The Abercromby-Christian Expedition 1795-6
In March 1795, insurrection suddenly enveloped the British West Indian islands. Slaves on the islands of Grenada and St. Vincent revolted, along with the Maroon population (descendants of fugitive slaves) in Jamaica. What’s more, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe had come back under French control. It became clear to the British government that ‘nothing less than an expedition of overwhelming strength could reestablish peace in the West Indies,’ so the largest force ever dispatched from Britain was assembled to quash the rebellion. This force was placed under the command of Sir Ralph Abercromby.
Abercromby was in many ways a surprising choice to lead the expedition, as it was his first major independent command. Unlike Grey, he had never been to the West Indies, and had no experience of amphibious warfare. He began his military education in Germany during the Seven Years War, having purchased a Cornet’s commission in the Third Dragoon Guards in 1756. He wasn’t involved in active operations again until 1793, when he served as a brigade commander under the Duke of York in the Low Countries. He performed particularly well during the allied defeat at Tourcoing, where he showed his qualities as a general. For such a large and strategically important expedition, it was once again imperative that a reliable and experienced naval commander was found. Surprisingly, Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty, recommended Rear-Admiral Hugh Clobbery Christian. Although Christian was 48 and had served in the navy since 1761, he was still considered to be a junior officer. However, importantly, he had shown great ability at the Transport Board, which Spencer wrote ‘marked him out as a man likely to overcome the difficulties and delays from which recent expeditions had been suffering.’ Consequently, he was an astute appointment who was able to effectively co-ordinate operations with Abercromby.
Once again, both commanders did their best to protect the health of their men. They gained the advice of medical officers, who recommended a strict diet of gruel, molasses, white pickled cabbage, salt meat and potatoes, along with ‘a pint of porter…two or three times a day.’ The medical officers also sensibly suggested that at least one physician accompany Christian’s fleet, as well as a hospital ship that should be ‘placed as much in the sea breeze as circumstances will admit.’
The expedition finally got away in November, but due to terrible weather Abercromby himself did not arrive until March. His first objective was the island of St. Lucia which had been captured just two years earlier by Charles Grey. Several detachments of Abercromby’s army were landed on the island, and they methodically advanced inland, capturing several batteries along the way. Like Grey, Abercromby tried to move his army during the night and avoided long marches during the day. Eventually he come up against the well defended fortification Morne Fortune, and laid siege to this position on the 3 May. The French commander on St. Lucia, Goyrand, withdrew most of his forces behind the walls of Morne Fortune, and they held out bravely. By the 24 May, however, the defenders were running short of food and water, and Abercromby had positioned two large cannon close to the French ramparts. Goyrand asked for a ceasefire, and then surrendered the following day.
With St. Lucia now under control, Abercromby turned his attention to the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada. He sent a large force to St. Vincent and began his assault of the island on the 10 June. He subjected the New Vigie stronghold to a heavy artillery bombardment and surrounded the position. The French were consequently forced to lay down their arms on 15 June. Abercromby demanded that the terms of surrender include all other garrisons on the island, and then set sail for Grenada.
The British Commander-in-Chief had sent the Grenadian garrison commander Nicholls substantial reinforcements in early June, and he quickly went after the enemy troops that had gathered at Gouyave. The very sight of a British column caused 180 insurgents to surrender, however Nicholls struggled to coordinate this operation and missed an opportunity to trap a further thousand rebels that disappeared into the country’s interior. The brutal leader of these insurgents, Julian Fedon, took up a seemingly impregnable position on Mt. Quoca, a stronghold that was made up of three heights that rose one above the other. When Abercromby arrived on Grenada on the 16th, he reenergised operations and urged Nicholls to assault Mt. Quoca, which he did on the night of the 18 -19 June. Some of Abercromby’s best troops took part in the operation and they surprisingly encountered very little resistance. British light infantry spent the rest of June subduing Grenada, and Abercromby left for home in early July having achieved most of the objectives set out for him. Dundas was ambitious, however, and wanted to capture the rest of Saint Domingue.
The British commander on Saint Domingue, General Forbes, had been sent reinforcements in May, but they were of poor quality and unsuited to warfare in the Caribbean. Forbes managed to clear the heights above Port-au-Prince, where most of the British force present on the island was still situated, but he could do little else with the men available to him. He had only around 7,000 fit troops and faced both republican soldiers and rebellious slaves who were commanded by their charismatic leader Toussaint l’Ouverture. Rains and sickness stopped Forbes from committing to any further offensives, and he all but ended offensive operations on the island in August 1796.
Throughout the summer, sickness gradually eroded what remained of Abercromby’s army in the Caribbean. Overall, between 20-30,000 troops were sent to the West Indies between December 1795 and May 1796. No attempt was made to evacuate this force, which was at the time Britain’s only remaining army. Instead, it was left to garrison British possessions during the deadly ‘sickly season,’ and thousands of soldiers fell victim to yellow fever, malaria, dysentery, heat exhaustion and, unsurprisingly, depression. Rather than suffer a slow and painful death, some troops committed suicide. Perhaps as many as 14,000 European British troops lost their lives in the West Indies in 1796. Britain could ill-afford these losses, and ministers in London were reluctant to send any more soldiers to the theatre. However, on the 8 October 1796 Spain declared war against Great Britain, and Dundas jumped at the opportunity to renew the offensive in the Caribbean.
To view the next page in this section, click here.
Got a question? Join the discussion in the Forum now!