Saturday, 13 June 2015

Trouble in Paradise - a history of St Lucia continued

I'm not going to tell you what an awesome time I had in St Lucia. I'll just carry on with the history of the island, picking up a few years after the previous post left off and not mention at all how awesome it was.

Slaves cutting sugar cane
The French, you may recall, had laid claim to the island as a crown colony in 1674 after the British settlement established following the victory of the ill fated 'Carib' Warner had been virtually wiped out by disease. The British were not content to allow the French to sit pretty in St Lucia however. The Caribbean islands had become extremely valuable to the colonial powers, primarily due to the rising European demand for sugar. By the middle of the 17th Century sugar was outstripping tobacco as the principle crop grown for export on many of the colonised islands in the Caribbean. National rivalries and the demand for good sugar growing land as existing plantations were farmed to exhaustion drove fierce competition between the two countries and the British had cried foul in 1719 when the French had sent more colonists to St Lucia.

In 1722 the decision was taken to seize control of the island. John the second Duke of Montegu, pictured right, was appointed as its governor by George I, although he did not set out for the island himself. Instead a flotilla of seven ships under the command of Montegu's deputy governor Nathanial Uring set out for St Lucia carrying four hundred colonists. Uring established a fortified settlement at Petit Carantage on the western coast of the island but 1400 French troops were poured in from Martinique and laid siege to the British position. Two nearby British warships were asked to assist but were too busy chasing pirates and so Uring was left with little option but to surrender and was permitted to withdraw with his followers to Antigua. Following this unfortunate breakdown in the Caribbean entente cordiale, Britain and France agreed that St Lucia should be a neutral territory and that neither nation should seek to send more colonists to the island, but that those already there of either nationality could remain unmolested.

The four hundred colonists carried by Uring's expedition had been indentured white servants, who would be granted land at the end of an agreed period of service. This practice had already died out on the more densely colonised islands in the Caribbean however, as reserves of land with which to reward migrant workers ran out and their numbers fell short of those needed to work the plantations. Instead the plantation owners had turned to slave labour. The Royal African Company had been established by royal charter in 1672 under the patronage of the future James II. The company rose from the ashes of a previous endeavour; the jolly sounding Royal  Company of Adventurers, who had run up massive debts whilst monopolising British trade with West Africa. The new company were able to extend their activities to the slave trade and maintained troops and forts on African soil. From its establishment until the loss of its monopoly in 1689 the company transported perhaps as many as 100,000 souls across the Atlantic. Many thousands did not survive the appalling conditions of the voyage. The French naturally established an equivalent company which operated on a similar scale.

Slaves processing sugar cane

Following the Glorious Revolution the transportation of slaves was opened up to private enterprise but the Royal African Company still received a ten percent levy on all cargoes. Under the treaty of Utrecht, which ended the War of the Spanish succession in 1713, British slavers were permitted to trade slaves in the Spanish territories of the New World; a permission known as the asiento. British merchants abused the asiento to engage in other illicit trade, resulting in British ships being boarded and searched by Spanish warships. It was such an incident that led to the outbreak of the War of Jenkins Ear in 1739. When Captain Robert Jenkins of the barque Rebecca was allegedly shorn of an ear by an overzealous Spanish naval officer, to the outrage of parliament, British forces were unleashed in a campaign against Spanish possessions in the Caribbean. Attacks were made on Spanish colonies in Panama and Columbia with varying success. When France entered the War of Jenkins' Ear against the British in 1744, as the Anglo Spanish conflict was engulfed in the wider European War of the Austrian Succession, they once more annexed St Lucia. In the Treaty of Aix le Chappel that ended hostilities in 1748 the island was once more restored to a neutral territory.

The capture of St Lucia 1762
With the outbreak of the global conflict of the Seven Years War, the French once more seized control of the island in 1756. The British soon began to mop up French colonies in the Caribbean however. Guadeloupe, Dominica and Martinique; the jewels in the French West Indian colonial crown, all fell to British amphibious invasions by 1762. Following the capture of Martinique, Captain Augustus Hervey led his squadron against St Lucia. Sailing into the port of Castries, Hervey disguised himself as a midshipman to go ashore to parley so that he might assess the enemy's strength. In the end the island's garrison surrendered without a shot being fired when faced with the might of the British warships. The island would only remain in British hands for a year before the war's end, at which point it was restored to French control by the treaty of Paris.

French intervention in the American War of Independence brought a fresh effort from both nations to capture each others possessions in the Caribbean. A French fleet under the Compte D'Estaing sailed from Boston on the same day that a British squadron commanded by Commodore William Hotham sailed from New York accompanied by a fleet of transports carrying 5000 soldiers under the command of Major General James Grant. Upon reaching Barbados, Hotham's force came under the command of Admiral Samuel Barrington, who resolved upon using Grant's troops to capture the lightly defended island of St Lucia. The British force, with Barrington in overall command aboard the 74 gun Prince of Wales, arrived off Grand Cul de Sac, St Lucia in December 1778. The French fleet had been driven off course, allowing the British to disembark their forces unmolested. Grant's troops then advanced on the fort at Morne Fortune; the key strongpoint on the island. The French garrison swiftly surrendered.

The Battle of St Lucia 1778
Two days later the more powerful French fleet under the Compte D'Estaing arrived and bottled the British up in the bay. Barrington's little fleet was heavily outgunned. He had seven ships of the line, of which the Prince of Wales was the most powerful, and three frigates. The French fleet comprised a dozen ships of the line and four frigates led by the eighty gun Languedoc. Barrington anchored his fleet in line of battle across the mouth of the bay, with his transports taking shelter behind him and two shore batteries at either end of the line able to fire in support. The French fleet made two attacks upon the British with ten and then all twelve ships of the line and on both occasions were repulsed, in what was described by Barrington with typical British understatement as a 'very warm exchange'.

Meanwhile 9000 French troops had landed on the Vigie peninsula to the north and advanced upon the British, under Brigadier General William Meadows, who had occupied a hill at the neck of the peninsula and dug in. Three assaults were made upon the 1400 British troops by the French who suffered very heavy casualties as they advanced uphill in line against the entrenched British. Nevertheless the French had the numbers and as he anticipated yet another assault, Meadows urged his men to defend the colours as long as they had bayonets. The heart had gone out of the French however and they retired. The remaining French forces on the island surrendered ten days later and St Lucia was British.

Admiral Rodney later established a base on Pigeon Island, following in the footsteps of Jambe de Bois Le Clerc. From Signal Hill on the island he could observe the French base on Martinique. Five years later however, St Lucia was once more returned to the French under the terms of the treaty of Versailles.

Victor Hugues ends slavery on Guadeloupe 1794

The French revolution brought a massive change to the region when its ideals of libertie, egalitie and fraternite were extended to the vast number of enslaved Africans, who by this point represented some 80% of the population of the sugar producing colonies. In August 1793, with France and Britain already at war, the governor of St Domingue declared the freedom of all slaves in the colony. His decision was ratified by the National Convention in Paris six months later, who extended it to all French colonies. By this time many slaves in the French Caribbean had already downed tools in the spirit of revolution. Plantation owners meanwhile looked to the British to restore slavery to the sugar islands and preserve their prosperity. Initially the British enjoyed great success. St Lucia was successfully recaptured in 1794 along with several other French held islands.

The arrival on the beleaguered island of Guadeloupe of one Victor Hugues, bringing with him the National Assembly's declaration of emancipation, galvanised resistance to the British. The British invaders were run out of Guadeloupe and Hugues appealed to slaves and the native Caribs on other islands to rise up against the British. So began the so-called Brigands' War. Hugues had landed in Guadeloupe with just over a thousand men but was able to recruit thousands more from the freed slaves. He set up a guillotine to deal with the planters and royalists who opposed him and sided with the British. Hugues even threatened to execute British prisoners if the British executed revolutionaries on the islands that they held. He also empowered numerous privateers to attack British and neutral shipping, including that of the United States, whose government supported the cause of the British and the planters, which Hugues saw as a great betrayal. Meanwhile in St Lucia, St Vincent and Granada, local forces of French settlers, Caribs and former slaves assisted by French officers similarly ran the British forces off the islands. In truth, the emancipation that Hugues offered, made little material difference to the lot in life of the former slaves. With only limited rights, they were obliged to support the French war effort by either serving in the army or continuing to work the fields.

The Inniskillings capture Morne Fortune 1796

The British response arrived in the form of General Sir Ralph Abercromby, who was appointed commander in chief in the Caribbean in 1795. Abercromby's professional soldiers on the face of it should have had little difficulty in overcoming Hugues' revolutionaries but the difficulties of terrain made the reconquest of the islands a tough prospect. Granada was swiftly overcome but in St Vincent the Carib in particular provided fierce resistance. In St Lucia the key battle was once again fought over the strategic fort of Morne Fortune. The hilltop was defended by 2000 native troops with 100 French officers and 35 guns. The British were forced to fight their way up steep ravines, through dense vegetation. The hilltop was carried by a bold charge by the Inniskillings, who drove the French defenders into the fort. With their position surrounded, the defenders surrendered in the evening.

St Lucia was restored to British control. Slavery was formally reintroduced in 1803 although many former slaves had melted away into the interior to form maroon communities. Not until 1834 was slavery once more abolished on the island although, as before with Hugues, former slaves remained tied to the land and were forced to provide free labour under the terms of 'apprenticeships'. This practice was finally done away with in 1838 at which point the promise of freedom, first made by Hugues over forty years earlier, finally began to mean something.

More on Caribbean slavery

More on Victor Hugues

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