1759 - British expedition against Martinique and Guadeloupe

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Hierarchical Path: Seven Years War (Main Page) >> Campaigns >> 1759 - British expedition against Martinique and Guadeloupe

The campaign lasted from November 1758 to May 1759

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Description

Preparation of the expedition

In November 1758, the British squadron of Keppel had hardly sailed for Sénégal (see 1758 - British expedition against Gorée in Senegal) before another fleet of transports gathered at Portsmouth. Indeed, 6 battalions (3rd Buffs, 4th King's own, 61st Elliot's, 63rd Watson's, 64th Barrington's, 65th Armiger's), a detachment from the Royal Regiment of Artillery at Woolwich and 800 Royal Marines were under orders for foreign service in the West Indies. Major-general Peregrine Hopson, who had been governor of Nova Scotia before the outbreak of war, was appointed to the chief command and Colonel Barrington, a junior officer, was selected to be his second. The expedition was delayed beyond the date fixed for its departure by bad weather.

On November 12, the 60 transports carrying these reinforcements for the Leeward Islands, escorted by 8 ships of the line, 1 frigate and 4 bombs under Captain Robert Hughes, set sail from Spithead with a fair wind to the west.

Arrival in the West Indies

On January 3 1759, the convoy of Captain Hughes reached Carlisle Bay in Barbados. Commodore John Moore, commanding the British squadron on the Leeward Islands' station, was waiting with 2 more ships of the line to join it and to take command of the fleet. He was now at the head of a force to make an attempt against some of the French Caribbean Islands which were supposed to be weakly garrisoned. Moore's fleet consisted of:

On January 13, the whole British force sailed away north-westward before the trade-wind. Astern of them the mountains of Saint-Vincent hung distant, ahead of them two tall peaks, shaped like gigantic sugar-loaves, rose higher and higher from the sea, and marked the southern end of Sainte-Lucie which was left astern and Martinique loomed up larger and bolder ahead. An islet like a pyramid was passed on the starboard hand: the Diamond Rock. Then the fleet came under the lee of the island. A little farther, the coast of Martinique shrank back to eastward into a deep inlet ringed about by lofty volcanic hills.

On January 15, when the fleet approached the Bay of Fort Royal (present-day Fort de France) the French fired a few cannon-shot from a rocky islet near the entrance of the bay. The ships lay off the bay while Hopson thought out his plan of operations. The governor of the island, François de Beauharnais, immediately put his forces on the alert.

Attempt against Martinique

The town and fortress of Fort Royal lies well within the bay on the northern shore, so Morne aux Nègres (aka Negro Point), which marks the entrance to the harbour to the north, was the spot selected for the landing.

On the morning of January 16, the Bristol (54) and the Rippon (60) silenced and occupied a fort on Morne aux Nègres. The Winchester (50), Woolwich (44) and Roebuck (44) cannonaded the batteries in the Bay of Cas des Navires, where it was intended to disembark troops. A landing was effected at about 4:00 p.m. under Captains Molyneux Shuldham, James Gambier, and Thomas Burnett. The troops landed unopposed in a small bay adjacent to Morne aux Nègres. A camping ground was chosen in the only open space that could be found, between two ravines, and there the army passed the night formed up in square, to be ready against any sudden attack.

By the morning of January 17, nearly the whole army (about 4,400 men) was ashore. At dawn, shots were heard, and the outposts reported that the French were advancing and entrenching a house close to the British position. The British grenadiers were sent forward to dislodge them and a smart skirmish ended in the retreat of the French. Hopson would have pushed more of his men into action, but the jungle was so dense that they could find no enemy. It was out of the question to attempt to drag the heavy artillery before Fort Royal over such a country. General Hopson, despairing of success, withdrew his troops to the transports and decided to re-embark them immediately. Nearly 100 men had been killed and wounded in the morning's skirmish, but the embarkation was accomplished without further loss.

On January 18, the expedition proceeded to Saint-Pierre, the second town in Martinique. The fleet coasted the island northward and by evening lay off Saint-Pierre which stood nestling in a little plain at the head of a shallow bay. About 40 merchantmen were lying in the bay.

On the morning of January 19, Commodore Moore prepared 2 bombs to attack the town, sent a ship of the line to sound and ordered the Rippon (60) to silence a battery about 2 km north of Saint-Pierre, the reduction of which would not in the least have influenced the general fate of the island. The Rippon (60) was quite unsupported and fought from 2:00 p.m. till 4:30 p.m. with great gallantry and silenced one battery. However, 4 other batteries opened and she was obliged to cut her cable and tow off. She narrowly escaped grounding, and could not entirely get clear till 6:00 p.m.. Jekyll, her captain, behaved magnificently. The fire of the French batteries from the heights to right and left soon convinced the commodore that the town could not be taken without such damage to his ships as would disable them for further service. It was then decided to abandon the attempt on Martinique, without even attacking the merchantmen lying in the Bay of Saint-Pierre, and to attack Guadeloupe which was not only the richest of the French Islands but also the principal nest of French privateers in the West Indies. For the defence of the island, there were very few regular troops: 300 men of the Colonial Compagnies Franches de la Marine and part of a company of Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine under Chevalier Antoine Le Pelletier de Liancourt and Lieutenant Joseph Gaspard de Tascher de la Pagerie. The rest of the defending forces consisting exclusively of irregulars.

Departure for Guadeloupe

On the morning of January 20, the British fleet steered northward past Dominica where the French flag floated over Fort Roseau.

By noon on January 22, the British fleet was off Basse-Terre. A single ship was sent forward with the chief military engineer on board to reconnoitre the town which lies on the western or leeward coast a few miles to north of the most southerly point of Guadeloupe. The engineer returned with no very encouraging report. The town though lying on an open roadstead was well fortified and all the approaches to it along the coast were well protected, while the fort of Basse-Terre, situated on a lofty eminence at the southern end, was declared to be impregnable by the attack of ships alone. Notwithstanding, these observations, Moore was resolute to take Basse-Terre. It was determined that the citadel would be cannonaded the following day.

Map of Guadeloupe “History of the British Army” volume II by J. W. Fortescue

Capture of Basseterre

On January 23, Commodore Moore decided to send the St. George (96), Norfolk (74) and Cambridge (80) against the citadel of Basse-Terre, mounting 47 guns. Furthermore, he ordered the Lyon (60) to silence a 9 guns battery; the Panther (60) and Burford (70), a 12 guns battery; the Berwick (70), a 7 guns battery; and the Rippon (60), a 6 guns battery at Morne Rouge. The French batteries were manned by experimented Canonniers-Bombardiers de la Marine, professional artillerymen and corsairs supervising soldiers and militaimen. Moore shifted his broad pennant from the Cambridge (80) and hoisted it on board the frigate Woolwich (44). At 9:00 a.m., the ships having all taken their stations, Moore launched his attack. The citadel and the various batteries were cannonaded. During the ensuing artillery duel, the Burford (70) and Berwick (70) were forced to retire. Meanwhile, the Rippon (60) got aground, and was again in the greatest danger, until relieved by the Bristol (54) and Roebuck (44). As soon as the several batteries were silenced, the 4 bomb-ketches stood in for the shore and threw shells and carcasses into the town. At 10:00 a.m., Basse-Terre, crammed with the sugar and rum of the past harvest, was burning furiously. At about 5:00 p.m., the French fire was silenced. By nightfall, the town was a heap of blackened ruins. Indeed, Commodore Moore exerted from the first much unnecessary force. He might have landed his troops a little to the north of the town and so captured the place, which was open on the land side. But he preferred the useless and risky expedient of opposing his ships to forts. In the action, however, only about 30 men were killed and about 60 wounded, among the latter being Captain Trelawney, of the Lyon (60). During this action, Charles François Emmanuel Nadeau du Treil, the French governor of the island retired to a plantation out of gun-shot where he remained idle.

At dawn on January 24, the British troops were landed unmolested near Fort Saint-Charles which had been abandoned by its defenders under M. Leroi de la Polherie. Basse-Terre, which was still burning, was occupied. They found the inland elaborate lines of defence deserted and every gun spiked. Only a few French skirmishers fired sporadically from among the sugar-canes. The army encamped in Basse-Terre. Hopson sent a summons to the French governor to surrender, but received only an answer of defiance. Indeed, du Treil had retired with his troops to a rising ground 10 km from the town. It was an impregnable position such as can be found only in a rugged, mountainous and untamed country. Each flank was covered by inaccessible hills clothed with impenetrable forest. In his front ran the river Galeon with high and precipitous banks and beyond the river a gully so steep and sheer that the French themselves used ladders to cross it. The position was further strengthened by entrenchments and cannon. A frontal attack was impossible. The only practicable access was by a narrow road which led through dense forest upon one flank, and this was most carefully guarded.

The latter part of January, small parties of French were continually laying ambushes among the sugar canes. British picquets and advanced posts were harassed to death by incessant alarms and petty attacks. The British set the cane-fields on fire to prevent such attacks.

Hopson health was failing rapidly and the men were beginning to fall down fast under the incessant work at the advanced posts and the fatigue of carrying provisions to them. Gradually, British advanced posts had been pushed farther and farther inland. They now embraced a circuit of some 5 km. Hopson was now considering the possibility of re-embarking.

By the end of January the men on the sick list numbered 1,500, or fully a quarter of the force. Hopson sent 600 invalids to Antigua in the hope of saving at least some of them. He then remained inactive and even the representations of Barrington could not stimulate him to further action.

Guadeloupe is in reality not one island but two, being divided by a narrow strait known as the Salt River. The western island being known as Guadeloupe proper and the eastern as Grande-Terre, the most fertile part of the island. The latter still lay open to attack, with an excellent harbour at Pointe-à-Pitre, of which the principal defence, Fort Louis, could be reached by the cannon of ships.

On February 6, Moore being fortunately independent of Hopson in respect of naval operations, detached the Roebuck (44), Winchester (50), Berwick (70), Panther (60), Woolwich (44) and the Renown (30). The squadron was placed under the command of Captain Harman and sailed for Fort Louis.

On February 13, Captain Harman's force attacked Fort Louis on the Grande-Terre side of the island. After a severe cannonade, which lasted 6 hours, a large detachment of Marines, along with the II./42nd Royal Highland Foot, landed, drove the French from their entrenchments and hoisted the British colours at the fort. Harman installed a garrison of 300 Highlanders and Marines. Even with this new base secured to him, Hopson still declined to move. He was indeed sick unto death.

On February 27, Hopson died, leaving the command to devolve to Major-general John Barrington. The British expeditionary force was by now on the brink of destruction. Over and above the 600 invalids sent to Antigua, there were more than 1,600 men on the sick list, and the remainder were succumbing so fast that sufficient men could hardly be found to do the daily duty.

On March 1, Barrington put an end to the fatal period of inaction. The defences of the fort of Basse-Terre (Fort Saint-Charles) had already been repaired and rendered safe against attack. The 63rd Watson's Foot and a detachment of artillery were left to hold this fort under Colonel Desbrisay while the remainder of the troops were embarked on board the transports.

On March 11, after several days of weary beating against the trade-wind a portion of the ships came to anchor before Fort Louis, but more than half of them had fallen to leeward.

The next day was spent by Barrington in an open boat reconnoitring the coast, but on his return in the evening he was met by the bad news that a French squadron had been sighted to northward of Barbados. Indeed, it was M. de Bompart with 5 ships of the line and 3 large frigates, transporting a Swiss regiment (probably Hallwyl Infanterie) intended for the relief of the French islands. Moore felt bound to fall back with his own squadron to Prince Rupert's Bay in the Island of Dominica, in order to cover Basse-Terre and the British Leeward Islands. Finally, as sickness had wrought little less havoc in the fleet than in the army, the commodore begged for troops to make up the complement of his crews. The French squadron lay in Great Bay, Fort Royal, Martinique.

Raids in the island

Few situations could have been more embarrassing than that in which Barrington now found himself. He gave Moore 300 soldiers for his ships, and watched the fleet on which his communications depended vanish from sight. The small British army was now partially deprived of the assistance of the fleet for its operations on shore. Almost half of Barrington's force had perished or was unfit for duty. The 63rd Foot was isolated in Basse-Terre and half of his remaining troops were still at sea, striving to beat into Pointe-à-Pitre. Fort Louis, the only strong position in which he could hope to wait in safety, was found to be untenable. Furthermore, the French were already preparing to besiege it.

In the following 11 weeks, the French privateers took advantage of the fact that the two squadrons were watching one another and sailed out. During this period, they captured more than 90 British merchantmen and carried them into Martinique.

Despite all these difficulties, Barrington resolved to begin offensive operations at once. Using his transports, he planned to attack isolated French settlements and to devastate them as well as the cultivated land in the surrounding countryside. He hoped that this would force the enemy to action. Otherwise, these raids would gradually reduce the island to starvation. Even though the French had raised several batteries and entrenchments to protect these settlements, their forces were forcibly dispersed. Therefore, Barrington, by concentrating his remaining troops, could always attack these isolated settlements with superior forces, breaking up the defences in detail.

Some 15 days were first occupied in strengthening the defences of Fort Louis.

On March 27, 600 men were embarked under command of Colonel Crump and sent off to the south coast of Grande-Terre, with orders to land between the towns of Sainte-Anne and Saint-François, to destroy both of them and to ruin the batteries erected for their protection. Crump accomplished this mission punctually and with little loss.

On March 29, Barrington, guessing that the French would certainly have detached some of their troops from Le Gosier, a port a few km to westward of Sainte-Anne sailed with 300 men against it, and at dawn fell upon the French in their entrenchments. The troops, eager for work after long inaction, attacked with great spirit, drove the French out with little difficulty and slight loss, and then prepared to force their way back to Fort Louis by land.

Barrington had also ordered two separate sallies to be made by the garrison of Fort Louis upon the lines erected by the French against the fort, but owing to some mistake only one was delivered. Nevertheless his own little detachment did the work unaided, captured a battery of 24-pdrs which had been planted by the enemy to open on the fort on the next day, and returned to its quarter triumphant.

By this time the missing transports had succeeded in working into Pointe-à-Pitre. There also came news from Basse-Terre that the French were constructing batteries to bombard Fort Saint-Charles and that Desbrisay, the colonel in command, a valuable officer, had been killed, together with one or two of his men, when the powder magazine had exploded. Barrington appointed Major Melville as new commander, with orders to sally forth and capture these batteries without more ado. The task was performed with little trouble or loss. Moreover, having now ruined the most important settlements in Grande-Terre, Barrington resolved to apply the same principles of warfare to Guadeloupe.

On April 12, Brigadier Clavering, with 1,300 men and 6 guns, was sent off to a bay close to Arnouville. His force landed unopposed, the enemy retiring to a strong position in rear of Licorne River. This position was all-important to the French since it covered Baie-Mahault, which was the port by which the Dutch supplied Guadeloupe with provisions from the island of Saint-Eustatia. It was so strong by nature that it needed little fortification. Access to the river being barred by a mangrove swamp, across which there were but two narrow approaches, both of them protected by redoubts, palisaded entrenchments, and cannon. None the less, Clavering determined to attack. Covered by a heavy fire of artillery the 4th Foot and II./42nd Royal Highland Foot advanced against the French left, calmly firing by platoons. This behaviour so intimidated the French militia that they abandoned the first entrenchment on their left. The Highlanders threw themselves into this entrenchment and drawing their claymores made a rush and the 4th dashing forward with the bayonet drove the French from the redoubt. Then pushing round to the rear of the entrenchments on the French right they forced the enemy to evacuate them also and captured 70 prisoners. The French then retreated southward, setting fire to the cane-fields as they passed in order to check the British pursuit, and took post behind Lézarde River, breaking down the bridge behind them. It was too late for Clavering to attack them on that day, for the only ford on the river was protected by a redoubt and 4 guns.

During the night of April 12 to 13, Clavering kept up a fire of artillery to distract the attention of the French. Meanwhile, he passed a party in a canoe across the river below the position of the French, who realising that their right flank had been turned, retired with precipitation, abandoning all their guns. The French then followed the coast southward to Petit Bourg, where they had prepared fortified lines and armed redoubts. At Petit Bourg, they tried to make another stand, but Barrington had sent a bomb-vessel to await them off the coast. It opened fire with shell and drove them back once more, before they could withdraw their guns from the entrenchments. Then and not till then did Clavering grant his men a halt after their hard work under the tropical sun.

On April 15, Clavering was in motion again. A detachment of 100 men was sent to capture the next battery to southward at the town of Goyave. The French, now thoroughly disheartened, waited only to fire one shot and then fled, leaving 7 guns behind them. The British spiked the guns and retired to Petit Bourg. On the same day, Colonel Crump was sent with 700 men to Baie-Mahault where he found the French defences abandoned. Having destroyed them, together with a vast quantity of stores, he marched to join Clavering at Petit Bourg and to help in the work of desolating the country round it.

Heavy rain suspended operations during the two following days.

On April 18, the entire British force, excepting a garrison of 250 men which was left at Petit Bourg, renewed the advance southward upon Sainte-Marie, where all the French troops in the island were assembled to oppose it. The French position was as usual strongly entrenched, but the paths that led to rear of it, being judged impassable, were left unguarded. A detachment was therefore sent to turn the entrenchments by these paths, and the artillery was hastened up to the front. The guns had hardly opened fire when the French, perceiving the movement in their rear, deserted their fortifications and fled to another entrenched position on the heights beyond Sainte-Marie. The British pursued and, while the ground was clearing for the artillery to come into action, part of the infantry tried to force a way through the forest and precipices on the flank of the earthworks. The French, weary of finding position after position turned, left their fortified lines to meet this attack, whereupon Clavering instantly launched the remainder of his troops straight at the lines, and despite a heavy fire of artillery and musketry swept the enemy out of this last refuge.

Guadeloupe surrenders

On April 19, the British army entered the District of Capesterre, reputed the richest in the whole of the West Indies. The planters sent MM. de Clairvilliers and Duquenay to beg for terms. Clavering, knowing that a French relief force was close at hand, accepted to negotiate.

On May 1, the French governor of Guadeloupe signed the capitulation stipulating that the garrison should be sent to Martinique. M. de Bompart had made no attempt to relieve the island. Guadeloupe, one of the wealthiest of the Antilles, with a harbour large enough to shelter the whole Royal Navy from hurricanes, passed to Great Britain.

No sooner was the capitulation signed that news came of the arrival of General Beauharnais from Martinique with 600 French regular troops and 2,000 buccaneers. He landed at Sainte-Anne. A day earlier this reinforcement would have saved Guadeloupe but, on hearing of the capitulation, Beauharnais re-embarked his troops and sailed away. Nothing therefore remained for Barrington but to settle the administration, fortify the harbour, and leave a sufficient garrison to hold it. Crump was installed as governor. The 4th Foot, 63rd Foot and 65th Foot were left with him to garrison the island.

After the capture of Guadeloupe, General Barrington summoned and received the surrender of Marie-Galante Island (May 26) which had not been included in the capitulation, and had made some show of defiance. Barrington also received the surrender of the Saintes, La Désirade and Petite-Terre.

A little later Moore, reinforced by the Raisonnable (64), and the Nassau (64), proceeded to Basse-Terre Road. The 38th Foot returned to its old quarters in the Leeward Islands and the II./42nd Royal Highland Foot was shipped off to America.

On June 25, Barrington with the remnant of the 3rd Buffs, 61st Foot and 64th Foot returned to Great Britain, under convoy of the Roebuck (44).

Aftermath

The island had been conquered, but the climate had not and it took its revenge. By the close of the 7 months that remained of the year 1759 nearly 800 officers and men of the garrison had found their graves in Guadeloupe.

Their inferiority of force prevented the French from attempting anything of importance against either the British fleet or the British garrisons in the West Indies. Therefore, no French fleet put to sea. Moore had subsequently to confine himself to the repression of the French privateers and to the protection of the British trade.

On the Jamaica station, where Vice-admiral Cotes still commanded, the situation was very similar.

In 1760, Governor Nadeau du Treil was tried by a Councul of War assembled upon Louis XV's order to examine the behaviour of the officers responsible for the fall of Guadeloupe. On January 15 1761, the former governor was found guilty of cowardice and inefficiency. He was stripped of his rank and imprisoned!

References

This article is essentially a compilation of texts from the following books which are now in the public domain:

  • Anonymous, A Complete History of the Present War, from its Commencement in 1756, to the End of the Campaign, 1760, London, 1761, pp. 344-357
  • Clowes, Wm. Laird, The Royal Navy – A History from the Earliest Time to the Present, Vol. III, Sampson Low, Marston and Company, London: 1898, pp. 196, 200-204
  • Fortescue J. W., A History of the British Army Vol. II, MacMillan, London, 1899, pp. 346-357

Acknowledgements

Jean-Pierre Loriot and Jean Charles Soulié for information on the French forces defending Guadeloupe

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