Dr Rita Pemberton
The post-mortem of the French capture of Tobago in 1781, particularly in its search for a cause, provides valuable information about the British defence strategy on the island and its weaknesses and how the Main Ridge was positioned to perform a role that differed from the purpose for which it was established.
Both the colonial and imperial authorities were embarrassed and embittered by the successful French outmanoeuvring of the British forces and their capture of Tobago in 1781. The fact that France had provided assistance to the revolting American colonies, which successfully loosened themselves from the yoke of the British Empire, made it a particularly humiliating experience for the British.
On the island, the new plantation owners were concerned about their losses, which resulted from the destruction inflicted on their properties by the marauding French armies and the implications for their mortgage arrangements in the UK.
Their absentee counterparts were anxious to cut their losses. Some sought to sell off their properties at the earliest opportunity, while others continued to nudge the imperial government into action to regain the island and save their investments.
While nursing their bruised egos, the British authorities persevered with their intention to recapture the island, but in the meantime it was necessary to examine the organisation of the British response and the conduct of senior officers in order to determine who was responsible for its fall. Reports from the leaders of the supplementary troops suggested the capitulation occurred before they had any opportunity to intervene meaningfully.
Notwithstanding the pleas of the colonial authorities for increased attention to security fell on deaf imperial ears, to their detriment, investigative focus was placed on the main colonial officials: the Lieut Governor and the head of the island’s military. Then the blame game started.
The Lieut Governor said the head of the military disobeyed his orders, and as a consequence Major Stanhope, head of the military in Tobago and his two major generals, Wynward and Phillippo, were court-martialled and asked to report to the Horse Guards at Whitehall to explain their conduct on March 2, 1783.
The court martial was held from Tuesday, June 3-Thursday, June 9, 1783. The court was presided over by Lieut Gen James Grant and was composed of two lieutenant generals, two major generals, six colonels, two lieut colonels, two majors and one judge assistant general.
Stanhope appeared before the court as a prisoner charged with refusal to obey the orders of his superior, Lieut Governor Ferguson, who was also the commander in chief of the island’s forces.
The Lieut Governor explained that the members of his administration were forced to abandon their quarters in Concordia and move to Caledonia on May 31, 1781, as a security and tactical measure. They were aware that a detachment of the French forces had reached as close to the official headquarters as Belmont, where they set fires to estates and sugar mills in the area.
They planned to make use of the proximity of Caledonia to the Main Ridge, which was to be their safe haven when the French forces arrived at Brotherfield, midway between Concordia and Caledonia. It was expected that the Main Ridge would provide them with a safety net because it was expected to prove challenging for the French to advance through the difficult, unfamiliar terrain. He reported that, without authorisation, Stanhope and the marines went to Retreat plantation to meet with Count Dillon, who arrived with a flag of truce, to discuss the capitulation.
Ferguson said he ordered Stanhope to march his troops from Caledonia into the rainforest, which he refused to do, but instead, consulted with his troops, who asked to capitulate. The Lieut Governor also asserted that the major signed a separate capitulation agreement for the troops. His claims were supported by the Attorney General of Tobago, the assistant surgeon of the hospital, a doctor and planner, the treasurer. a plantation owner and the acting ordnance storekeeper.
In his defence, Stanhope denied the claims of the Lieut Governor. He informed the court that the planters signed a petition asking for capitulation because their estates were being destroyed, they were afraid that the situation would not end and they did not feel inclined to put up any further defence.
Stanhope said he was instructed to get his troops ready to march to the Main Ridge, which he did. Then he outlined the deficiencies of the troops in Tobago, which undermined their ability to put up a strong resistance to the French. He said that of the force of 200 men, 45 were convalescents who had recently been discharged from hospital.
On the first day the troops marched for 12 miles and for four nights they responded to false alarms of the Lieut Governor and on the night of May 31-June 1, they had to march eight miles on an impossible road on a dark rainy tropical night.
Forty of the men disappeared that night and remained missing. The troops were exhausted and there were only 60 men to go on to the Main Ridge, with insufficient ammunition and food supplies.
In the presence of the Lieut Governor, he consulted with his officers, who indicated their unwillingness to continue the futile defence exercise, given their desperate position.
Stanhope denied that he had made a separate capitulation agreement for the troops, arguing that there was no arrangement in place for trading prisoners in the West Indies, and in order to overcome the deficit, a separate document was signed with the French under the same terms that applied in Dominica. He called six of his officers as his witnesses.
Stanhope’s evidence about the poor state of the troops was damning of the imperial security policy for the island. He revealed the weakness of Tobago’s military, and while hopes were placed on the Main Ridge for the salvation of the island, these hopes were not realised.
The under-resourced body of troops was numerically and physically weak and therefore unable to withstand the might of the better prepared French troops.
It was made clear where responsibility for the island’s security deficiencies lay, and without further discussion, Stanhope was acquitted; and the French remained installed as imperial rulers of Tobago until 1793.