| War Comes to the Islands: The American Revolutionary War in the Caribbean
by Timothy Neeno
The enemy fleet was approaching. As dawn rose over the blue waters of the
Caribbean, the captain could see the long lines of ships getting closer, their
sails billowing. For months the fleet had sought a decisive battle. They had
been tracking the enemy for days, pursuing them northward. Now the French had
turned. The captain gave the order to beat to colors, and in a moment the deck
was a bedlam of activity. Gun ports sprang open. Experienced hands wheeled
heavy guns into position, while crewmen set cannonballs and casks of powder in
place. Marines scrambled up into the rigging, taking positions high in the
swaying masts to pick off officers and men on the opposing ships as they came
in range. Men began pouring buckets of sand across decks that would soon be
slippery and red with blood. It was 7:00 AM, April 12, 1782. The Battle of the
Saintes had begun.
Five times in the hundred years before the Battle of the Saintes, England and
France had gone to war with each other, striving for command of the sea, and
control of the trade that rode upon it. They had fought each other by land and
sea from the sugar islands of the Caribbean to the distant ports of India and
the icy waters of Hudson Bay. This time the British Empire stood divided. The
English colonists in America had revolted, defying the British crown. In this
war, a new nation would be born, the seeds of revolution would be planted in
France and in Latin America, and the government of England itself would be
forever transformed. For most of the war, the decisive theater of battle was
the not the Thirteen Colonies, but the sunlit waters of the Caribbean. How did
a war that began on Lexington Common spread to the shores of the Antilles and
beyond? And how did the decisions of two men, gentlemen and admirals, shape the
destiny of all the nations involved? These are questions this article will try
Americans tend to forget that the Thirteen Colonies were but a part of a vast
empire that stretched from the gray shores of Newfoundland to the jungles of
Nicaragua and Guyana and the spice entrepots of India. The islands of the
Caribbean, first revealed to European eyes by Columbus, were a vital part of
that empire. The islands of the West Indies were rich in tobacco, coffee, and
above all, sugar, and the nation that could garner the greatest share of this
trade would have wealth beyond comparison.
The American Revolution grew out of the long struggles between the British and
the French that began in 1689. In the Seven Years War (1756-63), known in
America as the French and Indian War, Britain inflicted a crushing defeat on
the French. The English drove the French entirely off the North American
continent. They broke the back of French power in India. Soon a new, British
raj would spread across the subcontinent. The French had likewise been
vanquished in the Caribbean, keeping only the sugar islands of Guadeloupe,
Martinique and St. Lucia, in the Lesser Antilles. Her Spanish Bourbon allies
lost Florida to the British, albeit being compensated somewhat in the Peace of
Paris by gaining the former French holdings in what would later be known as the
Louisiana Territory, west of the Mississippi.
The French almost got to keep Canada in the Treaty of Paris, in exchange for
handing over the tiny island of Guadeloupe. It took the British parliament
three weeks of earnest debate to decide that they would rather have Canada,
with its fur trade. That the British chose to keep Canada was a triumph for the
West Indian planters’ lobby. The planters had a monopoly on providing Britain
and her colonies with sugar. The twenty or so members of Parliament who owed
their seats to plantation money, the so-called Creolians, did not want
Guadeloupe. Britain already held Jamaica, the most important sugar island.
Further acquisitions would have glutted the British domestic market and made
sugar prices fall.
For the English colonists in America, the main result of the Seven Years War
was that their traditional enemies, the French, were now removed from the
scene. The colonists also gained a new level of cohesion and self confidence
during the long war. Colonial leaders in the legislature and the militia
learned to plan and coordinate large scale operations. They learned to
cooperate with their counterparts in other colonies, and with the British
military. Under the able leadership of William Pitt the Elder, the British
government had accepted the colonial leaders as junior partners in the war, and
had gotten results. But despite the final victory, the long war had been nearly
ruinous for the British government. By 1763, England had spent £82 million to
fight the war, leaving it with a crushing national debt of over £122 million.
The British also estimated that it would cost another £300,000 a year to guard
all their newly won possessions. George III’s advisors came to a simple, and to
them, natural conclusion: the war had been fought to protect the British
colonies in North America. As the colonies were the prime beneficiaries from
the war it was only natural that they should pay their fair share of the tax
burden to pay off the war debt. But from the time they were established in the
early 17th century the colonies had for the most part governed themselves.
Colonists elected their own colonial legislatures, staffed the militia, and
checked the power of royal governors by controlling the purse strings. Now,
when the British began instituting new taxes, on sugar, on molasses, on printed
materials, tea, etc., the colonial leadership saw it as an assault on their
Almost as bad, from the colonist’s point of view, the British began enforcing
the mercantilist Navigation Acts. The Navigation Acts had been on the books
since the Dutch Wars of the 1650s. They required the colonies to trade solely
with the mother country and other British dependencies. But for years they had
been only sporadically enforced, and the New England colonies in particular did
a thriving trade with the French, Dutch and Spanish colonies in the West
Indies. Now the British began to enforce the rules with vigor.
Here we see just how closely tied together the economies of the American and
West Indian colonies were. Most of the smuggling was in three commodities:
molasses, rum, and sugar. For years the French subsidized the slave trade with
their colonies in the West Indies. This allowed the French sugar plantation
owners to undercut British prices. If the Americans were free to do so they
would naturally buy from the French. Molasses was used in distilling rum, which
was a huge business in Boston, Newport, Philadelphia and elsewhere. British
sugar planters couldn’t provide enough molasses to keep the distilleries
running. Rhode Island distillers alone had to smuggle in two thirds of their
molasses from French or Spanish sources. To cap it off, for years the French
domestic brandy producers had used their political influence at the French
court to keep distillers from importing rum into France. So French planters
responded logically – they dumped their molasses on the market at a hefty
markdown, making it even more attractive to American buyers. In short, the
entire situation was a government regulated nightmare. It is no coincidence
that Adam Smith came out with The Wealth of Nations , his watershed
work advocating an end to these kinds of government monopolies, in 1776.
But this didn’t help the American colonists. The colonists paid for products
brought over from Britain by selling their own goods. The colonists had long
been net exporters to England. But from around 1755 on, English manufactures
tipped the balance of trade in Britain’s favor. Distilling allowed the American
colonies to restore the balance of trade somewhat in their favor, by giving
Americans a product they could sell to buy the goods they needed from England.
Now British mercantile laws were strangling a significant portion of the
colonial economy. It is not a coincidence that John Hancock and the other most
vocal leaders of the Sons of Liberty were smugglers.
The British now strove to impose their writ on the colonies, and stationed
permanent garrisons there to make this happen. The hitherto autonomous
colonials were outraged, and responded with riots and boycotts. In April of
1775 this escalated into armed resistance. The rebels, who proudly named
themselves Patriots, were determined, organized, and fairly well led. British
control collapsed with remarkable speed once the fighting began, with the main
British garrison, in Boston, retreating to Canada by sea in March of 1776. Once
it came to a fight rebel sentiment hardened. In July of 1776 the rebel
colonists confirmed their defiance of the crown, proclaiming their independence
from Britain as the United States of America.
Clandestine Arms Supplies – 18th Century Style
Even before they made a final break with the British crown, the rebels were
acutely aware of their need for arms and outside supplies, especially one item:
gunpowder. For all the rustic images of self-sufficient yeoman farmers standing
up to the redcoats, the Continental Army was essentially a modern army in that
it could not take the field without a steady stream of supplies. Gunpowder,
cannon, muskets, bayonets, all require a manufacturing base, albeit by our
standards a rudimentary one. As early as late 1774, before open fighting broke
out, agents of the Sons of Liberty were quietly buying gunpowder in Amsterdam,
and shipping it to New England via the Dutch West Indies.
Like the Irish rebels in roughly that same period, the Americans soon found
themselves looking to Britain’s traditional enemies, France and Spain, for
money and arms. The French, still stinging from their defeat in the Seven Years
War, were only too happy to oblige. In what we would today call a covert
operation, the French foreign minister, the Comte d’Vergennes, in June of 1776
established a dummy corporation, Roderique Hortalez et Cie., to funnel arms
clandestinely to the rebels. By early 1781 the French had provided the rebels
with over 4.5 million livres worth of supplies and another 846,000 livres in
subsidies through Hortalez & Company. In the first months of 1777 alone the
Hortalez company sent out eight ships via Martinique, with 200 brass cannon,
300 flintlock muskets, 100 tons of gunpowder, 3000 tents, ammunition, and
clothing for 30,000 men. It wasn’t embattled farmers the British were facing,
it was embattled farmers with covert arms shipments.
The Royal Navy had command of the seas, and harassed the rebels with a blockade
of the American coast, but they could not be everywhere at once. Soon a
thriving black market trade arose, centered on French Martinque and the Dutch
island of Saint Eustatius, commonly referred to by merchants and seamen of the
day as Statia. Statia was a volcanic rock, little over seven miles square,
situated some 170 miles east and south of Puerto Rico. Since the Dutch were
officially neutral, it was the perfect transfer point for clandestine arms
supplies to the rebels. It was even more convenient in that ships from Statia
could sail up the Atlantic coast from the Bahamas on the Gulf Stream, to
Charleston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Ships would sail from Holland,
ostensibly for Africa, and then once well out to sea, would set a course for
Statia, crammed with arms. On Statia, gunpowder sold for a 120% profit. One
vessel alone in 1776 carried 49,000 pounds of gunpowder for the rebels. At its
peak nearly 3,200 ships arrived in Statia in just 13 months. One Statia
merchant, Isaac van Dam, worked as an agent for the American rebels. In just
one transaction he shipped 4,000 pounds of gunpowder to the Patriots in North
Carolina, then sent £2,000 to contacts in France to buy more. In turn the Dutch
bought American tobacco, 12,000 hogsheads in 1779 alone, indigo, and other
products. By 1780 Statia was a runaway boomtown of 20,000 people.
The Spanish also smuggled their share of arms to the rebels, via New Orleans
and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to what is now Pittsburgh. However the
Spanish were noticeably less friendly toward the rebels than the French or the
Dutch. The Spanish leadership in Madrid rightly saw the American Revolution as
a civil war within the British Empire. Spain was a declining power. The more
they could get the English to kill each other, the easier it would be to hold
onto their own possessions. It wasn’t until 1780, after they had joined the war
on the same side as the Americans that the Spanish gave in to economic
necessity; opening up direct trade between their own West Indian colonies and
the US. It made sense. Baltimore merchants could sell flour in Havana for nine
times the cost, and buy sugar and arms in exchange. By 1782 American merchant
ships totaling 6,800 tons were calling at Havana. That the Spanish long
resisted what was clearly logical shows how little the government in Madrid
trusted the Americans.
Some of the smuggling even went on through the British colonies in the West
Indies. If the American colonists were tied into the West Indian economy the
West Indian planters needed American products. Sugar and molasses from Jamaica
and the Lesser Antilles were shipped to Boston, New York, Baltimore and
Philadelphia. In turn the Americans sold lumber, flour and salted fish, fruits
and vegetables, cattle, horses, casks and barrels and more to the West Indian
colonies. The Caribbean colonists had many of the same grievances with the
government in London as did their American brethren. As in North America each
colony had it its own legislature made up of often disgruntled local property
owners. The Caribbean planters also wanted to keep control of taxation and
local affairs. There were protests and riots against the Stamp Act on Barbados
and St. Kitt’s in the Lesser Antilles as well as in Boston and Philadelphia.
The Jamaican Assembly even offered in December of 1774 to mediate between the
rebels and the Crown. Sympathy for the rebels was most to be seen in the tiny
Leeward and Windward Islands on the eastern edge of the Caribbean, which were
heavily dependent on supplies of food from the New England and Middle Colonies.
But unlike the Thirteen Colonies, the British West Indian colonies were truly
dependent upon the mother country and especially on the Royal Navy. Being
islands, the Caribbean colonies were very vulnerable to seaborne invasion by
the French, the Spanish, or the Dutch. There was also another danger, that was
in the minds of every White settler in the islands, whether he gave voice to it
or not, and that was the huge number of African slaves brought over to toil in
the cane fields. Black slaves were everywhere - in households, working as
skilled craftsmen, and doing the heavy day-to-day work under the broiling
tropical sun. So while some colonists in the Caribbean colonies were
sympathetic to the rebels, in the end the British Caribbean colonies remained
steadfastly loyal to the mother country, barring some smuggling, throughout the
The war soon brought hardship and want to the Caribbean colonies. As early as
January of 1775 Creolian business interests met in London and petitioned
Parliament to reach an accord with the Americans. Dependent on supplies of
grain and salted fish for food, the tiny Leeward Island colonies in particular
were hard hit. By 1776 there was famine on St. Kitts. In 1778 the population of
Antigua was 20,000. Just three years later, only 4,000 people were left. Even
on relatively large and well established Barbados, further down in the Windward
Islands, the price of flour doubled between 1775 and 1776. By 1778 the slaves
on Barbados were starving. The presence of so many fleets and garrisons, even
if there to protect the islands, often made the supply situation worse, since
commanders would sweep in and buy up whatever stocks of food they could find,
even at inflated prices.
As food stocks dwindled, the slaves became more restive, and the planters
became more fearful. In 1776, word that a regiment of the British garrison on
Jamaica would be withdrawn to fight the rebels in New York led to an open slave
rebellion. On St. Kitts in that same year the slaves launched a campaign of
systematic arson, destroying the port city of Basseterre. In the rugged
interior of Jamaica and on the still half wild islands of St. Vincent,
Dominica, and Tobago, bands of maroons , escaped slaves living in the
hills, raided the plantations. These warlike bands had their own villages,
laws, and chieftains. Some, on Jamaica, retained their independence all the way
through until the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.
A bright side to the famine was that the planters had to start paying closer
attention to the health of their slaves, if only to keep them working. In 1782,
the British intercepted a French ship from the Mauritius in the Indian Ocean,
carrying akee, a West African fruit, and mangoes from Asia, piquing
the interest of the British admiralty. In 1793, after the war, a Royal Navy
officer transplanted akee and East Indian breadfruit to Jamaica. These
soon were widely cultivated, and helped supplement the slaves’ meager diet. To
this day achee , as it is called locally, and breadfruit are still
widely used in Jamaican cooking. The Royal Navy officer is also still well
known today. He was Captain Bligh.
Early on the Patriots saw the need to harry the British in the Caribbean. In
March of 1776 Commodore Esek Hopkins led the first expedition of the fledgling
US Navy to the Bahamas. 270 sailors and marines under Capt. Samuel Nicholas
pounced on the unsuspecting island of New Providence. Upon assurances from
Nicholas that the Americans only sought military stores, the governor, huddled
in Ft. Nassau, surrendered. The rebels carried off 71 cannon, 15 mortars, and
over 16,000 bombshells and cannonballs. It was a tremendous haul, given the
limited resources of the rebels in the early stages of the war.
Part of naval protocol in this era was the firing of salutes. A warship
arriving in a foreign port would fire a salute and dip its colors as a sign of
respect to the host power. In return the garrison of the port would fire off a
salute to the ship coming in. On November 16, 1776, the Dutch garrison of Ft.
Oranje on Statia fired the first foreign salute to the American flag when the Andrew
Doria of the Continental Navy sailed into the harbor of Oranjestad.
The Dutch government later officially disavowed the action, claiming that the
local commander had acted on his own initiative. But there could be no doubt
where Dutch sympathies lay.
Not only did regular US Navy vessels operate in the Caribbean, swarms of
privateers, independent sea captains granted a license by the Continental
Congress, harassed British shipping throughout the region. By February of 1777
American privateers had taken over 250 West Indian merchant ships, and captured
25,000 hogsheads of sugar. Hunting alone or in packs of up to 10 or 12 ships,
the privateers were a constant menace. In 1776 American privateers captured
half the ships of the Jamaican convoy carrying sugar back to England.
Martinique became a favorite base of operations for these commerce raiders. In
all, Benjamin Franklin estimated that the total cost to the British of the
interruption of the West Indian trade came to £1.8 million.
The Americans could harass and embarrass the British in the Caribbean, but the
war was not big enough to force the British to the conference table. That all
changed when the American rebels forced a British army under General John
Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York in October of 1777. Burgoyne’s army had been
part of the supreme British effort to end the rebellion in the northern
colonies once and for all. His defeat was enough to convince the French court
to side openly with the rebels. On February 6, 1778, the French and Americans
signed a secret treaty of friendship, commerce, and alliance in Paris. Both
parties agreed not to make a separate peace with the British. On March 20th the
French openly recognized the United States, effectively declaring war on Great
Britain. The very next day Prime Minister Lord North issued orders changing
British priorities in the war. Securing Britain’s Caribbean colonies was now to
be of the highest importance. The economically valuable Southern colonies were
to be a secondary objective. The British commander in North America, Sir Henry
Clinton, then occupying the rebel capital of Philadelphia, was to send 5,000
troops and 11 men-of-war to the strategic island of St. Lucia in the Leeward
Islands, and another 3,000 to secure St. Augustine and Pensacola in Florida.
Clinton was to abandon Philadelphia and even New York if necessary, to make
American historians and Americans in general naturally see the United States as
important and like to think that it always has been so. But any real
understanding of the American Revolution requires that we see the American
colonies as they were, less important to the British Empire as a whole than her
cash-cow sugar producing colonies in the Caribbean. The most important part of
the Thirteen Colonies was the plantation South. The Northern colonies were the
least important to the mother country. In shipbuilding New England was in fact
a rival of England. So while the British could not just let the colonies go,
when under real pressure, as when the French joined the war, the British
reacted logically, and cut their losses. It is less satisfying to a patriotic
American to admit this than to say that the rebels ran the British out, but it
is closer to the truth. Ultimately the very fact that the American colonies
were less important to the crown worked to the rebels’ benefit. Once the war
became too much of a burden, the British had less incentive to try to hold onto
all or some of the Thirteen Colonies.
The French Weigh In
The French entry into the war changed everything. At this point, the British
made an important strategic miscalculation. Britain’s fleet, if kept
concentrated, was superior to the French. If the British moved to keep the
French under close blockade, stationing the Royal Navy right off the French
coast to pounce on any ships trying to break out, they could potentially keep
the French fleet bottled up at home. But this would mean leaving British ships
exposed on the high seas, week after week, through storms and heavy seas, while
the French could sit in comfort in their ports and slip out when they were
ready. So the British opted for an open blockade, keeping the Royal Navy on the
alert in English ports, ready for the French to make a move. This made sense up
to a point, especially since a French invasion of England as a real
possibility. But by doing so the British left the French the initiative. The
French sent squadrons out to the Caribbean, Africa, and India, to harry British
colonies and outposts while in the meantime providing aid to the American
Two important natural factors shaped the course of the war in the Caribbean.
The first was hurricane season, which lasts from June or July to the end of
November. In the age of wooden ships, before the development of radar,
hurricanes could be terrifying in their destructive power. For these five
months, active naval operations were a serious gamble. In October of 1780 the
English squadron anchored in Bridgetown harbor in Barbados was devastated by a
powerful hurricane. A dozen ships-of-the-line and three frigates were
destroyed, and many others were damaged. One 74-gun man-of-war was blown out to
sea and carried across the Atlantic. It finally made landfall off the coast of
Wales! This one storm did more damage to the British fleet than any battle with
the French. The question of what to do with the fleet in the dangerous months
was thus a pressing one, and it has a bearing on the outcome of our story. The
second factor was the Trade Winds, blowing steadily west from Africa. The
fastest way for ships from Europe to reach the Caribbean was to sail down the
African coast and then turn west, riding the winds and the current into the
eastern end of the Caribbean. This approach was guarded by the Leeward and
Windward Islands, a 300-mile chain of tiny islands running southward and
eastward in a shallow arc from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. If any one
power could get control of this entire chain of islands they could monitor
ships coming in from Europe, and block them if need be.
In September of 1778 the French governor of Martinique struck north at the
rugged island of Dominica the southernmost of the Leeward Islands, capturing it
easily. Dominica was not rich, being for the most part too mountainous for
sugar plantations, but it was strategically located in the middle of the
Leeward-Windward island chain and linked the French in Martinique and St. Lucia
with their compatriots in Guadeloupe, the next island to the north of Dominica.
Note that being in the middle of hurricane season the British West Indian
squadron was not there. That December, the British reinforced Barbados, their
main base in the Windward Islands, with some 5,000 men fresh from Clinton’s
army in New York. This transfer of strength weakened the British in North
America, but it immediately paid important dividends in the Caribbean. The
British seized the small, but strategically located island of St. Lucia, just
south of Martinique in the Windward Islands. If St. Lucia had stayed in French
hands it would come close to giving the French a lock on the eastern Caribbean
approaches. Now the British had a base with a good harbor to operate from in
this area for the rest of the war.
Just how valuable the Caribbean islands were to the European powers can be seen
in the appalling losses from diseases which were considered acceptable. In a
time before modern medical facilities and sanitation, heat and diseases made
tropic regions a graveyard for European troops. Crammed aboard crowded, poorly
ventilated and rat infested vessels, 11% of the British soldiers sent to the
Caribbean during the war died before they even got there! The annual mortality
rate once in the islands was 15%, compared to 6% for the British garrison in
New York, and just 1% in Canada. One British outfit, the 78th Regiment of Foot,
went to Jamaica in 1779 with 1,009 men. By 1783 only 18 men were left! A side
effect of this was that all the powers had to recruit free Blacks for military
1778 ended with the British moving up from Florida and capturing Savannah,
Georgia. There were Loyalists in the South, far more so than in New England.
This offered the British potential pockets of support. Sensing weakness, the
British continued to probe for openings in the South. Meanwhile the war in the
Caribbean broadened as Spain entered the war on the side of the French on June
16, 1779. The Spanish Bourbon dynasty had little sympathy with republican
rebels. But they did want the support of their fellow Bourbon monarch in France
to retake Gibraltar and Minorca from the hated English. Two days later Admiral
Jean Baptiste, le Comte d’Estaing, operating from the French stronghold of St.
Domingue (present day Haiti), captured St. Vincent, the next island down from
St. Lucia, from the British. D’Estaing was aided by the unsubdued Native
American Carib tribes of that island. Less than three weeks later D’Estaing
pounced on Grenada, the next island to the south and southernmost of the
Windward Islands. He captured it easily, as the free Black and slave levies the
British relied upon melted away.
The British found themselves troubled from an unexpected quarter, due mostly to
the work of one extraordinary man, Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of
New Orleans. Taking an aggressive stance, in 1779 Galvez pushed up the
Mississippi and took Baton Rouge, Natchez and other British outposts on the
lower Mississippi. The next year he led an expedition to capture Mobile, with
the goal of pushing the British out of the Gulf region entirely.
As the situation worsened for them in the Caribbean the British were forced to
divert more resources there. In late June, 1779, Gen. Clinton in New York was
forced to send another 8,000 men down to the West Indies. Clinton has long been
cited by historians of the American Revolution as being too cautious. It might
be better to say that Clinton, who was a political animal, knew that the
northern colonies were a secondary front. If he were to risk the army and go
after Washington aggressively, he could not count on much support.
For all this, the French and Americans could not coordinate their efforts
effectively. A combined siege of the British stronghold of Newport, Rhode
Island, in the summer of 1778 failed miserably. In September of 1779 The Count
d’Estaing decided to ride out hurricane season by leading a French
expeditionary force to help the rebels retake Savannah. Included in his army
was a battalion of free Blacks from Haiti, which included a young soldier by
the name of Henri Christophe, who was to gain fame as a leader of the
revolution which would eventually drive the French from Haiti. The siege was a
failure, with the Americans and French again noticeably failing to cooperate.
1780 was a year of disaster for the rebel cause. The British made important
inroads in the South, taking Charleston by May and shattering the main rebel
army in the South at Camden, South Carolina in August. Moreover in March of
that year the Spanish foreign secretary began opening secret, separate
negotiations with the British in London. The Spanish offered a peace on the
basis of uti posseditus , in other words, on the basis of possession
at that point in time. Such a treaty would give the Spanish the gains they had
made, while the British would get to hold on to Georgia and parts of South
Carolina. This would make the perfect barrier between Spain’s Caribbean and
Gulf holdings and an aggressive, newly independent United States. The Spanish
played their own game throughout the war. They were often uncooperative with
the French, their ostensible allies. One of the reasons why the French and
Spanish achieved comparatively little in the Caribbean in 1780 was that the
Spanish admiral, Don José Solano, would not cooperate with his French
counterpart. Rather than trying to take British colonies, Solano focused on
defending Cuba and Puerto Rico. To his credit, the Count Floridablanca, the
Spanish prime minister, did tell the Americans that he would be scaling back
aid to the US, a sure hint. The rebels knew that they had to win, and fairly
But if time was working against the rebels, it was also working against the
British. The war would not end. And the Dutch continued to rake in profits
supplying the rebels via Statia, the "Golden Rock". Finally the British decided
that they’d had enough. On December 21, 1780 the British declared war on the
Netherlands, and their most aggressive admiral, Sir George Rodney, decided on a
bold stroke. Sailing for the West Indies immediately upon learning of the
declaration of war, he made straight for Statia with 22 ships of the line.
Rodney’s career bears a closer look. It illustrates both the strengths and the
weaknesses of the Royal Navy’s officer corps. Born in 1718, Sir George Brydges
Rodney grew up in modest circumstances as a low level member of the gentry. He
received little formal education, but was able to use his family connections to
secure a post in the Royal Navy. There his talents were recognized. By 1761 he
was commander of the Leeward squadron. During the Seven Years War he took
Martinique, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent from the French. But for all his
talent and initiative Rodney had a serious character flaw – he was a compulsive
gambler. He soon racked up colossal debts. Like many British generals and
admirals of the day he also was heavily involved in politics. In this era most
parliamentary elections were settled with some form of veiled (or unveiled)
bribery. In 1768 Rodney bought his way into the parliamentary seat for
Northampton for the then shocking price of £30,000. While this gave him
political position it buried him financially. In 1775 when hostilities began he
was a fugitive in France, where he had fled to escape his English creditors.
After finally straightening out his debt situation, Rodney was eventually able
to secure a command for himself. He did this by building a relationship with
Lord St. Germain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and by being one of
the few naval commanders with any talent who were willing to work with the Earl
of Sandwich, the grossly corrupt and incompetent First Lord of the Admiralty.
On February 3, 1781, Rodney sailed into the harbor of Statia and demanded the
surrender of the island and all the ships in the harbor. The Dutch on Statia
had not yet heard of the British declaration of war, and were caught completely
by surprise. They surrendered immediately. So effective was this surprise
attack that Rodney was able to keep flying the Dutch flag over the harbor for
some weeks, luring in ships that hadn’t heard the news. In one decisive blow
Rodney had shut down the main conduit for arms to the rebels and dealt a
staggering blow to the merchant marine of an important enemy. The haul included
130 merchant ships, crammed with goods, vast stocks of military supplies and
trade totaling some £3 million, and over 2,000 American merchants and seamen.
It is notable that 12 of those ships were British, carrying on an illicit trade
with the England’s West Indian colonies.
By the still semi-medieval rules of capture at that time, Rodney kept £150,000
of this colossal prize for himself. His greed partially ended up redounding
against him. So eager was Rodney for personal gain in his conquest, that he
overstepped his bounds. He confiscated the property of neutral merchants, and
openly robbed and exiled all the Jews on the island, including a number of
British Loyalists who had been forced to flee the colonies. Rodney also
auctioned off the goods captured in the raid. In his eagerness for a quick
killing he sold it all off to the lowest bidders. This actually enabled the
Americans, the French and the Spaniards to buy the war material they wanted at
lower prices than they would have paid had they bought it directly from the
Dutch! All this was too much, and Rodney came under fire from members of
Parliament, including Edmund Burke. It was the need to answer these charges
that caused Rodney to miss a chance at an important victory, and thereby
altered the course of American history.
For the Americans, 1781 was the moment of truth. Seven years of war had taken
their toll on the American cause. So had runaway inflation when the rebel
government tried to meet its obligations by printing paper money not backed by
specie. If the British had failed to secure the interior of the South they
controlled the major southern ports. Under the aggressive, able Gen. Charles,
Lord Cornwallis, the British, aided by Loyalists, had taken the war to the
rebels with a vengeance. Having ravaged the Carolinas, Cornwallis that spring
was ordered to Virginia’s York Peninsula, not far from where the first
successful English settlement had been founded at Jamestown. He was to
rendezvous at Yorktown with the Royal Navy and await orders.
The Americans were exhausted. The French had achieved important conquests in
the West Indies, but so far all their assistance to the rebels had not broken
the deadlock. Perhaps it was time to bring this unfortunate contest to a
diplomatic conclusion. The Count de Vergennes began to make quiet plans for a
European conference, to be held in Vienna, with the Russians and the Austrians
as neutral mediators. Surely a workable compromise could be reached, especially
if it was drawn up on the basis of uti posseditus as of January, 1781.
This would leave the British safely in control of Georgia, the Carolinas,
Manhattan and Long Island, Maine, and most of the Trans-Appalachian fur
country. The British Empire would have suffered a serious amputation, but the
newly independent United States would be only powerful enough to be a menace to
the British, or themselves. In May of 1781, the French general in America, the
Comte de Rochambeau, received word that no more reinforcements would be
forthcoming. For the Americans to win complete independence, 1781 had to be the
The British had their troubles as well. Bernardo de Galvez, the energetic
Spanish governor of New Orleans, captured Pensacola, the main British base on
the Gulf Coast of Florida, in May of 1781. British control in Florida had been
reduced down to St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast. One subordinate commander
had given the British a large amount of trouble. It is fitting that when the
Spanish crown granted Galvez a coat of arms in recognition for his exploits, it
was inscribed with the motto: Yo solo – "I alone". Not all efforts by
local commanders succeeded. An expedition by the British governor of Jamaica in
1780 to try to push up the San Juan River in Nicaragua and reach the Pacific
coast failed. Instead of cutting the Spanish empire in the Americas in two as
planned, tropical fevers decimated the force, forcing the British to retreat.
All that had been achieved was to weaken Jamaica against slave unrest or
invasion by the French and Spanish. And for all Cornwallis’ tactical skill, the
rebels had not given up. Loyalist support in the South was fading.
Washington had hoped to break the deadlock by a decisive combined attack on New
York City. The French had a squadron at Newport under Admiral Comte de Barras.
In the Caribbean the new French commander, Admiral the Count de Grasse, had
secured the island of Tobago, south east of Grenada, not far from what is now
the coast of Venezuela. Hurricane season was coming on. Could De Grasse come
north, rendezvous with Barras and trap Clinton in New York City? But New York
City, then limited to the island of Manhattan, was too strongly guarded. With
the Hudson River as a barrier, and without overwhelming naval superiority, a
direct attack on New York was out of the question. But Cornwallis, far down in
Virginia, and isolated on a narrow peninsula, was another story. De Grasse
could not leave the Caribbean for long, but it might be enough.
At this fatal juncture Adm. Rodney sailed for Britain to defend himself against
the charges being made against him for his actions at Statia. He left a tough
and able lieutenant, Adm. Sir Samuel Hood, who believed in aggressive action.
Hood guessed De Grasse’s move and sailed north for the Virginia Capes with the
British West Indian squadron from Antigua on August 10, 1781, three days before
De Grasse sailed from Cap Francais (today Cap Haitien) in St. Domingue. Hood
was actually too quick. De Grasse relied on Spanish pilots who took him on a
safe, but slower route via the Old Bahama Channel north of Cuba. Hood sailed
directly, and so found at the Virginia Capes – nothing. Since there were no
French there Hood assumed that he had guessed wrong and continued north to join
the British fleet in New York.
But Hood had been right the first time. Washington and Rochambeau were already
heading south from the area of New York City, moving fast. On August 30 Count
de Grasse arrived off the Virginia Capes with 28 ships of the line, 3 regiments
of French regulars, and 4 million livres to fund the campaign.
Cornwallis was trapped.
The British fleet in New York, under Adm. Graves, bolstered now by Hood’s West
Indian squadron, did react. Sailing south again they reached the Chesapeake on
September 5, 1781 with 19 ships of the line. It was 9:30 AM. De Grasse was
inside Lynn Haven Bay near Cape Henry at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay landing
troops. He had to sortie or be trapped himself. The French came out a long
line, fighting a contrary wind. In 18th century fleet actions, the biggest
single problem was communication. In theory a fleet would deploy in squadrons
laid out in long lines, with the admiral usually in middle of the center
squadron. He would send a signal to the ships nearest him, and it would be
relayed up and down to all the ships in the line. Or he would send a dispatch
aboard a frigate, a smaller, faster ship of war that could carry his message to
a squadron commander. This was is the theory. In practice clouds of gun smoke,
poor weather, errors in reading the signal, fog or approaching darkness, could
all cause a signal not to be received, or be misread. Squadron commanders were
even known to deliberately ignore or misinterpret an order. All of which made
decisive fleet actions difficult.
If Graves had struck hard and fast, the French would have been in serious
trouble. But Graves had gotten his position as admiral less by fighting spirit
than by being Lord North’s brother-in-law. He hesitated. After letting most of
the French fleet get out to sea he finally did signal to close with the enemy,
intending for each ship to bear down on the French and engage it. The British
excelled at close-in fighting, whereas the French liked to keep their distance,
shredding the enemy’s sail with chain shot, and then closing. But Graves gave
the signal to engage the enemy he failed to haul down the formation signal flag
for "line ahead" that is, for each ship in the squadron to follow the lead
ship. So instead of a sudden descent on the French, who were still trying to
get in line coming out of the bay, the British commanders obediently followed
the lead ship in a long slow line paralleling the French. Only ten British
ships even got close enough to engage. At 6:23 PM, with the sun going down,
Adm. Graves broke off the engagement. For three more days the opposing fleets
eyed each other sullenly, until finally Graves decided he had to get back to
Yorktown in case Barras showed up. The Battle of the Capes was over.
Admiral Barras did arrive on the 10th with eight more French men of war from
Newport. Now seriously outnumbered, Graves sailed back to New York. Cornwallis
was still trapped. While the Battle of the Capes was tactically indecisive it
was clearly a French victory. With the Royal Navy unable to break the
Franco-American stranglehold Cornwallis was doomed. When he surrendered at
Yorktown on October 19, 1781 it was a staggering blow to the British cause.
But it was not the end of the war. The fighting in the islands went on, with
the French pushing the British off the small Dutch islands of Saba and Statia,
then capturing the British Leeward colonies of St. Kitts, Montserrat, and
Nevis. The only British base left in the Leewards was Antigua. The war also
went on in Europe, with the French and Spanish besieging the vital British
stronghold of Gibraltar, commanding the straits between the Mediterranean and
the Atlantic, but failing to capture it. Washington tried to get de Grasse to
stay on and join him in a joint attack on the British bases at Charleston or
Wilmington, but De Grasse had done his share.
In 1782 Admiral de Grasse was back in the Caribbean with plans to attack and
capture Jamaica in a combined assault with the Spanish. At first all went well.
On April 8, De Grasse sailed from Martinique with 33 men of war and 7,000
troops. He planned to go north to Antigua, and then over to St. Domingue to
link up with the Spanish squadron of 12 men of war under Admiral Solano. But
this was not to be. On April 9 De Grasse’s ships were spotted by Rodney’s West
Indian squadron. Rodney’s ships were becalmed at that moment, but he knew the
French had sortied and moved to stay in contact. At 8:00 in the morning on
April 12, Rodney caught up with De Grasse off a tiny group of islands south of
Guadeloupe known as Les Saintes and gave the signal to engage.
Rodney had been waiting for this moment for a long time, and now he made the
most of it. Instead of paralleling the French fleet like a line of dancers at a
ball, he would break the French line and force the French into close combat.
Rodney was echoed in his aggressive plans by a capable young Rear-Admiral,
Samuel Hood, who was to go to become Admiral Nelson’s patron. Aided by a sudden
shift in the wind, Rodney abandoned the rigid Fighting Instructions and charged
the French line. This enabled the British ships crossing in front of the French
to fire a full broadside, while the French ship opposing them could only fire
the few guns it had in its bow. First Rodney’s squadron broke through, then
Hood, on his own initiative, did the same. The French battle line came apart in
the confusion as the British poured one broadside after another into the
oncoming French ships. In the melee the British captured five French ships,
including the 110 gun French flagship Ville de Paris . They captured
Adm. De Grasse, and drove the shaken French back to in disorder St. Domingue.
The French would not take Jamaica.
The British were now in a stronger position than they had been in a long time.
The Americans however were now in trouble. After eight years of war and
blockade the rebels were exhausted. But the French and the Spanish still
dreamed of capturing Gibraltar. A clause in the American treaty of alliance
with France forbade either party from making a separate peace. Would the
fighting go on forever? Oddly enough the Battle of the Saintes helped break the
deadlock. The Americans wanted peace. The defeat of the French fleet in the
Caribbean meant that the French could now no longer expect any gains in that
quarter, and might even begin to lose what they had taken if the war went on.
The British too now had an incentive to end the war, while they were in a
strong position in the Caribbean.
Typically, Benjamin Franklin led the way, making a secret peace offer to the
British peace commissioners in Paris without informing the Count de Vergennes.
This led to formal peace talks in September of 1782. With the failure of the
French and Spanish to take Gibraltar, and the failure of the Spanish to get the
British to accept Puerto Rico for Gibraltar, the French were at last prepared
to end the war.
The Peace of Paris was a miracle of concessions to the Americans. The British
withdrew their garrisons from New York City and other places. They recognized
American independence and threw in all the lands south of the Great Lakes from
the Appalachians to the Mississippi. In the Caribbean the French only gained
St. Lucia and tiny Tobago for all their efforts. The Spanish did the better.
Thanks to Bernardo de Galvez’s initiative, Florida returned to the Spanish
crown, including West Florida, the Gulf Coast between the present day state of
Florida and the Mississippi. If we forget about acreage and look at economic
value, the British did very well. The real blue chip properties were the sugar
islands, and thanks to Rodney and Hood, the British kept nearly everything they
had gained in 1763. Humbling as the loss of the American colonies was, Britain
could survive without them. Indeed, the Americans were now eager to restore
trade with England. The British in the end got most of the trade revenue that
they originally had been concerned with, without the burden of having to tax
and administer thirteen discontented colonies. But if the Americans were not
the most powerful players at the conference table, their triumph is all the
more impressive given the limited means they had.
The victory of the American rebels, and their subsequent success in turning the
United States into a stable republic, was to have profound repercussions in the
Caribbean and the world. Henri Christophe, one of the leaders of the revolution
to drive the French from Haiti had seen the American Revolution first hand. The
example of the United States and Haiti were to go on to inspire Simon Bolivar
and a generation of Latin American revolutionaries, who in the end liberated
all the Spanish colonies on the mainland from Mexico to Argentina.
For the French monarchy the war was a double disaster. While the British Empire
had been split the cost had been too high. The French king had spent some 2
billion livres fighting the war, and now had no way of paying it back.
Within six years of the war’s end mobs would be rioting through the streets of
Paris, storming through the gates of the Bastille, and calling for an end to
the Ancien Régime . Louis XVI, who first received American ambassadors
as representatives of a sovereign state, was to die on the guillotine, a victim
of the revolutionary sentiments he had encouraged.
The British set about reorganizing their empire. The many Loyalists in the old
Thirteen Colonies fled. Some went to Canada, giving what had been a previously
French region an English cast. Others went to the Caribbean colonies, where in
the Bahamas they over-planted the soil and ruined the islands economically. The
British now began to focus on the East Indies, building a vast empire in India
and the Far East. The British navy learned the lessons of the Battle of the
Capes and the Saintes. The bold tactics developed by Rodney and Hood were
perfected in the Napoleonic Wars by a man who had been a young officer in the
American Revolutionary War, Horatio Nelson.
The war had important consequences for England itself. Yorktown had brought the
fall of Lord North’s government. The British, in their practical way, seized
upon this precedent and used it as a means of transforming their system of
government in a non-violent manner. Henceforth, any British prime minister who
lost a vote of confidence in the Parliament had to resign. The last vestige of
direct royal power was fading.
Finally, as the center of British power shifted eastward and England herself
began to industrialize, slavery became less important economically. As this
happened, people became more willing to see slavery for the evil that it was.
The plantation owners never recovered the influence and security they had
before the American Revolution. Within fifty years the British abolished the
slave trade with their colonies, and then slavery itself. A new culture arose
in the islands, from Jamaica to Trinidad and Barbados: English speaking, with
English traditions of parliamentary rule, but African by blood, with its own
music, dance, and flavor of life. If the American Revolution has any lasting
meaning, it is the legacy of freedom it has left, not only for America itself,
but for the world.
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Copyright © 2005 Timothy Neeno, M.A.
Written by Timothy Neeno. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Timothy Neeno at:
About the author:
Timothy Neeno is originally from Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a Masters
in US History from the University of Wisconsin in 1990. Since then he has gone
into teaching. He and his wife have worked and taught in Bolivia, Taiwan,
Kuwait, Brazil and the Navajo Reservation and have traveled in Europe, Asia and
the Middle East. Since 2002 they have settled in the Phoenix area. He currently
teaches history at the University of Phoenix.
Published online: 12/11/2005.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.