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The American Revolutionary War in the Caribbean
By Timothy Neeno, M.A.

The enemy fleet was approaching. As dawn rose over the blue waters of the Caribbean, the captain could see the long lines of ships getting closer, their sails billowing. For months the fleet had sought a decisive battle. They had been tracking the enemy for days, pursuing them northward. Now the French had turned. The captain gave the order to beat to colors, and in a moment the deck was a bedlam of activity. Gun ports sprang open. Experienced hands wheeled heavy guns into position, while crewmen set cannonballs and casks of powder in place. Marines scrambled up into the rigging, taking positions high in the swaying masts to pick off officers and men on the opposing ships as they came in range. Men began pouring buckets of sand across decks that would soon be slippery and red with blood. It was 7:00 AM, April 12, 1782. The Battle of the Saintes had begun.


Five times in the hundred years before the Battle of the Saintes, England and France had gone to war with each other, striving for command of the sea, and control of the trade that rode upon it. They had fought each other by land and sea from the sugar islands of the Caribbean to the distant ports of India and the icy waters of Hudson Bay. This time the British Empire stood divided. The English colonists in America had revolted, defying the British crown. In this war, a new nation would be born, the seeds of revolution would be planted in France and in Latin America, and the government of England itself would be forever transformed. For most of the war, the decisive theater of battle was the not the Thirteen Colonies, but the sunlit waters of the Caribbean. How did a war that began on Lexington Common spread to the shores of the Antilles and beyond? And how did the decisions of two men, gentlemen and admirals, shape the destiny of all the nations involved? These are questions this article will try to answer.

Americans tend to forget that the Thirteen Colonies were but a part of a vast empire that stretched from the gray shores of Newfoundland to the jungles of Nicaragua and Guyana and the spice entrepots of India. The islands of the Caribbean, first revealed to European eyes by Columbus, were a vital part of that empire. The islands of the West Indies were rich in tobacco, coffee, and above all, sugar, and the nation that could garner the greatest share of this trade would have wealth beyond comparison.

The American Revolution grew out of the long struggles between the British and the French that began in 1689. In the Seven Years War (1756-63), known in America as the French and Indian War, Britain inflicted a crushing defeat on the French. The English drove the French entirely off the North American continent. They broke the back of French power in India. Soon a new, British raj would spread across the subcontinent. The French had likewise been vanquished in the Caribbean, keeping only the sugar islands of Guadeloupe, Martinique and St. Lucia, in the Lesser Antilles. Her Spanish Bourbon allies lost Florida to the British, albeit being compensated somewhat in the Peace of Paris by gaining the former French holdings in what would later be known as the Louisiana Territory, west of the Mississippi.

The French almost got to keep Canada in the Treaty of Paris, in exchange for handing over the tiny island of Guadeloupe. It took the British parliament three weeks of earnest debate to decide that they would rather have Canada, with its fur trade. That the British chose to keep Canada was a triumph for the West Indian planters’ lobby. The planters had a monopoly on providing Britain and her colonies with sugar. The twenty or so members of Parliament who owed their seats to plantation money, the so-called Creolians, did not want Guadeloupe. Britain already held Jamaica, the most important sugar island. Further acquisitions would have glutted the British domestic market and made sugar prices fall.

For the English colonists in America, the main result of the Seven Years War was that their traditional enemies, the French, were now removed from the scene. The colonists also gained a new level of cohesion and self confidence during the long war. Colonial leaders in the legislature and the militia learned to plan and coordinate large scale operations. They learned to cooperate with their counterparts in other colonies, and with the British military. Under the able leadership of William Pitt the Elder, the British government had accepted the colonial leaders as junior partners in the war, and had gotten results. But despite the final victory, the long war had been nearly ruinous for the British government. By 1763, England had spent £82 million to fight the war, leaving it with a crushing national debt of over £122 million. The British also estimated that it would cost another £300,000 a year to guard all their newly won possessions. George III’s advisors came to a simple, and to them, natural conclusion: the war had been fought to protect the British colonies in North America. As the colonies were the prime beneficiaries from the war it was only natural that they should pay their fair share of the tax burden to pay off the war debt. But from the time they were established in the early 17th century the colonies had for the most part governed themselves. Colonists elected their own colonial legislatures, staffed the militia, and checked the power of royal governors by controlling the purse strings. Now, when the British began instituting new taxes, on sugar, on molasses, on printed materials, tea, etc., the colonial leadership saw it as an assault on their traditional autonomy.

Almost as bad, from the colonist’s point of view, the British began enforcing the mercantilist Navigation Acts. The Navigation Acts had been on the books since the Dutch Wars of the 1650s. They required the colonies to trade solely with the mother country and other British dependencies. But for years they had been only sporadically enforced, and the New England colonies in particular did a thriving trade with the French, Dutch and Spanish colonies in the West Indies. Now the British began to enforce the rules with vigor.

Here we see just how closely tied together the economies of the American and West Indian colonies were. Most of the smuggling was in three commodities: molasses, rum, and sugar. For years the French subsidized the slave trade with their colonies in the West Indies. This allowed the French sugar plantation owners to undercut British prices. If the Americans were free to do so they would naturally buy from the French. Molasses was used in distilling rum, which was a huge business in Boston, Newport, Philadelphia and elsewhere. British sugar planters couldn’t provide enough molasses to keep the distilleries running. Rhode Island distillers alone had to smuggle in two thirds of their molasses from French or Spanish sources. To cap it off, for years the French domestic brandy producers had used their political influence at the French court to keep distillers from importing rum into France. So French planters responded logically – they dumped their molasses on the market at a hefty markdown, making it even more attractive to American buyers. In short, the entire situation was a government regulated nightmare. It is no coincidence that Adam Smith came out with The Wealth of Nations , his watershed work advocating an end to these kinds of government monopolies, in 1776.

But this didn’t help the American colonists. The colonists paid for products brought over from Britain by selling their own goods. The colonists had long been net exporters to England. But from around 1755 on, English manufactures tipped the balance of trade in Britain’s favor. Distilling allowed the American colonies to restore the balance of trade somewhat in their favor, by giving Americans a product they could sell to buy the goods they needed from England. Now British mercantile laws were strangling a significant portion of the colonial economy. It is not a coincidence that John Hancock and the other most vocal leaders of the Sons of Liberty were smugglers.

The British now strove to impose their writ on the colonies, and stationed permanent garrisons there to make this happen. The hitherto autonomous colonials were outraged, and responded with riots and boycotts. In April of 1775 this escalated into armed resistance. The rebels, who proudly named themselves Patriots, were determined, organized, and fairly well led. British control collapsed with remarkable speed once the fighting began, with the main British garrison, in Boston, retreating to Canada by sea in March of 1776. Once it came to a fight rebel sentiment hardened. In July of 1776 the rebel colonists confirmed their defiance of the crown, proclaiming their independence from Britain as the United States of America.

Clandestine Arms Supplies – 18th Century Style

Even before they made a final break with the British crown, the rebels were acutely aware of their need for arms and outside supplies, especially one item: gunpowder. For all the rustic images of self-sufficient yeoman farmers standing up to the redcoats, the Continental Army was essentially a modern army in that it could not take the field without a steady stream of supplies. Gunpowder, cannon, muskets, bayonets, all require a manufacturing base, albeit by our standards a rudimentary one. As early as late 1774, before open fighting broke out, agents of the Sons of Liberty were quietly buying gunpowder in Amsterdam, and shipping it to New England via the Dutch West Indies.

Like the Irish rebels in roughly that same period, the Americans soon found themselves looking to Britain’s traditional enemies, France and Spain, for money and arms. The French, still stinging from their defeat in the Seven Years War, were only too happy to oblige. In what we would today call a covert operation, the French foreign minister, the Comte d’Vergennes, in June of 1776 established a dummy corporation, Roderique Hortalez et Cie., to funnel arms clandestinely to the rebels. By early 1781 the French had provided the rebels with over 4.5 million livres worth of supplies and another 846,000 livres in subsidies through Hortalez & Company. In the first months of 1777 alone the Hortalez company sent out eight ships via Martinique, with 200 brass cannon, 300 flintlock muskets, 100 tons of gunpowder, 3000 tents, ammunition, and clothing for 30,000 men. It wasn’t embattled farmers the British were facing, it was embattled farmers with covert arms shipments.

The Royal Navy had command of the seas, and harassed the rebels with a blockade of the American coast, but they could not be everywhere at once. Soon a thriving black market trade arose, centered on French Martinque and the Dutch island of Saint Eustatius, commonly referred to by merchants and seamen of the day as Statia. Statia was a volcanic rock, little over seven miles square, situated some 170 miles east and south of Puerto Rico. Since the Dutch were officially neutral, it was the perfect transfer point for clandestine arms supplies to the rebels. It was even more convenient in that ships from Statia could sail up the Atlantic coast from the Bahamas on the Gulf Stream, to Charleston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Ships would sail from Holland, ostensibly for Africa, and then once well out to sea, would set a course for Statia, crammed with arms. On Statia, gunpowder sold for a 120% profit. One vessel alone in 1776 carried 49,000 pounds of gunpowder for the rebels. At its peak nearly 3,200 ships arrived in Statia in just 13 months. One Statia merchant, Isaac van Dam, worked as an agent for the American rebels. In just one transaction he shipped 4,000 pounds of gunpowder to the Patriots in North Carolina, then sent £2,000 to contacts in France to buy more. In turn the Dutch bought American tobacco, 12,000 hogsheads in 1779 alone, indigo, and other products. By 1780 Statia was a runaway boomtown of 20,000 people.

The Spanish also smuggled their share of arms to the rebels, via New Orleans and up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers to what is now Pittsburgh. However the Spanish were noticeably less friendly toward the rebels than the French or the Dutch. The Spanish leadership in Madrid rightly saw the American Revolution as a civil war within the British Empire. Spain was a declining power. The more they could get the English to kill each other, the easier it would be to hold onto their own possessions. It wasn’t until 1780, after they had joined the war on the same side as the Americans that the Spanish gave in to economic necessity; opening up direct trade between their own West Indian colonies and the US. It made sense. Baltimore merchants could sell flour in Havana for nine times the cost, and buy sugar and arms in exchange. By 1782 American merchant ships totaling 6,800 tons were calling at Havana. That the Spanish long resisted what was clearly logical shows how little the government in Madrid trusted the Americans.

Some of the smuggling even went on through the British colonies in the West Indies. If the American colonists were tied into the West Indian economy the West Indian planters needed American products. Sugar and molasses from Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles were shipped to Boston, New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. In turn the Americans sold lumber, flour and salted fish, fruits and vegetables, cattle, horses, casks and barrels and more to the West Indian colonies. The Caribbean colonists had many of the same grievances with the government in London as did their American brethren. As in North America each colony had it its own legislature made up of often disgruntled local property owners. The Caribbean planters also wanted to keep control of taxation and local affairs. There were protests and riots against the Stamp Act on Barbados and St. Kitt’s in the Lesser Antilles as well as in Boston and Philadelphia. The Jamaican Assembly even offered in December of 1774 to mediate between the rebels and the Crown. Sympathy for the rebels was most to be seen in the tiny Leeward and Windward Islands on the eastern edge of the Caribbean, which were heavily dependent on supplies of food from the New England and Middle Colonies.

But unlike the Thirteen Colonies, the British West Indian colonies were truly dependent upon the mother country and especially on the Royal Navy. Being islands, the Caribbean colonies were very vulnerable to seaborne invasion by the French, the Spanish, or the Dutch. There was also another danger, that was in the minds of every White settler in the islands, whether he gave voice to it or not, and that was the huge number of African slaves brought over to toil in the cane fields. Black slaves were everywhere - in households, working as skilled craftsmen, and doing the heavy day-to-day work under the broiling tropical sun. So while some colonists in the Caribbean colonies were sympathetic to the rebels, in the end the British Caribbean colonies remained steadfastly loyal to the mother country, barring some smuggling, throughout the war.

The war soon brought hardship and want to the Caribbean colonies. As early as January of 1775 Creolian business interests met in London and petitioned Parliament to reach an accord with the Americans. Dependent on supplies of grain and salted fish for food, the tiny Leeward Island colonies in particular were hard hit. By 1776 there was famine on St. Kitts. In 1778 the population of Antigua was 20,000. Just three years later, only 4,000 people were left. Even on relatively large and well established Barbados, further down in the Windward Islands, the price of flour doubled between 1775 and 1776. By 1778 the slaves on Barbados were starving. The presence of so many fleets and garrisons, even if there to protect the islands, often made the supply situation worse, since commanders would sweep in and buy up whatever stocks of food they could find, even at inflated prices.

As food stocks dwindled, the slaves became more restive, and the planters became more fearful. In 1776, word that a regiment of the British garrison on Jamaica would be withdrawn to fight the rebels in New York led to an open slave rebellion. On St. Kitts in that same year the slaves launched a campaign of systematic arson, destroying the port city of Basseterre. In the rugged interior of Jamaica and on the still half wild islands of St. Vincent, Dominica, and Tobago, bands of maroons , escaped slaves living in the hills, raided the plantations. These warlike bands had their own villages, laws, and chieftains. Some, on Jamaica, retained their independence all the way through until the abolition of slavery in the 1830s.

A bright side to the famine was that the planters had to start paying closer attention to the health of their slaves, if only to keep them working. In 1782, the British intercepted a French ship from the Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, carrying akee, a West African fruit, and mangoes from Asia, piquing the interest of the British admiralty. In 1793, after the war, a Royal Navy officer transplanted akee and East Indian breadfruit to Jamaica. These soon were widely cultivated, and helped supplement the slaves’ meager diet. To this day achee , as it is called locally, and breadfruit are still widely used in Jamaican cooking. The Royal Navy officer is also still well known today. He was Captain Bligh.

Early on the Patriots saw the need to harry the British in the Caribbean. In March of 1776 Commodore Esek Hopkins led the first expedition of the fledgling US Navy to the Bahamas. 270 sailors and marines under Capt. Samuel Nicholas pounced on the unsuspecting island of New Providence. Upon assurances from Nicholas that the Americans only sought military stores, the governor, huddled in Ft. Nassau, surrendered. The rebels carried off 71 cannon, 15 mortars, and over 16,000 bombshells and cannonballs. It was a tremendous haul, given the limited resources of the rebels in the early stages of the war.

Part of naval protocol in this era was the firing of salutes. A warship arriving in a foreign port would fire a salute and dip its colors as a sign of respect to the host power. In return the garrison of the port would fire off a salute to the ship coming in. On November 16, 1776, the Dutch garrison of Ft. Oranje on Statia fired the first foreign salute to the American flag when the Andrew Doria of the Continental Navy sailed into the harbor of Oranjestad. The Dutch government later officially disavowed the action, claiming that the local commander had acted on his own initiative. But there could be no doubt where Dutch sympathies lay.

Not only did regular US Navy vessels operate in the Caribbean, swarms of privateers, independent sea captains granted a license by the Continental Congress, harassed British shipping throughout the region. By February of 1777 American privateers had taken over 250 West Indian merchant ships, and captured 25,000 hogsheads of sugar. Hunting alone or in packs of up to 10 or 12 ships, the privateers were a constant menace. In 1776 American privateers captured half the ships of the Jamaican convoy carrying sugar back to England. Martinique became a favorite base of operations for these commerce raiders. In all, Benjamin Franklin estimated that the total cost to the British of the interruption of the West Indian trade came to £1.8 million.

The Americans could harass and embarrass the British in the Caribbean, but the war was not big enough to force the British to the conference table. That all changed when the American rebels forced a British army under General John Burgoyne at Saratoga, New York in October of 1777. Burgoyne’s army had been part of the supreme British effort to end the rebellion in the northern colonies once and for all. His defeat was enough to convince the French court to side openly with the rebels. On February 6, 1778, the French and Americans signed a secret treaty of friendship, commerce, and alliance in Paris. Both parties agreed not to make a separate peace with the British. On March 20th the French openly recognized the United States, effectively declaring war on Great Britain. The very next day Prime Minister Lord North issued orders changing British priorities in the war. Securing Britain’s Caribbean colonies was now to be of the highest importance. The economically valuable Southern colonies were to be a secondary objective. The British commander in North America, Sir Henry Clinton, then occupying the rebel capital of Philadelphia, was to send 5,000 troops and 11 men-of-war to the strategic island of St. Lucia in the Leeward Islands, and another 3,000 to secure St. Augustine and Pensacola in Florida. Clinton was to abandon Philadelphia and even New York if necessary, to make this happen.

American historians and Americans in general naturally see the United States as important and like to think that it always has been so. But any real understanding of the American Revolution requires that we see the American colonies as they were, less important to the British Empire as a whole than her cash-cow sugar producing colonies in the Caribbean. The most important part of the Thirteen Colonies was the plantation South. The Northern colonies were the least important to the mother country. In shipbuilding New England was in fact a rival of England. So while the British could not just let the colonies go, when under real pressure, as when the French joined the war, the British reacted logically, and cut their losses. It is less satisfying to a patriotic American to admit this than to say that the rebels ran the British out, but it is closer to the truth. Ultimately the very fact that the American colonies were less important to the crown worked to the rebels’ benefit. Once the war became too much of a burden, the British had less incentive to try to hold onto all or some of the Thirteen Colonies.

The French Weigh In

The French entry into the war changed everything. At this point, the British made an important strategic miscalculation. Britain’s fleet, if kept concentrated, was superior to the French. If the British moved to keep the French under close blockade, stationing the Royal Navy right off the French coast to pounce on any ships trying to break out, they could potentially keep the French fleet bottled up at home. But this would mean leaving British ships exposed on the high seas, week after week, through storms and heavy seas, while the French could sit in comfort in their ports and slip out when they were ready. So the British opted for an open blockade, keeping the Royal Navy on the alert in English ports, ready for the French to make a move. This made sense up to a point, especially since a French invasion of England as a real possibility. But by doing so the British left the French the initiative. The French sent squadrons out to the Caribbean, Africa, and India, to harry British colonies and outposts while in the meantime providing aid to the American rebels.

Two important natural factors shaped the course of the war in the Caribbean. The first was hurricane season, which lasts from June or July to the end of November. In the age of wooden ships, before the development of radar, hurricanes could be terrifying in their destructive power. For these five months, active naval operations were a serious gamble. In October of 1780 the English squadron anchored in Bridgetown harbor in Barbados was devastated by a powerful hurricane. A dozen ships-of-the-line and three frigates were destroyed, and many others were damaged. One 74-gun man-of-war was blown out to sea and carried across the Atlantic. It finally made landfall off the coast of Wales! This one storm did more damage to the British fleet than any battle with the French. The question of what to do with the fleet in the dangerous months was thus a pressing one, and it has a bearing on the outcome of our story. The second factor was the Trade Winds, blowing steadily west from Africa. The fastest way for ships from Europe to reach the Caribbean was to sail down the African coast and then turn west, riding the winds and the current into the eastern end of the Caribbean. This approach was guarded by the Leeward and Windward Islands, a 300-mile chain of tiny islands running southward and eastward in a shallow arc from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. If any one power could get control of this entire chain of islands they could monitor ships coming in from Europe, and block them if need be.

In September of 1778 the French governor of Martinique struck north at the rugged island of Dominica the southernmost of the Leeward Islands, capturing it easily. Dominica was not rich, being for the most part too mountainous for sugar plantations, but it was strategically located in the middle of the Leeward-Windward island chain and linked the French in Martinique and St. Lucia with their compatriots in Guadeloupe, the next island to the north of Dominica. Note that being in the middle of hurricane season the British West Indian squadron was not there. That December, the British reinforced Barbados, their main base in the Windward Islands, with some 5,000 men fresh from Clinton’s army in New York. This transfer of strength weakened the British in North America, but it immediately paid important dividends in the Caribbean. The British seized the small, but strategically located island of St. Lucia, just south of Martinique in the Windward Islands. If St. Lucia had stayed in French hands it would come close to giving the French a lock on the eastern Caribbean approaches. Now the British had a base with a good harbor to operate from in this area for the rest of the war.

Just how valuable the Caribbean islands were to the European powers can be seen in the appalling losses from diseases which were considered acceptable. In a time before modern medical facilities and sanitation, heat and diseases made tropic regions a graveyard for European troops. Crammed aboard crowded, poorly ventilated and rat infested vessels, 11% of the British soldiers sent to the Caribbean during the war died before they even got there! The annual mortality rate once in the islands was 15%, compared to 6% for the British garrison in New York, and just 1% in Canada. One British outfit, the 78th Regiment of Foot, went to Jamaica in 1779 with 1,009 men. By 1783 only 18 men were left! A side effect of this was that all the powers had to recruit free Blacks for military service.

1778 ended with the British moving up from Florida and capturing Savannah, Georgia. There were Loyalists in the South, far more so than in New England. This offered the British potential pockets of support. Sensing weakness, the British continued to probe for openings in the South. Meanwhile the war in the Caribbean broadened as Spain entered the war on the side of the French on June 16, 1779. The Spanish Bourbon dynasty had little sympathy with republican rebels. But they did want the support of their fellow Bourbon monarch in France to retake Gibraltar and Minorca from the hated English. Two days later Admiral Jean Baptiste, le Comte d’Estaing, operating from the French stronghold of St. Domingue (present day Haiti), captured St. Vincent, the next island down from St. Lucia, from the British. D’Estaing was aided by the unsubdued Native American Carib tribes of that island. Less than three weeks later D’Estaing pounced on Grenada, the next island to the south and southernmost of the Windward Islands. He captured it easily, as the free Black and slave levies the British relied upon melted away.

The British found themselves troubled from an unexpected quarter, due mostly to the work of one extraordinary man, Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of New Orleans. Taking an aggressive stance, in 1779 Galvez pushed up the Mississippi and took Baton Rouge, Natchez and other British outposts on the lower Mississippi. The next year he led an expedition to capture Mobile, with the goal of pushing the British out of the Gulf region entirely.

As the situation worsened for them in the Caribbean the British were forced to divert more resources there. In late June, 1779, Gen. Clinton in New York was forced to send another 8,000 men down to the West Indies. Clinton has long been cited by historians of the American Revolution as being too cautious. It might be better to say that Clinton, who was a political animal, knew that the northern colonies were a secondary front. If he were to risk the army and go after Washington aggressively, he could not count on much support.

For all this, the French and Americans could not coordinate their efforts effectively. A combined siege of the British stronghold of Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer of 1778 failed miserably. In September of 1779 The Count d’Estaing decided to ride out hurricane season by leading a French expeditionary force to help the rebels retake Savannah. Included in his army was a battalion of free Blacks from Haiti, which included a young soldier by the name of Henri Christophe, who was to gain fame as a leader of the revolution which would eventually drive the French from Haiti. The siege was a failure, with the Americans and French again noticeably failing to cooperate.

Uti posseditus...

1780 was a year of disaster for the rebel cause. The British made important inroads in the South, taking Charleston by May and shattering the main rebel army in the South at Camden, South Carolina in August. Moreover in March of that year the Spanish foreign secretary began opening secret, separate negotiations with the British in London. The Spanish offered a peace on the basis of uti posseditus , in other words, on the basis of possession at that point in time. Such a treaty would give the Spanish the gains they had made, while the British would get to hold on to Georgia and parts of South Carolina. This would make the perfect barrier between Spain’s Caribbean and Gulf holdings and an aggressive, newly independent United States. The Spanish played their own game throughout the war. They were often uncooperative with the French, their ostensible allies. One of the reasons why the French and Spanish achieved comparatively little in the Caribbean in 1780 was that the Spanish admiral, Don José Solano, would not cooperate with his French counterpart. Rather than trying to take British colonies, Solano focused on defending Cuba and Puerto Rico. To his credit, the Count Floridablanca, the Spanish prime minister, did tell the Americans that he would be scaling back aid to the US, a sure hint. The rebels knew that they had to win, and fairly soon.

But if time was working against the rebels, it was also working against the British. The war would not end. And the Dutch continued to rake in profits supplying the rebels via Statia, the "Golden Rock". Finally the British decided that they’d had enough. On December 21, 1780 the British declared war on the Netherlands, and their most aggressive admiral, Sir George Rodney, decided on a bold stroke. Sailing for the West Indies immediately upon learning of the declaration of war, he made straight for Statia with 22 ships of the line.

Rodney’s career bears a closer look. It illustrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Royal Navy’s officer corps. Born in 1718, Sir George Brydges Rodney grew up in modest circumstances as a low level member of the gentry. He received little formal education, but was able to use his family connections to secure a post in the Royal Navy. There his talents were recognized. By 1761 he was commander of the Leeward squadron. During the Seven Years War he took Martinique, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent from the French. But for all his talent and initiative Rodney had a serious character flaw – he was a compulsive gambler. He soon racked up colossal debts. Like many British generals and admirals of the day he also was heavily involved in politics. In this era most parliamentary elections were settled with some form of veiled (or unveiled) bribery. In 1768 Rodney bought his way into the parliamentary seat for Northampton for the then shocking price of £30,000. While this gave him political position it buried him financially. In 1775 when hostilities began he was a fugitive in France, where he had fled to escape his English creditors. After finally straightening out his debt situation, Rodney was eventually able to secure a command for himself. He did this by building a relationship with Lord St. Germain, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and by being one of the few naval commanders with any talent who were willing to work with the Earl of Sandwich, the grossly corrupt and incompetent First Lord of the Admiralty.

On February 3, 1781, Rodney sailed into the harbor of Statia and demanded the surrender of the island and all the ships in the harbor. The Dutch on Statia had not yet heard of the British declaration of war, and were caught completely by surprise. They surrendered immediately. So effective was this surprise attack that Rodney was able to keep flying the Dutch flag over the harbor for some weeks, luring in ships that hadn’t heard the news. In one decisive blow Rodney had shut down the main conduit for arms to the rebels and dealt a staggering blow to the merchant marine of an important enemy. The haul included 130 merchant ships, crammed with goods, vast stocks of military supplies and trade totaling some £3 million, and over 2,000 American merchants and seamen. It is notable that 12 of those ships were British, carrying on an illicit trade with the England’s West Indian colonies.

By the still semi-medieval rules of capture at that time, Rodney kept £150,000 of this colossal prize for himself. His greed partially ended up redounding against him. So eager was Rodney for personal gain in his conquest, that he overstepped his bounds. He confiscated the property of neutral merchants, and openly robbed and exiled all the Jews on the island, including a number of British Loyalists who had been forced to flee the colonies. Rodney also auctioned off the goods captured in the raid. In his eagerness for a quick killing he sold it all off to the lowest bidders. This actually enabled the Americans, the French and the Spaniards to buy the war material they wanted at lower prices than they would have paid had they bought it directly from the Dutch! All this was too much, and Rodney came under fire from members of Parliament, including Edmund Burke. It was the need to answer these charges that caused Rodney to miss a chance at an important victory, and thereby altered the course of American history.

For the Americans, 1781 was the moment of truth. Seven years of war had taken their toll on the American cause. So had runaway inflation when the rebel government tried to meet its obligations by printing paper money not backed by specie. If the British had failed to secure the interior of the South they controlled the major southern ports. Under the aggressive, able Gen. Charles, Lord Cornwallis, the British, aided by Loyalists, had taken the war to the rebels with a vengeance. Having ravaged the Carolinas, Cornwallis that spring was ordered to Virginia’s York Peninsula, not far from where the first successful English settlement had been founded at Jamestown. He was to rendezvous at Yorktown with the Royal Navy and await orders.

The Americans were exhausted. The French had achieved important conquests in the West Indies, but so far all their assistance to the rebels had not broken the deadlock. Perhaps it was time to bring this unfortunate contest to a diplomatic conclusion. The Count de Vergennes began to make quiet plans for a European conference, to be held in Vienna, with the Russians and the Austrians as neutral mediators. Surely a workable compromise could be reached, especially if it was drawn up on the basis of uti posseditus as of January, 1781. This would leave the British safely in control of Georgia, the Carolinas, Manhattan and Long Island, Maine, and most of the Trans-Appalachian fur country. The British Empire would have suffered a serious amputation, but the newly independent United States would be only powerful enough to be a menace to the British, or themselves. In May of 1781, the French general in America, the Comte de Rochambeau, received word that no more reinforcements would be forthcoming. For the Americans to win complete independence, 1781 had to be the year.

The British had their troubles as well. Bernardo de Galvez, the energetic Spanish governor of New Orleans, captured Pensacola, the main British base on the Gulf Coast of Florida, in May of 1781. British control in Florida had been reduced down to St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast. One subordinate commander had given the British a large amount of trouble. It is fitting that when the Spanish crown granted Galvez a coat of arms in recognition for his exploits, it was inscribed with the motto: Yo solo – "I alone". Not all efforts by local commanders succeeded. An expedition by the British governor of Jamaica in 1780 to try to push up the San Juan River in Nicaragua and reach the Pacific coast failed. Instead of cutting the Spanish empire in the Americas in two as planned, tropical fevers decimated the force, forcing the British to retreat. All that had been achieved was to weaken Jamaica against slave unrest or invasion by the French and Spanish. And for all Cornwallis’ tactical skill, the rebels had not given up. Loyalist support in the South was fading.

Two Battles

Washington had hoped to break the deadlock by a decisive combined attack on New York City. The French had a squadron at Newport under Admiral Comte de Barras. In the Caribbean the new French commander, Admiral the Count de Grasse, had secured the island of Tobago, south east of Grenada, not far from what is now the coast of Venezuela. Hurricane season was coming on. Could De Grasse come north, rendezvous with Barras and trap Clinton in New York City? But New York City, then limited to the island of Manhattan, was too strongly guarded. With the Hudson River as a barrier, and without overwhelming naval superiority, a direct attack on New York was out of the question. But Cornwallis, far down in Virginia, and isolated on a narrow peninsula, was another story. De Grasse could not leave the Caribbean for long, but it might be enough.

At this fatal juncture Adm. Rodney sailed for Britain to defend himself against the charges being made against him for his actions at Statia. He left a tough and able lieutenant, Adm. Sir Samuel Hood, who believed in aggressive action. Hood guessed De Grasse’s move and sailed north for the Virginia Capes with the British West Indian squadron from Antigua on August 10, 1781, three days before De Grasse sailed from Cap Francais (today Cap Haitien) in St. Domingue. Hood was actually too quick. De Grasse relied on Spanish pilots who took him on a safe, but slower route via the Old Bahama Channel north of Cuba. Hood sailed directly, and so found at the Virginia Capes – nothing. Since there were no French there Hood assumed that he had guessed wrong and continued north to join the British fleet in New York.

But Hood had been right the first time. Washington and Rochambeau were already heading south from the area of New York City, moving fast. On August 30 Count de Grasse arrived off the Virginia Capes with 28 ships of the line, 3 regiments of French regulars, and 4 million livres to fund the campaign. Cornwallis was trapped.

The British fleet in New York, under Adm. Graves, bolstered now by Hood’s West Indian squadron, did react. Sailing south again they reached the Chesapeake on September 5, 1781 with 19 ships of the line. It was 9:30 AM. De Grasse was inside Lynn Haven Bay near Cape Henry at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay landing troops. He had to sortie or be trapped himself. The French came out a long line, fighting a contrary wind. In 18th century fleet actions, the biggest single problem was communication. In theory a fleet would deploy in squadrons laid out in long lines, with the admiral usually in middle of the center squadron. He would send a signal to the ships nearest him, and it would be relayed up and down to all the ships in the line. Or he would send a dispatch aboard a frigate, a smaller, faster ship of war that could carry his message to a squadron commander. This was is the theory. In practice clouds of gun smoke, poor weather, errors in reading the signal, fog or approaching darkness, could all cause a signal not to be received, or be misread. Squadron commanders were even known to deliberately ignore or misinterpret an order. All of which made decisive fleet actions difficult.

If Graves had struck hard and fast, the French would have been in serious trouble. But Graves had gotten his position as admiral less by fighting spirit than by being Lord North’s brother-in-law. He hesitated. After letting most of the French fleet get out to sea he finally did signal to close with the enemy, intending for each ship to bear down on the French and engage it. The British excelled at close-in fighting, whereas the French liked to keep their distance, shredding the enemy’s sail with chain shot, and then closing. But Graves gave the signal to engage the enemy he failed to haul down the formation signal flag for "line ahead" that is, for each ship in the squadron to follow the lead ship. So instead of a sudden descent on the French, who were still trying to get in line coming out of the bay, the British commanders obediently followed the lead ship in a long slow line paralleling the French. Only ten British ships even got close enough to engage. At 6:23 PM, with the sun going down, Adm. Graves broke off the engagement. For three more days the opposing fleets eyed each other sullenly, until finally Graves decided he had to get back to Yorktown in case Barras showed up. The Battle of the Capes was over.

Admiral Barras did arrive on the 10th with eight more French men of war from Newport. Now seriously outnumbered, Graves sailed back to New York. Cornwallis was still trapped. While the Battle of the Capes was tactically indecisive it was clearly a French victory. With the Royal Navy unable to break the Franco-American stranglehold Cornwallis was doomed. When he surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781 it was a staggering blow to the British cause.

But it was not the end of the war. The fighting in the islands went on, with the French pushing the British off the small Dutch islands of Saba and Statia, then capturing the British Leeward colonies of St. Kitts, Montserrat, and Nevis. The only British base left in the Leewards was Antigua. The war also went on in Europe, with the French and Spanish besieging the vital British stronghold of Gibraltar, commanding the straits between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, but failing to capture it. Washington tried to get de Grasse to stay on and join him in a joint attack on the British bases at Charleston or Wilmington, but De Grasse had done his share.

In 1782 Admiral de Grasse was back in the Caribbean with plans to attack and capture Jamaica in a combined assault with the Spanish. At first all went well. On April 8, De Grasse sailed from Martinique with 33 men of war and 7,000 troops. He planned to go north to Antigua, and then over to St. Domingue to link up with the Spanish squadron of 12 men of war under Admiral Solano. But this was not to be. On April 9 De Grasse’s ships were spotted by Rodney’s West Indian squadron. Rodney’s ships were becalmed at that moment, but he knew the French had sortied and moved to stay in contact. At 8:00 in the morning on April 12, Rodney caught up with De Grasse off a tiny group of islands south of Guadeloupe known as Les Saintes and gave the signal to engage.

Rodney had been waiting for this moment for a long time, and now he made the most of it. Instead of paralleling the French fleet like a line of dancers at a ball, he would break the French line and force the French into close combat. Rodney was echoed in his aggressive plans by a capable young Rear-Admiral, Samuel Hood, who was to go to become Admiral Nelson’s patron. Aided by a sudden shift in the wind, Rodney abandoned the rigid Fighting Instructions and charged the French line. This enabled the British ships crossing in front of the French to fire a full broadside, while the French ship opposing them could only fire the few guns it had in its bow. First Rodney’s squadron broke through, then Hood, on his own initiative, did the same. The French battle line came apart in the confusion as the British poured one broadside after another into the oncoming French ships. In the melee the British captured five French ships, including the 110 gun French flagship Ville de Paris . They captured Adm. De Grasse, and drove the shaken French back to in disorder St. Domingue. The French would not take Jamaica.

The British were now in a stronger position than they had been in a long time. The Americans however were now in trouble. After eight years of war and blockade the rebels were exhausted. But the French and the Spanish still dreamed of capturing Gibraltar. A clause in the American treaty of alliance with France forbade either party from making a separate peace. Would the fighting go on forever? Oddly enough the Battle of the Saintes helped break the deadlock. The Americans wanted peace. The defeat of the French fleet in the Caribbean meant that the French could now no longer expect any gains in that quarter, and might even begin to lose what they had taken if the war went on. The British too now had an incentive to end the war, while they were in a strong position in the Caribbean.


Typically, Benjamin Franklin led the way, making a secret peace offer to the British peace commissioners in Paris without informing the Count de Vergennes. This led to formal peace talks in September of 1782. With the failure of the French and Spanish to take Gibraltar, and the failure of the Spanish to get the British to accept Puerto Rico for Gibraltar, the French were at last prepared to end the war.

The Peace of Paris was a miracle of concessions to the Americans. The British withdrew their garrisons from New York City and other places. They recognized American independence and threw in all the lands south of the Great Lakes from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. In the Caribbean the French only gained St. Lucia and tiny Tobago for all their efforts. The Spanish did the better. Thanks to Bernardo de Galvez’s initiative, Florida returned to the Spanish crown, including West Florida, the Gulf Coast between the present day state of Florida and the Mississippi. If we forget about acreage and look at economic value, the British did very well. The real blue chip properties were the sugar islands, and thanks to Rodney and Hood, the British kept nearly everything they had gained in 1763. Humbling as the loss of the American colonies was, Britain could survive without them. Indeed, the Americans were now eager to restore trade with England. The British in the end got most of the trade revenue that they originally had been concerned with, without the burden of having to tax and administer thirteen discontented colonies. But if the Americans were not the most powerful players at the conference table, their triumph is all the more impressive given the limited means they had.

The victory of the American rebels, and their subsequent success in turning the United States into a stable republic, was to have profound repercussions in the Caribbean and the world. Henri Christophe, one of the leaders of the revolution to drive the French from Haiti had seen the American Revolution first hand. The example of the United States and Haiti were to go on to inspire Simon Bolivar and a generation of Latin American revolutionaries, who in the end liberated all the Spanish colonies on the mainland from Mexico to Argentina.

For the French monarchy the war was a double disaster. While the British Empire had been split the cost had been too high. The French king had spent some 2 billion livres fighting the war, and now had no way of paying it back. Within six years of the war’s end mobs would be rioting through the streets of Paris, storming through the gates of the Bastille, and calling for an end to the Ancien Régime . Louis XVI, who first received American ambassadors as representatives of a sovereign state, was to die on the guillotine, a victim of the revolutionary sentiments he had encouraged.

The British set about reorganizing their empire. The many Loyalists in the old Thirteen Colonies fled. Some went to Canada, giving what had been a previously French region an English cast. Others went to the Caribbean colonies, where in the Bahamas they over-planted the soil and ruined the islands economically. The British now began to focus on the East Indies, building a vast empire in India and the Far East. The British navy learned the lessons of the Battle of the Capes and the Saintes. The bold tactics developed by Rodney and Hood were perfected in the Napoleonic Wars by a man who had been a young officer in the American Revolutionary War, Horatio Nelson.

The war had important consequences for England itself. Yorktown had brought the fall of Lord North’s government. The British, in their practical way, seized upon this precedent and used it as a means of transforming their system of government in a non-violent manner. Henceforth, any British prime minister who lost a vote of confidence in the Parliament had to resign. The last vestige of direct royal power was fading.

Finally, as the center of British power shifted eastward and England herself began to industrialize, slavery became less important economically. As this happened, people became more willing to see slavery for the evil that it was. The plantation owners never recovered the influence and security they had before the American Revolution. Within fifty years the British abolished the slave trade with their colonies, and then slavery itself. A new culture arose in the islands, from Jamaica to Trinidad and Barbados: English speaking, with English traditions of parliamentary rule, but African by blood, with its own music, dance, and flavor of life. If the American Revolution has any lasting meaning, it is the legacy of freedom it has left, not only for America itself, but for the world.

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Show Notes

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© 2024 Timothy Neeno, M.A.

Written by Timothy Neeno.

About the author:
Timothy Neeno is originally from Chicago, Illinois. He graduated with a Masters in US History from the University of Wisconsin in 1990. Since then he has gone into teaching. He and his wife have worked and taught in Bolivia, Taiwan, Kuwait, Brazil and the Navajo Reservation and have traveled in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Since 2002 they have settled in the Phoenix area. He currently teaches history at the University of Phoenix.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.

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