Tobago: Now British, then French and finally British

Dr Rita Pemberton -
Dr Rita Pemberton -

Dr Rita Pemberton

ALTHOUGH THE British recapture of Tobago in 1793 was humiliating for the French, it signalled neither the end of French ambitions for the island nor the ability of the British to keep the island from French grasp. Eight years later the French were back in Tobago. They landed on October 3 and with what appears to have been relative ease, they occupied Fort George and expelled the British troops.

After the Act of Occupation was signed by French Gen Sabuguet, who was made the French governor of Tobago, and Tobago’s British lieutenant governor, Brig Gen Carmichael, the dejected British troops immediately left the island.

Gen Sabuguet wasted no time in getting himself acquainted with the economic state of the island. He reported to the French Minister of Colonies that cotton cultivation was virtually at an end since only100 bales had been produced for the year and was almost totally replaced by sugar cane. The main items which were produced on the island for that year were: sugar – 20,000 boucauds of 1200 pounds each; rum – 18,000 boucauds; and 900 pounds of turtle.

Sabuguet noted that the enslaved population, which numbered between 17,000 and 18,000, remained reasonably quiet after some “trouble” at the beginning of the year. This was a reference to what was considered the best planned and most potentially dangerous insurrection on the island. It was planned for Christmas night when the enslaved across the island would set fire to the cane fields nearest the plantation houses so that plantation owners hurrying to put out the fires could be easily massacred.

Due to the intelligence efforts of Brig Gen Carmichael, the plot was discovered, the 30 ringleaders were seized and one was hanged. His body was raised several times, each with the firing of a gun to give the impression that all involved had been hanged. The intent was to demonstrate the impact of swift response to resistance and terrify the enslaved population into submission. For his efforts, the appreciative House of Assembly rewarded Brig Gen Carmichael with a sword worth 100 guineas.

The Tobago Council and Assembly, which, ironically, had been at odds with the French administration over the questions of taxation and mortgage payments during the last years of the French regime in 1792/3, gave a hearty welcome with assurances of loyalty and fidelity of the inhabitants to the French administration, in November 1802. In a swift change of sentiments, they expressed gratitude for French interest in the welfare of the island.

But in consideration of the need to secure their own concerns, they requested that the French administration give careful attention to the interest of agriculture and commerce and specifically requested that the freeport system which the French had instituted in some bays on the island be continued. In the interest of the prosperity of the island, they also made a plea to be allowed to continue with the laws and internal legislation to which they had become accustomed.

However, the French occupation was not destined to last long for on June 25, 1803 a British fleet with troops numbering 2,400 men, under Commodore Hood, left St Lucia and sailed for Tobago. The British force was composed of the first division of two companies of the 64th regiment and five companies of the West India Regiment which were instructed to commence an attack on the French battery. They landed at Courland Bay and took the French by surprise.

With only one 18-pounder cannon at Great Courland, the French were in no position to respond effectively. The sailors from the French forces deserted and after four artillery men were killed and others wounded, the soldiers abandoned the fight. Having encountered little opposition, the British marched through Scarborough and proceeded to the fort.

According to the French general, the fort, which showed the ruins of its past, was in “a pitiable state” and was in no position to offer security from the British, whose troops marched on to Mt Grace from which the French commandant, Gen Berthier, was summoned.

Faced with the reality of deserting soldiers and sailors and the inability to mount a reasonable response to defend the island, the general sought to save face, admit defeat, reduce his losses, and make an honourable and advantageous capitulation. He responded by offering terms of capitulation which were settled the following day and by 11 am the fort was given to the British forces.

The capitulation agreement included a return to France of the ordnance and stores and various pieces of artillery which were found on the island. The officers of the military were to be offered safe passage back to France; the sick and wounded were to be treated until fit to return. French merchant vessels which were then in port were to be allowed to sail to approved destinations provided they were not carrying property belonging to individuals on the island and the British would transport the French troops and sailors back to France.

All those who were desirous of leaving the island would be allowed to do so within the following two years. There would be no punishment to any individuals for the opinions they expressed while the island was under the French government. In other words, there would be no hard feelings against the members of the Council and Assembly for their pro-France sentiments and those who swore the oath of loyalty to the French monarch and signed allegiance to France. The council would remain in place at the helm of the administration of the island.

This marked the end of French hopes to take possession of Tobago and the island remained a British possession until it formed a part of the independent state of TT.


"Tobago: Now British, then French and finally British"

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