History August 31, 2018 at 03:01 am

The little-known story of Afro-Caribbean ex-slaves who were imprisoned by Britain in 1796

Nduta Waweru August 31, 2018 at 03:01 am

August 31, 2018 at 03:01 am | History

The hidden history of more than 2000 black people from the Caribbean who were imprisoned in Britain in the 18th century was unveiled sometime in 2017 when a researcher exhibited their story for the first time.

Their crime? They fought for France against Britain in the revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of the late 17th and early 18th century.

Sketch of an unknown French soldier by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet ( Jacqueline Hyde, Paris/ The Menil Foundation/The Image of the Black Archive and Library, Harvard University )

These black people were not slaves. Together with their dependents, they were freed by France in 1794. Slavery had been abolished in the islands of Guadeloupe, St Lucia and St Vincent and many of the freed black families joined the fight against the British.

However, when the Fort Charlotte in St. Lucia fell to the British, more than 2,000 black Caribbean people ended up under the care of the British. Considered prisoners of war, they were to be exchanged with the British prisoners of war, as it was the convention at the time.

Consequently, they were transported to England, leaving the tropical weather in the Caribbean to get into winter in Portsmouth. They not only had to deal with the weather but also the bullying by some of the European prisoners.  According to the historian who conducted the research, the prisoners were not able to get shoes that fit them and had to be provided with extra blankets as they suffered from chilblains.

In 1979, most of these prisoners had been dispersed, moved to different prison hulks. Others joined the British navy or the battalion of black pioneers which fought against France, Italy and Russia.

One of the most famous prisoners of war detained at this time is Captain Louis Delgrès, who later became one of the leaders of the uprising in Guadeloupe.

Photo: Wiki CC

Delgres was born in Martinique and was captured in St Vincent in 1796.  He was in England with the other prisoners but was later allowed to go to France in a prisoner exchange. Delgres returned to the Caribbean and fought against the reinstatement of slavery by France.

In 1802, Delgrès and 400 Caribs were surrounded at Matouba in Guadeloupe by France. They lit the gunpowder stores and blew themselves up rather than be captured and enslaved. They took as many French soldiers as they could.

Another prisoner was Jean-Louis Marin Pèdre, who was considered by the British as a man “with great goodness of heart”. He was a free-born property owner who opposed the arbitrary detainment of the Caribs by Britain. This move saw him and his wife Charlotte captured and transported to Portsmouth.

It was not strange for soldiers to be imprisoned with their wives. Even the Commander in Chief of the French forces on St Lucia, General Marinier was imprisoned with his wife Eulalie Piemont in Portchester Castle.

The discovery of this history has since placed the black Caribs in their rightful place in history.

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