We must remember that after France entered the war, the British had to contend with a much larger war over colonies all over the world. Of particular interest to both France and Britain were valuable island colonies in the West Indies, what we today call the Caribbean. We last checked in on the West Indies in Episode 203. In late 1778, the French under Admiral comte d’Estaing captured the island of Dominica and the British under Admiral Samuel Barrington captured St. Lucia. The arrival of a larger fleet under British Admiral John Byron prevented the French from recapturing St. Lucia.
Comte de Grasse
When Admiral Byron’s fleet arrived in early January 1779, the British fleet in the region was a bit larger than that of France's fleet under d’Estaing. A couple of weeks later, the French received reinforcements in the form of four more ships of the line under the Comte de Grasse.
|Battle of Granada|
At age eleven, he joined the Order of St. John, a Catholic military order tracing its roots back to the Crusades. Young de Grasse served aboard galley ships battling the Turks and the Moors. By age 17, he received a lieutenant’s commission in the French Navy. During the Seven Years War, de Grasse served in India. Following the war, de Grasse worked to build a larger French Navy. By the time the American Revolution began, de Grasse captained l’intrepide, a 74 gun ship of the line.
Captain de Grasse had just recently fought at the battle of Ushant. Shortly after his promotion to rear admiral in 1779, he led a small fleet to the West Indies to support Admiral d’Estaing. This was the beginning of his growing role in America.
Around the same time that de Grasse’s French fleet arrived, the British sent four more ships of the line under Commodore Joshua Rowley.
Captain Rowley moved to successively larger ships in the years leading up to the Seven Years War. By 1757 he commanded the new 64 gun Montagu, and engaged in conspicuous service against the French in the Mediterranean. During the 1758 assault on Cherbourg he was wounded and captured. He was exchanged in time to command a ship at the battle of Quiberon Bay in 1758. He spent the later years of the war in the West Indies, protecting British merchant ships.
After the Seven Years War, Rowley had little to do. He would not command another ship until October 1776, when he received command of the 74 gun Monarch. He remained close to England, but did manage to capture an American privateer. After fighting with distinction at the Battle of Ushant, Rowley transferred from the damaged Monarch to a new 74 gun ship of the line, the Suffolk. In late 1778 Commodore Rowley received orders to sail a seven ship fleet to the Leeward Islands in support of Admiral Byron. Shortly after his arrival in February 1779, he received promotion to rear admiral.
Marquis de Vaudreuil
For several months the two fleets watched each other. Neither side thought they had enough of an advantage to go on the offensive. The British had attempted to capture the French portion of St. Martin in January, but a French counter attack kept the island in French hands. The French operated primarily out of Martinique, while the British fleet remained close by at St. Lucia.
By spring, however, the balance of power began to change. In late April, three more ships of the line arrived under Rear Admiral Louis-Philippe de Rigaud, the Marquis de Vaudreuil. Admiral de Vaudreuil was also from a prominent French family. His grandfather had served as Governor of French Canada and his father was an admiral. De Vaudreuil had also had a long and storied career in the French Navy and like the other two new arrivals, had fought at the Battle of Ushant before being deployed to the West Indies. His arrival improved the French position, but still not enough to go on the offensive.
By early June, neither side had made much movement. The British had a fleet of merchant ships that were assembling at St. Christopher (known today as St. Kitts) to form a convoy back to Britain. Admiral Byron seems to have decided the safety of the convoy was more important than watching the French fleet. He sailed the British fleet to St. Christopher.
With the British fleet now 200 miles to the north, the French looked for opportunities to take advantage of the fleet’s absence. St. Lucia still had too many regulars to make it an easy target. Instead, the French looked a little farther south, to the Island of St. Vincent, about 100 miles south of Martinique.
St. Vincent was a relatively tiny island, only about 130 square miles. In terms of land size, that’s about the size of modern day Philadelphia. The island population was almost nothing, only a few dozen plantations. France has ceded St. Vincent to Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris, ending the Seven Years war. Up until then the island was mostly occupied by African Caribs. These were descendants of island slaves who had formed their own independent communities on the island.
The British side was controlled by Governor Valentine Morris, the son of a wealthy sugar plantation owner on a nearby island. Morris had moved back to England, purchased a country home and ran for Parliament. After losing the election, he returned to the West Indies, where he was forced to sell his properties in Antigua, but managed to receive an appointment as governor of St. Vincent.
In his reports to London, Morris reported that the local landowners were unwilling to commit to the Island’s defense. It appears that many of them had immigrated from North America and were sympathetic to the American cause.
The detachment under Etherington had come to St. Vincent before the Revolution as part of the effort to subdue the Carib population on the island. Etherington and Morris did not seem to get along. Governor Morris complained that Etherington was doing little to shore up island defenses. Instead of training, the colonel allegedly used his soldiers to help clear his own plantation, which Etherington had received for service during the Seven Years War. As a result, defenses on the island were in poor condition, half of the army was not fit for duty, and the Caribs were upset because the plantation that Etherington was clearing fell on their side of the island, and therefore was considered an illegal trespass.
The French governor of Martinique made contact with Chatoyer, in an attempt to get the Caribs to support a French invasion of the island. The French governor even supplied the Caribs with French muskets.
|Map of West Indies, 1779|
The rest of the fleet sailed into Kingston harbor with no flags flying. The locals sent a man out on a boat to ascertain who they were. They took that man prisoner and began deploying soldiers to the shore. At the same time, the French alerted the Caribs of the attack. Chatoyer assembled about 800 armed men to lead an attack on the British settlement.
The British were taken completely by surprise. Governor Morris attempted to rally a defense, hoping to hold out in the hills until the British fleet returned. Colonel Etherington, however, wanted to surrender. The prospect of fighting an army of armed Caribs had massacre written all over it. He wanted to surrender to the French before the Caribs arrived in Kingston.
For a moment, the French thought they were in trouble, when they spotted three British flagged ships enter the harbor. But it turned out these were supply ships. The French captured two of them, before the third escaped.
The French commander, du Rumain demanded unconditional surrender. In the end, the British surrendered the island with almost no fighting at all.
A few weeks later, the French position in the region grew even stronger. Rear Admiral Lamotte-Piquet arrived at Martinique with five more French ships of the line, three frigates, and 60 troop transports. Admiral Lamotte-Picquet also came from a good French family, had joined the navy as a young teenager, fought in numerous battles and on dozens of ships. During the War of Austrian Succession, he had nearly lost his head to a British cannon ball. Instead, the ball just grazed his cheek, giving him a permanent facial scar.
Shortly afterward, Lamotte-Piquet was transferred to the larger 80 gun Saint-Esprit and fought in the battle of Ushant. Shortly thereafter, he too was sent at the head of a fleet to the West Indies to support Admiral d’Estaing.
With the arrival of the fleet under Admiral Lamotte-Piquet in late June, 1779, Admiral d’Estaing finally thought he had enough of an advantage to go on a larger offensive.
In late June, the French fleet set sail for Barbados. The large British colony there had valuable sugar plantations worked by thousands of slaves. As the French fleet made its way to Barbados, poor winds kept the ships from their intended target. A frustrated d’Estaing eventually gave up and sailed to Grenada instead.
|French Capture Grenada|
Grenada’s Governor, Lord George Macartney came from an old Scottish family that had lived in Northern Ireland for several generations. He had been a career diplomat, but had no military background.
The British had established defenses on the high ground near town, known as Hospital Hill. About 800 British regulars and militia occupied Hospital Hill, supported by artillery and placing defenses on the approach to the Hill in order to slow any enemy advance.
Admiral d’Estaing hoped to take the island quickly. He wanted his army on the island so that when Byron’s fleet arrived, his ships would not be packed with soldiers. The French fleet began firing on St. George, supported by a small number of troops. That advance was meant as a distraction. During the night of July 3rd, French soldiers advanced on Hospital Hill in the dark. Admiral d’Estaing personally led the assault. The French were on top of the defenders before they knew what was happening. After a brief struggle of hand to hand combat, the British defenders surrendered.
By the following morning, July 4, French soldiers commanding Hospital Hill fired on Fort George, just below them, where Governor Macartney was in command. Realizing the hopelessness of his position the Governor sent a messenger under truce to ask for terms. The French demanded unconditional surrender. Given their position, the Governor felt he had no choice but to accede. The French captured over 100 cannons, thirty merchant ships, and the vast array of supplies held on the island. The Governor and other leading men of the island were not given parole, but instead were shipped back to France as prisoners of war.
Meanwhile up at St. Christopher, Admiral Byron had seen off the British convoy. On July 1, he had returned to the island, where he received the news that the French had taken St. Vincent. He immediately turned the fleet south, taking 21 ships of the line and a fleet of transport ships south, in search of the French fleet. He learned from a cruiser that the French had landed at Grenada, so he took his fleet there. Grenada was nearly 400 miles south of St. Christopher, so the voyage took several days. It was during this time that d’Estaing secured Grenada.
Finding the French fleet just outside St. George’s Bay, Byron ordered the British to give chase directly. As the British fleet got closer, they realized the French fleet was larger. Byron scrambled to get his ships into a more ordered line of battle. But by the time they were that close, the fleets engaged while the British line was still in disorder. The ships spent the better part of the day firing broadsides into one another.
Both fleets were badly damaged by the day-long engagement. Two of the British ships, the Fame and the Lion were badly damaged and almost sank. The Fame had to sail away to Jamaica to avoid being captured. Another British ship, the Monmouth, had to sail for Antigua for repairs. In total, the British reported just over 1000 men killed or wounded. The French suffered similar casualties, reporting just under 1000.
That evening, the British fleet slipped away and returned to St. Christopher for repairs. It would take more than a week for the fleet to return, finally limping into port on July 15. The French returned to St. George’s Bay that night and mostly remained in Grenada to perform their own repairs. Admiral d’Estaing was more concerned with protecting his forces on Grenada than pursuing the British fleet.
Admiral Barrington had been wounded in the battle, and sailed back home with dispatches for London. Shortly thereafter, Admiral Byron, who had been suffering from what has been described as a “nervous fever” remained in St. Christopher for a few weeks, then also sailed for England, leaving Admiral Hyde Parker in command of the fleet. In London, Byron would take criticism for what was seen as a rather sloppy attack on the French fleet. Although he would be offered new commands, he refused to accept them. Grenada would be the end of his naval career.
For the French the summer was a great victory. St. Vincent and Grenada would remain under French control for the remainder of the war.
A few weeks after the battle, Admiral d’Estaing took his fleet up to St. Christopher to sail his line in front of the British. He wanted to show the enemy that his ships were repaired and ready for battle, but did not seek to engage them there. Shortly after that, the French fleet sailed back north to assist with the Siege of Savannah. But that will have to be the topic of a future episode.
Next week, we head north again, where General Henry Clinton conducts a raid on Stoney Point New York, and the Americans under General Anthony Wayne, take it back again.
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Coming Soon: I've got several new big name interviews coming soon. These were recorded via Zoom, which I've relied on more heavily lately. I had been using a different platform, but all my potential guests seemed to want Zoom, so I made the switch. Coming this month is a great interview with Joseph Ellis about his new book: The Cause.
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Biography of Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse: https://navalmechanicsofthebattleofdominica.omeka.net/exhibits/show/biography/bioggraphy-of-admirial-francoi
Comte de Grasse: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/comte-de-grasse
Admiral John Byron: https://morethannelson.com/officer/hon-john-byron
Sir Joshua Rowley: https://morethannelson.com/officer/sir-joshua-rowley
George Etherington: https://www.mackinacparks.com/captain-george-etherington-michilimackinacs-unfortunate-commander
Battle of Grenada: https://morethannelson.com/battle-grenada-6-july-1779
Sir Hyde Parker: https://morethannelson.com/officer/sir-hyde-parker
(from archive.org unless noted)
Barrington, Samuel The Barrington papers, selected from the letters and papers of Admiral the Hon. Samuel Barrington, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2, London: Navy Records Society, 1937 (borrow only):
Clowes, William Laird The Royal Navy: A History From The Earliest Times To 1900, Vol.3, London: S. Low, Marston, Co. 1898.
Coxe, William An Historical Tour in Monmouthshire, London: L. Hansard, 1801.
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.
Morris, Valentine A Narrative of the Official Conduct of Valentine Morris, London: J. Walter (printer) 1787.
Shea, John Gilmary The Operations of the French fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781-1782, as described in two contemporaneous journals, De Capo Press 1971 (reprint of original publication, 1864).
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Harburn, Todd E. (ed) A Vindication of My Conduct: The Court Martial Trial of Lieutenant Colonel George Etherington of the 60th or Royal American Regiment held on the Island of St. Lucia in the West Indies, October 1781 and the Extraordinary Story of the Surrender of the Island of St. Vincents in the British Caribbean during the American Revolution, Heritage Books, 2019.
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.
Taylor, Christopher The Black Carib Wars: Freedom, Survival, and the Making of the Garifuna, Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2012.
Toth, Charles (ed) The American Revolution and the West Indies, Kennikat Press, 1975:
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
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