Saturday, May 7, 2011

St. Kitts Campaign Overview


This is the first in a series of posts, which will appear from time-to-time, on the St. Kitts campaign of 1782. The St. Kitts campaign took place in what is known as the West Indies theater of the Revolutionary War.

The Other Thirteen Colonies

In 1775, half of Britain's colonies in the New World embarked on the Revolutionary War, which ended with their establishment as the United States of America. The remainder stayed loyal. One might suppose that outside the Thirteen Colonies, the inhabitants must have been strongly loyalist in their sentiments. This was not always so. Loyalists and rebels were to be found in every colony. In places like Barbados and St. Kitts in the West Indies, the rebellious spirit was quite strong. However, these colonies were small in size and easily occupied by land forces or dominated by the royal navy. Armed rebellion had no hope of success. [1]

The West Indies

Britain’s West Indies possessions shared a plantation-based economy dominated by sugar cane cultivation. Sugar cane gave these islands an economic power greatly out of proportion to their diminutive size. Because these islands were much valued, they were also much fought over, and changes in ownership were not uncommon. At the time of the Revolutionary War, the islands were colonized by Spain, France, Britain, Holland, or Denmark.

St. Kitts and Nevis

Among Britain’s possessions in the West Indies were the sister islands of St. Christopher’s (commonly called St. Kitts) and Nevis. During the Revolutionary War, the islanders greatly aggravated the British authorities. As one historian put it:

“During the American War, the people of St. Kitts were, to put it mildly, by no means so loyal as they now are. It is, indeed, an admitted fact that they sympathized more or less openly with the revolted colonists, and enriched themselves by carrying on a contraband trade in munitions of war…” [2]

St. Kitts and Nevis in 1782.

In 1782, the islands became a scene of conflict. At the time, St. Kitts was garrisoned by the 1st battalion of the 1st Regiment of Foot, the flank companies (i.e., grenadiers and light infantry) of the 15th Regiment of Foot, and a detachment of Royal Artillery. Nevis was not garrisoned, but both islands had an armed militia that could be called out for emergencies.

The main defensive work was Brimstone Hill on St. Kitts. Steeply-sided Brimstone Hill bordered the sea on one side, and a flat swath of sugar cane fields on the others. The summit was crowned by stone fortifications. A British officer visiting the site remarked,“I have had an opportunity of visiting Brimstone Hill, a position which Nature has rendered almost inaccessible… Casemates for the troops, storehouses, and cisterns were almost all that were necessary. The situation is cool and healthy, the troops suffer as little as they would do in Europe.” He believed an enemy might establish batteries upon a distant hill, but at that distance guns could not breach the walls. “To approach much nearer is almost impossible, and even a breach in works placed on ground so commanding would be of no avail. The garrison may be annoyed by distant firing, and starved out by blockade, but not assaulted.” [3]

The islands were also defended by several low-laying coastal batteries. These protected the principal harbors (and most likely landing points).

Brimstone Hill, as seen from the northwest.

The French Invasion

France entered the Revolutionary War in 1778. At the time, much of the British army, and, to a lesser extent, navy, was tied down in North America. France (and later Spain and Holland) hoped to exploit this weakness and pick off some of Britain’s far-flung possessions. The largest French effort was made in the West Indies. By 1782, France captured the British isles of Dominica, St. Vincent, Grenada, the Grenadines, and Tobago (Britain, in turn, took St. Lucia).

The French fleet in the West Indies was commanded by François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse. In the late summer and fall of 1781, this fleet was in North American waters where it played a decisive role in the siege of Yorktown. When it returned to the West Indies in November, the French fleet had a numerical advantage over the British royal navy. The French hoped to exploit this advantage by capturing another British island. The two initially set their sights on Barbados: Britain’s main naval base in the West Indies. However, the invasion was repeatedly stymied by severe weather. In January they chose to attack St. Kitts and Nevis instead.

The French expedition set sail from Martinique on January 5, 1782, with 6,000 infantrymen, and a train of heavy artillery.

A Part of the West Indies (click to enlarge). St. Kitts and Nevis are at upper left, Martinique near center, and Barbados at lower right.

The Commanders

  • François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse: Known as the hero of Yorktown, but otherwise generally seen as a competent, if not brilliant, officer.
  • François-Claude-Amour de Bouillé. Daring and energetic, de Bouillé was one of the most skilled and successful general officers of the Revolutionary War.
  • Samuel Hood. Commanded the British West Indies’ naval station. He is seen by some historians as the greatest British admiral of the Revolutionary War. It was his responsibility to aid any British isle that came under French attack.
  • Thomas Shirley. Governor-General of Britain’s Leeward Islands, he resided on St. Kitts and led the British militia.
  • Thomas Fraser. He commanded of the British regulars on St. Kitts. It was the joint responsibility of Shirley and Fraser to defend the islands (especially Brimstone Hill) long enough for outside aid to reach them.


1. As best I’ve been able to determine, Britain had, in addition to the Thirteen Colonies, an additional thirteen colonies or provinces in the Americas in 1775 that a) were administered by a governor and b) were not a dependency of some other colonial possession. They were 1) Quebec, 2) Newfoundland, 3) Nova Scotia, 4) St. John’s Island, 5) East Florida, 6) West Florida, 7) Bermuda, 8) Bahamas, 9) Jamaica, 10) The Leeward Islands (Anguilla, Antigua, Barbuda, British Virgin Islands, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Kitts), 11) Dominica, 12) Barbados, 13) The South Caribbee Islands (Grenada, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Tobago)

2. See Algernon Aspinall (1915). West Indian Tales of Old.

The inhabitants of Nevis were probably of similar sympathies, but their actions tended to be overshadowed by those of their larger and wealthier neighbor. Of note is that Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis in the 1750s.

1 comment:

  1. I'm looking forward to following this story, AD. The West Indies are usually overlooked in AWI scenario books, but we are now much better served for suitable figures and these actions are more viable to do.

    Best wishes