18th-century defence challenges

Dr Rita Pemberton -
Dr Rita Pemberton -


THE TOPIC of its defence was moot during the early history of Tobago under British rule because of a variance between the imperial and colonial authorities on its significance.

After the initial British occupation of Tobago and the sale of lands for the establishment of plantations, lands were cleared and brought under cultivation in a short period and the island’s population increased significantly, mainly through the introduction of enslaved Africans to work on the plantations.

As production increased, so too did profits to plantation owners, and Tobago enjoyed a reputation as a thriving colony, which brought both positive and negative consequences.

The production of sugar, rum, cotton, indigo and ginger in increasing quantities seemed to confirm earlier reports on the island’s economic possibilities, and attracted investors from Britain. However, this profitable island attracted the gaze of other European powers which sought to build colonial empires with profit-yielding colonies.

Ironically, this growth of economic activity in Tobago did not stimulate the imperial authorities to organise an effective system of defence to deal with the anticipated response from other foreign powers to Britain’s source of newfound wealth.

This attitude was particularly glaring with respect to main arch-rival France, whose actions provided a very clear indication that its rulers were not happy with the 1763 treaty arrangements, and intended to pursue their ambitions to possess the island.

In 1763, Tobago’s initial defence force was composed of two companies of the 4th Regiment, stationed at Plymouth. They were replaced in 1764 by two companies of the 62nd Regiment under the command of Capt Richard Legge, to which two more companies were added in 1766.

Legge found the accommodation for his troops unacceptable; the food was unfit for human consumption; and the environment was considered unhealthy because illness among the troops was a frequent occurrence. There was dissatisfaction with this state of affairs and, concerned about the morale of his troops and fearing a mutiny, Legge sought and obtained a daily supply of provisions from a ship in port, which allayed the situation.

A plan for improved facilities for the troops had been produced by the chief engineer of Grenada in 1770 with an estimate of desired defences for Tobago to cost £12,000, which included improving the buildings at Fort Granby, suitable accommodation for the lieutenant governor and batteries at the more important bays on the northern coast which attracted interlopers. Despite the security concerns of both civil and military perspectives and evidence of the vulnerability of the island, the imperial authorities did not approve the plan.

In March 1778, permanent barracks were constructed at Courland Bay and the four companies were withdrawn and replaced by two companies of the 70th Regiment. By 1780 the troops were moved to barracks at Fort Granby. The resident planter population was concerned about both internal and external security threats.

The spate of enslaved resistance on the island during the 1770s, which threatened the existence of plantations, alarmed the planting community,who sought to implement measures to prevent a recurrence.

Plantation owners were also very concerned about the menace of privateers, who, in addition to their haunts on the north coast, used the many bays around the island to raid estates and steal both enslaved people and produce; and the awareness of French spies on the island intensified the lurking fear of a French invasion. These were all matters which ought to have jolted prompt corrective action, but the imperial government remained unmoved.

In 1774, the Tobago Council petitioned the imperial authorities for better defences, which was not heeded. Capt Moss recommended that the island’s security could be improved by a military establishment at the Scarborough Hill (later Fort King George) and erecting defence batteries around the island.

The menace of the privateers forced the planting community to raise their own funds to provide batteries at the vulnerable points around the island: Great Courland Bay, Little Courland Bay, La Guira, Queens Bay, Bloody Bay, Englishman’s Bay, Castara Bay, Sandy Point, Burleigh Battery in Scarborough and Fort Granby.

However, there were unco-operative elements in the planting community, notably the brothers Gilbert and Peter Franklyn, who were considered disloyal and suspended from the island’s council in November 1780. In addition there was not always unison between the civil and military authorities, with the latter refusing to take instruction from civilian officers.

The works at Fort King George were completed in 1779. The defence force was then made up of 456 regular soldiers and a militia of 350 men, including enslaved Africans who were used to make up for the small population of white males. The irony here is that the enslaved men were made part of the defence system designed to prevent their own liberation efforts.

The lieutenant governor’s defence plan, which included a retreat to the interior to escape attackers, was based on the belief that the difficult terrain of the interior would provide a natural defence. This did not find favour with the imperial authorities.

The lieutenant governor also made reference to some other negatives which accompanied economic growth. In recommending constructing barracks on the mountains, he identified the need to locate the troops away from the chronic illness of alcoholism, which became prevalent. He advocated mountain residence for the troops to remove them from the scourge of rum, which resulted in high mortality.

The governor informed the Colonial Office of the high soldier mortality rate and asked for funds for defence. The imperial authorities, which showed no concern, refused to provide financing, indicating that was the responsibility of the House of Assembly.

By 1780 there were 106 estates in full production in Tobago, with the most productive estates in the leeward districts. Les Coteaux was considered the most prosperous estate on the island.

The other negative impact of increased production was its social impact. Wealth-generation stimulated a culture of eating, drunkenness, partying and debauchery, which characterised activities at the great houses. In addition, the shortage of white women contributed to the abuse of enslaved women, which stimulated the growth of a mixed population.

The weakness of the island’s defence was fully revealed when, in 1781, the French overran it and remained in occupation until 1793. By then the sugar industry was unable to regain is former strength and defence was no longer a central issue, but the social consequences of the period of wealth, alcoholism and abuse of women remained part of the plantation culture.


"18th-century defence challenges"

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