St. Vincent was invaded by France

On this day in history, June 17, 1779, the French invasion of Saint Vincent took place during the Anglo-French War. A French force commanded by Charles Marie de Trolong du Rumain, landed on the West Indies isle of Saint Vincent, and quickly took over much of the British-controlled part of the island, assisted by the local Black Caribs who held the northern part of the island.

British Governor Valentine Morris and military commander Lieutenant Colonel George Etherington disagreed on how to react, and ended up surrendering without significant resistance. Both leaders were subjected to inquiries over the surrender. The period of French control begun by the capture resulted in solidified Black Carib control over northern parts of the island. The area remained in Carib hands until the Second Carib War of 1795.

At about the same time as the American War of Independence, a British fleet under Admiral William Hotham also arrived augmenting the fleet of Admiral Samuel Barrington. The British then captured French-held St. Lucia, despite d’Estaing’s attempt at relief. The British used St. Lucia to monitor the major French base at Martinique, where d’Estaing was headquartered.

Byron departed St. Lucia on June 6 in order to provide escort services to British merchant ships gathering at St. Kitts for a convoy to Europe, leaving d’Estaing free to act. D’Estaing and Governor the marquis de Bouillé seized the opportunity to begin a series of operations against nearby British possessions. Their first target was the isle of Saint Vincent, just south of St. Lucia.

The political situation on Saint Vincent was somewhat tense. The island was divided in half between land controlled by white planters and that controlled by the local Black Carib population. The line dividing these territories ran from the island’s north-west to its south-east, and had been declared by treaty signed in 1773 after the First Carib War. Neither side had been happy with the compromise agreement, and its terms were a continuing source of friction. The British had, uniquely among its Caribbean possessions, had to establish a chain of outposts to protect the planter population.

Governor Valentine Morris had assumed office in 1776 when the isle was granted a separate government, and reported then that it had virtually no defense. In addition to the difficult relations with the Caribs, the British population was also sympathetic to the cause of colonial independence.

In late August 1778 French officials met with Carib leader Joseph Chatoyer, and in early September Governor Morris was confronted by Caribs bearing new French muskets on a tour of the border areas. D’Estaing organized a force of 300 to 500 troops, including French regulars drawn from the regiments Champagne, Viennois, and Martinique. The invasion force was placed under the command of Lieutenant de vaisseau Charles Marie de Trolong du Rumain, who had recently distinguished himself by taking over British-controlled Saint Martin in March 1779. The force was embarked on a fleet consisting of the frigate Lively, the corvettes Lys and Balleastre, and two privateers. Du Rumain sailed from Martinique on 9 June, and reached the waters off Saint Vincent on the 16th.

Two of the ships anchored in Young’s Bay, near Calliaqua, while the third anchored off Kingstown. The ships flew no national colors, leading to local speculation as to their intent. Local planters who thought they might be merchant vessels expected to pick up the sugar harvest prevented a sentry at one of the island’s coastal fortifications from firing a signal cannon, and one man sent out to one of the ships was taken prisoner. As the French began landing their troops, a small company under Captain Percin de la Roque was landed on the eastern shore to mobilise the Caribs. These irregular forces, which grew to number about 800, quickly overran British settlements near the borders between the British lands and those of the Caribs, while du Rumain led his main body of troops toward Kingstown.

Eventually the alarm was raised, and Governor Morris thought it would be possible to make a stand against the French in the hills above Kingstown, in hopes that the Royal Navy would bring relief. Lieutenant Colonel Etherington was however opposed to this, especially when the size of the approaching Carib force became apparent, and a truce flag was sent to the French. Du Rumain demanded an unconditional surrender, which Morris rejected. During the negotiations, three ships were spotted flying British flags. Du Rumain returned to his ship, and quickly determined that the strangers were supply ships; two he captured, but the third got away. After further negotiations terms were agreed that were similar to those granted by de Bouillé in the 1778 capture of Dominica.

The Black Caribs harassed British settlers during the French occupation, at times requiring intervention of the French military to minimize bloodshed. After the return to British control, an uneasy peace existed between the British and Caribs until the 1790s, when the Caribs again rose up in the Second Carib War. The Caribs were then deported by the British to Roatán, an island off the coast of present-day Honduras, where their descendants are now known as the Garifuna people. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines gained its independence from Britain in 1979.


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