The Battle of the Saintes

Rachel Rogers relives the greatest naval battle ever fought in the Caribbean

  • Battle of the Saintes

If you stand at Capucin or Point Jacquot, on the northern tip of Dominica, you can see the little French islands of the Saintes. They look quiet and peaceful enough now, but they were once the scene of a naval battle that changed the history of the Caribbean. It was the greatest sea battle ever fought in the Caribbean, in fact, and it had a far-reaching effect on the political division of the islands. It was also a landmark in naval strategy, the first time the manoeuvre known as “breaking the line” was successfully tried.

It is April 12, 1782. Before you are two long lines of eighteenth-century battleships facing each other, 36 British and 33 French. The battle rages from early morning, with cannons blasting and muskets cracking; the air is thick with smoke and fire, though you cannot hear the cries of death and hurt. The heavy warships jostle for position, the lines tangling and breaking. As the sun sets, the French surrender; the British, commanded by Admiral Sir George Rodney, have broken the French fleet, prevented an attack on the precious British colony of Jamaica, and have won the strategic island of Dominica from the French.

For centuries, these two European powers, struggling for control of the Caribbean and its resources, had fought over Dominica. It lay in a crucial position, between the two French strongholds of Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the French were anxious to defend it; the British were equally anxious to seize it and drive a wedge between the two French islands. Dominica was supposed that day to be left neutral; but the French started putting down roots, and by 1761 they were sufficiently entrenched to provoke a British attack. When Dominica was ceded to Britain in 1763, the rivalry redoubled. The British methodically colonised until 1778, when the French seized it back. Now, four years later, its future was at stake again.

In early 1782, Admiral Rodney was keeping a close eye on the large and powerful French fleet in Martinique, which was thought to be preparing for an attack on Jamaica. St Kitts had fallen to the French, and in February Rodney moved north from Barbados to St Lucia. On April 8, the French Admiral, De Grasse, weighed anchor and sailed north, and the next morning his ships were sighted off Dominica.

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Part of the British fleet had been becalmed off Dominica’s leeward coast, but the rest was within cannon range of the French. There was a brief exchange of fire, followed by two days of manoeuvering. De Grasse was anxious to avoid an engagement; he was under orders to sail straight to Jamaica. But he felt obliged to go to the aid of a disabled ship, and could not avoid entanglement.

John Mair, an estate-owner in the north of Dominica, had a prime view of the battle as he breakfasted on his veranda that day. He was joined by quite a few friends. They watched as the 2,640 British and 2,500 French gulls blasted at each other. Rodney’s flagship Formidable burst through the centre of the French line, scattering the French ships into three disparate groups. Mair wrote in his journal: “At about eight o’clock as I was looking at the moving lights a large flame appeared which I immediately knew to be a ship on fire … and with my glasses the whole scene of distress on board was clearly seen.

The battle was short. By nightfall only De Grasse and two unwounded men were fighting on the flagship Ville de Paris. Surrender was inevitable. But warfare in those days still involved bizarre civilities: De Grasse was taken on board the Formidable for dinner that evening, and the two admirals, victor and vanquished, sat in formal dress and made conversation after a long day’s bloody battle against each other. Rodney’s courtesy did not prevent him from sending De Grasse as a prisoner to Britain.

Four French ships, bearing heavy artillery for the Jamaica attack, were captured. The British lost 261 men, with another 837 wounded; the French casualties were much higher. What remained of the French fleet had fled. Rodney did not pursue them.

The following year, Dominica was officially handed over to the British under the Treaty of Versailles. The French, desperate to defend Dominica’s strategic position, wanted to cede Tobago instead, but the British would have none of it. Rodney was feted as a hero and raised to the peerage.

Dominica remained in British hands, despite renewed French attacks in 1795 and 1805, until she gained her independence in 1978. As for Jamaica, it put up a statue to Rodney in Spanish Town, then the island’s capital, to thank him for delivering Jamaica from the French. It’s still there.