The Battle of the Saintes, (detail) by Thomas Whitcombe, 1783
In 1775, the British Empire in the New World consisted not of 13 colonies, but of almost 30. The largest were on the North American mainland, but the most valuable were in the Caribbean. Jamaica was the “jewel in the crown,” a sugar-exporting factory that generated more wealth for Britons than most mainland colonies combined.
When Boston erupted into open revolt, leaders in London panicked. Historian Richard Bell, discusses how fearful imperial officials spent these years working frantically to split their empire in half, insulating the British West Indies from the contagion of revolution by any means possible.
Their campaign was waged primarily at sea, as the Royal Navy ring-fenced Jamaica and the other islands in an overwhelming show of force. When the French military waded into the conflict on Washington’s side, a full-scale naval war erupted in the region, climaxing in the Battle of the Saintes, a three-day fight to the death in the Caribbean Sea in April 1782.
The British prevailed in that epic sea battle and succeeded in containing their losses—at least for the time being. Bell examines how that revolutionary struggle would consume the Caribbean again soon afterwards, as the Haitian Revolution engulfed the region in flames, forcing Britain to a reckoning on the future of slavery throughout its empire.
Bell is a professor of history at the University of Maryland.
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