From its discovery in the 15th century, the Caribbean has always been a region where the European powers struggled with each other. Decisive battles have been fought in our blue waters, battles whose outcome tipped the scales in the Old World.
One such incident took place in Trinidad in the 18th century. It started with a violation of the neutrality of Spanish territory - and ended with England declaring war on Spain and eventually capturing Trinidad from the Spanish Crown.
Trinidadian historian P.G.L. Borde described the events in 1883:
“The formidable armament which England had prepared in 1795 for the appeasement of the French islands, the conquest of the Dutch settlement of Guiana, and the Spanish islands of Trinidad and Puerto Rico, was prevented by bad weather from reaching Barbados until April of the following year. The intrepid defenders of their nationality succumbed beneath the great number of their enemies in the long run, and when they had lost all their defended positions, they carried on a guerilla warfare (corsairs) for several months.
In order to overcome this trouble, it was necessary for the English to destroy these corsairs. This task was confided to Captain Vaughan of the thirty-two cannon frigate ‘Alarm’, which was accompanied by the twenty-cannon corvette ‘Zebra’ under the command of Captain Skinner. These two ships chased the corsairs from the creeks where they sheltered, and also out of the labyrinth of small islands of the Grenadines where they went into hiding.
The corsairs were forced to seek refuge in the neutral waters of the Gulf of Paria, where they were pursued by the enemy. This refuge which was excellent if the neutrality of the island had been respected, became merely a mouse trap, since the English forces did not take any account of neutrality.”
Captain Skinner was sent on a mission to demand the authorisation from Trinidad’s Governor Chacon to destroy the corsairs in the Gulf. Chacon, however, did not wish to take responsibility of such a violation of neutrality.
“In the morning at daybreak, he (Captain Skinner) opened fire on the corsairs at random. They were all destroyed except those who were able to reach Port-of-Spain.
When he heard of the destruction of the French corsairs, Captain Vaughan considered it his duty to pay a visit to Governor Chacon in order to justify the conduct of Captain Skinner, and probably also to make a reconnaissance of the country which undoubtedly would soon be attacked by the English forces.
As soon as he arrived, he obtained an audience with the Governor. Then he went about visiting some Spanish and Irish people in the town. His officers also came ashore, and following his example, they visited their compatriots.
On the evening of the 8th May, the officers of the ‘Alarm’ were at the house of a lady named Griffith. There the French and English sailors picked a quarrel. Insults were followed by blows, and a general riot took place.”
The English sailors, supported by their officers, were soon outnumbered by the French citizens of Trinidad, supported by the corsairs. Spanish troops who had arrived on the scene had to isolate the English, who had sought refuge in a house, from the enraged French. The commander of the troops, Don Juan Jurado de Lainés, managed to distract the people in the street, while the English climbed over the walls at the back of the house and managed to get to their boats unseen. Only the ship’s surgeon was injured and had to remain in the house, where the corsairs left him unharmed.
“On hearing the news of these events, Captain Vaughan was infuriated, although what had happened was only the result of his own imprudence., but he considered it an outrage and an insult to his flag. That same night he ordered the call to arms to be sounded, and he made the necessary preparations for landing at day break. All the (490) men from the frigate landed, armed to the teeth. The English started on the march, headed by the bank and with flags flying. The French sailors, accompanied by their friends and compatriots, had had time to put themselves in battle order outside the town on the right bank of the old course of the St. Anns river. This party consisted of three or four hundred men, who were resolved to await the enemy, and they were flying the French flag and had decorated themselves with the tricolor cockade. On his side, the Governor had also had time to collect a company of soldiers, and he put himself at their head with the object of stopping what looked like an inevitable battle. By a clever maneuver, and passing through a cross road, he arrived in time to put himself between the two enemy bands just at the moment when they were about to come to blows. He finished up by saying: ‘I will not suffer a province of my King which is confided to my care to become the field of battle of two nations who are at war with each other.’”
Captain Vaughan decided to return to his ship without a further word. Covered with confusion, he immediately set sail and abandoned the field of his sad exploit. A short time later, he committed suicide.
On the 5th October 1796, the English declared war on Spain. Shortly afterwards, on the 17th October, the Cabildo in Trinidad received a dispatch from the British Secretary of State, relative to the Vaughan affair. Three months later, on the 16th February 1797, the British invaded Trinidad and the island became a British colony.