The Battle of The Saints
In 1778, France joined forces with the 13 North American Colonies in their fight for independence from Britain. For the next five years the two most powerful naval fleets in the world were concentrated along the eastern coast of North America and in the Caribbean. Commanding them were the leading Admirals of the age. For France, Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, and for Britain, Sir George Brydges Rodney.
In 1781 the British Navy suffered a fatal defeat at Chesapeake in North America, which led to the surrender of British power over the colonies and the eventual creation of the United States. The French were now determined to crush their old enemy in the Caribbean. If they could link with the Spanish and capture British Jamaica, then Dominica and the other captured islands could be held by France.
De Grasse collected his forces in Martinique and Rodney waited with his fleet in the north of St. Lucia. On 8 April 1782 De Grasse set sail for Jamaica and Rodney gave chase. Up the coast of Dominica sailed the two mighty fleets. The French sped ahead but the mountains of the island took the wind from the British sails and only the vanguard of the fleet led by Sir Samuel Hood could engage the French. Held back by this action and the collision of two of their ships, the French were forced into a position where they had to fight. At 8.00 am on 12 April the two long lines of ships sailed past each other in battle, their cannons pounding broadside across the water. They were positioned halfway between Dominica and the islets of Les Saintes.
Taking a chance, Rodney cut across the French line and this was repeated at another point thus breaking the French fleet into three scattered sections. By 6.30 pm De Grasse surrendered aboard his flagship Ville de Paris. This spectacular sea battle was clearly seen from the heights of the Cabrits and north coast of Dominica.
Rodney breaks the French line at the Battle of the Saintes
The 8th West India Regiment Revolts
By the end of the 18th century, military forces required in the Caribbean were causing a strain on the revenue of the islands, and disease was taking its toll of the British soldiers stationed in the region. At the Cabrits, fever and other ill effects of the climate caused the loss of many members of regiments stationed there.
To solve the problem of manpower for defence, the Colonial Government launched a plan for a Black West Indian Regiment since it was considered that Africans would better survive the climate. The local legislature was alarmed at the idea of having armed and trained black forces guarding the island, but the Colonial Office was insistent.
In 1795, the first group of slaves to be trained as soldiers was bought. Two years later Dominica received a new Governor, Andrew James Cochrane Johnstone. As Governor, he was Colonel-in-Chief of the 8th West Indies Regiment, one of the twelve regiments serving in the West Indies. By 1801 the 8th was well organized; some 500 men with Major John Gordon in command and Captains Carr, Cummins, Casson Cameron and Arbuthnot at the head of 100 men each. That same year they distinguished themselves in battle at St. Martin.
Governor Cochrane’s treatment of his men was however causing discontent. He set the men to work for his private use. They were put to dig fields, build the wall around Government House, work on his estate without pay and they were insulted when put to work clearing bush in the Cabrits swamp with cane bills, a tool they considered to be a badge of slavery. Food and clothing supplies were irregular and because of Cochrane’s swindling they failed to get the regular soldier’s allowance due to them.
On 9 April, 1802, when they could stand conditions no longer, the 8th West India Regiment revolted. They killed three officers, imprisoned the others, and took over Fort Shirley. On the following day, the man-of-war HMS Magnificent with marines on board arrived to restore order, but was fired upon by the mutineers. On 12 April Colonel Cochrane arrived from Roseau and entered Fort Shirley with the Royal Scots Regiment and the 68th Regiment.
The rebel troops were drawn up on the Upper Battery of Fort Shirley with three of their officers as prisoners, and presented arms to the other troops. When Governor Cochrane ordered them to shoulder, order and ground their arms, they obeyed. But on being commanded to step three paces forward the cry was “No!” and they resumed their arms and fired a volley. This was returned and followed by a charge of bayonets which broke their ranks, and a wild gun battle ensued at close range. Mutineers who tried to escape over the precipice to the sea were exposed to a fire of grape-shot and canister from Magnificent.
The court-martial that followed sentenced 34 of the rebels to hang. But an investigation into the conduct of Governor Cochrane began. He tried to shift the blame to his subordinate John Gordon, but after hearing the evidence the court acquitted Gordon and indicted the Governor himself. In March 1804, Cochrane faced four charges before another court-martial, this time in London. To the disgust of George III the prosecution failed, but the King ensured that Cochrane was never promoted and was made to resign his commission.
The revolt of the 8th West India Regiment was the only military action which occurred at the Cabrits. The garrison did however play an important role in the defence of Dominica on two other occasions.
In 1795 the Commissioner of the French Revolutionary Government in Guadeloupe, Victor Hugues, organized and attack on Dominica in the hope that he could capture the island with the assistance of sympathectic French inhabitants here. On 4 June, a party of about 800 revolutionaries landed at Pagua Bay in the north-east. British forces on the island were weak from malaria but the Governor, Henry Hamilton, sent two groups from the St. George Parish Militia with orders to proceed in opposite directions around the island until they had the enemy between them.
One detatchment went via Prince Rupert’s and joined regular soldiers from the Cabrits en routs along the north coast. On 12 June the forces met and there were several skirmishes until the 15th when the French began to withdraw. Prisoners taken during this action and French inhabitants who had taken part were imprisoned at the Cabrits. Five of the ringleaders were hanged and the 110 other were taken to England as prisoners of war.
Although the Cabrits saw no action with the enemy, its sheer size discouraged an attack in 1805. On 20 February, a French squadron of some nine ships under the command of General La Grange attacked and took the town of Roseau. Although the capital had fallen, the British Governor George Prevost was determined to hold the north of Dominica. He ordered his troops, the 46th Regiment and the 1st West India Regiment, to make forced marches across the island via Rosalie, then along the east coast and through the Carib Quarter, and to join him at the Cabrits.
With a few of his staff, and with help from the Caribs, Prevost made a dramatic twenty-four hour dash to Portsmouth. The troops made the difficult journey in four days. At the Cabrits, Prevost hastily put the fort in order. Cattle were driven in and the cisterns filled with water from the North River.
PHOTO: George Prevost
On 25 February La Grange summoned the garrison to surrender. He reminded Prevost of the fate of Roseau, and urged him to accept honourable conditions of surrender. The Governor refused.La Grange assessed the situation and, noting the formidable appearance of the garrison, returned to Roseau. There he demanded a ransom of ?12 000 or he would take the members of the Legislature as hostages to Guadeloupe. The ransom was not forthcoming and he settled for half the amount but not before seizing everything of value he could lay his hands on. After hovering off the island for some days the squadron moved north and the last French attack on Dominica was over.
Whaling and Bananas
When Napoleon was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815, the French threat to British possessions in the Caribbean was over. The sugar colonies were entering a decline and although a limited number of troops were kept stationed at garrisons such as the Cabrits, most of the buildings were out of use and rapidly fell into disrepair. Devastating hurricanes between 1813 and 1834, most notably that of 1825, hastened the ruin. Finally in July 1854 the Cabrits was abandoned as a military post and the regiments marched out for the last time.
The town of Portsmouth had seen little development since it had been established. For most of the 19th century it was no more than a fishing village and a center for the construction of inter-island sloops and schooners. Excellent timber was readily available, vessels were careened and new masts were stepped in the estuary of the Indian River.
At this time there was a great demand in North America for whale oil, the raw material for soap, candle-making and cooking oil. Whalebone was also required for many items from women’s corsets to buggy whips. New England was the center of the U.S. whaling industry and from the mid-19th century Yankee whalers used Prince Rupert’s Bay as a depot. One of the most famous whaling ships to use Portsmouth harbour was the Charles W. Morgan, (pictured here). It made its last whaling voyage out of Portsmouth in 1921 with a mainly Dominican crew, and can still be visited at Mystic seaport in Connecticut USA.
In the 1930s ships of the Canadian National Steamship Company called here to collect bananas. When the Geest Banana Company began operation in 1954 Portsmouth, Salisbury and Roseau were ports of call. Today, Portsmouth, through its depot at Longhouse, remains Dominica’s most productive banana port.
The banana trade gave the town a much needed boost, but by then island commerce and government was firmly concentrated at Roseau. This lack of development and neglect over the years has created a “north versus south, Roseau versus Portsmouth” attitude to district affairs which is most marked in political matters and is always a subject of contention at election time.
The area has, however, produced its share of island leaders. Apart from at least three Ministers of government, there has been a Chief Minister, Frank a Baron, a Prime Minister, Roosevelt ‘Rosie’ Douglas and the second President of Dominica, Aurelius B. Marie. Bankers, educationists, farmers and most notably schooner captains born and brought up along the Bay have all contributed to island life.
One reason for despondency has been the failure of numerous schemes to develop the area, particularly the Cabrits. In the 1960’s the Sunday Island Free port Project, later Valhalla, then the Don Pierson Freeport fiasco as well as other unrealistic proposals raised and dashed hopes.
In the 1980’s certain small but significant projects began to take shape so that after two centuries of obscurity attention is slowly turning once again to Oyouhayo, Grand Anse, Prince Rupert’s Bay.
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