Wednesday, 13 September 2017

The 18th century Brigand War in the Caribbean

Perhaps if you have the kind of romantic imagination that is now going out of style you may feel yourself drawn towards a Caribbean experience that goes beyond being baked to a crisp while becoming charmingly incoherent after of your seventh rum-punch.  If this is at all the case you may want to learn something about a topic that just a mere two hundred or so years ago made hearts race and brave men think hard about finding a place to hide. No, I am not talking about hurricanes. I am talking about an episode in our past that was called the Brigand War and especially some of the personalities that shaped that period.
Historians have said that these Antialien islands are a product of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars. What they mean is that as the 18th century came to a close disputes that had their origins in Paris, London or Madrid were settled right here on these sandy shores or upon that crystal clear horizon, that with a bit of luck, you might not only see the fabled green flash illuminate the day’s end, but actually catch it on your iphone so as to put it on face-book.
One of the more outstanding events to take place in that period was the advent of a man called Victor Hugues.  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, political upheaval and revolt reigned throughout the string of islands. From Grenada, to St. Vincent, though to St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe and 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 Saint-Domingue now known as Haiti.
This ‘ring of fire,’ which was in fact the effect of the Age of Enlightenment upon the western world, sought to bring an end to the dominance of both altar and throne. It had commenced in North America, under George Washington, as the descendants of immigrants there battled against British control, and would continue with Simon Bolivar until the Wars of Liberation brought an end to Spanish domination in south America.
There had been fierce fighting  in the Eastern Caribbean for some years. This was characterized by battles at sea whose very names – the Battle of the Saints, the Battle of Cape St Vincent or the Battle of Grenada– conjure the choking odors of grapeshot, black powder and battle ablaze, as seventy eight gun frigates fought it out against magnificent sunsets of legendary splendor. 
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, a former shop owner and minor merchant of Port-au-Prince on the island of Saint-Domingue, now called Haiti. It was said that he had been born at Marseilles, France, perhaps in 1760. He had a grasp on learning it was said and like so many young men he yearned to travel. He shipped aboard a merchantman as a cabin boy, sailing the trade routes on the Atlantic run. He often wintered in the Antilles, enjoying the wealthy mulatto lifestyle of the parvenus and the debaucheries of the harbour towns.
He is remembered as a raucous fellow of a huge sexual appetite, who tended to attract the young, naive and impoverished whites.  A thirst for knowledge and the pursuit of belonging made him seek the membership in an esoteric, pseudo-masonic order, called ‘Societé d’Harmonie’. He became the leader, some say even the Robespierre of the French Revolution in the Caribbean. He sailed from Marseilles 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’, for being placed by them beyond the diameter of society despite his grasp of culture and his intelligence.
The squadron under his command attacked the British in 1795 in Basseterre and forced them out of Guadeloupe by the end of that year. His reign of terror took the lives of over one thousand royalists.
Victor Hugues then set to work to exterminate the monarchists and drive the British out of the Windward and Leeward islands as well as convert people of these islands  to the cause of the French republican revolution. He dispatched agents to St. Vincent to stir up the population there, then sent in Jacobin irregulars on the heels of the agents, and before long the English were hardpressed to keep the capital Kingstown, while the French, made up of black and coloured troops, and the Carib Indians overran and held the rest of the island. In Tobago, there was serious cause for alarm. Now once again in British hands, the African slaves, most of them French speaking with connections in other islands, had already been indoctrinated by the revolutionary fervour that had swept the islands, causing Scarborough to be burnt. Tobago’s planters were asking for a ‘stout frigate to be stationed in Great Courland Bay.
Hugues dispatched his agents to Jamaica, where for the third time a full-fledged war was being waged between the maroons, these were slaves who had freed themselves, and the occupying British troops. They were so heavily engaged that no reinforcements could be sent from Jamaica to relieve General Maitland’s fever-stricken English soldiers in Saint-Domingue who were attempting to take that island from the African slaves who were in revolt under a charismatic leader known to history as Toussaint Louverture. By 1798, the English were compelled to leave that island, while in Jamaica, the black maroons had to be accommodated after a truce was arranged high up in the cockpit country of the blue mountains.
Victor Hugues, undaunted, turned to Grenada, where there was tension between the English and the French speaking free colourds. 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. An army 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. They surrounded the town of Grenville and commenced a massacre that to this day is still remembered. After fighting off the British for more than a year Fedon withdrew to his estate Belvedere, 2000 ft above sea level on the sumit of Mt. St. Catherine. He established three camps, named them 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 Spanish  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 mountain 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 himself. 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 a Mr. Kerr.
The British armed a contingent of loyal slaves, the ‘Corps of Loyal Black Rangers’, and pursued Fédon’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.
None saw Fédon die. He was last 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? It is said that people who do not know their past are doomed to repeat it.

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