'Thrice had his foot Domingo's island prest, Midst horrid wars and fierce barbarian wiles; Thrice had his blood repelled the yellow pest That stalks, gigantic, through the Western Isles!' ran the epitaph to one of the more than 20,000 British soldiers sent to St. Domingue in the 1790s.
The French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue (modern Haiti) was probably the wealthiest in the world, when in 1791 it was convulsed by the greatest slave revolt of all time. On its rich coastal plains were grown about two-fifths of the world's sugar, while from its mountainous interior came over half of the world's coffee. A little larger than Wales, its total production was approximately double that of the entire British West Indies. With 30,000 whites, rich and poor, 30,000 free coloureds and half a million mainly African slaves, Saint Domingue possessed the largest and fastest growing population in the Caribbean. It was a violent and volatile society founded on gross inequality. The outbreak of the French Revolution threw Saint Domingue into chaos. The colonial administration collapsed and, while the white community split into warring factions, the free coloureds took up arms in the name of the Rights of Man. The slaves of the great northern plain then rebelled and with firebrands and machetes took a terrible revenge on their masters.
Panic-striken planters appealed to Great Britain for protection, and when war broke out in Europe in February 1793, the government of William Pitt saw an opportunity it could not resist. The French Republic was preoccupied in Europe; the 'pearl of the Antilles' seemed there for the taking. During the first five years of the Revolutionary War (1793-98) over 20,000 British soldiers were sent to Saint Domingue to put down the revolt and. to seize for the British empire this 'Eden of the Western World'. Few of them ever returned, and their story is one of the forgotten catastrophies of Britain's imperial history.
Throughout the 1790s the influx of unacclimatised troops into the Caribbean fuelled a massive 'pandemic' of yellow fever. Most of the British soldiers sent to Saint Domingue - at least three in every five - died there. European troops who survived a year in the colony usually saw six or seven out of every ten of their comrades perish. But for frequent reinforcements, many regiments would have been almost entirely wiped out. Death from disease, without doubt, was the central experience of the soldier's life in Saint Domingue. It created an atmosphere of fear and despair, and even before leaving Europe, a contemporary wrote, 'the officer and soldier bound for this service look upon themselves as doomed to certain destruction'.
While such an attitude clearly affected the behaviour of the troops in the colony, it also made recruiting for the Army a difficult task. Along with the huge wartime expansion of the armed forces, it helps explain why standards in the Army sank to a low level in these years. To produce the numbers required, young subalterns were allowed to recruit independent companies in the workhouses and gaols, which were then assembled into regiments and sold to whoever could afford the price of a colonelcy. Half-trained, without discipline or esprit de corps , the new regiments were, in the words of one of their surgeons, but random agglomerations of 'men radically ill-calculated for soldiers'. Largely raised in the manufacturing towns, they were 'unsound in health, dissolute in morals, aggrieved and discontented on various acccounts'. These, then, were the troops sent to Saint Domingue, the better regiments being reserved for the Windward Isles or, as with the Guards, kept out of the Caribbean altogether.
Few arrived there in good health. Before setting sail, troops had usually spent the winter camped on the coast of Ireland, buffeted by storms and weakened by dysentery. Typhus frequently broke out in their makeshift hospitals or amid the accumulating filth of the troopships, on which the men were generally confined for from two to six months. Of the 9,000 gathered at Cork in the autumn of 1795, over 500 died before the convoy set sail. Desertion was rife. Mutinies were numerous. Because of the freak gales that lashed the European coastline during 1794-96, the voyage itself was often a nightmare. 'The vessel rocked so much,' wrote one junior officer, 'that almost every wave broke directly over, so that the soldiers in the hold were almost drowned in spite of everything I could do to keep the water from them.' Hundreds of troops, in fact, were drowned in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay, their bodies being washed ashore along the south coast.
For Manchester mill-hands, Lincolnshire labourers, Irish and German peasants the introduction to the West Indies must have been still more dramatic than the novel experience of becoming a soldier. Towering mountains and lush vegetation, a violent climate and an unknown population, these were the soldier's first impressions, as he was drawn into a world of savage conflict, where death assumed the most terrifying forms, and on a scale of fantastic senselessness.
'Broiling on a grid-iron must be fool's play,' wrote Lieutenant Howard at Saint Marc: the heat in August, he claimed, was unimaginable. In Port au Prince, soldiers fainted in the street. On a twelve mile march, over fifty out of 2,000 died of thirst, some drinking their own urine. The colonists themselves thought temperatures higher than usual, but the ease with which the soldiers became fatigued probably owed much to their tight-fitting woollen uniforms that became caked with sweat, and to their tendency not to wash. It was not only the heat that impressed the newcomers. 'Dreadfully disagreeable, high, parching, blighting winds' were also subjects of complaint, and soon after arriving Thomas Howard was describing in his diary the worst thunderstorm he had ever known: 'each flash or sheet of fire seemed to sweep the whole plain; the Deluge of rain came down as if a River was falling from the Clouds.'
During the first half of the occupation, up to 1796, most of the British troops were confined to the coastal towns. They found them places under siege, cut off from the surrounding countryside and ringed with fortifications. Hemmed in by mountains, crowded, claustrophobic and tense, they awoke with the morning gun and fell silent at curfew. Surrounded by an exotic enemy, hydra-like and elusive, numbering tens of thousands, the troops were unable to set foot beyond their picket lines without being attacked. Patrols were ambushed; sentries and forage parties were sniped at. As their numbers dwindled, military duties fell the more heavily on the survivors. Consequently, men went for months without taking off their clothes for a full night's sleep.
'Imprisoned within the walls of a town half-demolished', the Port au Prince garrison were under particularly severe strain. The colony's capital, it had been besieged three times before falling to the British and had been ravaged by fire in 1791. Stretching one and a quarter miles from north to south, it presented to its conquerors a spectacle of scattered and dilapidated wooden buildings, most of them single-storied with verandhas and sloping roofs. Its wide streets were pitted with holes and, according to the weather, thick with dust or mud. The drainage channels were choked with weeds and stagnant water, the cemetery with corpses. Of some 1,200 properties, about a quarter were in ruins, without roofs, doors or windows.
As only four of the thirty or so regiments sent to Saint Domingue managed to arrive in the dry, healthy months from December to March, it was never very long before new arrivals were struck down with yellow fever or malaria. The effect could be shattering. Men fit in the morning were sometimes dead by night-fall. Two weeks after reaching Saint Marc, a bewildered officer was writing, 'hundreds almost were absolutely drowned in their own blood bursting from them at every pore; some died raving mad, others forming plans of attacking, others desponding.' Thirty black slaves, he said, spent all the daylight hours digging graves and could scarcely keep pace with the dying, though up to five bodies were placed in each grave. At Saint Marc the sick were crowded into barns and stables. At Port au Prince the great wards of the General Hospital were packed with the victims of yellow fever, whose groans and stench in the summer heat made the building a nightmare to experience. Dr Hector McLean described the rows of prostrate figures, 'their low, muttering, grim melancholy, which is lost in meditating wrath without an attempt to move. The eye has an expression,' he said, 'of anguish unspeakable, and a languor in its movement, an inclination to shut out all objects.' As death approached, the patient would throw up large quantities of digested blood, the fearful 'black vomit'. He became incontinent, and fetid secretions oozed from his gums. His nose would often bleed and haemorraging might also occur from the corners of the eyes. Some men, delirious, tried to leap out of windows. Others, tragically, remained clear of mind until death. The troops lived in terror of the General Hospital, so few ever returned from it alive. If a soldier fell sick, he hid his symptoms for as long as possible.
Depressed by the 'daily spectacle of death', without confidence in their doctors, the British garrisons sank into a 'general gloom', it was said. Arriving as Governor in February 1797, General John Simcoe was immediately struck by the listlessness of the troops. Some regiments gave themselves up for lost, remarked Lieutenant Howard, and tried to hasten their end.
Trapped between the mountains and the sea, and poisoned, so it seemed, by the very air they had to breathe, troops of all ranks found an escape through drunkenness. Rum was cheap. In the boredom of the rainy season, when they were left idle in their barracks, soldiers including officers could daily be found in a drunken stupor. Along with their ten ounces of salt meat and pound and a half of bread, they received each day a quarter pint of rum, which they liberally supplemented in the waterfront cabarets and billiard halls. 'Drunkenness in those days,' wrote one of the regimental surgeons, looking back from the 1840s, 'was unrestrained and terrible.' Although it was an age of alcoholic excess, the tales of troops smuggling rum into the hospitals and into their messes suggest an obsession born of desperate circumstances. In the folk medicine of the day, moreover, spirits were regarded as a prophylactic against, and cure for, fever - fire to drive out fire. This is particularly relevant, as hepatic or renal failure is the usual cause of death in yellow fever, which is not normally a high-fatality disease. Along with general debility, multiple infection and heroically inept medical treatment, over-drinking must be accounted one of the major causes, as well as effects, of the high mortality rates of these epidemics. This is why the matter of' regimental discipline was so important.
The tension eased somewhat, when 7,000 reinforcements arrived in May 1796, and some of the British troops were moved into the countryside and mountains, formerly the preserve of specially-raised colonial corps, white and black. Camped on ruined plantations or defending newly-erected forts and blockhouses, this meant a healthier, if more lonely, existence for a fortunate few. On the high mountain ridges of the interior, soldiers were not only free from fever but also escaped the dysentery and leg sores that were the perpetual complaint of soldiers in the plain. At the same time, they had to endure extreme isolation, cut off from the coast by a landscape of huge chasms, plunging ravines and thick woods, where raiders could move freely. Four and a half thousand feet up, nights were chilly and deathly silent, a stark contrast to the steamy plains, where insects droned incessantly. It was another world but equally oppressive in its own way.
Nevertheless, military life was not without its lighter side. 'A man inclined to libertinism,' Lieutenant Howard noted with studied discretion, 'finds here perhaps the largest field in the world to gratify himself in.' Sex came cheaply in a slave society, and the bars and brothels of the seaports were thronged with red-coated soldiers. An officer, furthermore, might even play the country gentleman. A few days after a battle at Saint Marc, and in the midst of an epidemic, we find Lieutenant Howard going off to join a bird-shooting party on a nearby plantation. He evidently enjoyed the conviviality and clubishness of mess life. More surprisingly, he also whiled away spare hours out in the countryside, taking down descriptions of the local flora. Like many other officers, he admired the 'immense mountains covered to their very tops with wood', and also the verdant confusion of the plantation slave quarters, 'the most Picturesque Prospect I have ever seen'. When a party of six hundred dragoons and hussars in the uniform of their different corps made a gruelling fourteen hours' ride across the Montagnes Terribles, following vertiginous track, sometimes barely a foot wide, and when for the greatest part of the journey 'the horses appeared to be standing on their heads or vice versa', he was still able to describe it as 'a singular and charming sight'.
For the British troops, this was mainly a war of posts and ambushes. Colonial troops sometimes conducted raids but the Europeans usually fought on the defensive behind fortifications. Battle casualties were remarkably few, although among the ex-slaves losses were enormous. When attacking, the black slaves displayed a bravery that was only too often suicidal. Whether 'as naked as earthworms', as the black leader Toussaint L'Ouverture described his men in 1795, or fully equipped and regimented, as in 1798, they were cut down by the hundred year after year. Yet their numbers continued to grow and, as was frequently noted, so did their skills in the art of war. They tended to emerge suddenly from the woods at dawn and attack en masse, scattering if resisted to snipe from behind bushes and rocks. They not only appeared in great numbers but further unnerved their opponents by beating drums, howling and whistling, and trumpeting eerily on large conch shells. If attacked, they invariably withdrew and, unless caught by cavalry, melted away into the forest, to the intense frustration of their pursuers. They evidently lacked the training that enabled European troops to stand still and be killed.
This was both a race war and a civil war. It partook of the intensity of both types of conflict. While the colonists had never treated rebellious blacks with any- thing but savagery, they themselves were regarded by the French Republic, for whom the ex-slaves now fought, as traitors to their country. The slave- owners were fighting for their survival as a class, the blacks for their freedom. Quarter was rarely given by either side, and the colonists often mistreated their prisoners. The British tended to disapprove but acquiesce; salutary neglect, it was doubtless thought.
After 1796, however, more humane standards were introduced by Generals Simcoe and Maitland, as by their increasingly powerful opponent, Toussaint L'Quverture. Mortality rates also declined and the quality of life improved somewhat for the British soldier. With Lieutenant Howard, however, the futility of the war weighed heavily. The once opulent countryside had become 'one great Ruin' overgrown with weeds. Black raiders were descending regularly from the mountains to burn and loot, playing cat and mouse with the soldiers. Whatever was gained in the healthy season was lost in the sickly months, while the troops continued to waste away amidst scenes of apocalyptic desolation. The Government, he thought, could not possibly know the full facts. 'I hope in God Government will decide on recalling the miserable remains,' he wrote in September 1797, 'and not leave us here to perish without being... of the smallest utility.'
Back in England, 'the name of St. Domingo' was 'execrated and dreaded by all descriptions', observed Dr McLean, home on leave. Men would no longer enlist for fear of being sent to the West Indies. Almost every person in the country, it was claimed in Parliament, had lost an acquaintance in the Caribbean campaigns. The Foxite Whigs demanded the troops be withdrawn. The ministry, however, refused. It had abandoned any hopes of conquest, but it now feared the effect such a reversal might have on its own slave colonies. The costs of occupation, even so, remained unacceptably high, and the local commander, Thomas Maitland, favoured withdrawal. Dramatic advances by Toussaint L'Ouverture finally clinched the matter, and in September 1798 the surviving British troops were evacuated. Slavery's three hundred year history in Saint Domingue thus came to an end.
No regimental banner bears the words 'St. Domingo'. No minister or general wished to preserve in his memoirs the history of the occupation. It was an episode best forgotten. In the mountains of Haiti, however, substantial ruins still stand of several British forts, mostly overgrown with creepers, their cannon pointing skywards through their embrasures. And in a church in Salford, Lancashire, a faint echo also remains of those forgotten expeditions and of the horror with which contemporaries learned of their fate. On a funerary monument to a Major Thomas Drinkwater can be read the following inscription:
'Thrice had his foot Domingo's island prest,
Midst horrid wars and fierce barbarian wiles;
Thrice had his blood repelled the yellow pest
That stalks, gigantic, through the Western Isles!'
By David Geggus