- Historic Sites
The Battle Of The Saintes
No American ships were involved, yet on its outcome hung Great Britain’s recognition of our independence
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
Nowadays tourists visit the West Indies by air, and sooner or later most of them avail themselves of one or other of the local services that, originating in Puerto Rico, hop from island to island southeastward along the chain of the Lesser Antilles to Trinidad and Georgetown, on the coast of British Guiana. During the brief passage from Pointe-à-Pitre in Guadeloupe to Roseau in Dominica—a scant hundred miles—the tourist might well spare a glance through his window down at the blue Caribbean. Should he do so he will find himself flying over a basin of water some fifty miles by twenty, delimited by Guadeloupe and Dominica to the north and south, by Marie Galante to the east, and the group of the Saintes to the west. The scene is very beautiful, dominated by the towering heights of the Grande Soufrière and Morne Diablotin; and it was there that 69 ships of the line fought the battle which ended in a staggering defeat for America’s Revolutionary War ally, France, and yet, oddly enough, contributed powerfully to the final recognition of American independence.
It was April, 1782, six months alter the surrender at Yorktown, and now the Comte de Cirasse, the French admiral whose fleet had played a decisive’ part in that event, was back in the West Indies (lushed with victor), determined upon delivering the final blow that would compel England to make peace. He was a man of sixty, courtly and gallant, and of vast naval experience, having served at sea since his early teens and taken honorable part in a do/en naval actions. Now lie had 35 ships of the line under his command; on board, besides very large dews, he had the nearly 6,000 troops that had been conquering the British islands one by one.
He had sailed out from Fort-de-France in Martinique some days before, and he planned to head for Cuba, where he would be joined by a Spanish squadron with a Spanish army; and to get these sluggish allies on the move he had on board “twenty-six chests of gold and silver,” about half a million dollars. From Cuba the combined fleets would move upon Jamaica and capture that island, the richest Caribbean possession left to the British Crown and almost the only one alter the recent French conquests. Then the British N’avy would be deprived of its base and the British nation of an important source of wealth.
Opposing him was the most successful sailor of the day, Sir George Rodney, in command of a fleet scraped together by desperate measures and sent out at a moment when the British situation seemed quite hopeless: when Gibraltar had been under siege literally for years, and when command of the Channel—with all that implied—could be seized by the French government whenever that not too enterprising body could summon up the resolution to do so. England was stubbornly rel’using to swallow those two pills and was risking; total destruction lor the sake of national pride.
Rodney was a man of temperament; he was suspected of having more than once paid undue attention to his own interests rather than to those of his country. He was chronically short of money; at this moment he was entangled in a score of lawsuits arising from his highhanded seizure of British property at the capture of St. Eustatius a year earlier; he had spent the winter of 1781–82 at home defending himself from his enemies, for at that time, with party passions running high, he was perilously close to suffering the fate of Admiral Byng, who, 25 years earlier, had been court-martialed and executed after a disastrous encounter with the French. The firing party or the block might well await Rodney if he met with defeat now.
Yet all the same, at the age of 63, he was the best admiral in the British service, a strict disciplinarian, a man who had devoted a good deal of original thought to the problems of naval warfare, and he had to his credit a recent victory over the Spaniards at St. Vincent, when in a night action fought in a gale ol wind he had managed to close with a greatly inferior force and destroy it—a battle in striking contrast with the other hall’ dozen recent (lcet actions that had ended in mere indecisive cannonades. He was a man who would not only fight but who was mentally ready to seize any advantage. Moreover, in two recent severe skirmishes he had taken his opponents’ measure.
De Grasse had left Fort-de-France without the intention of fighting. In the spirit of French naval thought at the time, he saw no need to expend valuable lives and risk damage to his precious ships when union with the Spaniards would give him such an overwhelming advantage that he could achieve his objective without the British daring to fight. He had headed toward Cuba, and Rodney, starting alter him from the only available anchorage, Gros Islet Bay in St. Lucia fifty miles to the south, could hardly hope to catch him. But he had hurried his llect in pursuit, and his dogged determination resulted in his being presented with the opportunity it merited.