The British West Indian Strategy 1793-1801
The war that began in 1793 was initially viewed in Britain in part as a contest for maritime supremacy. The French had challenged Britain’s naval dominance during the American War of Independence, so Britain had set about rebuilding her fleet and expanding her trading networks once this conflict had ended. Britain’s maritime trade was crucial for her growing prosperity, but it was threatened by emerging French naval power. Consequently, the Prime Minister William Pitt and the Secretary of State for War Henry Dundas determined that once war broke out, a military effort should be made against France’s overseas possessions in the West Indies because several key French naval bases were situated in these resource-rich Caribbean colonies. It was thought that by doing so, permanent damage could be inflicted upon France’s ability to contest the seas.
The West Indies had long been a source of interest for European colonists, and Britain gained a significant foothold in the region between 1624 and 1655. However, it wasn’t until the mid- 17th century that settlers began to realise the economic potential of these small islands. A ‘sugar revolution’ took place, and plantation owners brought thousands of slave labourers to the Caribbean to work the fields and mills. Before long, the West Indies became a genuine ‘slave-society,’ as enslaved workers had an essential role in the transformation of the Caribbean’s economy. By 1750, around two-thirds of the region was inhabited by slaves whereas free whites counted for less than a quarter of its population. Most of these slaves were exploited through extreme violence and manipulation.
The West Indies could be an extremely unpleasant home for its inhabitants. Hurricanes could devastate the region, and throughout the year volcanic eruptions and earthquakes had the potential to cause serious loss of life. Moreover, disease often ravaged European expeditionary forces as Yellow Fever and Malaria were rampant in the hot, parasitic climate. However, the West Indies were a trading hub during the eighteenth century because the climate was extremely favourable for growing expensive commodities. As well as sugar, these colonies could produce cocoa, tobacco, ginger and cotton. Consequently, by 1787 Britain’s Caribbean colonies were annually exporting goods worth £7.5 million. France’s colonies were even richer and exported £11.5 million of goods every year. Given the economic power of these islands, it is perhaps unsurprising that the West Indies became a theatre of conflict during the French Revolutionary Wars. Although the British cabinet wanted to gain naval superiority over her enemy, it was also believed that France’s ability to prosecute a war in Europe would be affected if her West Indian stream of revenue was interrupted. Dundas was therefore determined to pick off France’s colonies and he began organising a large Caribbean expedition in 1793.
In order to explain Britain's Caribbean expedition this section is separated into four sections. Click on the links to learn more!
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