Caribbean theater of the American Revolutionary War
Britain's numerous island colonies in the West Indies were politically divided with respect to the issues that eventually drove the Thirteen Colonies in North America to revolution. Some colonial assemblies expressed sympathy for the rebel movement, but the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War in April 1775 did not result in similar mobilizations in the Caribbean. British military authorities, in fact, drew resources from there to support their activities against the rebel colonies in the early years of the war.
The main impact on the British West Indies in those early years was economic. The islands were dependent on North America for a number of resources, including lumber for construction and food to feed the large slave population that worked on plantations producing sugar cane for export. This trade fell substantially after the Royal Navy began blockading major ports in North America. Some trade continued, but the Americans, desperate for supplies (particularly military supplies, like gunpowder) from Europe, engaged in trade with French and Dutch possessions in the Caribbean. The Dutch island of Sint Eustatius in particular became a major supply point where Dutch merchants and officially sanctioned French traders did business with American merchants.
The situation changed following the entry of France into the war as an American ally in early 1778.
News of France's entry into the war reached the French governor at Martinique, the marquis de Bouillé, in August 1778. He immediately planned and executed the Invasion of Dominica, successfully taking the island on September 7.
The French Admiral the comte d'Estaing, after an unsuccessful attempt to capture Newport, Rhode Island, sailed from Boston for the West Indies on November 4. On the same day, Commodore William Hotham was dispatched from New York to reinforce the British fleet in the West Indies. Admiral Samuel Barrington, the British admiral in the Leeward Islands, retaliated against the capture of Dominica by seizing Saint Lucia on December 13–14, after the arrival of Hotham from North America. D'Estaing, who followed Hotham closely, was beaten off in two feeble attacks on Barrington at the Cul-de-Sac of Santa Lucia on December 15.
On January 6, 1779, Admiral Jack Byron reached the West Indies. During the early part of this year the naval forces in the West Indies were mainly employed in watching one another and building in strength. But in June, while Byron went to Antigua to guard the trade convoy on its way home, d'Estaing first captured St Vincent, and then Grenada. Admiral Byron sailed in hopes of saving first one and then the other, arrived off Grenada shortly after it fell. An indecisive action was fought off Grenada on July 6, 1779 in which Byron's fleet was significantly damaged. The war died down in the West Indies, with Byron repairing his fleet, and d'Estaing failing to capitalize on French naval superiority. Byron returned home in August. D'Estaing was ordered back to France in August, but instead answered appeals from the Americans for assistance in retaking Savannah, Georgia, which had fallen to British forces in December 1778. After the unsuccessful Siege of Savannah d'Estaing sailed for France.
Spain entered the war in 1779 as a French ally, further widening the war. Spanish colonial forces on the Yucatan peninsula captured the principal British settlement in present-day Belize at Saint George's Caye in September, and British forces from Jamaica briefly occupied the fortress of San Fernando de Omoa in present-day Honduras. Spain's entry into the war stretched British resources even further, since the combined Spanish and French naval forces exceeded theirs.
The 1780 campaign season was comparatively quiet. A French fleet under the comte de Guichen sparred with that of George Brydges Rodney in the inconclusive Battle of Martinique, but neither side was able to maneuver away from the other for substantive operations against the other's possessions. British authorities launched a major expedition from Jamaica, initially led by the young Horatio Nelson, to gain control of Spanish Nicaragua. The San Juan Expedition was a disastrous failure, and one of the most expensive British ventures in the war.
In the West Indies, Rodney, having received news of the breach with the Netherlands early in the year, took the island of Sint Eustatius, which had been a great depot of contraband of war, on February 3, 1781. He also authorized privateering against other Dutch targets, which resulted in the capture of three Dutch colonial outposts in South America. Rodney was accused of applying himself so entirely to seizing and selling the booty taken at Sint Eustatius that he would not allow his second in command, Sir Samuel Hood, who had recently joined him, to take proper measures to impede the arrival of French forces known to be on their way to Martinique. The French admiral, the comte de Grasse, reached the island with reinforcements in April, driving Hood away in the process. De Grasse then embarked on a diversionary attack on St. Lucia that masked the detachment of some of his fleet to capture Tobago. De Grasse and Rodney then engaged in a series of skilful but ultimately fruitless operations in which the former sought advantage to attack British holdings and otherwise avoid battle.
In one of the most significant miscalculations of the war, Admiral Rodney, in ill health, decided to return half his fleet to Europe at the start of 1781 hurricane season, leaving Admiral Hood with the other half to follow de Grasse. De Grasse, however, decided to undertake the risky proposition of taking almost all of his fleet to North America, leaving the French merchant fleet with only minimal Spanish protection. When de Grasse sailed north in August, this resulted in a significant imbalance of naval power in favor of the French in North American waters.
On the coast of North America, the war came to its climax. When Hood arrived off Chesapeake Bay in late August, de Grasse had not yet arrived, since he had deliberately taken a longer route to avoid notice. Hood proceeded on to New York, bringing news of de Grasse's approach (although ignorant of his strength) to Arbuthnot's successor, Admiral Thomas Graves. Word that de Barras had sailed from Newport with the entire French fleet led Graves to lead the combined fleet south to the Chesapeake, where de Grasse had in the meantime arrived. In the pivotal Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5, de Grasse got the better of the British, who ended up retreating back to New York while de Barras slipped into the Chesapeake carrying the French siege train. The naval blockade completed the encirclement of the British army of Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, where he was compelled to surrender on October 19. Cornwallis' surrender spelled the end of significant military operations in North America, and led to the start of peace negotiations. While they went on, the war continued in other theaters.
Following the surrender of Lord Cornwallis there was a tacit armistice on continental North America between Britain and the United States during the winter of 1781–1782. A large convoy and reinforcements for the Antilles were being prepared in France, with the aim of putting de Grasse's fleet in a state of readiness to support the struggle against Rodney's force.
De Grasse returned to the West Indies in November 1781, where he was followed by Hood, and resumed attacks on the British islands. In January and February 1782, de Grasse conquered St. Christopher, while a smaller French fleet under Kersaint retook the Dutch South American colonies, and de Barras took Sint Eustatius from Britain. De Grasse's action at St. Christopher was vigorously opposed by Hood, who with a much inferior force first drove de Grasse from his anchorage at Basseterre and then repulsed his repeated attacks. Hood's action was insufficient, however, to prevent the French from successfully gaining control of the island.
Battle of the Saintes
The next objective of the French was to join with a Spanish fleet for an attack on Jamaica. Admiral Rodney, having returned to his command with reinforcements, countered this plan with a series of operations which culminated in the Battle of the Saintes on April 12, 1782.
The large convoy that had left France escorted by admiral de Guichen was scattered by a storm. The British regrouped all their naval forces in the Caribbean, and the comte de Grasse, despite his fleet's inferiority, set sail to convey the troops of M. de Bouillé which had had to regroup, at Saint-Domingue, with those commanded by the Spanish general don Galvez for the assault on Jamaica. Admiral Rodney gave chase, manoeuvring to cut the French fleet off from its convoy, but was only able to reach the vessel Zélé, the slowest ship in the rearguard, on April 9. The comte de Grasse decided to save this ship and committed his vanguard under the command of M. de Vaudreuil.
Although the French prevailed in this initial encounter, Admiral Rodney followed them and, having got the weather gage, engaged the entire French fleet on 12 April. The French admiral's flagship Ville de Paris and six others were immobilised and captured in the face of resistance. The comte de Grasse was captured and only gained his freedom the following year, when the war ended. His vessel's bridge had been completely razed by British bullets and the admiral and two officers were the only two people standing not to have been wounded when the ship finally surrendered, and Admiral Rodney could not hold onto any of the four vessels he had captured since they were too badly damaged. The César also caught fire and sank with around 400 British sailors who had taken possession of her.
Although there were a number of minor engagements in the aftermath of the Battle of the Saintes, no further major actions took place in the West Indies.
When news of the Saintes reached the United States, the Continental Congress considered whether to receive General Carleton, who had replaced Sir Henry Clinton as supreme commander of the British land forces in America, and his proposition from the British government to fully recognise the United States' independence in return for America renouncing its alliance with France. The Congress did not let itself be influenced by news of the French disaster in the West Indies and showed only indignation at it, refusing to admit the negotiator who was responsible for this suggestion. The States unanimously declared any proposition for a separate peace as high treason. These overtures, as well as the armistice demanded at the same time by the commander of Charleston and refused by General Nathanael Greene, were sufficient proof that (despite their success in the West Indies) the British were about to give up forcing their former colonies to submit. The Americans certainly desired peace, but showed their loyalty to their French allies and appreciation of their help by making new sacrifices to gain a peace that was as honourable for their allies as for themselves.
On their part, the French government only stopped sending help to the Americans when the poor state of their national finances left them no option but to do so. Two frigates, the Gloire and Aigle, were sent from Brest on 19 May 1782 under the command of M. de la Touche Tréville. These ships were however intercepted and defeated by the British in the Delaware river on 15 September 1782 and La Touche was made prisoner. This left marquis de Vaudreuil who took over from the captured comte de Grasse as commander of the fleet and received the order to sail into Boston to repair and refit his squadron.
- Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War
- Bibliography of early American naval history
- Northern theater of the American Revolutionary War
- Northern theater of the American Revolutionary War after Saratoga
- Southern theater of the American Revolutionary War
- Western theater of the American Revolutionary War
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