American Revolution

1776-1783: North American colonies revolt, but France and Spain continue fighting an older war

The French and Spanish, thoroughly dominated in battle by Britain throughout the past several wars, saw the dissent in the American colonies as a chance to regain some power in the Caribbean from the British. This quest for revenge made the Caribbean an important battlefront in the American Revolution.

European Climate

Neither France nor Spain regarded the 1763 peace as anything more than a truce, stopping the fighting for a short while. The French ministers particularly were looking for revenge against Britain and, though the Enlightenment called for less government, France mustered the support for a fight in the West Indies.

Fifteen French ships were financed without government assistance, and a new station was built on Martinique. And by 1778, France had a fleet of 78 naval ships and 186 frigates and small crafts. Spain had 60 ships of its own that year. However, while Britain had far more ships, many were no longer seaworthy. A good number of others were in blockades of North America.

Together Against Britain

From the beginning of the war, France aided the American colonists. However, they refused to join the war until it was clear they could win. A decisive battle in 1778 brought the French into the war, and Spain followed the next year when England refused to return Gibraltar.

While France and Spain had both joined the American colonists in the fight against Britain, this gesture did not mean that they agreed with the uprising. In fact, while the French simply ignored the revolution, the Spanish were openly hostile toward it. Spain not only wanted to push the British from the Caribbean, but hoped to reclaim Florida and the long-lost colony of Jamaica.

Hostile Takeovers

While France simply blockaded incoming ships with supplies bound for Barbados and Jamaica, their efforts had devastating effects. During this blockade, thousands of slaves on both islands died of hunger and disease without food or supplies to import.

However, both British and French fleets avoided the Caribbean during the hurricane season, so their attacks generally came between November and June. The first French victory was Martinique over Dominica in 1778. However, the French Admiral d'Estaing captured both St. Vincent and Grenada shortly afterward in 1779.

British leadership took St. Lucia from the French in 1778, but Admiral George Rodney failed to intercept Spanish ships headed to join the French on Martinique. The saving grace for the British was again disease, which took the Spanish soldiers before they could fight. They retreated to Havana in early 1780.

Admiral Rodney took over Dutch St. Eustatius, as well as Saba, St. Maarten, and St. Barthelemy when the British declared war against the Dutch as well. However, the pillaging of St. Eustatius was so complete that Rodney stayed to watch over the spoils and ensure they were split and sold properly. This kept him away from Tobago, which fell to the French in 1781, while Martinique's governor took back the Dutch Caribbean that same year.

In 1782, the French, led by de Grasse, captured St. Kitts, Montserrat, and Nevis. The planters on St. Kitts surrendered under easy terms, much like those given to Guadeloupe during the previous war, and the French and Spanish began planning a joint attack on Jamaica.

Les Saintes

Fortunately for England, Admiral Rodney did return to the Caribbean in time for one of the most important naval battles in British history. His win saved the British sugar islands for Britain.

Rodney waited at St. Lucia for de Grasse to make his move from Martinique. De Grasse needed to reach Cap-Français on Hispaniola to rendezvous with the Spanish fleet, but Rodney managed to trap him in a narrow channel between Dominica and Guadeloupe, and northward escape was blocked by a group of small islands named Les Saintes, for which the battle was named.

With a northward outlet blocked, de Grasse turned his ships toward Rodney's fleet and tried to track backward. However, their wind died, and by nightfall Rodney had taken five ships, including the flagship, which ended in a surrender.

Treaty for an End

Despite British losses in the Americas, the four combatants argued among themselves when it came to settling the peace, which put Britain into a better position. Their win in the Battle of the Saints was also extremely significant in deciding their importance in the treaty.

At the end, the Treaty of Versailles left the British islands to the British, except St. Lucia, which was returned once again to the French. Florida was given to the British, and U.S. independence was acknowledged. In 1783, a new country became part of the New World.

Still, France and Spain did not manage to expel Britain from the Caribbean, and the nation's power would remain in the islands, despite the many wars that had been fought.


Back to Caribbean History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.