The French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing had come to America in July 1778 as part of the new Franco-American Alliance. France and Britain had gone to war a few months earlier. France hoped to use the war in America to take advantage of a weakened Britain and to recover some of the colonies that it lost to Britain in the Seven Years War.
Before the war, some French leaders even hoped that the North American colonies in rebellion might be willing to put themselves under the authority and protection of the King of France. While it quickly became apparent that would not happen, an independent North America would weaken Britain and perhaps at least open up some valuable trading relationships.
With the control of North America seemingly off the table, France focused more on the West Indies, or what we today call the Caribbean. These island colonies brought immense amounts of wealth to whoever controlled them.
|18th Century West Indies Port
Of course, Spain dominated the region with its control of Cuba and San Domingo. Spain also controlled almost all of the mainland around what we today call the Gulf of Mexico and Central America. Spain had gotten there early, at the end of the 15th Century, and dominated the region before other European powers even took an interest.
Spanish officials had largely enslaved the local population, but much of that population very quickly died out, mostly due to a lack of resistance to European diseases. Spain had no interest in colonizing these new lands with free Spanish colonists. Rather, Spanish officials wanted to produce crops, primarily sugar, which grew well in the region, for the benefit of Europeans and for making massive profits. Maximizing profits means keeping labor costs down. Allowing local free colonists to run the local plantations would mean that most of the profits would go there. Instead, officials turned to African slavery as the primary labor force for these island colonies.
By the 18th Century, all the islands were dominated by African slave labor. As other countries, such as Britain, France, and the Netherlands claimed ownership of various islands, they also used African slave labor as the primary labor force on their islands. As a result, these islands were producing a massive amount of wealth for the colonizers and at very little cost for the labor force on the islands.
Whenever these countries went to war, or saw a weakness, they were quick to seize more islands for themselves. So, control frequently went back and forth, with the slaves continuing to do the work for the new owners.
When France ended the Seven Years War, it not only ceded Canada to Britain, it also ceded a number of islands, including Granada, St. Vincent, and Dominica. Britain had captured St. Lucia during the war, but turned it back over to France when the war ended.
As the rebellion in America began in 1775, France and Britain were still at peace. Various French governors gave support to American privateers, but could not recapture any of the islands they may have wanted. Once the war began in 1778, taking back islands, and protecting one’s own islands, became an active concern for both France and Britain.
The area known as the Leeward Islands were some of the most vulnerable properties at risk. This is a series of islands at the eastern end of the Caribbean, that includes Martinique, Granada, Domenica, St. Lucia, and others.
Admiral Samuel Barrington
In 1778, the British Commander in the West Indies was Admiral Samuel Barrington. I won’t spend too much time giving a background on him because it’s the same old story I’ve already told for so many other officers.
Samuel’s older brother William Barrington inherited their father’s land and title. At age 11 Samuel shipped off to sea and by age seventeen was a lieutenant in the British Navy. Because his older brother was serving in the Admiralty, Barrington saw a pretty meteoric rise through the ranks, making captain by age 18. He received several plumb positions and earned favorable opinions of several admirals under which he served.
Captain Barrington saw active combat during the Seven Years war, and commanded a ship in the fleet under Admiral John Byron that captured Louisbourg from the French. After the war, Barrington spent several years in Europe studying other navies and naval defenses, particularly in Russia and France. In 1768, Barrington received command over an important junior officer, the Duke of Cumberland, who was George III’s younger brother. The two men formed a close and long-lasting relationship.
Samuel’s navy career continued to receive favor, at least in part because his brother became Secretary of War and also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. By 1778 William was sick of the war and wanted to retire. He did so by the end of the year. But before leaving in 1778, Samuel received a promotion to Rear Admiral of the White and a commission as Commander in Chief of the Leeward Islands station. Admiral Barrington sailed for the West Indies aboard his flagship The Prince of Wales in May 1778. When he arrived he had only two ships under his command, operating out of Barbados.
Barrington’s primary concern on arrival was the French garrison at Martinique, which included several ships of the line and several thousand soldiers. Initially Barrington only had his own ship and one other ship of the line to contest all of the Leeward Islands with France. More ships would arrive from North America after several months, but French forces posed an immediate threat to multiple islands. Barrington followed orders from London to consolidate his forces at Barbados, in order to deter an attack there. With Britain and France having just gone to war, military attacks were only a matter of time.
The island of Dominica sat just north of Martinique. Christopher Columbus gave the island its name because he found it on a Sunday. The small island’s lack of any valuables and resistant natives meant that the Spanish largely ignored the island. France laid claim to the whole string of islands in the early 17th Century, but again did not settle Dominica. Britain and France signed a treaty leaving the island and neutral and settled only by the local natives.
In the early 18th Century, France began to set up timber camps on the island to collect wood. Later, it established coffee plantations on the island. The French introduced African slaves for labor. Also a group of poor French colonists from a failed revolt on Martinique moved to the island. Britain captured the island during the Seven Years War and kept the island after the war ended. With the outbreak of war in 1778, France saw an opportunity to reclaim Dominica.
In 1767, William Shirley wanted to retire for health reasons and return to England. His son, Thomas Shirley, left England for the Bahamas to take over for his father. Technically, William Shirley remained governor, even though he was back in England. His son Thomas was acting governor. In 1774, though, after the father had died and London wanted to appoint a new Governor of the Bahamas, Thomas received an appointment as Governor of Dominica.
The following year, after the rebellion began in New England, Governor Shirley saw the potential vulnerability of Dominica and began building up defenses on the island. London objected to the cost of such defenses, which got the governor in trouble with the ministry. In June 1778, Shirley had to sail home for consultations. Shirley left command to his lieutenant governor William Stuart.
One reason that London probably objected to Shirley spending money on defenses, was that no matter how much he spent, Dominica was a tiny island with a tiny British population. Most of the island inhabitants were French speaking locals who had no interest, and might even welcome a French attempt to retake the island. Dominica was right next to the much larger French Island of Martinique. Any defense the British built on Dominica was not going to stop a French invasion from Martinique.
Shirley tried to make his case his London, but ministry officials told him Shirley, you can be serious. While he was in London, word of the war reached the West Indies. The governor of the French West Indies, François Claude Amour, marquis de Bouillé, received the news of war in August along with instructions to capture Dominica.
Dominica had about 100 regulars on the island, not enough to mount any serious resistance. Governor de Bouillé’s only military concern was whether there were any British Navy ships that might be available to thwart the invasion. Governor de Bouillé signed a treaty with Lieutenant Governor Stuart agreeing that neither island would provide harbor to enemy privateers. He used that as an opportunity to scout out the island and make sure the navy was not around. The British had ordered all naval ships to Barbados, so Dominica was, in fact, vulnerable.
|French forces assault Dominica
On the night of September 6th, a fleet carried about 1800 French soldiers and another 1000 militia volunteers boarded a fleet of ships at Martinique. At dawn the next morning, the fleet easily overran the fort with a drunk garrison and inoperable cannons. The British attempted to call out their own militia but could only get about 100 men to muster.
The British managed to put up a little more resistance when the French moved on the capital at Roseau. British artillery inflicted about 40 casualties on the attacking French. Within a few hours though, the French took the high ground and accepted the British surrender. The entire operation was over in less than 24 hours after the French fleet left Martinique.
Normally, a French invasion force would plunder the locals and loot anything of value. However, the French wanted to retain local support. Instead they demanded a ransom of £4,400 to be distributed to the soldiers.
With Dominica secure, French left a force of about 800 on the island and returned to Martinique. The British were surprised by how easily the island had fallen, and blamed Lord Barrington for failing to use the British Navy to protect the island, in spite of his orders to move his ships to Barbados.
Since retaking Dominica seemed that it would take more resources than the British could expend at the time, they turned their attention to this island of St. Lucia.
Just to the south of Martinique, St. Lucia had a little more activity in the early colonial era than Dominica. Spanish explorers noted the island’s existence as early as 1500, but did not bother to settle it or do much of anything, other than claim it as part of Spain. In the mid-1500’s the island became a base of operations for French pirate François le Clerc.
|French fleet at St Lucia
By the end of the 1600’s St. Lucia was generally recognized as a French colony most of the time. Over a few periods in the 18th Century, France and Britain declared it to be a “neutral” island where neither country claimed ownership. But any claims of ownership never remained permanent for very long. In the fifty years before the American Revolution, the Island’s status changed eight times. After the Seven Years War, France regained control.
With the capture of Dominica in September 1778, both Britain and France recognized that open warfare would quickly expand in the region. Both countries had already ordered fleets in North America to make their way south during the winter months. French Admiral d’Estaing left Boston on November 4, with his fleet repaired and ready for action. On that same day, a British fleet under Commodore William Hotham left Sandy Hook with 5000 British regulars under the command of General James Grant.
|Troop position on St Lucia
By the evening of December 13, the British began landing regulars on the island and taking the high ground without much of any fight. By the 14th, Major General Grant, supported by Brigadier Generals Robert Prescott and William Medows had secured the island and occupied key positions.
Later that same day, d’Estaing’s fleet arrived off the coast of St. Lucia. The French fleet had sailed to Martinique, and was planning an invasion of Barbados when they received word of the attack on St. Lucia. Admiral d’Estaing immediately sailed for the island in hopes of relieving the French defenders there.
The French fleet had more ships and more soldiers than the British. Admiral Barrington had only seven ships of the line and three smaller frigates. His largest ship was the 74 gun Prince of Wales. The French fleet under d’Estaing had twelve ships of the line and four frigates. Eight of the French ships had at least 74 guns, including the 80 Gun Tonnant and the 90 gun flagship Languedoc.
If the French had arrived first, they almost certainly could have repelled the British assault. But the British had managed to overrun local defenses and had already established lines on the high grounds on the island. When d’Estaing sailed near the harbor, British artillery opened fire on his ships. That is how d’Estang discovered he was too late. It was already almost night, so both fleets prepared for battle the following morning.
|French and British Lines at St Lucia
Later that afternoon, the French launched a second naval attack, using all twelve ships of the line and focusing their wrath on the British flagship, Prince of Wales. A heavy assault on both sides led to some ship damage, but casualties were relatively light. Neither side captured or sank any ships. After several hours, the French, once again, disengaged.
The next morning, d’Estaing appeared to be preparing a third line of attack, but then sailed away at the last minute. That evening, the French managed to land a force at Gros Islet Bay, several miles to the north, on another part of the island, putting over 7000 soldiers on the beaches. The French outnumbered British forces, but the British had seized the high ground and had time to entrench. The French launched three major assaults against the British line, but were repulsed each time, taking hundreds of casualties.
After several weeks, word arrived that a larger British fleet under Admiral John Byron was sailing down from Newport to join with Barrington’s fleet. The French, hearing this news, boarded their ships and set sail back to Martinique on December 29, before the larger British fleet arrived.
So as 1778 ended, the French had taken Dominica and the British had taken St. Lucia. Barrington would receive great praise in London for taking St. Lucia and holding it against a superior force. The two sides would continue the battles over various islands in 1779 and beyond, but that will have to be topics for future episodes.
Next week, the British begin their southern campaign in North America with the capture of Savannah, Georgia.
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Hon. Samuel Barrington: https://morethannelson.com/officer/samuel-barrington-2
Captain Samuel Barrington: https://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/14007.html
Boromé, Joseph A. “Dominica during French Occupation, 1778-1784.” The English Historical Review, vol. 84, no. 330, 1969, pp. 36–58. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/562321.
Hiscocks, Richard The Battle of St. Lucia – 15 December 1778, Jun 27, 2016: https://morethannelson.com/battle-st-lucia-15-december-1778
Battle of St. Lucia https://threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_battle&id=364
(from archive.org unless noted)
Atwood, Thomas The History of the Island of Dominica, London: J. Johnson, 1793.
Clowes, William Laird The Royal Navy: A History From The Earliest Times To 1900, Vol.3, London: S. Low, Marston, Co. 1898.
Ekins, Charles The Naval Battles of Great Britain, from the accession of the illustrious House of Hanover to the throne to the Battle of Navarin, London: Baldwin and Cradock, 1828.
Mahan, Alfred Thayer Major Operations of the Royal Navy, 1762-1783. Being chapter XXXI, in The royal navy. A History, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co. 1898
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
O'Shaughnessy, Andrew Jackson An Empire Divided: The American Revolution and the British Caribbean, Univ. of Penn. Press, 2000.
Sheridan, Richard B. Sugar and Slavery: An Economic History of the British West Indies, 1623-1775, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1974.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.