The Navy in the Leeward Islands Campaign – April to June 1796

by | Mar 10, 2023 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


During the absence of a substantial British presence following the return home of Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis and General Sir Charles Grey’s 1794 Leeward Islands expedition, the French under Commissioner Victor Hugues had been making mischief in the Caribbean by re-taking Guadeloupe, of which island he was made governor, inspiring slave revolts in several British colonies, and capturing St. Lucia in June 1795. Desperate to reassert control, the British secretary of state for war, Henry Dundas, decided to dispatch an overwhelming force to the region.

In the autumn of 1795 a fleet of one hundred and thirty-seven vessels under Rear-Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian, carrying sixteen thousand troops commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby, departed for the Leeward Islands to effect Dundas’ aim of restoring British supremacy. Unfortunately, winter storms forced them to turn back on several occasions, and whilst Abercromby was eventually able to sail from Spithead for Barbados on 19 February 1796 aboard the fast-sailing frigate Arethusa 38, Captain Thomas Wolley, it was not until 20 March that the newly knighted Christian departed England with two sail of the line and five other men of war.

Sir Ralph Abercromby

Both Christian and Abercromby were controversial choices for the expedition. The former was a flag officer of a mere four months seniority who had done well at the Transport Board; however, when it became evident that he and not the incumbent commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands, Vice-Admiral Sir John Laforey, would command the naval element of the campaign, the influential Admiral Sir Charles Middleton resigned his post at the Admiralty Board in protest at such a junior officer being allocated such a significant responsibility. As for Abercromby, he had never held an independent command and during the American Revolutionary War had avoided service by remaining in Ireland out of his belief in the rebel cause. His most recent employment, during the previous couple of years, had been as a subordinate commander in the Duke of York’s largely unsuccessful Netherlands campaign.

On 17 March Abercromby arrived in Carlisle Bay, Barbados aboard the Arethusa after a four-week passage, and he immediately began planning his campaign. Whilst awaiting Christian’s arrival, Vice-Admiral Laforey detached Captain Thomas Parr of the Malabar 54 to capture the Dutch possessions on his station with a squadron otherwise consisting of one 64-gun vessel, two frigates and a corvette. Troops under the command of Major-General John Whyte were landed, and they captured Demerara and Essequibo with little difficulty on 23 April, following up this success with the capture of Berbice on 2 May. During the operation against Demerara, the Dutch ships Thetis 24 and Zeemeeuw 12, together with a number of richly laden merchant vessels, were captured.

In the meantime, on 21 April Rear-Admiral Christian had finally arrived in Carlisle Bay with his squadron and a fleet of transports. The troops he brought with him, when added to those who had been sent out since the previous November, meant that Abercromby would have almost thirty-one thousand men at his disposal, representing almost half the strength of the British army. It was deemed the largest expeditionary force ever to have left the country.

On 22 April the fleet set sail from Barbados under the orders of Laforey, and on the evening of the 23rd it anchored in Marin Bay, Martinique. A day later Laforey, who had long been suffering from ill-health, relinquished the command of the naval element to Christian and set off for England aboard the Majestic 74, Captain George Westcott. Sadly, he would not survive the voyage, and he died on 14 June, just two days before landfall. Meanwhile, on the evening of 26 April, the fleet sailed from Marin Bay and island-hopped southwards to St. Lucia, arriving the next morning.
The three-pronged assault on St. Lucia began under a cannonade from the Ganges 74 and Hebe 38, which was directed at a French battery on Pidgeon Island on the north-western tip of the island. The Pelican 18 covered the troops as they approached the nearby landing site at Anse du Cap in Longueville Bay, and with the battery being forced out of action, a well-ordered disembarkation was made. Not so successful was the attempt to land troops further down the west coast in Choc Bay, for a heavy lee current initially drove the Alfred 74 and her attendant transports away, thereby preventing the landing of troops until 2.30 a.m. on the 28th, this being made under the covering fire of the Vengeance 74, Arethusa, and the brig Victorieuse 12. A third landing in Anse La Raye on the central part of the western coast was made on the 29th under the superintendence of Captain John Dilkes of the Madras 54, supported by the Beaulieu 40. In addition to this naval support, a force of eight hundred seamen and three hundred and twenty marines under the orders of Captain Richard Lane of the Astrea 32 and Commander George Ryves of the bomb Bulldog were landed to join in the operations ashore.

The initial assaults on the enemy outposts were fiercely opposed and the Army sustained heavy casualties, amounting to some twenty-six men killed, over two hundred wounded, and another hundred or so missing. Gradually, aided by the guns of the ships in the bay and those landed with their usual dexterity and inventiveness by the seamen, the enemy were forced back to their key bastion, Morne Fortunée. A siege began on 3 May and the garrison surrendered three weeks later. Two thousand men were taken prisoner, and a mountain of stores and ammunition, together with a ship, three brigs and five schooners, were seized. By the end of the campaign to recapture St. Lucia, the Army had lost fifty-six men killed, three hundred and seventy-eight wounded, and one hundred and twenty-two missing. Nevertheless, the conquest had been made with an enthusiasm and co-operation rarely experienced in any previous combined operation and Abercromby was generous in his praise of the Navy, officially commending the efforts of Captain Lane and Commander Ryves, along with Commander James Stevenson of the armed store ship Charon.

Rear-Admiral Christian next ordered Captain Wolley of the Arethusa to co-operate with General Abercromby in recovering the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada. Foul weather and difficulties in embarking the artillery and troops meant that it was not until 3 June that the force was ready to depart St. Lucia. Taking Kingston Bay as their rendezvous, four thousand men including a number of sailors were landed on St. Vincent on the evening of 8 June under cover of the Arethusa, and the assault against the enemy forces consisting of native Caribs supported by Republican planters and French insurgents began. On the 10th the Republican flank was turned, and artillery was advanced against their post on the Old Vigie. Unable to prevent Abercromby’s encirclement which cut him off from his Carib allies, the black commander of the Republican forces retreated from three redoubts to his principal post, the New Vigie, and he surrendered on the 11th. This capitulation was followed by that of the Caribs four days later. Army losses in the operation totalled thirty-eight men killed and one hundred and forty-five wounded, whilst the Arethusa suffered one casualty, a seaman who was badly wounded ashore. Captain Wolley’s dispatch to the Admiralty announcing the French capitulation was dated 23 June in Kingstown Bay and was sent home aboard an Indiaman, the Rose.

Robert Waller Otway

Meanwhile at Grenada, Wolley had dispatched the Hebe 38, Mermaid 32 and two sloops to cover the landing of reinforcements to the incumbent British forces under Major-General Oliver Nicholls. On this island, the slaves and people of mixed heritage had been inspired to revolt under the leadership of Julien Fédon, and there was also a French Republican presence. After arriving off Grenada and rendezvousing with the sloop Favorite, Captain Robert Otway of the Mermaid stormed an enemy battery at Lebaye and released a small contingent of British troops who had been under siege in a blockhouse. Shortly afterwards, the two vessels were joined by the transports and the troops were landed at Palmiste under the superintendence of Captains Matthew Henry Scott of the Hebe and James Athol Wood of the Favorite. No sooner were the men ashore however, than their commanding officer took fright at the sudden appearance of two French troopships carrying reinforcements from St. Lucia, and he requested that his men be immediately re-embarked. The redoubtable Otway was having none of that, and being determined to set an example, he promptly mounted a horse and galloped up to the heights above the bay where an artillery position had been sited. Here he ordered the gunners to open fire on the French vessels, forcing them to cut their cables and flee out to sea under chase by the Favorite. Had Captain Wood not been unfortunate enough to lose a fore-topmast he would in all probability have caught them.

Outnumbered by the British forces already on Grenada and this heavy reinforcement, the French Republicans surrendered their posts on 10 June, and soon the abandoned Fédon and his remaining three hundred followers were surrounded in the mountains by the Army. Abercromby arrived from St. Vincent on 16 June, and taking into account Fédon’s barbarities against the colonial planters and the British that had seen the murder a year earlier of forty-eight prisoners, including the governor, Ninian Home, the general declared that an offer of anything but Fédon’s unconditional submission was out of the question. Even as the Army moved in for their final assault, Fedon and his men pinioned, stripped, and murdered some thirty Europeans. On 19 June, an attack on Mount Qua Qua saw Fédon’s forces defeated, although the leader himself managed to escape into the forests with many of his followers. During these operations to re-establish control of Grenada, the Mermaid lost seven men killed and five wounded when a gun burst in covering the landing, and the Army lost nine men killed and sixty wounded.

The objectives of Dundas’ expedition had thus been largely met, but the Admiralty had already decided to recall Christian, and before the end of June Rear-Admiral Sir Henry Harvey superseded him at Martinique. Despite suggestions that he would voyage on to Jamaica to assume the command there, Christian departed for England from Martinique on 3 October aboard the frigate Beaulieu 44, Captain Lancelot Skynner, to arrive in the Portland Roads on 27 November. Earlier, Abercromby had left for home for the benefit of his health at the beginning of July aboard the Arethusa, and after a brief visit to London on 28 August, he travelled north to Scotland to settle some family affairs.

During the remainder of 1796 the British forces in the West Indies suffered huge losses to illness in the sickly season, perhaps as much as fifteen thousand men, and this prevented any further action against the French, and in particular Dundas’ original intention of bolstering the campaign on Saint-Domingue.

Rear-Admiral Christian’s force at St. Lucia:

Alfred 74 Captain John Totty
Ganges 74 Captain Robert M’Douall
Vengeance 74 Captain Thomas Macnamara Russell
Madras 54 Captain John Dilkes
Beaulieu 40 Captain Lancelot Skynner
Hebe 38 Captain Matthew Henry Scott
Astraea 32 Captain Richard Lane
Pelican 18 Captain John Clarke Searle
Victorieuse 12 Commander Jemett Mainwaring
Bulldog bomb Commander George Frederick Ryves
Charon SS Commander James Stevenson

Naval force at Grenada:

Hebe 38 Captain Matthew Henry Scott
Mermaid 32 Captain Robert Waller Otway
Pelican 18 Captain John Clarke Searle
Favorite 16 Commander James Athol Wood
Beaver 14 Commander Samuel George Warner

Captain Parr’s squadron:

Malabar 54 Captain Thomas Parr
Scipio 64 Captain Francis Laforey
Undaunted 40 Captain Henry Roberts
Pique 40 Captain David Milne
Babet 20 Captain William Granville Lobb