What impact did British involvement elsewhere in the world have on operations in North America? Explain.
As brilliantly told in Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s Men Who Lost America, in February 1781 Rodney sacked St. Eustatius, a Dutch-held Caribbean island that served as a major trading port for the shipment of arms and munitions to the American colonists. Rodney’s decisions after this point set in motion a chain of events that would lead to British General Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown. Rodney’s decision to return to England to defend merited accusations against him for profiting from the sacking meant he, as perhaps the Royal Navy’s top fighting admiral, was not there to lead the British fleet against De Grasse, not to mention that he took some warships back with him to England. Of course, de Grasse cut off Cornwallis and his troops’ access to supplies and an escape route at Yorktown. Rodney chose to protect his captured goods from the conquest of St. Eustatius over protecting a British army. Others considered it an innocent miscalculation. Regardless, the outcome of the raid on St. Eustatius, according to O’Shaughnessy, remains the same: the loss of North America.
Once France (or more specifically, the French naval fleet) officially entered the war in 1778, Britain found itself having to prioritize her now world-wide threats. What started off as a show of force to drive the insolent American subjects to surrender had opened the door to Britain’s long-time enemy to attack British global economic interests.
In London, it was decided to abandon the fight in New England in lieu of a “Southern Strategy”. That focus, with the supposed help of southern Loyalists, was to retain by force the lucrative southern colonies and their cash crops. Britain also was forced to divert remaining portions of the army and navy to protect the British prize jewel – the Caribbean sugar islands. Additionally, Britain also had to reassign its navy from America to protect its commerce in India and Gibraltar… and then also keep some vessels near Britain for an expected French invasion.
British involvement in the Caribbean dramatically reshaped operations in North America as Andrew O’Shaughnessy explains in An Empire Divided: The American Revolution in the British Caribbean.
After 1778, the British diverted resources to the Caribbean, essentially giving up Philadelphia to try to save their islands. In three years, five thousand British troops were dead; these men might have fought in North America. Admiral George Rodney’s missteps led to the British defeat at Yorktown. In 1781, Rodney attacked and plundered Dutch St. Eustatius, a center for contraband and privateers. Rodney was so intent on ransacking the island and committing war crimes that he failed to intercept Admiral de Grasse’s French fleet sailing for the Chesapeake Bay. Rodney also failed to promptly send British reinforcements. As a result, the Royal Navy could not prevent General Cornwallis’ entrapment—and ultimate surrender—at Yorktown.
The “global distraction” became one of the keys to American victory when France entered the war on America’s side. The British sent thousands of men to defend the West Indies, weakening their American army to do so. The islands were worth more than the contentious 13 mainland colonies. Sugar was the oil of the 18th Century and the Islands production of it was crucial to the imperial economy.
Thanks to Saratoga and the subsequent intervention of French resources in the patriot cause, England found itself spread very thin worldwide as it tried to fend off foreign designs on its possessions (note that in North America alone, there were no less than twenty-seven separate garrisons that required provisioning). This involved redistributing naval assets to protect interests in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, the coast of Africa, and India where the French, Dutch, and Spanish all threatened. Additionally, Irish unrest, the long term siege of Gibraltar, and pending invasion of England by the French and Spanish added heavily to their concerns and subsequent deployment of resources. As a result, when Clinton needed reinforcements for New England in 1780 or the navy required transports to aid Cornwallis in the south, it was they who suffered as they tried to quell the never-ending depredations the rebels were inflicting on them in this war of a thousand cuts.
The British government understood that maintaining its base at Gibraltar was crucial to remaining the most powerful naval power in the Atlantic, so it put a huge amount of resources into defending that outpost from Spain and France. The government also saw that its most lucrative colonies on the western side of that ocean were the Caribbean sugar islands, not the rebellious thirteen colonies on the mainland. Finally, at the same time that Britain was losing a big chunk of its North American empire, it was gaining the start of an Indian empire that would make it a world power for another century and a half. So the British military was spread very thin during the American War for Independence, for good reasons.
February 1782 turned out to be the British low point in the American Revolution. A dramatic global turnaround for the British started in the economically vital Caribbean region. Over the four day period April 9 to 12, 1782, Admiral Sir George Rodney thoroughly defeated a French invasion fleet destined for Jamaica under the command of Admiral Francois-Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes, a small group of islands between Dominica and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. Admiral de Grasse’s fleet was largely destroyed as a fighting force and he was taken captive.
This victory was strategically important in tipping the balance of power in the economically critical Caribbean to the British. Further the naval triumph was especially satisfying to the British Navy as revenge for Admiral de Grasse’s victory in the Chesapeake that sealed Lord Cornwallis’s fate at Yorktown.
This victory allowed the British to conclude the American Revolution with retaining its most valuable West Indies possessions while only giving up the less valuable 13 colonies, Florida and Minorca.
The British West Indian islands and the fear of losing these valued territories once France formally entered the war in support of the American rebels in 1778. No longer could the British concentrate their military resources solely on the Americans. They began to disperse their forces to other locations, including their West Indian island holdings, to protect these valuable sugar producing entities from being overrun and captured by French naval forces. Further, France toyed with an invasion of England itself. No longer were the British just attempting to put down a rebellion; rather they now had to engage in a spreading world war. Their focus now dispersed, the British failed in their southern campaigns after 1778, even with loyalist assistance, all of which set the stage for the combined Franco-American victory at Yorktown and the beginning of the end of British attempts to put down the rebellion.
-James Kirby Martin
Britain was spread so dangerously thin across the globe that it could not devote the resources it needed to suppress the rebellion here. Frightened by a French-Spanish armada that cruised the English Channel, military commanders kept almost 64,000 men in South Britain, plus more than 4,000 on the channel islands of Jersey and Guernsey. Meanwhile, over 7,000 were besieged in Gibraltar and Minorca in the Mediterranean, and these could only be supplied by naval forces breaking through the enemy’s blockade. Although Yorktown was a terrible defeat, it was the fall of Minorca months later that struck the final blow to North’s ministry. By then, British leaders realized that only a withdrawal from America could save the empire. Peace came just in time. A French fleet had arrived in India to support the local rebellion there, but with hostilities officially terminated, French commanders were obliged to call off their assault. (Required reading for the global perspective: Piers Mackesy, The War for America, 1775-1783.)