe these camp followers: ribaldi, arlotz, vulgi, and gartz. Figuring out what they mean by those terms is not easy. Peter Vaux-de-Cernay says they were ‘‘sergeants (servientes) of the army, who in the popular language were called ‘ribalds.’’’ Clearly this referred to the less affluent crusader infantry, but Peter Vaux-de-Cernay usually uses pelegrini or crucesignati to describe crusader-pilgrims. Several modern historians have taken the sources’ use of the word servientes to imply that these men were the hangers-on or servants of other soldiers, knights, nobles, or prelates. Others such as Michel Roquebert have suggested that these ribalds were routiers or mercenaries, an interesting theory of some merit. It seems unlikely, however, that the thousands of soldiers on this first campaign were routiers, because of their lack of discipline and the absence of obvious financial incentive. Contrary to what Roquebert suggests, our main sources liberally use words like routier when they mean ‘‘mercenary,’’ so the fact that they do not do so here indicates something different. The enthusiasm this campaign created for those from all walks of life who joined for an indulgence suggests the ‘‘ribalds’’ were simply the poor crusader-pilgrims of the army.

A group of ribaldi grew incensed under the goading fire and harassment from the city, crossed the bridge and river, and attacked the walls and gates of Béziers. William of Tudela says they had a ‘‘king’’ or leader who mobilized them, and the existence of a leader of some kind partially explains why Roquebert thinks these may have been routiers. But the troubadour goes on to say that they grabbed clubs because they had nothing else, which suggests they were poor crusader-pilgrims, not organized mercenaries. They moved so quickly that before the militia of Béziers could respond, the ribaldi had crossed the bridge and were well on their way to battering in the gates. The nobility and knights of the crusading army held back or remained unaware of what was going on until the attack was well underway. According to the legates’ letter, at the time of the ribaldi attack, the leaders of the crusade were discussing how to get the loyal Catholics out of the city, presumably before a blockade and proper siege had begun. By the time the better-equipped crusaders realized what had happened and armed themselves, the ribaldi had penetrated the castrum. The citizens of Béziers abandoned their positions and fled to protect their families, assembling in the churches, the most defensible buildings within the city. During the frenetic capture of the city the crusade leadership could not control events, as even many knights now scrambled to get their share of loot. Within two or three hours, according to the legates’ letter, the city was firmly in crusader hands but not under any coherent leadership, and division of the spoils led to further loss of life. In the course of restoring order, the barons of the crusade began to collect the plunder and kick the garz out of the houses they had seized. Incensed, the ribaldi set the castrum on fire in retaliation for the loss of their too-easily won possessions and to ensure that if they did not get to keep what they had seized, no one would.

From this point the story tends to get inflammatory. Most famous of all is the story that supposedly at the height of the fighting, as the crusaders forced their way into the town, someone asked the legate Arnaud-Amaury how they would separate the good Christians from the heretics. His apocryphal words, ‘‘Kill them, God knows who are his,’’ reported by a Cistercian monk with a fanciful imagination, have become a byword for religious intolerance, placing what happened at Be´ziers on the top rung of pre-modern atrocities. Though Arnaud-Amaury was not above executing heretics, in 1210 this inflexible and unyielding man gave Cathars who surrendered a fair chance to abjure their heresy and so avoid execution, which heaps more doubt on the credibility of Caesarius’ report. The speed and spontaneity of the attack indicates that the legate may not have actually known what was going on until it was over.

What has proven equally controversial is the scale of the massacre inside the city. The sources all agree that a mass killing took place, but modern commentators have had trouble analyzing the sources to come up with a realistic number for those who died. One prominent scholar has simply opted for the complete annihilation of the city. The number killed in the sack reported by the legates, ‘‘almost 20,000’’ (‘‘fere viginti millia hominum’’), is by any stretch of the imagination more than the entire population of Béziers, since the city probably had fewer than the 14,500 inhabitants reported in the first reliable population figures for it more than a century after 1209. Peter Vaux-de-Cernay estimated that 7,000 people died in one church alone, La Madeleine. The structure of La Madeleine is still largely extant, and many observers including myself have concluded that the church is simply not large enough to accommodate that many people, even terror-stricken people packed in like cordwood.

Fire may have caused the death of thousands. Both William of Tudela and Peter Vaux-de-Cernay reported that the crusaders, or more specifically the ribaldi, set fire to the city. Based on other pre-modern fires, however, such as those in Constantinople in 1203–4 and in London in 1666, conflagrations rarely caused many deaths relative to the total population. In these fires, which took place in cities with populations of 200,000 or more, no more than a few hundred died. For example, in the second fire of Constantinople on 19 and 20 August 1203, when the inhabitants did not have warning and large sections of the city were destroyed, fewer than 200 people were killed as a direct result of fire.

There is also the unsavory possibility that hundreds or thousands died as the result of deliberate murder while they ran for their lives, but how many died after the city fell cannot be known. As bad as the destruction was in the city, clearly most of Béziers’s population and buildings survived, since the castrum continued to function as a major population center. Less than a month after the sack, the new Viscount of Béziers, Simon of Montfort, gave the Cistercians a house (domus) which had belonged to a Cathar, suggesting that at least some private residences escaped destruction. The swiftness of Béziers’s fall, with virtually no blockade or siege, was extremely unusual in medieval warfare and this makes what happened there seem worse for some reason. In other words, had the crusaders blockaded Béziers for weeks, then stormed the city, one might chalk up what happened after it fell as the result of pent-up frustration. The fact that many innocent Christians died with the papal legates in military command at the time makes the whole crusade seem hypocritical. We must bear in mind however, that the legates did not have much control over what occurred and that the conditions that allowed such success at Béziers would never be repeated during the Occitan War.

Of more immediate relevance is this: Béziers introduced the people of Occitania to the high stakes they faced. These included inevitable punishment, if not execution, for recalcitrant Cathars, changes in religious practices for those afraid to die for their beliefs, and political domination from the outside even for those who had always remained faithful to the church. It raised fear among the inhabitants that the northerners were better fighters than they, and it suggested they could be more brutal. What happened at Béziers greatly fostered the military reputation of northerners and helped sustain much smaller crusading armies through many troubles at least until 1216. Since Béziers gave the northerners false hope that perhaps God was on their side after all, it ensured a steady stream of crusader pilgrims for years after.

Nelson and the British Navy Frustrate Napoleon’s Strategy in Egypt

Aboukir Bay: The Battle of the Nile, 1 August 1798, Nicholas Pocock, 1808, National Maritime Museum

A week after the French occupied Cairo, Lord Nelson and his British naval task force appeared off the coast of Alexandria. French warships were anchored in shallow water just northeast of the city in Aboukir Bay in a line parallel to the shore. French Vice Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers believed he had positioned his ships close enough to the shore to prevent British warships from getting between the French line and the shore. Thus, the arrayed French warships, in combination, had nearly 500 guns facing the sea, as their commanders believed that would be the only direction from which an attack could be mounted. Brueys’s fleet included 13 ships-of-the-line and 4 frigates; however, half of the Frenchmen serving aboard the vessels were under 18 years of age and most had never seen combat.

Boldness in war often initiates its own dynamic, creating opportunities that would not have been available without first seizing the initiative and “wrong-footing” the opponent in a dash of energy, speed, and decisive force. Such attributes had been part of the French army for centuries; they certainly were part of what made Napoleon one of the greatest military commanders in recorded history. However, the British navy had developed on sea what the French had perfected on land. Conducting military operations on the European continent offered interior lines from which to operate, and the French excelled in maneuver. However, the advantages offered in Europe were not available for a global French expeditionary force where SLOCs factored into operations. By the end of the eighteenth century, the British fleet sailed the world’s oceans without peer.

On August 1, 1798, following a month in which French military power destroyed the Mamluk army in Egypt and sent the Ottoman viceroy in headlong retreat into Syria, the British naval task force consisting of 13 ships-of-the-line finally located the French fleet supporting Napoleon’s land campaign. The British naval commanders were not aware of the configuration of the seabed between the French line of ships and the shore, but, they took a calculated risk and maneuvered half the British ships between the French and the shore. Once in position, Nelson’s ships were able to open fire from two directions. Admiral Brueys’s 118-gun flagship, the L’Oriente, took volley after volley, setting fires that eventually reached her powder magazine, which then created a massive explosion. Two French ships-of-the-line and two frigates were able to cut their cables and fight their way out to sea. By the time the battle was over, a day later, one French ship was at the bottom of the bay, three still floating but generally unrecognizable, and nine French warships captured.

The English were then in a position not only to patrol the coasts of North Africa and Egypt but also, having coordinated their efforts with the ruler of the Ottoman Empire, to traverse the entire eastern coast of the Mediterranean. It was said that “Napoleon did indeed have Egypt,” but cut off from the sea, “Egypt actually had Napoleon.” On September 11, 1798, Sultan Selim III of the Ottoman Empire declared war on France and formed an alliance with Britain, Austria, Russia, and Naples. Shortly thereafter, on October 21, the people of Cairo began rioting against the French.

Having received information that an Ottoman army was forming in Syria with the objective of attacking his forces in Egypt, Napoleon decided to strike first, and on February 6, 1799, commenced operations in Palestine as he proceeded north to Syria. With a force of 13,000 troops, Napoleon fought and overran enemy forces at El Arish (February 8–19), Gaza (February 24–25), and Jaffa (March 3–7), as he moved north toward the Syrian border. By mid-March, Napoleon laid siege to Acre and from March 17 to May 21 launched 7 assaults against the seaport fortress and dealt with 11 offensive operations from the city’s besieged forces followed by the French temporarily halting the siege and withdrawing at the approach of a large army coming out of Syria. Napoleon then turned and attacked the approaching Ottoman-Syrian army at the Battle of Mount Tabor where he defeated and dispersed the force. He then resumed the siege of Acre.

Following the arrival of intelligence that a combined British-Ottoman fleet was planning on transporting a large Ottoman army for insertion into Egypt, Napoleon halted siege operations at Acre and returned to Egypt. In July 1799, the British-Ottoman fleet transported an 18,000-man Ottoman army and landed at Aboukir Bay. Napoleon promptly engaged this force in an attack mounted on July 25, killing or driving into the sea nearly 11,000 Turkish troops and taking 6,000 prisoners, including the commander of the force, Mustafa Pasha.

Following the victory at the Battle of Aboukir Bay, the French Directoire and other French leaders knew that Napoleon Bonaparte was too valuable a military leader for them to allow him to perish in the Middle Eastern theater surrounded by an overwhelming assortment of enemies and with the French unable to support or resupply his forces by sea. After the failure of French forces to take Acre, coupled with the siege of the French garrison on Malta (which would eventually fall to the British on September 5, 1800), and with the British cooperating with the Ottoman Empire, the French government knew that French control in Egypt, even if sustainable in the short term, would not create the conditions that would allow France to use it for launching operations in South Asia or in operations regarding succession issues of a crumbling Ottoman Empire.

Without the ability to challenge British naval supremacy in the Mediterranean Sea, with Britain’s intent on protecting access to India through Egypt, and without a commitment of treasure and manpower that far exceeded that which French leaders were prepared to make at the time in the Middle East, France could not successfully and politically consolidate military gains in Egypt, Palestine, or Syria. If Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign had proven anything (beyond his brilliance as an operational and tactical commander), it was that even with one of the most capable generals in history, commanding one of the finest armies in history, the political objective of leveraging tactical military supremacy in order to establish a liberal democracy within a culture fractured by years of autocratic rule was, at the time, strategically and operationally unsustainable.

British victory over the French at the Battle of Alexandria in 1801.

Following operations at Aboukir Bay, arrangements were quietly made for Napoleon to return to France where he would be promoted first consul. On August 22, 1799, Napoleon unceremoniously, accompanied by a small contingent of aides and staff, left Egypt by sea. General Jean-Baptiste Kleber was named commander of the French forces that remained in Egypt. Kleber was tasked with an orderly evacuation of French forces, but preliminary negotiations with the British were unsuccessful, and Kleber was forced to plan for continued military operations to protect French forces in Egypt. The French under Kleber successfully battled the Anglo-Ottoman coalition until 1800 when Kleber was assassinated in Cairo by a Syrian, and command of French forces was transferred to General Abdullah Jacques Menou, a French convert to Islam. Following the transfer of command, an Anglo-Ottoman invasion force surrounded French forces at Alexandria and Cairo. French army forces at Cairo surrendered on June 18, 1801, and Menou personally surrendered the Alexandria garrison on September 3. By September end, all French forces had been withdrawn from Egypt.

Following the departure of French forces from Egypt, Lord Nelson, the British admiral who helped sink French plans for the Middle East, observed at the time:

I think their objective is to possess themselves of some port in Egypt and to fix themselves at the head of the Red Sea in order to get a formidable army into India; and in concert with Tipu Siab [Sultan of Mysore], to drive us if possible from India.

Hence, the French objectives of establishing a foothold in Egypt to facilitate a move against Constantinople, the British in India, or both, were never reached. The actual results included the utter destruction of 700 years of Mamluk control in Egypt and the establishment of a vivid awareness within ruling circles in the Middle East as to how far the region had fallen behind European military capabilities and Western technology. Less apparent, but certainly not lost on an observant few, was the remarkable energy being generated by a revolutionary people under the banner of liberty, fraternity, and equality.


Martim Afonso de Sousa

This Portuguese courtier was born at Vila Viçosa toward the end of the 15th century. His father had been a loyal retainer in the household of Bragança, so young Martim was first made a page to Duke Jaime’s son, Teodosio. He later became a page under the crown prince Joao, who would ascend the Portuguese throne in December 1521 as King Joao III.

At that time, de Sousa was absent with the retinue that accompanied the widowed Queen Leonor de Austria back to her native Spain. He stayed on there to serve under the emperor Charles V and fought against the French. De Sousa also married a Spanish lady, Ana Pimentel, with whom he would have five children. In 1525, he was recalled to Portugal by Joao III. De Sousa’s cousin Antonio de Ataide, a childhood friend of the young monarch, was ennobled as Conde de Castanheira and appointed ambassador to France. His influence helped de Sousa obtain the titles of prado and alcoentre, as well as a knight- hood in the Ordem de Cristo.

De Sousa also displayed an interest in mathematics and navigation. He started studying in 1527 under the young royal tutor Pedro Nunes who was named royal cosmographer two years later. De Sousa’s interest helped him obtain command of the Brazilian expedition when it was proposed by his cousin to the king in 1530. De Sousa’s two years of exploration were judged so satisfactory that he was rewarded on his return with the title of governor general of the Portuguese East Indies.

He set sail from Lisbon on March 12, 1534, to assume office in the Far East. His first term proved highly successful, with the creation of a fortress at Diu in Cambodia and vigorous campaigns against the rajah of Calcutta. Therefore, after de Sousa’s tenure expired in 1538, he was named for a second time late in 1541. His squadron reached Goa by May 6, 1542, but his second administration was marred by corruption and dissension. The Portuguese even fought among themselves, and de Sousa was recalled in 1545. He returned under suspicion of financial irregularities and was never again employed by the Crown. He died in Lisbon on July 26, 1564.


As Spain’s settlers forsake their original Antillean outposts for the rich new kingdoms of the American mainland, traders from other western European nations begin drifting into the void. Madrid will vainly attempt to stem this transatlantic traffic into the West Indies, increasing the envy already taking hold against the Spaniards for their rising fortunes. Old World conflicts soon are transposed to the New World, beginning during the first half of the 16th century, when the rulers of Spain and France fight a series of intermittent conflicts known collectively as the Habsburg-Valois Wars (so named for their respective dynastic surnames). These are largely territorial disputes originating in Italy and Flanders that flare into open conflict during 1494-1495, 1499-1505, 1508-1514, 1515-1516, 1521-1526, 1526-1529, 1536-1538, 1542-1544, and 1552-1559, but which actually constitute an almost continuous period of strife from 1494 to 1559.

The coronation of 20-year-old Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in October 1520 intensifies this rivalry because-already being king of Spain and duke of the Netherlands-his dominions now completely encircle France. The ensuing round of hostilities from 1521 to 1526, called the First Franco-Spanish War, features numerous depredations by French privateers off the coasts of Spain, the Canaries, and the Azores Islands as they waylay vessels bound to and from the Americas. One such pair of ships, bound from recently conquered Mexico with exotic Aztec spoils, is captured in 1522 by Giovanni da Verrazano or Verrazzano-a Florentine-born navigator in the service of Jean Ango of Dieppe-and the fabulous beauty of the spoils helps to persuade François I to sponsor his own exploration of North America in quest of a Northwest Passage to Asia.

Verrazano makes landfall with his 50-man, 100-ton caravel Dauphine near what will later be- come known as the Carolinas in late February or early March 1524, coasting northward and penetrating through the Narrows into what is today New York City’s Upper Bay, hoping that it might prove to be the ephemeral waterway leading to Cathay. After a brief survey, he exits and continues his continental exploration as far northeastward as Newfoundland before regaining Dieppe on July 8 and submitting a favorable report to the king. However, it is not until after that monarch is captured at the Battle of Pavia and compelled to sign the Treaty of Madrid on January 15, 1526, and then responds by forging the so-called Cognac or Clementine League on May 2-uniting France with Florence, Venice, Pope Clement VII, and eventually England-that another three-year round of fighting explodes and the first French corsairs actually strike out across the ocean to make at- tacks in the West Indies proper.

MARCH 1526. The 130-ton Spanish galleon San Gabriel of Rodrigo de Acuña, separated by storms from Juan Garci Jofre de Loaysa and Juan Sebastian de Elcano’s seven-ship expedition bound from La Coruña (Galicia) into the South Pacific via the Strait of Magellan, is attacked by three French vessels off  the coast of Brazil before anchoring off  Santa Catarina Island on March 26 to recuperate over the next few months.

LATE 1527. After touching at Puerto Rico, the English ship Mary of Guildford under the explorer John Rutt or Rout-who has previously visited Newfoundland and the North American shoreline in quest of the fabled Northwest Passage-arrives at the city of Santo Domingo to trade and is amiably received by the city’s Spanish inhabitants. However, after the authorities in the harbor castle fi re a round at Rutt’s anchored ship, he stands back out to sea, disembarking nearby a few days later with 30 or 40 armed men seeking to barter goods for provisions. When this request is refused, the Englishmen pillage a plantation and then depart.

SUMMER 1528. The French corsair vessel Sainte Anne out of La Rochelle, which is guided by the Portuguese pilot Diogo Ingenios and accompanied by a Spanish caravel seized off  Lanzarote in the Ca- nary Islands, traverses the Atlantic and appears near Margarita Island, then briefly seizes the pearl fisheries on June 24 at Cubagua (Venezuela).

Apparently, this same pair of raiders later attacks and sinks a Spanish caravel near Puerto Rico’s Cape Rojo on August 11 before sacking and torching the inland hamlet of San German at the mouth of the Añasco River the next day, then standing away back across the Atlantic by October. San German’s residents rebuild and fortify their hamlet.

AUGUST 3, 1529. In Europe, Franco-Spanish relations are temporarily patched up after a month of negotiations by the signing of the Treaty of Cambrai (known as the “Ladies’ Peace” because it is negotiated between Charles V’s aunt, Margaret of Austria, and the French queen mother, Louise of Savoy).

DECEMBER 3, 1530. Portugal Claims Brazil. Fearful of French designs upon Brazil, which include a few trading outposts that are already beginning to dot its coastline, King Joao III decides to supersede Portugal’s sporadic private eff orts to rescue Brazil by dispatching a royal expedition of two ships, two caravels, and a galleon bearing 400 men under his retainer Martim Afonso de Sousa and his brother Pero Lopes de Sousa.

This expedition arrives from Lisbon off  Pernambuco on January 31, 1531, and sights Cape Santo Agostinho the next day. Shortly thereafter, the Portuguese capture three French ships laden with rare woods and other Brazilian produce. The commodore thereupon detaches his subordinate Diogo Leite with two caravels to reconnoiter northeastward from Pernambuco, and Joao de Sousa is sent back to Europe with a report for the monarch; the main body departs southwestward by February 17 to continue its exploration. They enter Baia de Todos os Santos and encounter a long-time Portuguese resident named Diogo Alvares Correia, who has married a Paraguaçu woman and is known among the Indians as Cararmuru or the “God of Thunder.”

APRIL 30, 1531. At midday, de Sousa’s expedition enters Guanabara Bay-dubbed Rio de Janeiro three decades previously by Amerigo Vespucci-and because of its vast, sheltered expanse and abundant resources, the Portuguese explorer decides to pause and refresh his ships. A tiny fortification is erected beside his careening beach, and peaceable relations are established with the local Tamoio natives. When de Sousa finally departs on August 1, a small group of Portuguese remain behind, although this foothold will not prosper and is soon abandoned.

AUGUST 12, 1531. De Sousa’s expedition gains Cananéia Bay, where other Portuguese and Spanish ships are found lying at anchor. Also found is a decades-old resident named Cosme Fernandes, a Jewish convert and university graduate-hence referred to as the Bacharel or “Bachelor”-who was marooned by Vespucci’s expedition as long ago as January 22, 1502. He has since married a Carijo princess. There is also a deserter from Rodrigo de Acuña’s 1526 visit, named Francisco de Chavez.

Familiar with the native trade patterns, they in- form de Sousa of rich mines lying far up the Iguaçu River in Incan territory, so the commodore dispatches 40 harquebusiers and 40 crossbowmen up- stream on September 1 under Capt. Pero Lobo Pinheiro, along with native auxiliaries and with de Chavez as their guide-none of whom will ever return; they are instead lured out into the Parana River and massacred by tribal warriors. Unaware of their fate, de Sousa puts to sea again on September 26 to continue his reconnaissance as far southwest as the River Plate estuary.

JANUARY 8, 1532. Having wrecked his flagship, de Sousa’s depleted expedition returns into Cana- néia Bay to recuperate before setting out southward 10 days later to establish a permanent Portuguese colony at what is then known as the Porto do Escravos or “Slaves Port.”

Appearing outside its bar by January 20, de Sousa’s vessels cross over after two storm-tossed days to begin erecting a fort and town, from whence they hope to probe inland and finally reach the ephemeral mines of the Incas. This settlement is christened Sao Vicente-January 22 being St. Vincent’s feast day on the Church calendar.

MAY 12, 1532. Having departed from Sao Vicente to return to Portugal for more colonists, a squadron under Pero Lopes de Sousa learns of a 30-man French outpost recently installed on Itamaraca Island by the Marseillan privateer Jean Barrau du Perret, commander of the 120-ton Pelerine. He therefore interrupts his homeward passage to capture it after an 18-day siege and supplants this stronghold with a Portuguese garrison before proceeding out across the Atlantic.

OCTOBER 10, 1532. De Sousa leads a group of settlers inland from Sao Vicente guided by the Portuguese castaways Joao Ramalho and Antonio Rodrigues-they have married the daughters of the local Guiana tribal chieftains Tibiriças and Piquerobi and are therefore familiar with the terrain and trusted by the natives. Pushing through the dense man- groves along the Quilombo River Valley, they ascend the formidable Serra do Mar onto the Piratininga Plain to found a second outpost (which will eventually become the modern city of Sao Paulo).

JANUARY 1533. Joao de Sousa reaches Sao Vicente from Portugal, bringing letters from the king informing Martim Afonso de Sousa that he is to be relieved, but he is also to be rewarded with one of the 15 new “hereditary captaincies” into which Brazil will be divided, depending on whether he chooses to remain in the New World or return to Portugal.

MAY 1533. Martim Afonso de Sousa departs Sao Vicente, leaving his brother Pero in charge of his properties while he returns to Lisbon, where he will be promoted to governor general of the Portuguese East Indies.

Shortly before leaving Sao Vicente, Martim Afonso de Sousa learns of the annihilation of Pero Lobo’s lost expedition up the Iguaçu River, which he believes has been engineered by the Bacharel Cosme Fernandes and his Spanish associates. He therefore suggests to the acting military commander who is left behind-the mill owner and militia captain Pero de Gois da Silveira-that they be arrested.

SUMMER 1533. A body of Portuguese troops under Captain de Gois advances on Iguape to detain Fernandes, who has taken up residence there with his family near his Spanish-born friend Ruy Garcia Mosquera. Apprised of the Portuguese captain’s intent, the defenders rally their numerous retainers, other disgruntled residents, as well as some 150 native archers, and prepare to resist.

To better do so, Fernandes and Garcia Mosquera seize a French privateer anchored off Cananéia and land its artillery to prepare an ambush at a trench that they have dug, covering Icapara Bar outside Iguape (modern Trincheira Bay). De Gois’s disembarkation is therefore crushed, 80 of his troops being slain and himself wounded and captured, after which Fernandes and Garcia Mosquera use his ship to mount a destructive counterattack against Sao Vicente. They thereupon decamp beyond Portuguese jurisdiction, along with their followers.

French crossbowman of the Cartier-Roberval expedition in Canada.

MAY 10, 1534. The 42-year-old explorer Jacques Cartier arrives off Newfoundland with two ships and 61 men from Saint Malo (France), searching for the Northwest Passage to Asia. After charting part of what are today the shorelines of New Brunswick and Quebec, he returns to Europe by September 5.

AUGUST 9, 1535. Cartier returns to Newfoundland with his 120-ton flagship Grande Hermine, the 60-ton Petite Hermine, and the 40-ton Émerillon and penetrates the Saint Lawrence Seaway as far south- west as Hochelaga (modern Montreal) by October 2 before retiring to winter at the Saint Charles River mouth (modern Quebec City). Although disappointed at not discovering a passage all the way through to the Far East, the Frenchman is nonetheless convinced that this new territory is “rich and wealthy in precious stones,” so he kidnaps a dozen natives before weighing anchor on May 6, 1536, carrying them to Saint Malo by July 16. Cartier’s hope is to spark interest in this new land and thus be granted Crown permission to found a colony, which he mistakenly believes to be called Canada- actually the Huron-Iroquois word for “village.”

LATE AUTUMN 1535. Relations between Paris and Madrid again begin to deteriorate regarding disputes in Savoy and Milan, so numerous French corsairs begin taking up station off the western approaches to Spain and threatening returning ships- especially those bearing treasure from recently conquered Peru. As a result, the Spanish Crown orders the establishment of an armada de la guardia de la carrera de Indias or “guard fleet for the Indies route.”

FEBRUARY 1536. War officially erupts between France and Spain when the former occupies Savoy and penetrates the Piedmont, to which the latter replies in June by invading Provence.

NOVEMBER 1536. A lone French corsair vessel cuts out a Spanish ship anchored at Chagres (Panama).

JANUARY 1537. Emperor Charles V and King François I agree to a short-lived truce.

FEBRUARY 1537. Apparently the same single French corsair ship is sighted between Cartagena (Colombia) and Nombre de Dios (Panama), where it captures a Spanish merchantman near the latter port as it is arriving with a consignment of horses from Santo Domingo.

MARCH 15, 1537. This same French vessel materializes before Havana, prompting Gov. Gonzalo de Guzman to order three of five 200-ton Spanish merchantmen anchored in his port to sortie under Lt. Juan Velazquez. They overtake and trap the shallow- draught intruder inside the harbor at Mariel (then known as the “Puerto de Tablas”), only to run aground when the French vessel escapes out to sea, and so are boarded when this raider reverses course. Two of the Spanish prizes are burned and the third manned by the triumphant Frenchmen, who return before Havana to extort ransom from its hapless villagers. Other French trespassers are also sighted near Santo Domingo.

MAY 31, 1537. A French corsair vessel enters Santiago de Cuba’s harbor and carries off some merchantmen.

JUNE 14, 1537. A dozen Spanish warships and two caravels sortie from Seville under Capt. Gen. Blasco Nuñez Vela, becoming the first fleet of warships officially assigned to escort an outward-bound American convoy, reinforce garrisons throughout the Caribbean, lift the blockade of Havana, and then return to Spain.

OCTOBER 1537. A French ship and auxiliary out of Bayonne, bearing a total of 150 men, arrive off the Lesser Antilles to prowl the Spanish West Indies.

SPRING 1538. This pair of Bayonne ships raid Ocoa, Puerto Hermoso, and La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti), bringing maritime traffic off Santo Domingo to almost a complete standstill.

APRIL 4, 1538. The large Bayonne ship pillages a Spanish brigantine exiting from Santiago de Cuba, then the next day penetrates its harbor and engages the caravel Magdalena of Diego Pérez as well as a small two-gun battery ashore. The shallow draught of Pérez’s craft allows him to gain the Frenchmen’s quarter, though, peppering the intruders with his four culverins from 11:00 a. m. until they finally withdraw an hour past midnight on April 6, having sustained about a dozen casualties. Three Spaniards die during this fray, and the French ship eventually exits Santiago Bay three days later.

MAY 1538. A French corsair ship appears near Havana and robs several houses and churches ashore. Upon learning of this attack at the island’s capital of Santiago de Cuba, 500 miles farther east-southeast, the new captain general, Hernando de Soto, dis- patches the military engineer Mateo Aceituno with 100 men. Within a few weeks of their arrival, they throw up the 6-gun fort, Castillo de la Fuerza, to guard Havana’s entrance channel (see “June 7, 1538” entry in “Expansion beyond Mexico”).

JUNE 1538. San German de Puerto Rico is sacked and burned by 80 French raiders from the Bayonne ship. During their retirement back toward their boats, they are overtaken during a rainstorm by 30 mounted Spaniards, who attack while the French- men’s powder is wet. Fifteen raiders are therefore killed and another three taken prisoner, who then are exchanged for San German’s looted church bells, plus other booty.

JUNE 15, 1538. In Europe, French and Spanish plenipotentiaries agree upon a 10-year truce negotiated at Nice by Pope Paul III, although it is some time before word of this cessation of hostilities reaches the New World.

EARLY JUNE 1540. French corsairs disembark from a single ship near San German de Puerto Rico, sacking and burning the town, along with its outlying district.

AUGUST 1540. A leaking, 400-ton English ship with a French pilot commandeers a Spanish merchantman laden with sugar and hides off Cape Tiburon (southwestern Haiti), setting its crew ashore before transferring aboard their prize. They then send their leaking vessel to the bottom and sail home in safety.

MAY 1541. As Franco-Spanish relations again be- gin to fray over differences regarding the succession in Milan, a 35-man French corsair ransacks a Spanish caravel off Puerto Rico. This same craft then sinks another victim off Mona Island before disembarking some men to loot ashore. It proceeds next to Cape de la Vela (Colombia) and robs a Spanish caravel of 7,000-8,000 ducats’ worth of pearls at Portete.

AUGUST 1541. Cartier returns to Canada with five ships, having brought an advance contingent of a few hundred settlers from France to establish a foothold for a new colony. The titular head of this enterprise-the impoverished, 41-year-old courtier Jean-François de La Rocque, Seigneur de Roberval-is to follow next year with many more colonists, hoping in the process to rebuild his fortune by serving as “lieutenant general of Canada” and exploiting its rich mineral deposits.

While awaiting his arrival, Cartier erects a small fort called Charlesbourg Royal at Cap Rouge, nine miles above present-day Quebec City, and explores the Saint Lawrence River until wintertime.

EARLY DECEMBER 1541. Thirteen well-armed French vessels ransack a Portuguese caravel off Guyana, then are joined by three other vessels to press deeper into the Caribbean and pillage the coastlines of Margarita Island, Curaçao, and the entrance to the Lake of Maracaibo (Venezuela).

JUNE 8, 1542. Roberval reaches Newfoundland with the ships Valentine, Sainte Anne, and Lechefraye, bringing 100 more French colonists to join Cartier at Charlesbourg Royal (Quebec). Instead, he is surprised to meet his subordinate in the Newfoundland harbor of Saint John’s. Cartier had earlier abandoned this advance foothold because of the harshness of the past winter and the hostility from the Iroquois. Cartier refuses Roberval’s order to return to Canada with him, instead continuing toward France with his own survivors.

Undismayed by Cartier’s disobedience, Roberval proceeds to Charlesbourg Royal and reestablishes that outpost, then begins exploring Canada. How- ever, although the population of his community is too numerous to be directly assaulted by the Indians, many of the French settlers are ill prepared to withstand the ensuing winter, and so they suffer cruelly from cold, famine, and disease. The next September (1543), they are retrieved by a rescue mission under Paul d’Austillon, Seigneur de Sauveterre, and France’s North American aspirations will be entirely forsaken for the next 60 years.

MID-JULY 1542. In Europe, tensions once more escalate between France and Spain, the Pyrenees becoming the scene of clashes one month later, followed by open declarations of war by both nations before the end of August.

FEBRUARY 1543. Two French ships and a small auxiliary attack San German de Puerto Rico, burning it and making off with four caravels lying in its harbor. A pair of Spanish galleons and two lateen- rigged caravels on the neighboring island of Santo Domingo are manned with 250 volunteers and set out in pursuit under Ginés de Carrion, captain of the galleon San Cristobal. Five days later he returns, having captured the enemy flagship and 40 of its crew, while sinking the smaller French consort.

Despite this victory, San German’s inhabitants are too frightened to return to their dwellings, preferring instead to relocate their town to Santa Maria de los Remedios in Guadianilla Bay (modern Guayanilla).

JUNE 16, 1543. Antillean Sweep. Five French corsair ships and a smaller consort bearing 800 men as- sault Venezuela’s Margarita Island, then the next month burn the once-rich pearl-fishing town of Nuevo Cadiz on adjoining Cubagua, whose population has already declined to scarcely 10 Spanish inhabitants because of the exhaustion of its pearl beds and the devastation suffered by a destructive hurricane on Christmas Day 1541. According to some Spanish sources, these raiders are commanded by Roberval (“Robertval” or “Roberto Baal”), but the French raiders may have borne commissions from him or been intending to visit his Canadian colony on their homeward leg.

JULY 16, 1543. Four of these same large French corsair vessels and a smaller consort arrive undetected before Santa Marta (Colombia), landing be- tween 400 and 500 men the next noon to occupy the port. They remain in possession for seven days, destroying everything of value before retiring with four bronze cannons and other booty.

JULY 24-25, 1543. Under cover of darkness, the French squadron-piloted into Cartagena’s bay by a Spanish turncoat embittered at a punishment received from Lt. Gov. Alonso Vejines-deposits 450 raiders ashore, who then carry this Colombian port with ease in a three-pronged attack. Its newly consecrated bishop, Fr. Francisco de Santamaria y Benavides, and an overawed populace surrender 35,000 pesos in specie, plus another 2,500 from the royal coffers, before the enemy withdraws. The next month, the raiders are anchored off Cape de la Vela, selling their booty to local residents.

SEPTEMBER 7, 1543. A single 20-man vessel detached from this same French squadron pillages a rich Spanish merchantman off Santiago de Cuba, then attempts a disembarkation, only to be repelled by its two-gun battery under Andrés Zamora. The raider emerges from the bay and proceeds westward, intending to reunite with its main force off Isla de Pinos. The French squadron, meanwhile, seizes five vessels in early October that are anchored off the new Spanish town of Santa Maria de los Remedios in Guadianilla Bay (modern Guayanilla), although the raiders are prevented from disembarking.

OCTOBER 31, 1543. The reunited, homeward- bound French squadron appears before Havana, disgorging more than 200 men at San Lazaro Inlet. Advancing across open country, the invaders are checked by fire from La Fuerza Fortress. They retreat toward their ships, leaving behind 20 dead. The rovers then depart the Caribbean altogether via the Straits of Florida.

SEPTEMBER 18, 1544. After an imperial army has fought its way to within sight of Paris, the Treaty of Crepy is signed in Europe, marking an end to this latest round of Franco-Spanish hostilities. Although François I has been constrained by this treaty to recognize Spain’s sovereignty in the Caribbean, some fighting will still persist in the New World. Cuba and Puerto Rico, in particular, continue to be harassed by French interlopers.

LATE OCTOBER 1544. Three French ships prowl past San Juan de Puerto Rico, landing at depleted San German to pillage and burn the town. Off Cape de la Vela (Colombia), another trio of French interlopers intercepts passing vessels; they also sell contra- band items to local Spanish citizens. 1545. Five French corsair vessels and a small auxiliary surprise the new Colombian port town of Riohacha (constituted only as of February 2), seizing five Spanish vessels lying in its roadstead. Unable to disembark, the raiders subsequently arrange a truce with its residents, eventually selling them 70 slaves. A similar visit by these same Frenchmen, albeit entirely peaceful, ensues at Santa Marta.


The Chevalier de Villegagnon

Nicolas Durand de Villegagnon was born at Provins in the Seine-et-Marne region of France sometime in 1510. His father was a local magistrate, who was ennobled a few years later. He died when Nicolas was only 11 years old. Nicolas was already adept at Latin, and his mother sent the young boy that same year to the Hotel de Auges in Paris. He studied at the religious schools of La Manche and Montaigu in preparation for the University of Paris. John Calvin was among his classmates.

Durand graduated from that university in 1530 with a law degree and was admitted to the bar at Orléans. But his attempt to find a post in the Parlement of Paris failed. As a result, he approached his uncle Philippe Villers de l’Isle-Adam, grand master of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, and was admitted into that order the next year, which had just been granted the island of Malta by King François I. (Although his proper name was Nicolas Durand, Seigneur de Villegagnon, this knighthood meant that he became more commonly known as “the Chevalier de Villegagnon.”)

Tall and athletic, the 21-year-old Villegagnon plunged into military and naval pursuits. In 1534, he served as an observer in the fleet gathered at Mallorca by the emperor Charles V to make an attempt against Tunis or Algiers. Six years later, he was sent to the French ambassador in Venice (incidentally befriending the poet François Rabelais). Villegagnon was given a letter from the French king to the Turkish sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, and returned to Turin next year with his reply. He also presented François with diagrams of the duke of Milan’s forts.

Pleased with his services, the French government included Villegagnon among the 400 knights of Malta attached to Charles V’s expedition against Algiers in 1541. Although only an observer, Villegagnon was wounded by a lance thrust into his left arm. While convalescing in Rome, he published a brief account of this campaign in Latin. The next year, he was sent to Budapest to report on a clash between the emperor and the Turks. Villegagnon returned in time to take part in the French defeat of the Milanese at Cerisoles and was put in command of the castle at Ponte Stura until 1547.

That same summer, he was recalled by the new French king Henri II to sweep the Brittany coast of English raiders. Villegagnon then sailed his four galleys in 1548 around Scotland and up the River Clyde to Dumbarton Castle to bring away the six-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots. More sorties ensued against Scotland and Guernsey, until he was sent to Malta in 1551, which was besieged by the Turks. While bringing back word of the order’s victory, Villegagnon was briefly held in Cremona Castle by the Austrians.

Released thanks to the emperor, Villegagnon was appointed in September 1552 vice admiral of Brittany, with orders to fortify Brest against the English. While engaged in this work, he heard tales of Brazil, so made a discreet visit to Cabo Frio two summers later. He learned that the Portuguese avoided Guanabara Bay because of its hostile natives, so he decided to plant a colony there. Returning to France, he made a four-hour presentation before Henri and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. The king agreed late in 1554, granting 11,000 livres toward this project. Villegagnon raised the rest from investors at Dieppe. However, his dream of a Utopian settlement in the New World ended bitterly. He died at Beauvais on January 9, 1571.

JANUARY 17, 1546. More than 100 French raiders under one “Hallebarde” disembark from a caravel and a smaller vessel. They ransack Baracoa in northeastern Cuba, scattering most of its inhabitants inland. The second of these Huguenot craft-after becoming separated in a storm-proceeds westward to Havana, where it extorts 700 ducats to spare its terrified citizenry’s dwellings.

APRIL 17, 1546. Hallebarde sneaks into Santi- ago de Cuba under cover of darkness, boarding a Spanish caravel at dawn that has recently arrived from Tierra Firme or the “Spanish Main” (modern Venezuela-Colombia). In little more than one hour, he carries this vessel out, with its crew still locked below decks, to loot at his leisure-an action described as “of great daring” by Gov.  Antonio de Chavez.

SPRING 1547. Two privately raised Spanish coast- guard caravels capture a French ship off Mona Island. JULY 25, 1547. Henri II ascends the throne of France.

SEPTEMBER 1547. A French ship approaches Santa Marta (Colombia) but retires when its 16- man boat crew is lured inshore and captured.

LATE MAY 1548. A French corsair vessel is sighted prowling off Santo Domingo.

AUGUST 1548. A French two-master sneaks into the harbor at Santa Marta under cover of darkness, and although crewed by only 40 men, sends a boarding party to seize Pedro Diaz’s merchantman in its roadstead. The next dawn, the rovers threaten to burn this prize if a ransom is not paid from the town. When local garrison commander Luis Manjarrés calls out his militiamen, the French bombard the town’s buildings throughout most of the day, killing two black slaves.

Shortly thereafter, these same attackers seize two Spanish caravels farther east off Cape de la Vela, as the caravels make from La Yaguana (modern Léo- gane, Haiti) toward Nombre de Dios. Both Spanish craft are robbed and scuttled.

NOVEMBER 1548. A trio of French vessels are seen prowling off San German de Puerto Rico, Mona Island, and Santo Domingo, allegedly wishing to trade, though the region’s Spanish inhabitants remain too mistrustful to oblige.

AUGUST 1549. A French corsair galliot, propelled by 18 oars per side, falls upon a homeward-bound Spanish convoy off Santo Domingo, cutting out a ship laden with sugar and hides, a caravel bearing 150 slaves, plus two smaller island traders.

NOVEMBER 1550. After pillaging a Spanish caravel off Dominica, the 80-man French ship Sacre of Bordeaux under Capt. Menjouin de La Cabane and a smaller consort attempt to snap up two stragglers from a nine-ship convoy off Santo Domingo; they are repelled by its warship escort. Unfazed, the rovers then descend upon La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti) and rob a pair of Spanish vessels of 20,000 pesos. They make off with one ship as a prize, eventually sailing to Bayonne to dispose of their booty.

LATE DECEMBER 1551. The 42-year-old French Huguenot captain Guillaume Le Testu of Le Havre, sailing past the Island of Trinidade after exploring Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil, clashes with two Portuguese ships, and his ship sustains heavy dam- age before winning free and returning to Europe.

APRIL 1552. With hostilities flaring up in Europe between France and Spain, various disembarkations are made by French corsairs on Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, as well as interceptions of four Spanish merchantmen.

JUNE 18, 1552. A French ship becomes becalmed before Nombre de Dios; its 14-man crew is captured.

AUGUST 29, 1552. Three Spanish warships and an auxiliary, manned by 130 men-the coast-guard force for Hispaniola under Cristobal Colon y Toledo, Columbus’s 29-year-old grandson-are lost in a hurricane, along with 16 vessels anchored in Santo Domingo’s harbor.

SEPTEMBER 1552. A French corsair ship and smaller consort pillage a Spanish ship off Santo Domingo before retiring to Saona Island. These same French- men then return to Santo Domingo’s southeastern shore to make off with a ship recently launched at the Zoco River.

EARLY FEBRUARY 1553. A Spanish caravel serving as a dispatch vessel or aviso is taken by French rovers off Mona Island.

MARCH 1553. Le Clerc’s Sweep. A French squadron from Le Havre comprising the royal warships Claude under peg-legged Commo. François le Clerc (alias “Jambe de Bois” or “Pie de Palo”), Espérance under Jacques de Sores, and Aventureux under Robert Blondel arrive in the Antilles accompanied by three large and four small privateers, plus two Spanish prizes seized at Santa Cruz de la Palma in the Canaries. They bear a total of 800 men with which to raid Spain’s West Indian outposts.

San German de Puerto Rico, Mona and Saona islands, and Azua are attacked in quick succession before Le Clerc deposits a large landing force on April 29 to sack Monte Cristi on northern Santo Domingo and then La Yaguana (modern Léogane, Haiti), after which the rovers stand back toward Puerto Rico. Spanish residents among the islands feel powerless to resist, for not only are four of these French craft galliots “whose oars ensure none can escape


” but half their total complement consists of harquebusiers. Laden with hides, sarsaparilla, and other booty, the French raiders make a final descent upon Santiago de Cuba before exiting the Caribbean in late May.

MARCH 1554. Having reentered the West Indies the previous month, three French ships under Le Clerc and Sores appear before San Juan de Puerto Rico, and on Palm Sunday-March 18-they raid more than three miles inland near San German. Afterward, they take up station off Saona Island, intercepting Spanish vessels, then later switch their base of operations to Mona Island.

APRIL 29, 1554. Off Cabo Frio (Brazil), the French ship Marie Bellotte of Dieppe captures a Portuguese vessel.

JULY 1, 1554. Destruction of Santiago de Cuba. Le Clerc’s subordinate, the Huguenot corsair Sores of La Rochelle, leads four ships and four smaller auxiliaries into Santiago de Cuba harbor under cover of darkness and slip 300 men ashore; they fall upon its sleeping residents and occupy the city without resistance. Bishop Fernando de Uranga and a half- dozen other prominent citizens are subsequently held hostage for almost a month and a half, until a ransom of 80,000 pesos can be raised. The French thereupon destroy Santiago’s fortress and burn several buildings before retiring on August 16, sparing the church in exchange for all its silver plate.

LATE AUGUST 1554. The French privateers Barbe and Marguerite under Vincent Bocquet of Dieppe, recently arrived in the West Indies, espy five large merchantmen and nine caravels off San German de Puerto Rico who have departed Santo Domingo around August 20 for Spain. Patiently tracking them across the Atlantic for more than 40 days, as far as the Azores, Bocquet finally seizes the caravel Tres Reyes Magos of the master Benito Garcia when it becomes becalmed early in October, along with the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe of Alonso Gonzalez and the Santiago of Diego Marin. The Santa Catalina of Francisco Morales Camacho is furthermore ransacked before sinking, while the Maria of Francisco Hernandez de Leon, the San Andrés of Alonso Cano, and the San Juan of Rodrigo Madera all run aground in the Azores and lose most of their cargoes. The triumphant rovers return home ladened with gold, cochinilla, and pearls, leaving the shrunken remnants of this Spanish convoy to limp into Cadiz by December 7.

OCTOBER 1554. French blockaders encircle the entrance of Santiago de Cuba.

French sweeps through the Caribbean in 1555.

MARCH 1555. Three French ships disembark 150 men on southern Cuba, who march inland and burn Sancti Spiritus.

JULY 10, 1555. Sack of Havana. At dawn, two sails are spotted near this port, piloted by a Spanish renegade. They disgorge several score corsairs a mile and a half away at San Lazaro Inlet, under the Huguenot leader Sores. They advance inland and take Havana’s 12-gun Fuerza battery from the rear, burning its wooden door to gain access, and thereby compelling its two-dozen defenders under alcaide Juan de Lobera to surrender by sunup of July 12. The French then occupy the town and bring four vessels into its harbor to careen.

While in possession of Havana, Sores demands a ransom of 30,000 pesos, bread, and meat in ex- change for sparing its buildings, plus 500 pesos for every Spanish captive that he holds and 100 for each slave. Instead, Gov. Dr. Pérez de Angulo (who has managed to escape into the interior) launches a surprise assault at dawn of July 18 with 35 Spanish, 220 black, and 80 Indian volunteers, only to have this attack repelled; the startled French corsairs slaughter their 30 Spanish prisoners (all except Lobera).

The next morning, a wrathful Sores hangs numerous slaves by their heels at prominent places along Havana’s outskirts, using them for target practice in a brutal gesture intended to discourage any further Spanish assaults. His men then level the town and buildings throughout its surrounding countryside up to five miles inland before finally retiring back out to sea on August 5 with the fort’s 12 cannons.

AUGUST 1555. French Huguenots land at Santa Marta, sacking and burning its churches.

SEPTEMBER 30, 1555. A boatload of 12 French raiders from Guy Mermi’s trio of ships-anchored off Mariel (Cuba)-cut out a Spanish caravel laden with hides.

OCTOBER 4, 1555. Mermi’s trio of French ships penetrates Havana’s harbor, landing 50 men to occupy its town. Discovering it to be still defenseless since Sores’s raid in July, they are followed within a few days by at least a dozen other intruders, who rest their crews and careen their vessels. Foraging parties probe inland, securing some commercial booty-principally hides-before putting back out to sea some three weeks later. This same month, a French assault also occurs at Puerto Plata in northern Santo Domingo.

OCTOBER 25, 1555. In Europe, the emperor Charles V abdicates, dividing his territories between his son, who becomes Philip II of Spain and Sicily, and his brother Maximilian, who becomes the new Holy Roman Emperor.

NOVEMBER 10, 1555. Villegagnon in Brazil. Two well-armed vessels arrive outside Rio de Janeiro’s uninhabited Guanabara Bay (known to the French as Iteronne or Geneve), having departed Dieppe on August 14 with a mixed group of 600 Calvinists and Catholics under 45-year-old Nicolas Durand, Seigneur de Villegagnon, knight commander of the Order of Saint John of Malta and vice admiral of Brittany, who is bearing orders from Adm. Gaspar de Chatillon, Comte de Coligny, to found a new settlement in this region to be called France Australe or “Southern France” (also France Antarctique or “Antarctic France”).

His colonists disembark on Ratier (modern Laje) Island, then transfer northwest on November 13 to nearby Sergipe Island, the name of which is in the process of being changed to Villegagnon (modern Villegaignon Island). Atop this island, they erect a redoubt named Fort de Coligny, with a smaller two-gun battery commanding its channel. A town named Henryville is also founded, and a couple of relatively prosperous years ensue, with the settlers planting crops and enjoying peaceable relations with their Tamoio and Tupinamba neighbors.

The Portuguese governor general Duarte da Costa at Salvador (Bahia) is informed early the next year by Sao Vicente’s regional governor Bras Cubas about this French toehold, but the former treats the report dismissively, believing the foreigners’ presence to be merely a transitory shore camp set up by rovers. Upon realizing its permanent nature, though, King Joao III has his ambassador Joao Pereira Dantas lay protests before the government in Paris and on July 23, 1556, appoints the energetic Mem de Sa to replace the Brazilian governor general. Mem de Sa takes ship from Lisbon in late April 1557 but is slowed by a difficult Atlantic crossing.

The French colonists, in the meantime, have been reinforced on February 26, 1557, by a second expedition of three ships under the flagship Rosée that brings an additional 18 cannon and 300 people under Villegagnon’s nephew Paris Legendre, Sieur de Bois le Compte le Meaux. Religious dissension, however, also arrives with this second contingent, eventually fracturing the colony’s harmony and prompting Villegagnon to revert to Catholicism. A group of Calvinist dissidents departs aboard the old ship Jacques on January 4, 1558, followed by Villegagnon himself in October 1559-four months be- fore Mem de Sa’s first Portuguese descent.

EARLY 1556. A lone French vessel raids Santa Marta, Cabo de la Vela, Puerto Plata, Havana, and Margarita Island.

FEBRUARY 5, 1556. In Europe, a truce-the Treaty of Vaucelles-is arranged between France and Spain, which is meant to endure for five years but promptly begins to break down when the French monarch Henri II sends troops under Henri, Duc de Guise, to Italy that same spring in support of the anti-Spanish machinations of Pope Paul IV.

SPRING 1556. Capt. Guillaume Mesmin of La Rochelle appears in the Antilles with a large ship and smaller auxiliary, manned by 150 men in total, and seizes a Spanish ship that becomes wrecked on Bermuda during its homeward passage.

SUMMER 1556. A couple of skirmishes occur off Jamaica, as its local Spanish authorities succeed in capturing a few French smugglers who have come to trade.

SPRING 1557. Hispano-French warfare resumes openly in Europe, with an army invading France and defeating the forces of Henri II outside St. Quintin by August 19.

NOVEMBER 17, 1557. On orders from the Crown directed to Chile’s governor Jeronimo de Aldunate, the Spanish seaman Juan Fernandez Ladrillero sets sail from the port of Concepcion with his ship San Luis and the San Sebastian under Francisco Cortés de Ojeda to chart the Strait of Magellan. A storm separates the vessels on February 15, 1558, the latter being lost and its crew extemporizing a craft from their wreckage named San Salvador, aboard which they regain Valdivia by October 1. Fernandez Ladrillero has meanwhile struggled into the strait’s western entrance by late July 1558, charting much of its shorelines before reemerging early in March 1559, returning into Valdivia by mid-June.

JANUARY 1558. After a storm-tossed Atlantic voyage, Mem de Sa finally reaches Salvador (Bahia) to assume office as Brazil’s new governor general. His first task is to dispatch his son Fernao de Sa to assist Capt. Vasco Fernandes Coutinho at Espirito Santo, as well as to travel himself to Ilhéus, as both captaincies are in the grip of native unrest.

SPRING 1558. French corsairs renew their West Indian depredations, and the Spanish merchantman Ascension of Capt. Bernaldino Rizo is taken off Saona Island. Four French ships out of Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz also sack Puerto Caballos (modern Puerto Cortés, Honduras).

JUNE 1558. French vessels appear within Santiago de Cuba’s vast harbor, occupying its desolated town for 10 to 12 days before receiving a meager ransom of 400 pesos, then departing.

EARLY 1559. Seven French corsair vessels under Jean Martin Cotes and Jean Bontemps appear off Santa Marta (Colombia), taking a small amount of booty, against token opposition. APRIL 3, 1559. In Europe, the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis is signed between Philip II of Spain and Henri II of France, marking an end to the Habsburg- Valois Wars.


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.


“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.


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.