Wednesday 7 September 2011

Capitulation and the Region

As a backdrop to the capture of the island of Trinidad by the British in 1797, it is useful to have an idea of what was taking place in the region generally.

The European wars for territories in the Caribbean reached boiling point in the 1790s. The French Revolution of 1789 served to add civil war to the equation. Turbulence and violence, racial hate and revolt reigned in the ring of islands, in St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, among the maroons - former slaves who had taken to the Blue Mountains of Jamaica’s central range -, and most violent and catastrophic of all, in Haiti.
This ‘ring of fire’ had commenced in North America, as the descendants of immigrants there battled against British control.
There was heavy fighting in the Eastern Caribbean. In 1794, British troops took Martinique. A month or two later, they landed in Guadeloupe. There, for the first time, they came up against Victor Hugues, the former inn keeper of that island and now leader of the French Revolution in the Caribbean. He had sailed from Marseilles, France, the year before, armed with republican fever, gold, a handful of loyal henchmen and a guillotine. Hugues was a daring man; people said that he was coloured and hated the ‘békés’, the whites, for being placed by them beyond the diameter of society despite his grasp of culture and his intelligence.
Hugues was possessed of great energy and resolution. The message of the revolution was like a gospel to him.
The squadron under his command attacked the British in 1795 in Basseterre and forced them out of Guadeloupe by the end of that year. The reign of terror took the lives of over one thousand royalists.
Victor Hugues then set to work to drive the British out of these islands and to convert people to the cause of the revolution of republican France. He sent agents to St. Vincent to stir up the population. He sent troops on the heels of the agents, and before long the English were hardpressed to keep Kingstown, while the French, made up of black and coloured troops, and the Caribs held the rest of the island. Hugues dispatched his agents to Jamaica, where for the third time a full-fledged war was waged by the maroons, slaves who had freed themselves, and the British troops. They were so heavily engaged that no reinforcements could be sent to relieve General Maitland’s fever-stricken English soldiers in Haiti. By 1798, the English were compelled to leave Haiti, and in Jamaica, the black maroons had been crushed.
Victor Hugues, undaunted, turned to Grenada, where there was tension between the English and the French. He was a genius at sowing division and a brilliant manipulator! His agents promoted revolt in Grenada. they were followed by picket men, who built up cells or small cadres. Then, soldiers were brought in. A coloured Grenadian planter, Julien Fedon, was chosen as leader. A group of French and free blacks was formed, and then revolutionary troops were sent in from Guadeloupe.
The rising under Fedon broke out at midnight of 2nd March, 1795, surrounded the town of Grenville and engaged in English garrison. They soon overran the town killing all, sparing none.
Fedon withdrew to his estate Belvedere, 2000 ft above sea level on the Mt. St. Catherine. He established three camps, named the ‘Field of Liberty’,  the ‘Field of Equality’ and the ‘Field of Death’. Soon the governor and his staff had been taken, and Fedon warned that any attempt to attack the island would mean their death.
Meanwhile, Victor Hugues was attempting to destabilise Trinidad, and to demoralise Don José Maria Chacon, the governor. He offered to send his men to ‘help’ the governor to ‘control’ the island. Chacon in Trinidad responded by sending a few Spanish soldiers to join the British in Grenada in their planned attack on Fedon’s mountan fortress.
Terrible rainstorms lashed Grenada on the day that Fedon’s encampment was attacked. The English troops were pinned down by relentless fire from above. Fedon’s troops felled huge trees. The English commander inexplicably killed ihmself. Yet the attack was maintained.
At the ‘Field of Death’ a terrible massacre had taken place. The hostages were executed. The governor’s wife and daughters, his aid and accompanying officers were all killed in a hail of bullets. Some 55 persons died. There were a few survivors , among them Dr. John Hay, Fr. McMahon and Mr. Kerr.
The British armed a contingent of loyal slaves, the ‘Corps of Loyal Black Rangers’, and pursued Fedon’s men while garrisoning St. Georges. In April, Sir Ralph Abercromby arrived in Grenada with troops and attacked the mountain stronghold. He defeated Fedon there, but not before another 20 hostages had met their deaths.
Noone saw Fedon die. He was seen trying to sail away in a small boat and is said to have drowned. Thus ended the Battle Mt. Qua Qua.
Over 150 years later, in the latter part of the 20th century, Grenada again experienced revolution, overthrow and massacre of more than 100 citizens at the fort in St. Georges. Is this a case of history repeating itself? Or is this a matter of unresolved issues playing themselves out? Perhaps history repeats itself because of unresolved issues. It is said that people who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it. This is one of the ‘raisons d’etre’ for the Historical Digest!

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