The French and Indian War: Deciding the Fate of North America - Walter R. Borneman (2006)
BOOK TWO. Mr. Pitt’s Global War (1757–1760)
11. CARIBBEAN GAMBIT
Despite the expanse of geography that was at stake in Canada and the extraordinary lengths that Pitt’s empire had recently undertaken to subject it, there was a region of North America that in terms of trade made Canada appear a pauper. This was the Caribbean. The days were long since past when the Caribbean could be called a Spanish lake, and the collision of empires resounded here just as it did throughout the remainder of the continent. With little regard to the indigenous peoples and even less to the hundreds of thousands of black slaves imported here from Africa, the European powers traded Caribbean islands and maneuvered for position as if pushing pawns on a global chessboard.
In some respects, the map of the Caribbean when the war was formally declared in 1756 was as complex and confusing as were the changing boundaries and alliances of Europe. Generally, Spain claimed Cuba, the eastern half of Santo Domingo, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad. Great Britain was established in Jamaica, the eastern Virgin Islands, Barbuda, Antigua, Saint Kitts, Nevis, Montserrat, and Barbados. Denmark held the Danish West Indies, or the western Virgin Islands of Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Saint John. The Dutch maintained a small but valuable trading presence from the island of Saint Eustatius, east of Saint Croix. This left France with the western half of Santo Domingo—now called Haiti and ceded by Spain to France by the Peace of Rijswijk of 1697—and Guadeloupe, Martinique, and Grenada. The bulk of the mainland circling the Caribbean from Florida counterclockwise to Venezuela belonged to Spain, save for British interests in Belize and Dutch claims to Aruba and Curaçao. It was indeed a chessboard with multiple players.
Add to this patchwork the so-called neutral islands of Dominica, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent, and Tobago. Except for Tobago, these were essentially what are now called the Windward Islands between Martinique and the coast of South America. Ostensibly, Great Britain and France agreed in 1730, and reaffirmed at Aix-la-Chapelle, that these “neutral” islands would not be colonized by either nation pending the settlement of rival claims to them. This may have made diplomatic sense, but the geography of the area produced a different result.
Dominica lay in the chain between French Guadeloupe and French Martinique; Saint Lucia and Saint Vincent between Martinique and French Grenada. Despite the proximity of the British at Barbados, about 100 miles east of Saint Vincent, it was only a matter of time before French settlers emigrated from nearby islands. This was particularly true of Dominica, where the French built plantations and subjugated the natives. By the time of the war, the French numbered 2,000 on the island and had 6,000 acres under cultivation by 6,000 black slaves.1 So much for neutrality.
The long-standing feud between Great Britain and France over the neutral islands did not precipitate war, but it was certainly another log on the fire, particularly because the British came to view continued French settlement there as evidence that the French could not be trusted in any diplomatic matter. Far more than geography was at stake. The real value came from sugarcane. It was the cash crop of the Caribbean, cultivated by cheap slave labor and highly valued in both Europe and the remainder of the North American colonies.
France’s wealth from sugar was centered on western Santo Domingo, which the French called Saint Domingue; Guadeloupe; and Martinique. Guadeloupe alone was said to produce more sugar than all of the British West Indies combined. Martinique produced less sugarcane, but its other crops, including coffee, averaged over 1 million pounds sterling annually. Even more important, Martinique was the residence of the governor general of the French Caribbean and the seat of its Superior Council, responsible for managing all French possessions in the West Indies, including Saint Domingue. Fort Royal on the island’s western coast was the principal French naval base in the Caribbean. In short, Martinique was a ripe plum to be picked.
Conditions here were certainly much different from those along the Saint Lawrence River where Montcalm and his soldiers, as well as Canada’s residents, were reduced to rationing flour by the ounce. In hindsight, one wonders how Louis XV and his ministers could have been so shortsighted in their support of New France; but it wasn’t just the continental war in Europe that distracted them—it was the lucrative sugar trade from the Caribbean. Canada’s exports of furs paled against the sugar exports of the Caribbean.
By one account, the trading needs of the French West Indies required some 1,400 merchant vessels. “The value of these islands when compared with Canada as a source of wealth to France,” according to the historian Lawrence Henry Gipson, “may be measured by the fact that during the year 1754 but forty-one ships ascended the Saint Lawrence, including nine from the Caribbean Sea.” It was clear that France’s Caribbean trade was a source of income to be zealously guarded while Canada was decidedly on the short end.2
Before the war a key component of French trade in the Caribbean had been trade with the British colonies in North America. They were as eager as Europe for sugar, but they were also ready outlets for molasses, a by-product of the sugar mills that was essential to distilling rum. Given their preference for wine and brandy, the French actually forbade rum imports into France from the Caribbean, but the English colonies had no such compulsion and gladly traded foodstuffs and tobacco in return.
The outbreak of hostilities disrupted this mutually beneficial trade and gave colonial shipowners from Boston to Charleston pause. What were they to do now? Many turned a blind eye to British laws and continued their trading routines as smugglers. Others simply armed their vessels and became privateers, preying on French merchantmen. The French did likewise, of course, and British merchantmen also fell victim to French privateers.
As the numbers of ships lost on both sides escalated after the official declaration of war in 1756, both Great Britain and France began to use a convoy system similar to what the Spanish had used since the days of their first treasure fleets. French merchantmen assembled with warships at Cap François or Port-au-Prince on Saint Domingue. The French squadron from Fort Royal escorted merchantmen out of Guadeloupe, Martinique, or the “neutral” island of Dominica.
Similarly, the British rendezvoused at their naval bases at Port Royal in Jamaica and English Harbor in Antigua. In 1757, Great Britain’s Jamaica convoy numbered 120 ships; in 1758 it numbered164. But such military protection could not keep the vagaries of the weather from disrupting the passage, as a storm did in 1758 when ninety Virginian tobacco ships were scattered and left at the mercy of French privateers. According to Lloyd’s, “between June 1756 and June 1760, a grand total of some 2,539 British and colonial vessels fell victim to French raiders on the high seas.”
During this same period, the French lost 944 ships to the British, but this news was not as good as it might first appear. France simply had fewer ships to lose. By 1758, thanks to the war and despite its losses, British trade was booming. Mr. Pitt was indeed looking like an empire-builder. Shipyards throughout the British Isles and the North American colonies were sending ship after ship down the ways to replace the losses. Shipbuilding in France lagged far behind, and the French merchant marine simply could not keep up. “The French merchant marine,” wrote the admitted Anglophile Lawrence Henry Gipson, “was being inexorably swept from the seas.” Increasingly, France turned to neutral countries, particularly the Netherlands, in an effort to maintain its overseas commerce.3
France’s use of neutral carriers to circumvent Great Britain’s growing dominance of the seas led British admiralty courts to set down two famous rules of international law: the Rule of 1756 and the Doctrine of Continuous Voyage. Under long-established principles of international law, a truly neutral ship and its cargo could not be seized by one belligerent simply for trading with its enemy. The Rule of 1756 decreed, however, that if a country, such as France, treated a ship’s cargo with respect to duties and taxes as its own, then the ship that carried it would be subject to seizure regardless of its flag.
In response, French ships began depositing Caribbean sugar and other products at the Dutch West Indies ports of Saint Eustatius and Curaçao for transport to France in neutral Dutch vessels with appropriate documentation. Great Britain responded: “but a voyage begun on a bottom that would render the cargo confiscable,” that is, on an enemy ship, could not to be continued by a ship of a neutral as a continuation of the same voyage without still being subject to seizure. This was the Doctrine of Continuous Voyage. British colonists in North America cheered both these legal pronouncements which gave their privateers more possible maritime targets. Fifty years later, however, as the young United States, they would come to abhor the decisions when, during the Napoleonic wars, their attempts at neutral trade with France became one of the causes of the War of 1812.4
The Dutch, of course, were incensed, but there was not much that they could do militarily. Considering England’s past ties with the house of Orange, it was slap in the face, especially in December 1758 when Pitt responded to the personal protests of the Dutch ambassador in no uncertain terms. According to a later report from The Hague, Pitt railed “that the [Dutch] navigation and trade to the French islands were carried on for the account of the French though under borrowed names” and that all the certificates professing Dutch ownership were “false and counterfeit.” In addition, Pitt asserted, “the merchants concerned in that trade preferred gain to their eternal salvation; and that by false oaths they had given up their souls to be eternally damned.”5
What France desperately needed at this stage of the war was a powerful maritime ally. Clearly, the Dutch could not fill the bill. The only country that could was Spain, related to the French throne by the Bourbon blood of Louis XIV, but still intractably neutral at the insistence of his great-grandson Ferdinand VI. At the time of the formal declaration of war between Great Britain and France in 1756, the French navy had sixty-three ships of the line. Spain had forty-six ships of the line. Taken together, a combined French-Spanish fleet would have numbered 109 capital ships. By comparison, in 1756 the Royal Navy numbered 130 ships of the line.6
Disregarding the state of readiness of each vessel—which varied greatly in fact and in the telling—and remembering that ships of the line were but one measure of naval strength, the combined French and Spanish navies would have at least enjoyed some measure of parity with the navy of Great Britain. It is one of history’s “what ifs,” but it was not going to happen—at least not in 1756 or, for that matter, two years later, in 1758. Spain was neutral.
“We shall leave our readers to judge what it indicates,” reported the South Carolina Gazette from Charleston in July 1758, “But it is certain, that the Spaniards have now a very strong garrison at Saint Augustine; and are building with all possible dispatch, a strong fort at the southwest of the town.”7 What this indicated was that such reports made for nervous colonials. The reports did not, however, change diplomatic fact. Spain was neutral.
A subsequent letter from Saint Augustine reported that “no more than 40 dragoons” had arrived there with the new governor from Havana; that no new fortifications were being erected; and that the entire garrison of Spain’s stronghold in Florida numbered about 450 men. More to the point, “all French privateers were forbid the Port of Saint Augustine; and that by advises received from Spain as late as June, it appeared that his Catholic Majesty was not the least disposed to enter into, or be concerned in the present broils in Europe or America.”8 So Spanish neutrality seemed an undisputed fact, as Pitt’s global strategy brought his gaze to bear on the Caribbean and in particular the sugarplums of Martinique and Guadeloupe.
One source, which appears to have been quoted many times without careful scrutiny of its veracity, suggests that as many as 1,400 of the British ships captured by French privateers were brought to the island of Martinique.9 Militarily, that should have given Pitt ample incentive to launch an attack against Fort Royal, but it was actually the elixir of sugar that turned his head in this direction. More precisely, it was the powerful sugar lobby in Great Britain. Pitt’s good friend, sugar magnate William Beckford, didn’t come right out and argue the benefits that would accrue to his fellow sugar planters should the capture of Martinique result in more product or less disruption in trade. Rather, Beckford suggested that Martinique might be captured and then exchanged to France in return for the loss of Minorca, which Great Britain still considered essential to its power in the Mediterranean.
After the previous war, Louisbourg had served as a similar bargaining chip. Now, Beckford lobbied Pitt that because Louisbourg was the key to Canada, it must be retained at all costs and another chip acquired. It is debatable whether Beckford really believed that, or was merely repeating Pitt’s party line, or was prescient enough to know that the American colonies would howl in even greater indignation should Louisbourg be given up again. Whatever his reasons, as long as Louisbourg could not be the bargaining chip, a move against Martinique was all the more valuable. On September 11, 1758, Beckford wrote to Pitt a second time, with greater urgency. Noting that the island “has but one town of strength,” Beckford argued that the “conquest [was] easy” and that Pitt should “attempt it without delay and noise.”10
Truth be told, Martinique was having a spell of bad luck. Not only was the war taking a toll on its merchantmen—despite the numbers of condemned British vessels brought into its harbor—but the weather had not been kind. “This poor country, which you once knew in a flourishing state,” wrote a French resident of Saint Pierre to a merchant in Bordeaux in June 1758, entrusting the letter to a Dutch vessel that was subsequently seized by the British, “has been afflicted within three years by two dreadful hurricanes, which has for ever ruined one-third of the inhabitants; by a war, more dreadful than can be imagined; and to complete our misery, by a drought, which continued from the beginning of this year, ruins all the plantations, and affords a very melancholy prospect for the ensuing year. May God have mercy upon us, and at least grant us a peace, no matter on what conditions!”11
As much as Pitt would have liked to oblige by way of a conquest, he was not without his own limitations. Despite certain successes in North America in 1758, two major raids on the French coast—at Saint-Malo and in Brittany—had ended in failures reminiscent of Rochefort the year before. Many in England were still nervous about the threat of a cross-Channel invasion from France. It was bad enough that Pitt had thrown troops and ships against the French in Canada, but now he wanted to do the same in the Caribbean. Lord Anson, first lord of the Admiralty, opposed diverting more ships from the English Channel. Others remembered Admiral Vernon’s less than stunning show in the Caribbean in 1742 during the War of Jenkins’ Ear and opposed any expeditionary force in that direction. “Martinique is the general notion,” wrote Horace Walpole, but “others now talk of Guadeloupe…. It is almost impossible for me to find out the real destination … and I would rather not be told what I am sure I shall not approve.”12
Such criticism aside, Pitt was well past working without a net, and he did not hesitate. Perhaps most importantly, he suddenly found the king in his corner. George II, who might be said to have merely tolerated Pitt in the early years, had suddenly caught the fever of global empire and in at least one critical exchange with Pitt and the duke of Newcastle become one of Pitt’s strongest supporters. Praising Pitt’s successes to Newcastle, the king lectured the duke that “we must keep Cape Breton [Louisbourg], take Canada, drive the French out of America, and have two armies in Germany, consisting together of 80,000 men.” To Pitt, George avowed that “we must conquer Martinique as a set-off to Minorca.”13
It was nice to have George’s blessing for once, but in reality Pitt had already begun phase one of a two-phase plan against the French in the Caribbean. Once again displaying his grasp of the interdependency of global positions, as well as a willing eye toward commercial profit, Pitt had ordered attacks against two French trading stations on the western coast of Africa. Much as William Beckford was promoting a Caribbean excursion, a Quaker merchant named Thomas Cummings had whispered in Pitt’s ear about the vulnerability of French positions there and the enormous wealth to be had by seizing them. Pitt promptly gave Cummings a trade monopoly in Senegal and sent him off to Africa with two ships of the line and four support vessels carrying a force of 200 marines. This number was less than formidable, but it was enough. Fort Louis at the mouth of the Senegal River surrendered to the British without a shot in late April 1758.
Buoyed by this success, in mid-June 1758 Pitt authorized a second African expedition against the island of Gorée, 200 miles farther south at the mouth of the Gambia River. Led by Admiral Augustus Keppel—whose North American squadron had rendezvoused with Admiral Boscawen in 1755 in the intercept operation that seized the Alcide and the Lys—the expedition finally sailed in mid-August. By the end of the year, Keppel had captured Gorée and achieved a threefold success. First, a large quantity of gum senega vital to French silk manufacturers fell into British hands and returned a handsome profit. Second, with the loss of Gorée, French privateers in the eastern Atlantic lost their only secure base of operations on the African coast. Third, there was Pitt’s first strike against the Caribbean. These trading stations were the source of upwards of 400 slaves sent annually to sugar planters in the French West Indies. Without the cheap supply of fresh labor, French sugar production on Martinique and Guadeloupe was materially weakened.14
Meanwhile, the French were well aware of the overall weakness of Martinique and were still trying every angle to entice the Spanish to come to their assistance. As late as Christmas Day 1758, the French foreign minister Étienne-François de Stainville, duc de Choiseul, urged his ambassador in Madrid to present the case that “to ward off the dangers to Spanish possessions” should Great Britain prevail in the Caribbean, the Spanish court “should order twenty-four war vessels into the anchorages of Martinique.”15 Not surprisingly, Spain declined the invitation.
After a false start in abominable weather, a British fleet of seventy-three ships finally sailed for the Caribbean from Portsmouth on November 12, 1758. The flotilla boasted eight ships of the line, including the ninety-gun Saint George; a frigate; four bomb ketches; a hospital ship; and sixty-four transports carrying 6,000 regulars, artillery, and supplies. Crossing the Atlantic without incident, the vessels arrived in Carlisle Bay off the British island of Barbados on January 3, 1759. There, a small squadron already on station in the Caribbean under the command of Commodore John Moore joined them. Moore’s command included four additional ships of the line, and Pitt’s orders placed him in charge of the combined naval units.
The army was a different matter. Pitt favored yet another of his young colonels to lead the assault: in this instance, John Barrington, the brother of the secretary of war. For all of the king’s enthusiasm for the Martinique venture, however, George II balked at Barrington’s promotion and instead insisted on Major General Thomas Peregrine Hopson for the command. Hopson was a known commodity who had commanded at Louisbourg before its return to France after the War of the Austrian Succession. He had also served briefly as governor of Nova Scotia and been in charge of the troops dispatched from England to aid Lord Loudoun in his aborted effort to recapture Louisbourg in 1757. Pitt had to settle for appointing Barrington as Hopson’s second in command. The good news for Barrington—as he reprised the role of Lord Howe to Hopson’s Abercromby—was that Hopson was a far more decisive commander than Abercromby.16
Caribbean Campaigns, 1759-1762
Martinique, with a craggy coastline and deep, rocky ravines, lay about 125 miles northwest of Barbados. Its most dominant feature was 4,800-foot Mount Pelée on the northwestern end of the island. (In 1902, the eruption of this volcano, with a huge cloud of lethal gases, would kill 30,000 people in the nearby town of Saint Pierre.) Martinique was to the windward of Barbados, but its principal towns of Saint Pierre and Fort Royal were on the leeward western side of the island. This meant that the attacking British fleet would have to battle prevailing offshore winds as it hovered off the coast or attempted to enter the inner harbor of Fort Royal.
Hopson determined that Fort Royal, less heavily populated than Saint Pierre, would be his first objective. A system of outer works and artillery batteries flanked the fort itself, which in turn protected the town and the inner harbor. Looking for a sheltered place to disembark his troops, Hopson chose Cas des Navires northwest of Fort Royal and between it and Saint Pierre. Before the landing could be undertaken, Commodore Moore’s warships had to silence one artillery battery there and another at nearby Fort Negro. This was accomplished without great effort on the morning of January 16, 1759, and a force of grenadiers and Highlanders under the direct command of Barrington landed at Cas des Navires and marched about a mile to take possession of Fort Negro.
The ease of this initial assault was deceptive. By the following morning, French defenders had begun a steady sniping at the British position from the tangled woods of the surrounding hillsides. The Highlanders made a valiant effort to drive these pesky skirmishers from their protected hiding places, but the terrain was daunting. In the words of one officer, “the Highlands of Scotland, for woods, mountains, canes, and ravines, is nothing to it.”
While Hopson and Barrington debated their options, the engineers reported a decided weakness in their position. To reach the road north to Saint Pierre or to march against Fort Royal itself from the landing zone required a move inland of up to six miles via a route that would have to be hacked through this tropical maze. Even if the mechanical effort proved successful, the road would be subject to continuing harassment from French fire for its entire length. Hopson appealed to Commodore Moore to locate a landing site for his artillery closer to the French fort, but Moore replied that none was available. With that news in hand, late on the afternoon of January 17, Hopson ordered his troops back to their transports and abandoned his position. The British invasion of Martinique had lasted but one day.17
But Hopson was not easily discouraged. The following morning he convened a council of war onboard Moore’s flagship and discussed the possibility of sailing against the prevailing winds and passing right under the guns of Fort Royal to enter the inner harbor. Moore’s pilots, who may have voiced their opposition only after an admonishing glance from the commodore, deemed this idea too risky. The consensus was to sail up the western coast some twenty miles and reconnoiter Saint Pierre.
On the northwestern coast of Martinique just south of Mount Pelée, Saint Pierre was guarded by shore batteries and a major fortress just north of the town. Forty merchant ships and assorted privateers lay at anchor under their protection. To test these defenses, Commodore Moore sent Captain Edward Jekyll and the sixty-gun ship of the line Rippon to bombard one of the shore batteries. Jekyll easily accomplished this first step, but once again subsequent events proved the toughness of the French defenses.
No sooner had the battery been silenced than Rippon was caught in withering cross fire from the fort and other shore installations. To make matters worse, the normally prevailing offshore winds, which had vexed an entry into Fort Royal harbor, suddenly changed to an onshore breeze that pinned Rippon against the coast and made maneuvering almost impossible. Finally, Jekyll deployed fifty sailors in longboats to tow the badly battered ship out of harm’s way. It was not an experience to inspire confidence. Once again, Moore and Hopson held a council of war.
The Royal Navy could batter down the coastal defenses, Moore maintained, but his ships would take a beating in the process. If French warships should suddenly appear, his fleet might not be in any condition to repel an attack against Hopson’s beachhead—if, that is, Hopson was even able to attain one. The general, too, was having second thoughts about the whole island of Martinique. Even if he was successful in forcing the surrender of Saint Pierre, how could he garrison an island of 30,000 inhabitants who seemed determined to resist with a force one-fifth that number? When Moore suggested that they stand back to sea and head north 100 miles to the town of Basse-Terre on the island of Guadeloupe, Hopson readily agreed.18
Guadeloupe was really two major islands separated by a short water passage—mountainous Basse-Terre on the west and flat Grande-Terre to the east. It offered the same strategic attractions as Martinique—major sugar production and a haven for French privateers—but with a smaller population. The capital and major town, Basse-Terre on the western island, was protected by a substantial fort flanked by shore batteries. Its harbor lacked the deep waters of Saint Pierre, and vessels were required to anchor at some distance in the bay.
Whether or not Basse-Terre’s defenses were any less formidable than Saint Pierre’s is debatable, but early on the morning of January 23, 1759, Commodore Moore dispatched eight ships of the line to bombard the fort and flanking shore batteries. The action was every bit as fierce as what Rippon had endured off Saint Pierre, but by late afternoon the French guns fell silent. Apparently, the explanation was not entirely military. “The citadel might have held out indefinitely except that its drinking water cistern was fouled by a mortar shell and the militiamen of the garrison drank rum instead of water all that hot day until disciplinary inhibitions were relaxed and they all went home.”
Although there was some thought of landing troops immediately, this order was countermanded and Moore’s bomb ketches moved in to soften up the town. The result was an unintended firestorm. The wooden shingles of warehouse after warehouse loaded with sugar and molasses caught fire, and the resulting flames quickly spread to engulf the town. By evening, Moore noted rather sadly in a report to Pitt, “contrary to my wishes,” the town became an inferno from “the quantity of rum and sugar that was in it.”19
The next afternoon, British troops landed without opposition and took possession of the blackened town of Basse-Terre and its fortifications. There was a great debate among the rank and file at the time—and there has been considerable conjecture by historians since—about whether the island of Guadeloupe was indeed the original goal of Hopson’s expedition and the dalliance at Martinique merely a diversion. This seems unlikely, but at least one Royal Navy officer avowed from Basse-Terre that the effort against Martinique “was but to feint, for we were intended for this place, which we now have in possession.”20
But Basse-Terre was only a piece of Guadeloupe, and a full occupation was a long way off. In fact, the British occupied the town of Basse-Terre, but little else—exactly the exposed result that General Hopson had feared if he had been able to take Saint Pierre on Martinique. Finally, three weeks after the landing at Basse-Terre, Commodore Moore ordered a similar naval bombardment against Fort Louis on the southwestern shore of the neighboring island of Grand-Terre. By the time a contingent of Highlanders and marines landed to secure the town, it was in much the same sorry state as Basse-Terre. One difference was that the port at Fort Louis offered the British fleet a much better anchorage.
Two islands, two towns; but the majority of Guadeloupe remained under French control, thanks to some spirited resistance and a little help from the climate. The hot, humid tropics and the fevers they bred were beginning to take their toll on the British troops. By the end of February, over one-fourth of Hopson’s troops, some 1,500 men, were sick and had to be evacuated from the island. On February 27, General Hopson himself succumbed to a fever, and command of his troops devolved upon John Barrington.
Barrington was not timid about pushing plans to subdue the remainder of Guadeloupe; but as he and Commodore Moore worked out a plan of operations, they received news that Moore had long dreaded. The French navy had finally made an appearance in this part of the West Indies. Led by Maximin de Bompar, nine ships of the line and three frigates were sighted off Barbados heading for Martinique. Their appearance off Guadeloupe was only a matter of time. If Bompar added the seventy-four-gun Florissant from the harbor at Fort Royal to his fleet, and depending on how Moore’s ships were scattered along the southern coasts of the two islands of Guadeloupe, the French might prove more than a match for the Royal Navy. Moore decided to assemble the bulk of his fleet in Prince Rupert Bay on the island of Dominica about fifty miles south of Basse-Terre and lie in wait for Bompar. Barrington was going to have to fight on his own.21
Barrington acquitted himself well and first moved east on Grande-Terre from Fort Louis to capture the towns of Saint Anne and Saint François. With this flank secure, he turned back to the eastern half of Basse-Terre Island and ground away at the towns of Petit Bourg, Guoyave, and Saint Marie. In the end, only Saint Marie held out, and the French concentrated their troops there in a last stand on the heights above the town. Finally, French resistance melted away after a determined British assault.
On May 1, 1759, the French governor, Nadau d’Etreil, who had repeatedly rejected first Hopson’s and then Barrington’s entreaties to surrender, was at last forced to do so. More than British guns brought d’Etreil to this decision. With many of the French regulars tied down containing the British garrison at the town of Basse-Terre, French planters on the remainder of the islands had borne the brunt of the coastal fighting. Not only had they grown tired of the conflict by now, but they were anxious to prevent the havoc that Barrington had wreaked on the coastal towns from spreading inland. Pressured by the French inhabitants as much as by Barrington’s troops, d’Etreil formally surrendered Basse-Terre and the following day did the same for Grande-Terre. From the British perspective, it was not a moment too soon.
Admiral Bompar’s squadron had somehow eluded Commodore Moore and, while Barrington was occupied against Saint Marie, had landed major French reinforcements at the ruins of Saint Anne. The governor general of the French West Indies, the marquis de Beauharnais, was there in person along with 600 French regulars; 2,000 assorted privateers from Martinique; and 2,000 stands of arms for the local residents. For a moment, it looked as if Barrington was to have a real fight on his hands.
But it was the French planters who came to his rescue. Fearing even more destruction if they repudiated the terms of the surrender, the French planters declined to support Beauharnais’s advance, and the governor general was suddenly left without any popular support on the islands. Now, it was Admiral Bompar’s turn to fear that an enemy fleet would arrive off his beachhead, and there was little for Beauharnais to do but re-embark his troops and sail back to Martinique.
The main reason that the French on Guadeloupe were eager to avoid continued warfare was that the terms of the surrender had been most generous. First, the British had made a very clear distinction between troops under arms and the inhabitants of the islands. The troops were granted the right to leave Guadeloupe for Dominica or Martinique with full honors of war and with no restrictions on their future military service. In other words, they were not treated as prisoners of war. That alone was unusual. And Guadeloupe’s inhabitants fared even better. They were permitted to keep all private property, practice their Catholic religion, educate their children in France, and maintain all the French laws and customs that were then in place. These were to be administered by the existing French authorities, and taxes were to be no higher than those currently paid to Louis XV. There was no requirement to quarter British troops in private houses, and slaves could not be compelled to work on defense fortifications without the consent of their owners.
Essentially, the only changes were that the British Union Jack waved on the flagpole; the island’s sugar went to Great Britain instead of France; and molasses was suddenly a legal cargo for Britain’s North American colonies instead of smuggled contraband. All this was a far cry from Acadia and the horrors visited there the previous summer. Moreover, some of these terms would have delighted His Majesty’s subjects in the British North American colonies, who were beginning to chafe over the quartering of troops and increased taxes.22
If they chose to do so, the French could look at Admiral Bompar’s naval maneuvers off Guadeloupe and take some satisfaction in the fact that they had still been capable of mounting some sort of an offensive naval operation far remote from France. But such sentiments were hollow. The real victory belonged to William Pitt.
On the two islands of Guadeloupe and nearby Marie-Galante, which the British quickly seized as well, some 40,000 slaves worked on 350 plantations that produced a treasure trove of sugar, molasses, coffee, cocoa, and cotton. Much of it had sat bottled up by the restricted trade of the war, and now French planters—smiling at the most favorable of surrender terms—were eager to ship their produce anywhere it would return a profit. Within a year, 10,000 tons of sugar—more than the amount from all of Great Britain’s other holdings in the West Indies—would be exported to Britain in exchange for manufactured goods and more slaves. Within another year, Guadeloupe would be supplying rum distillers in Massachusetts with nearly half of their molasses requirement—three times as much as from Jamaica.23
Pitt might still think of Guadeloupe as merely a bargaining chip to be traded for Minorca, but it quickly became much, much more. The coffers of British merchants—the very same middle class that Pitt depended on for taxes to support his far-flung military expeditions—were starting to contain tidy profits. Trade on the high seas, the lifeblood of Pitt’s growing empire, was booming, and in the process was starting to sweep the French from the oceans just as surely as any ships of the line. Whatever its original motives, and whatever its intended target, William Pitt’s Caribbean gambit had paid off handsomely.