Lieutenant Beaver and the Colonisation of Bulama 1792-4
Towards the end of 1791 Lieutenant Philip Beaver, the son of a clergyman, and protégé of the late Vice-Admiral Sir Joshua Rowley, became involved in a plan to purchase and then colonise the uncultivated island of Bulama off the coast of Sierra Leone. This island is the present-day Bolama and forms part of the state of Guinea-Bissau.
Beaver was an enterprising and industrious 26 year-old officer who at the end of the American Revolutionary War had achieved his promotion to lieutenant at the early age of 17 through the patronage of Admiral Rowley. He had spent most of the years of peace out of employment and living with his widowed mother in France, and here he had developed a restlessness to step out into the world. At one time it had seemed likely that he would enter the whaling industry, for he had made enquiries as to the possibility of travelling to the Falkland Islands as a paying passenger to learn the rudiments of the trade. Thwarted in that design, he had contemplated undertaking a voyage of discovery before then making the acquaintance of a gentleman by the name of Henry Hew Dalrymple, who was formulating exciting plans of his own regarding the island of Bulama.
The 40 year-old Dalrymple had recently visited a plantation owned by his family on the Caribbean island of Grenada where the treatment of the slaves had caused him much distress. Returning to England having freed his workers, he had soon become involved in William Wilberforce’s abolitionist campaign, and in 1791 had been selected by the Sierra Leone Company to govern their proposed newly formed settlement at Freetown, which would provide a home and employment to over eleven hundred ex-slaves and black loyalists who had been exiled by the American Revolutionary War to Halifax in Nova Scotia
Unfortunately, before Dalrymple could take up the post of governor he was removed from it, whereupon he resolved to form his own colony for free blacks on the particularly fertile but uninhabited island of Bulama, which lay at the mouth of the Gambia River some two hundred and fifty miles north of Freetown, and which would be well suited to the cultivation of the products that demanded slave labour in the West Indies, in particular sugar-cane and tobacco. In terms of subsistence for any prospective colony the island, which was about seven miles long by two and a half miles wide, also ticked all the boxes, for its coast was well wooded, fresh water was abundant, elephants, buffalo, deer, guinea fowl and pigeons inhabited the interior, and oysters and brill proliferated in the surrounding waters.
As soon as Dalrymple mentioned his vision to Beaver the young naval lieutenant bought into it, and in a short matter of time other interested parties were brought on board. Meeting in a hall at Hatton Garden, London as the Bulama Association, a council was formed, and together with subscribers to the intended colonisation it laid out their vision and values, paramount amongst which was the desire to bring about an end to the slave trade. No doubt inspired by the recently published work of the political visionary Tom Paine, and also by the underlying tenets of the French Revolution, the association vowed to adhere strictly to the Rights of Man in the governance of the colony, which would allow any man to join the council whatever their religion or status. In order to secure the safety of the colony the association applied to the government for a guarantee of protection of arms should a hostile power or indeed the native Africans attack them, and in this William Pitt’s administration acquiesced.
The greater enemies to the enterprise were not foreign or native powers however, but the very commercial and philanthropic organisations that the new colony would compete with – i.e. the West Indian plantation owners and the Sierra Leone Company. To that end much denigration of the project and misinformation would come to be placed in the newspapers, and the propaganda against it would continue long after the colony would come to be disbanded. Enemies there were also within at this stage, for although all those involved in the prospective colonisation declared that their interests were primarily humanitarian rather than profiteering, it soon became clear that the motives of certain individuals was simply to enrich themselves.
Having incurred some considerable cost through the purchases of stores and provisions, the hiring of ships, and unforeseen demurrage charges caused by a failure to progress the obtaining of a charter, the expedition formed by the Bulama Association, and consisting of two ships, the Hankey, commanded by Lieutenant Beaver, and the Calypso, commanded by Lieutenant Richard Hancorn, in addition to a small cutter, the Beggar’s Benizon commanded by a Lieutenant Dobbin, eventually sailed from England on 14 April 1792. Aboard the three vessels were two hundred and seventy-five colonists, from which a council of thirteen members had been formed, although without a charter this body had no legal power or authority over the remainder of the would-be colonists.
As if to confirm the prejudices of the enterprises’ detractors, the plans for the colonisation of Bulama appear to have been doomed from the start, which given the cerebral Beaver’s subsequent reputation as a meticulous strategist and executor of complex missions was somewhat surprising. In addition to the failure to obtain the all-important government charter, there was little evidence that any proper planning had been undertaken prior to the departure of the expedition, the people attached to it did not appear to have the necessary skills, physicality or commitment to perform such an undertaking, and it was not even certain that the local African ruler would allow them to purchase, let alone settle the island. And just to compound matters the Calypso had been joined in England by a young boy who was already afflicted with the small-pox.
Once at sea Beaver soon found himself arranging the feed of the sea-sick would-be colonists, and to ward off the possibility of scurvy he found it necessary to head for the Canary Islands to obtain fresh provisions. The Calypso had already parted company by the time he reached Gran Canaria, and here he was met by a most unfriendly Spanish reception, with the result that he found himself imprisoned after breaching a warning not to enter the town of Las Palmas. Fortunately the governor arrived to put matters in order, Beaver was released, and the provisions were grudgingly made available. On 7 May the Hankey anchored off Tenerife to find that the small-pox ridden Calypso with Mr Dalrymple aboard had been denied entry four days earlier, but more happily they were joined the next day by the Beggar’s Benizon. Taking on board as much livestock as they could stow from this more amenable Canarian island, the two vessels then set off for Bulama.
In the meantime the Calypso had arrived at Bulama on 24 May where oblivious to any form of danger the excited colonists rushed ashore in disorganised groups to explore the island. Failing to heed the warning provided by the appearance of a war canoe containing some thirty men which disdained any cordial contact, and ignoring the theft of their tents and other equipment, the colonists proceeded to erect a rudimentary building to house their armaments and ammunition, but then inconceivably left it unguarded. Such inattention would not have been allowed by the prudent Beaver, and sure enough on 3 June a native party attacked the ammunition store, killing five men and one woman, and carrying off four women, three children, and all the weapons that they could bear. Taking such fright that they did not even wait to recover the dead or dying, the rest of the colonists rapidly re-embarked upon the Calypso which then made for the nearby Portuguese settlement of Bissao. Here they discovered the Hankey and Beggar’s Benizon, which had recently anchored.
The effect of the native attack on the expedition’s morale could hardly have been worse, and any esprit de corps was shattered when the sickly and reduced colonists aboard Lieutenant Hancorn’s Calypso noted the good order and health which prevailed on Beaver’s ship, the Hankey. This situation must have been particularly undermining for Hancorn, whose reputation in the navy had already been damaged by a court case at Winchester in the previous year, brought about by his constant harassment and bullying of the midshipmen’s berth on the frigate Melampus. It was to the colonists’ good fortune however that a local Portuguese merchant by the name of De Sylva Cordoza was able to deduce that the native attackers had come from the Biffagot Islands, whose King Bellchore’s territory apparently included the island of Bulama. Cordoza despatched his own emissaries to negotiate a ransom with King Bellchore for the captured women and children, and bar one pregnant woman and her infant they were returned having been treated with kindness by the natives.
With confidence partly restored and fresh provisions secured the Hankey and Calypso set off for Bulama again on 26 June whilst Beaver sailed in the Beggar’s Benizon to negotiate a purchase agreement for the island with King Bellchore. In this mission he was joined by an American slave captain who had some influence over the natives. Friendly relations were quickly established with the usual offering of gifts, but although Beaver was able to obtain the release of the remaining woman and her infant their own neglect by the natives sadly resulted in their deaths a short while after the cutter had put back to sea.
Reaching Bulama on 2 July, Beaver found the embryonic colonists still aboard the Calypso and Hankey. Ridden with an inherent idleness and sheer uselessness, coupled with the fear of another native attack, the colonists had failed to go ashore and construct any buildings, and neither had they surveyed the coast in accordance with recommendations that he had earlier made. Even worse, the hopeless council were contemplating a retreat to Sierra Leone for the duration of the rainy season where a decision on whether to return to England or Bulama thereafter would be taken.
Vowing to remain with just his servant to make a success of the venture, Beaver’s determination inspired a dozen men to go ashore with him where they toiled until the sun went down. However, despite his best efforts most of the other directors of the expedition had taken as much fright as they could endure and they now decided to return home with as many of the colonists that wished to join them. Accordingly the Calypso with one hundred and forty-five not-so adventurous adventurers set sail for England on 19 July, and they would later be joined by other deserters who went home aboard the brig Catherine, although this vessel was subsequently lost off Bideford with the loss of one life. As for the instigator of the expedition, Mr Dalrymple returned to London in early November as a passenger aboard the Duke of Savoy, which had been chartered by the Association to carry supplies out to the colony. Claiming indifferent health he soon decided not to return to the colony.
Although news of the land purchase had caused shares in the Buluma enterprise to soar, the newspaper reports at home were otherwise derogatory. The incident of 3 June, when five men and one woman had been killed, was catastrophised to such a degree that twenty colonists were reported to have been cut off and either killed on the spot or later sacrificed by savages. Other accounts detailed how forty colonists had been killed by natives from the neighbouring coast whose rice fields they had destroyed, or that the majority of the colonists had been massacred and the remainder forced to seek shelter under the care of the Sierra Leone Company at Freetown. In November 1792 it was even reported that the venture had been totally defeated after a great number of colonists had been sacrificed. Perhaps indicative of the conflicting interests surrounding the Bulama Association, many of the reports made it very clear that the expedition had absolutely nothing to do with Sierra Leone Company, whose colony was thriving.
Meanwhile on Bulama Beaver had taken command of the remaining fifty-one men, thirteen women and twenty-five children, after being elected their president on the day of the Calypso’s departure. Through diligence, sheer determination, and in the true character of the British sea officer, he managed to instil some discipline and industry into the remaining party and soon a stockade was erected. But within days his elected deputy Lieutenant Hancorn died, and despite Beaver’s best endeavours more and more of the colonists became sickly over the successive weeks and either perished under the hot African sun or resolved to go home. Beaver himself fell ill in the month after the Calypso’s departure, and whilst he lingered in what his colleagues believed to be his death throes he heard the remaining two council members discussing the inevitability of an immediate abandonment once he had passed away. Fortunately he recovered and within a few days was back at work, only to be confined to his cot for another two weeks in October.
On 23 November there was another exodus of colonists when the Hankey, whose charter had expired, departed Bulama for the West Indies. Within days she was forced to put back to the coast where it appears that the crew and passengers contacted a marsh fever. By the time she arrived at the hitherto healthy island of Grenada in the middle of February there were barely enough people to man the ship, and without the Africans aboard her who were immune to the fever she would never have completed the voyage. Here she was initially berthed some way off shore, but when she was allowed to anchor closer in a few days later a seaman on an adjoining merchantman coincidentally began showing symptoms of a fever. An epidemic soon broke out, and by April many inhabitants on the island were afflicted, so that by August 1793 it was claimed that half of the inhabitants had succumbed. At the same time the disease spread around the Leeward Islands and it even afflicted Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner’s squadron which was attempting to prosecute a campaign against French possessions in the Caribbean.
Ever alert to the opportunity of denigrating the Bulama Association, vested interests opposed to slave emancipation wasted little time in claiming that the disease that had claimed so many lives was the marsh fever that had been brought to Grenada by the Hankey, whereas more enlightened opinion made it clear that the epidemic was in fact that of the yellow fever which was endemic in the West Indies. Even so, this did not prevent articles claiming that the Philadelphia Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, which cost over 5,000 lives that autumn, was down to the Bulama experiment, rather than simply the influx of so many yellow-fever ridden French nationals escaping the bitter civil war on Saint-Domingue.
In the meantime, as the new year of 1793 approached on Bulama, the remaining colonists numbering just ten men, one woman and a child faced a new threat in the form of the capricious King Bellchore, who clearly had designs on securing the colony’s arms and ammunition. Fortunately he was thwarted in his first attempt to inveigle his warriors into the stockade by their lack of conviction to approach a couple of cannons that Beaver had deployed at the entrance. A potential attack by another tribe was then only prevented by the accidental firing of a gun, which to the natives was a bad omen. Thankfully the sloop of war Scorpion 16, Commander Solomon Ferris, made a welcome appearance off the island a short time afterwards, and its arrival could not have been more providential, for when King Bellchore landed with a war party of one hundred and fifty men he was prevented from rushing the colonists when the Scorpion’s boat spotted him and fired a warning shot.
Although the Scorpion departed on 12 January 1793 she left behind a midshipman by the name of Scott who made a welcome addition to Beaver’s party, whilst her presence had also allowed Beaver time and resource to strengthen the stockade, so that he was confident that in future it could withstand any native assault. Yet despite his best efforts to make a success of the colony desertion had further reduced the inhabitants to a mere nine white settlers and twenty-odd free and wage-earning Negroes by the end of July, which was clearly insufficient to maintain a thriving enterprise. Ever positive, and rejoicing in the fact that there had not been a death for six months, Beaver was still anxious to attract more colonists, and in correspondence home he heralded the survival of livestock, in particular cattle and elephant, the proboscis of which made for an excellent meal, as well as the abundance of fresh water. He also re-stated previously given assurances that in time the fertile and eminently habitable Bulama would prove far superior to any settlement in the West Indies.
Sadly Beaver’s pleas for more colonists fell on death ears. By now Britain was as war with France and people had little time for what had in reality turned out to be a disastrous venture. Come November the remaining colonists decided to call it a day and they set off for Sierra Leone aboard the Beggar’s Benizon . To his vast relief Beaver was able to obtain a passage home to England, arriving at Plymouth on 17 May 1794 where he was appointed to the Stately 64, Captain Billy Douglas, in which he immediately set sail for the East Indies. As he passed the coast of West Africa on the passage out he must have wondered what sort of devil had ever possessed him to engage in the attempted colonisation of Bulama in the first place although like a true adventurer he still believed that one day, when peace reigned, the island would be colonised again.