Experiencing the salubrious air of Tobago, it is difficult to imagine it tinged by gunsmoke and exploding black powder, and the smell of death.
Or for that matter, as you sit sipping a cool drink, to bring to mind huge brigantines, ships of the line, man of wars turning at anchor in the changing tide at Courland Bay, Plymouth or Rockley Bay.
Ferocious sea battles were fought between the French and the Dutch in Scarborough harbour in 1677, and in 1778 an American squadron - Britain being at war with its American colonies - attempted an attack on Tobago. The squadron comprised two ships of the line, three brigs and a schooner. THey were engaged by the British battleship H.M.S. Yarmouth of Gogans. During the encounter, the American ship Randolph of 36 guns was blownup with her crew of 315 men. The remainder of the American squadron withdrew.
The Battle of Rockly Bay
The Dutch presence in Tobago goes back to the 1620s. They fought for Tobago. They wanted Tobago as a first base for their excursions to the Buyana river system, where they were creating colonies on the Demerara and Essequibo Rivers.
The Dutch were attempting to create a plantation economy that would fuel raw materials back to Holland, sugar, cotton, tobacco, spices of various kinds and possibly even gold. To achieve this, they had to establish slave trading posts on the west coast of Africa, and to maintain these with money, men, arms, goods and materials.
The next step was to actually colonise Tobago, create farms, plantations, fortifications, warehousing, stores, barracks, houses and a little town. They called Tobago ‘New Walcheren’ after the Zealand island off their own coast.
The Dutch fought the Courlanders for Tobago. But it was the French who in 1676 delivered a disastrous blow and destroyed the fort. This was the third attempt by the Dutch to hold the island and this is what transpired:
“Admiral Jacob Binckes was the commander of the Dutch fleet. Arriving at Tobago on 1st September, 1676, Binckes immediately set about fortifying Rockly Bay and commenced building a larger fortification near to teh older one that had been built by the Lampsins, the former owners of Tobago. Before it could be finished, however, the French, who knew of the Dutch intentions of making Tobago an armoury and base for raiding French islands and settlements on the Wild Coast, attacked.
The French fleet under Vice-Admiral Compte Jean d’Estrées had left France in the autumn of 1676, arriving at Tobago in February 1677. Binckes, believing the French would not enter the bay with its dangerous rock formations and 10 Dutch men-of-war anchored there, concentrated his defence around the fort, beneath which he drew up his ships in a half moon parallel to the shore. Between the ships and the shore were two unarmed merchantmen and a provision ship, ‘Sphera Mundi’, in which were placed more than 200 women and children along with the sick and some slaves. Binckes relinquished command of the fleet, taking many of the sailors with him to strengthen the garrison, hoping by his presence to boost morale and discipline.
The French landed 1,000 men on 21 February, who then took two days to hack their way throught the dense vegetation to the fort. On 23 February, a French officer disguised as a drummer demanded its surrender to d’Estrées. Binckes declined.
D’Estrées, low on provisions, could not contemplate a lengthy siege and decided on a simultaneous assault by land and sea. The attack at dawn on 3 March was greatly helped by the capture of a Dutch vessel, whose pilot treacherously agreed to lead the French into Rockly Bay in return for his freedom. The French entered the bay in two columns and launched a withering fire to which the Dutch replied, the outcome being not so much a battle as a slaughter.
On land, three French attacks against the fort were repulsed and they retired with casualties of 150 killed and 200 wounded. In the bay, the French ships threw themselves against the anchored Dutch warships. D’Estrées engaged the Dutch rear-admiral on the ‘Huis de Kruiningen’, the largest ship in Binckes’ fleet, and boarding it, he raised the French flag. Fire from a disabled Dutch fire-whip now spread rapidly through the Dutch ships and engulfed the provision ships and ‘Sphera Mundi’, causing the horrific death of the colonists’ wives, children and slaves. The conflagration forced d’Estrées to abandon his recent prize.
The fort now began to open fire on the crippled French ships. The flagship ‘Glorieux’ was hit by a fireball and exploded, taking most of its crew of 445 with it. The scene in Rockly Bay now resembled Dante’s inferno. Losses were heavy on both sides, none of the French fleet remaining undamaged, and only three Dutch ships surviving the battle. Although d’Estrées ordered a cease-fire one hour before sunset, the fort continued to fire on the French fleet well into the night. A further demand for surrender was denied and the French withdrew to Palmiste Bay, leaving two stranded men-of-war behind; they boarded their land troops and left Tobago for Grenada.
The French claimed a somewhat dubious victory and a humiliated Louis XIV acted swiftly, ordering a new fleet to be equipped. D’Estrées, once again commander, left Brest for the Caribbean in the autumn of 1677. The Dutch were slow to send Binckes’ relief, a squadron under commander Hals was to arrive too late. D’Estrées disembarked 1,500 men at Palmiste Bay on 6 December. Having learnt from his mistake in March, this time he attacked the fort only from the land.
As the French guns opened fire on 12 December to a fierce Dutch reply, the celebrated French engineer de Coombes placed his mortars and adjusted their aim. The first of a new type of fireball overshot; the second fell short; the third landed on the littered path to the gunpowder supply as Binckes and his staff were having lunch directly above the powder magazine.
The following explosion killed Binckes, his staff and half the garrison. In the ensuing confusion, the French seized the fort and the remaining Dutch ships, destroyed the fortifications, surrounding plantations and houses, and caputred the inhabitants. D’Estrées then departed for Martinique, and once again the island was abandoned.
In 1679, two years after the French conquest, in a far away place, the fate of the island was decided by the Treaty of Nijmegen, which stipulated that each party was to keep what it held outside Europe at the moment hostilities ended. Tobago remained French. The victors who had expended such efforts to gain control of the island never even bothered to settle a colony there. Meanwhile, the Duke of Courland stioll laid claim to Tobago and in 1680 he made another attempt to colonise the island, but this also failed.
Then, there were the encounters on the land - some of which boardered on the absurd. In 1666, the French in Grenada, under Governor Vincent, discovered that the British were not holding the island in strength. As France had now entered the war on the side of the Dutch, a small party of men and a few drummer boys were immediately dispatched to attack the British. The French landed at Courland Bay and attacked the post, where they killed a sentry, but not before the others stationed there were able to make their escape, alerting the surrounding countryside.
The French decided to brazen it out. That night, they lit several fires and at dawn they sounded the reveille, and with the sound of drums and pipes, called commands in loud voices, giving the impression of a formidable company. By the time they had dispatched one of the drummer boys to Dutch Fort, beating as he went the ‘parley’. The boy advanced bravely, a musket slung on his shoulder, his drum sounding boldly - he demanded that the garrison surrender immediately, stating that the French army closeby would show no quarter.
Soon after, the commanding officer of the fort appeared alone, armed only with his sword, and inquired as to where the French were. “Just over there,” replied the boy. The English officer climbed the small bluff and looked - there were the French, all eight or nine of them. Realising that he had been duped, he tried to make it back. “Not so fast,” said the drummer boy who had dropped his drum and was now levelling his musket at the officer, threatening to shoot if he did not throw down his own sword. The small band of French, flags flying, their prisoner in their midst, marched on the English at Dutch Fort and took it. The French stayed on until the following year and then abandoned the island.
A legend has grown that Tobago was the scene of a remarkable sea battle which took place in 1666, when the British admiral Sir John Harman encountered the combined fleets of France and Holland which had rendezvoused off a bay then called Anse Erasme or Rash House Bay, now known as Bloody Bay on the north-west or leeward side of the island. It is said that the British defeated them with such great slaughter that the sea ran red in the golden sunset, the cannon booming into the night. Today, giant immortelle trees bloom a brilliant scarlet on the mountains above Bloody Bay. The bloody battle might have been one that took place in Barbados, but has been so ssimilated into Tobago history that it is now ‘remembered’ as having taken place in Bloody Bay and been absorbed into the recall of other battles fought there.
In 1781, Tobago was once more under siege, this time again by the French who succeeded in capturing the island. The French with nine ships were sighted on 23 May, 1781. The British, under Lt. Governor George Ferguson, surrendered only after a gallant ten day struggle against overwhelming odds.
Ferguson had, upon sighting the French, immediately mustered all able-bodied men, some 427, comprised of planters, militia, sailors and regular troops. The French first attempted a landing at Minister Bay, named by the Dutch as Luggarts Bay, but high seas drove them off. They then tried close to Scarborough at Rockly Bay, but once again the weather proved too bad for a landing.
The following day they succeeded in landing 3,000 men at Great Courland Bay, Plymouth. Having wiped out the fortified position there, Major Hamilton of the militia who had manned a two-gun battery at Black Rock across the bay was able to bring the French ships under heavy fire, until he was forced to retire. Ferguson in the meantime had retreated strategically and regrouped his men at Concordia, on the heights above Scarborough and not far from Mason Hall, fighting a guerrilla action all the way.
The French general Philbert Blanchelande in hot pursuit, demanded their surrender, having set up a battery at French Fort, a cotton estate which overlooked Concordia. A French attack on the English position failed in the night as the French lost their way. Ferguson and his small band refused to surrender, requesting the French general ‘not to trouble me again upon this point’.
From the heights of Concordia, Ferguson was able to see more French troops landing at Plymouth and was forced to wait until the dead of the night to fall back to the base of the main ridge, the site of the present day Caledonia estate (near to Hillsborough Dam).
He did this so well that when the French stormed his position the next day they found that he had gone. In headlong retreat and fighting off the French, Ferguson led his men towards the high woods where he had prepared a fortified position of last resort. The French by this time landed som 400 men at Man-o-War Bay, determined to take the English from the rear. Still the british resisted. It was only whent hte French started to burn the plantations that Ferguson’s force, exhausted, very short of ammunition and food, decided that the wisest course of action would be to surrender.
This was a military decision with which Ferguson disagreed. The French general congratulated the English on their gallant defence. The conditions and the laws laid down by the English were left unchanged, although Scarborough was renamed Port Louis, as the Governor de Blanchelande was followed by René Marie le Vicomte d’Arrot.