Military history


Ministerial Uncertainties


THE RESULTS OF the campaigns of 1759 are now so well known that it requires deliberate imaginative effort to recapture the uncertainties of the year’s first nine months. In London the whole period from February through April was taken up with a budgetary crisis of the direst sort, as the ministers failed to find ways to finance the massive deficits that the Commons had so obligingly approved in December. At the root of the problem lay two related factors: a severe shortage of specie (the result of large shipments of gold and silver coin abroad to support the war efforts in America and Germany), and an intractable disagreement among the ministers over what new taxes could be laid to finance the debt. This combination made the directors of the Bank of England and indeed the whole British financial community so jittery that government bonds began selling at the steepest discounts of the war, even though trade was booming and public optimism about the outcome of the conflict had never been higher. At the same time, reports of French preparations for launching an invasion across the Channel worried every minister except perhaps Pitt. The slowness with which militia regiments could be raised—less than half their projected strength had been embodied by June—only compounded the anxieties of those who, like Newcastle, expected the worst.1

Nor were the early developments in the West Indies campaign particularly promising. The British expeditionary fleet had reached Barbados after an uneventful voyage on January 3 and there had joined the West Indies squadron for the attempt on Martinique. Two weeks later the British naval commander, Commodore John Moore, and his army counterpart, Major General Peregrine Thomas Hopson, launched their invasion. On the sixteenth they landed six thousand troops near Fort Royale, one of the two principal towns on the island’s west coast, and its naval base. Although the landing itself went off easily, the terrain proved extremely difficult and resistance rapidly stiffened on the following day— even as it became clear that it would be as impractical to besiege the French fortifications by land as it would be to bombard them from the harbor. Hopson withdrew his troops to the ships on the evening of the seventeenth. When a trial attack on the defenses of St.-Pierre, the island’s main town, met with heavy opposition two days later, Hopson and Moore agreed to abandon the attempt and look northward to what they hoped would be easier pickings, the island of Guadeloupe.2

But Guadeloupe, too, proved a tough nut to crack. On January 23, Moore’s ships shelled and burned the island’s main town, Basse-Terre. The French defenders withdrew to take positions in the mountains near the town; thus on the following day when Hopson’s troops took possession of the ruined settlement and its fort they met no opposition but gained only a slender foothold. Hopson, a cautious, aged officer who had been on active service since Marlborough’s day, was already in failing health. He lacked both the energy and the inclination to do more than construct field fortifications to make Basse-Terre secure. He may have hoped that that would be enough to make the French surrender. Soon he realized that they had no intention of giving up, and a few unsuccessful probes into the countryside showed that they could neither be driven from their highland defenses nor forced to give battle. Meanwhile tropical diseases were destroying his army with an efficiency that no mortal enemy could match. Within a week after the landing, a quarter of the British troops were too ill to stand; by late February at least 2,100 of them had to be evacuated, and no more than 3,000 men remained who were still capable of fighting. On February 27, with his army in possession of not one more square mile of territory than it had held a month earlier, a fever finished off old Hopson himself.3

The new commander, Major General John Barrington, was the younger brother of the secretary at war, but it had not been political connections that had earned him his position. Like Amherst and Wolfe, he had been only a vigorous young colonel at the time Lord Ligonier had given him a temporary rank for service in the New World and made him second-in-command for the expedition. Immediately after Hopson’s death Barrington showed his mettle by proposing to launch amphibious raids on the periphery of the island; but before he could escape the static misery of Basse-Terre, word arrived that a French fleet had been sighted, heading for Martinique. On March 13, Commodore Moore therefore ordered his squadron to Prince Rupert Bay on the neighboring island of Dominica, from which they could block any attempt that the French admiral, Maximin de Bompar, might make to relieve Guadeloupe. This was a prudent and necessary move, since Bompar had with him eight ships of the line and three frigates; but it indefinitely postponed Barrington’s chances of conquering the island from the sea.4

News of these discouragements reached London in May, when other reports advised that the militia units had not yet been raised and French shipwrights were filling Le Havre with shallow-draft barges to be used in an invasion. In western Germany all auguries looked grim. Prince Ferdinand had left winter quarters in April and moved against the French base at Frankfurt am Main, only to encounter a superior enemy at the cross-roads village of Bergen. There, on April 13, one of France’s ablest generals, Victor-François, duc de Broglie, inflicted a defeat on the prince that cost 2,500 casualties and sent his army reeling northward across Hesse. Over the next month, the French put Ferdinand and his increasingly dispirited troops at greater and greater disadvantage; in another six weeks’ time they would succeed in cutting him off from his base of operations at Minden on the Weser River, thus regaining command not only of Hesse but of the southern approaches to Hanover. 5

As to the fate of the Canadian campaigns, Pitt knew next to nothing. Wolfe had left Portsmouth on February 14, but it would be June before word would arrive in England that he and his men had made a safe crossing. Amherst’s letters, by contrast, arrived regularly, filled with discouraging reports of how provincial politics, obstinacy, and inefficiency hindered his operations. At the beginning of June, all that Pitt knew about operations on the far side of the Atlantic was that neither of the Canadian invasions could yet have gotten under way; that the invasion of Guadeloupe had stalled; and that a French squadron—one easily capable of foiling Barrington’s operations—had reached the West Indies. Those who saw the secretary during these weeks thought him discouraged, defensive, tense.6 What news might come next, only God knew; but Pitt knew only too well that unless it was word of some substantial progress, Newcastle might be tempted to force negotiations and forestall the victory that, Pitt believed, lay almost within his grasp.

Although Pitt would not know it until the middle of June, the fate of the West Indies expedition had been decided before the end of April. Bompar did not immediately sail from Martinique to threaten Barrington, enabling him to leave a small force to hold Basse-Terre and launch amphibious attacks on the settlements that rimmed the island. The plantations near the coast had already suffered badly from the raids of Anglo-American privateers; now they proved virtually defenseless against even the fifteen hundred troops that Barrington could spare for his raids. With most of the French regulars tied up in the mountains outside Basse-Terre, the task of defense fell mostly to the planters, who quickly lost both the will and the means to resist. On April 24 the island’s leading men, ignoring their governor’s pleas to fight on, asked Barrington for terms of surrender. He replied with notably liberal conditions, which in effect would allow Guadeloupe’s planters to continue as neutrals for the remainder of the war, enjoying the same trading privileges as British colonists while being guaranteed security in their persons, properties, and the practice of the Catholic faith. On May 1 the island’s governor, facing the inescapable reality that the planters had abandoned him, signed the capitulation.7

And not, from Barrington’s perspective, a moment too soon. Even as the ink was drying on the surrender documents Bompar’s fleet—lately reinforced by eight line-of-battle ships and three frigates from France— put in at the desolated settlement of Ste.-Anne, landing arms, supplies, and 2,600 troops to reinforce the island’s defenses. The planters on the scene, however, knew how much they stood to lose by repudiating the surrender and refused to cooperate. Bompar, fearful of being trapped by Moore’s squadron, slipped back out to sea.8

Bompar’s withdrawal put the outcome of the invasion beyond question. Britain had acquired a prize of greater value than anyone at Whitehall realized. Only later did it become clear that Guadeloupe and its neighboring island of Marie-Galante (which the British seized before the end of May) were as rich as or richer than Martinique. Between them Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante had a population well in excess of fifty thousand (over 80 percent of whom were slaves) and more than 350 plantations producing sugar, cocoa, coffee, cotton, and other tropical goods. These planters, starving for the trade that the war had stifled, immediately began shipping their produce to Britain and its colonies in return for the goods and slaves that they desperately needed.9

Within a year after the conquest, Guadeloupe sent more than ten thousand tons of sugar, valued at £425,000, to Great Britain. In return the islanders imported great quantities of wrought iron, manufactures of all sorts, and four or five thousand slaves a year. To the North American colonies the planters exported huge volumes of molasses, in exchange for provisions, barrel staves, and other wood products. By 1760 Guadeloupe would provide Massachusetts rum distillers with nearly half of the molasses they used—fully three times as much as from the leading British West Indian source, Jamaica.10 Even Pitt could hardly have anticipated how quickly the alchemy of trade would transmute the humiliation of conquest into profits for the conquered. Largely by luck, the British had hit on the surest formula by which their empire could grow large and rich, while securing its conquests at the least expense in blood and treasure. Whether they would also have the good fortune to understand the secret of their success, of course, remained to be seen.

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