n October 1796 a fleet of ships from the Caribbean carrying over 2,500 prisoners of war, who were mostly black or mixed-race, began to dock in Portsmouth Harbour. By the end of that month almost all these prisoners, apart from about 100 women and children, were living at Portchester Castle.
English Heritage curator Abigail Coppins, who is researching their extraordinary story, explains how the prisoners came to be captured, how they were treated at the castle, and what happened to them after their release.
The story begins on the island of St Lucia in the Caribbean.
When war between Britain and Revolutionary France erupted in 1793, the overseas colonies belonging to Britain, France and their European allies, including the Caribbean, were also dragged into the war. The many Caribbean islands were much fought over by European powers vying for supremacy. These islands were mainly inhabited by an enslaved African Caribbean population working on European-owned plantations.
A French-born revolutionary, Victor Hugues, captured the island of Guadeloupe from Britain in 1794. He then declared an end to slavery and enlisted many former enslaved and free people of mixed race into the French Revolutionary army. Across the Caribbean, men of both African and European descent served in racially integrated military units that fought against Britain – which was still a slave-owning nation – on islands such as St Lucia, St Vincent and Guadeloupe.
On 26 May 1796, the French garrison holding Fort Charlotte on St Lucia surrendered to British forces commanded by Sir John Moore. They laid down their weapons and marched out of the fort and onto British ships. The terms of their surrender ensured that they would all be treated as prisoners of war, rather than as slaves, as Moore recorded:
a flag was sent from them to know what way they might … be treated …The answer … was, that men regimented … of whatever colour, should be treated as prisoners of war.
The garrison consisted of mainly local black soldiers, with a smaller number of European French soldiers. There were also women and children among them. [. . .]
WHO WERE THEY?
The registers for the time list all the prisoners by name, including the women and children. It is difficult to find out much about their individual stories, but many would once have been slaves working on the plantations on the French and British islands of the Caribbean. Others were from the free black and mixed-race communities on the islands.
Some notable prisoners were:
General Marinier – a free, mixed-race soldier, who had been commander-in-chief of the French forces on St Lucia and had organised resistance to British rule. He was captured on the island of St Vincent, a few weeks after Fort Charlotte’s surrender, where he had been fighting a guerrilla war
General Marinier’s wife, Eulalie Piemont
Jean-Louis Marin Pedre – a free, mixed-race soldier, who had been the commander of the Caribs (Garifuna), the indigenous people of the Caribbean
Marin Pedre’s wife, Charlotte Pedre
Captain Jean-Joseph Lambert – a free, mixed-race officer in the French army Captain Lambert and General Marinier had set up a guillotine on Guadeloupe, probably as a symbol of the power of Revolutionary France
Captain Louis Delgrès – a free, mixed-race soldier, captured on St Vincent where he had been fighting alongside the Caribs, just after the surrender of Fort Charlotte.