Security concerns before French capture of Tobago, 1781

Dr Rita Pemberton  -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

Tobago’s Main Ridge is well known as the first site of a delineated forest reserve in the region. This measure was implemented for the preservation of rainfall, the maintenance of which was recognized as essential to continued productivity, and the pitfalls of which were demonstrated by the Barbados denudation experience. However, the Main Ridge was cast in a completely different role during the French/British rivalry for possession of the island after 1763.

After more than a half century of continued conflict, at the treaty of Paris in 1763, Tobago was begrudgingly ceded to Britain, but it was clear this treaty was not a signal of the termination of the rivalry between these two protagonists for possession of this island. Although the British administration moved with alacrity to implement colonising measures to establish a strong presence, there was an awareness that the French remained a persistent threat to the longevity of British possession of Tobago

The British colonisers faced four sets of security concerns. Internally, the enslaved Africans and the First People population, individually or in concert, or with First People from other islands, could undermine British colonising efforts.

The other two sources were external threats. The third source emanated from neighbouring Trinidad which was a potential source of invasion by its First People and from its Spanish possessors and of course, the fourth set came from its archrival France, possibly in alliance with Spain. The fact was that any security threat, whether internal or external, would make the colony open to attack from rival entities.

The new planters of the island were very sensitive to their vulnerability and their security concerns provided the raison d’etre for their call for the establishment of local administrative bodies.

In April 1769, concerns were raised by Gedney Clarke, collector of customs in Barbados, who owned estates in Tobago, that Dutch activity on the Spanish Main could stimulate a response from Spanish Trinidad which would invariably affect the infant British colony in Tobago. He echoed the views of the planting community that close attention should be paid to developments in the neighbouring territory. In response, the British stepped up their intelligence-gathering on activities in Trinidad.

The resistance wars of the enslaved Africans in the 1770s exposed the grim realities of the situation of the new planters and from then on the clarion call of planters was for stronger security measures to protect British investment. Security became a recurring them in the communication between colonial and imperial administrations; the Tobago planters were very dissatisfied with the lack of what they considered a satisfactory response from their imperial counterparts, who appeared insensitive to the challenges they faced. Very early in their relationship, security provisions, which became a source of conflict between these two administrative bodies, escalated. while the substantive cause remained unattended.

Meanwhile French surveillance and reconnoitring of the island continued unabated, but reports of French activity around the island which were in circulation during the early months of 1781 did not cause any significant change in the response of the imperial authorities to the requests and complaints of the planters.

The matter was referred to the naval authorities, who, on April 16, 1781, sent an engineer from St Eustatius to Barbados with instructions that he should proceed to Tobago hastily. The communication also requested Brig Gen Tottenham of Barbados to amass such spare troops as he could garner to send to Tobago immediately.

On May 6, 1781, the Adjutant General wrote to Lieut Gov Ferguson of Tobago to inform him that a large French fleet had arrived in Martinique and there were suspicions that the intent was that it would be sent to Tobago.

The planting community of Tobago was assured that, should the need arise, assistance would be provided to the island. Brig Tottenham then directed that spare troops along with ammunition and provisions be sent to Tobago speedily.

On May 23, 1781, Gen Ferguson received information that a fleet of nine vessels, which included four large ships, had been seen off the windward side of the island, and he indicated that he needed to send an officer to determine if the vessels were British or enemy ships.

Then news circulated that an enemy squadron had appeared off Tobago on May 27. Rear Admiral Rodney was dispatched with six ships of the line and a frigate with a regular and a volunteer company under the command of Brig Gen Skeen to relieve the island. On approaching, it was observed that the French fleet was already arrived and its troops had landed.

A British fleet was assembled and sailed to Tobago on July 4. The brigadier was determined to rout the French, and as a consequence he communicated with Lieut Gov Ferguson, who also served as commanding officer of the troops, about the enemy’s presence and updated him about the strategies to be implemented. All reinforcements that could be sourced were sent under a company of the Rutland regiment. Included in the team were an engineer, men and some artillery, ammunition and provisions, which arrived before the enemy approached.

At 10 am on May 27, Rodney received word that the enemy had landed and immediately directed Skeen to proceed to assist the island with the 69th regiment and volunteers from Barbados. Having received information that the enemy ships which were seen off St Lucia on May 29 numbered just over 20, Rear Admiral Drake and Skeen’s detachment were authorised to set sail for Tobago, which they did on July 4.

Having seen the French fleet on the island, Lieut Johnson of the Marines was sent to reconnoitre and secure guides for the troops – only to find that the island had already capitulated.

In his communication to his senior. Lord George German, he assured him that he and his men took much care to ensure that the integrity of the island as a British possession was preserved.

So, much to the embarrassment and anger of the British authorities, and the frustrations of the resident planters, Tobago was taken by the French and remained in their possession until 1793.

For the British, the question to be resolved was, who was to blame for the fiasco?

The leader of the supplementary military and naval forces sought to absolve himself and his group from all blame by indicating that they did their best under difficult circumstances.

The remaining people who could provide answers were Ferguson and Major Stanhope, head of the military forces in Tobago. Their responses will be the topic of Part II.


"Security concerns before French capture of Tobago, 1781"

More in this section