Tucked away in a small corner of history and buried deep beneath mountains of text lie brief mentions of the British invasion of the Bahamas in 1783. As far as major battles are concerned, it does not make the list. It was not really a battle at all. Action is the more appropriate word. Whatever word is chosen to call this event, it occurred in April. Before this, the Bahamas were captured by the Spanish from the British in 1782. The British invasion of 1783 was an attempt to recapture what was previously lost. Information gleaned from the East Florida Gazette, a loyalist newspaper in British East Florida printed in 1783 and today one of the rarest newspapers of the era, reveals much about the invasion that has not been chronicled in earnest before.
Historian Charles Loch Mowat considered the 1783 invasion nothing but “theatrics,” pointing out that the Bahamas were brought back under British control after peace was reached between Spain and Britain. Article V of the peace preliminaries at Versailles, agreed upon on January 20, 1783, by England, France, and Spain, put the Bahamas back in British jurisdiction. No British invasion of the Bahamas in 1783 was needed in order to bring the Bahamas back into the British Empire because the peace process had already done so. Despite the islands’ change of hands, word travelled slowly in the eighteenth century. Messages from Europe had to cross the Atlantic Ocean and surely no one in the Americas was aware of the decisions of the peace process until some months after the fact. It is unlikely that anyone in East Florida was aware of the government peace process by the time the British invasion of the Bahamas in 1783 was underway—certainly not Col. Andrew Deveaux, who in March 1783 outfitted an expedition to recapture the Bahamas.
Col. Andrew Deveaux, Jr. was a young man, a native-born American from Beaufort, South Carolina. His father, Andrew Deveaux Sr., was a planter and stock farmer who owned “fifty-one slaves, 1,000 black cattle, 200 pigs and 250 sheep on 9,225 acres of Prince William’s Parish and Port Royal Island.” He had a cousin who fought for the American side during the American Revolution, Robert Barnwell of Beaufort. In 1779, at just over twenty years of age, Deveaux joined with the forces of Maj. Gen. Augustine Prevost, who was stationed in Georgia, and conducted raids into South Carolina. After a failed British attempt to capture Charleston, South Carolina, in 1779, Gen. Charles Cornwallis instructed Deveaux to raise a regiment called the Royal Foresters, a corps of loyalist irregulars who performed guerrilla warfare in the Southern theatre of the war. In 1782, Deveaux and his men fled to the safety of St. Augustine after the British evacuation of Charleston. He would not remain there long.
In February 1783 Deveaux began gathering men, arms, uniforms, and provisions for his expedition to the Bahamas. According to a letter from Deveaux to the British commander in chief, Sir Guy Carleton, Deveaux paid for the expedition through his property and wealth in South Carolina. Before anyone was officially allowed to partake in the adventure, volunteers were required to sign articles of agreement stating the following: Deveaux was to furnish all men with supplies, arms, ammunition, and provisions; he was in command of the trip; volunteers must be ready to embark on the ships ready to set sail on March 15; land would be made available to all who chose to remain in the Bahamas (after a successful capture); money from prizes taken on land or at sea were to be evenly distributed among the men and officers according to rank after the expedition was paid for; those who were found disobedient or mutinous forfeited their prize and were to be imprisoned for a length of time dictated by the offense; the volunteer who raised the most men was to be second in command; those who did not wish to remain in the islands were to be given passage to St. Augustine or Jamaica. Obviously, anyone who did not comply with these articles was not allowed to volunteer their services to the expedition.
On March 30 Deveaux and his second in command, Maj. Archibald Taylor, set sail from St. Augustine with roughly forty to seventy men, some of whom were Cherokee, Choctaw, and Seminole. Six small vessels, captained by privateers, carried them from St. Augustine for New Providence. Two of these ships were private ships of war: the twenty-six-gun Perseverance of Capt. Thomas Dow and the sixteen-gun Whitby Warrior captained by Daniel Wheeler. One notable man who accompanied the expedition was Col. David Fanning, famed loyalist military leader.
En route to New Providence, the Whitby Warrior was separated from the convoy by a gale, but quickly fell in line once more. The convoy first landed at Harbour Island on April 6. The Whitby Warrior landed on Abacco Island. They immediately loaded onto smaller boats and spread out across the islands, including Eleathera island, to recruit and gather intelligence of the Spanish presence at New Providence. Roughly 170 to 300 men and anywhere from 35 to 50 boats were enlisted from the islands, led by white militia officers Robert Rumer, Gideon Lowe, Joseph Curry, Samuel Higgs, and some free colored and black slaves. Guards were kept at the local settlements to ensure that no one fled to warn the Spanish of their arrival. The main fleet was stationed off of Egg Island. The recruits were armed, trained, given uniforms, and formed into companies. Sometime between April 10 and April 13, the fleet sailed for the final stop: New Providence.
On April 10, the sloop Flor de Mayo arrived at the Bahaman capitol from Havana with information from Havana governor Luis de Unzaga, informing Bahaman Spanish governor Don Antonio Claraco Sanz of the peace preliminaries and how the Bahamas were to be returned to the British. At this time, Governor Claraco was unaware of the impending British invasion. On April 13 the fleet landed at Salt Key and waited out the day until midnight, April 14, when the invasion force landed at the east end of New Providence about a mile from Eastern Fort, also known as Fort Montagu. The force consisted of roughly 160 to 200 men and landed sometime before sunrise. Of the troops present with Deveaux that day, fifty were armed with pikes due to a lack of muskets. The small army immediately and with haste set out to capture Fort Montagu. When they arrived, they found that the fort was surrounded by open field. The Spanish saw their advancing force and quickly sallied out and formed a line. Deveaux and his men met them on the field where the Spaniards fired a volley upon them. The British charged and the Spanish abandoned the field, retiring to the nearby town and leaving the fort available for plundering. Two prisoners were captured. Fort Montagu was captured without a single shot from the attackers. Not one of Deveaux’s men was hurt in the process.
At the same time, Captain Dow and Captain Wheeler sent seventy men in small boats to board three of the enemy galleys in the harbor off the coast of Fort Montagu. When Deveaux and his force arrived at the fort, he said he “smelt a match on fire, which circumstance together with their abandoning their works so readily, gave me reason to suspect their intentions.” They were going to blow up the fort. Keeping his men in the field some distance away, Deveaux sent the two prisoners they had captured into the fort to discover the source of his suspicions. Sure enough, they found a lit match that would have set fire to the fort magazine and two mines that were laid out to destroy the fort. Two hours later, Spanish governor Claraco sent the British a flag of truce with the news he had learned on April 10, that the Bahamas were to be turned over to the British and that the invasion was not necessary. Deveaux would have none of it. “I supposed his information entirely for the purpose of putting off time and amusing me,” he said.
Deveaux returned the governor’s message of truce with one of his own: surrender the garrison of your main fortress, Fort Nassau, in fifteen minutes. The governor waved the demand. Instead, he requested a private conference with Deveaux and set up a truce that lasted a few days. According to Deveaux, Governor Claraco was not adhering to the truce; this irritated Deveaux, who took it upon himself to make ready to commence hostilities once more. On April 16 and 17, the British placed cannons from captured Spanish vessels on Society Hill, the highest point on the ridge overlooking Nassau and not four hundred yards from Fort Nassau. Another cannon crew, commanded by Captain Mackenzie, was stationed on an adjacent hill three hundred yards from the fort. British flags were erected at these battery positions.
The Spanish fort, Fort Nassau, was a considerable obstacle in the British capture of New Providence. It had twenty-one pieces of cannon, two flanking batteries consisting of three cannons each, and a garrison of between 500 and 700 soldiers. The Spanish had fired upon the British consistently but with no effect. Around this time, Deveaux had only about two hundred and twenty men under his command and of those men, at least seventy of them were without muskets. Understanding that he was sorely outmanned and outgunned, Deveaux turned to trickery. His men assembled straw effigies of soldiers to give the appearance of greater numbers. He made a show of boats unloading troops at the shore before going back to pick up more men, creating the illusion of a vastly superior force. The Spanish counted the boats as they unloaded men. In actuality, only one batch of soldiers were ferried back and forth from the ships to the shore. The soldiers crouched in the boats, hidden as they were rowed towards the ships, then sat up and became visible before being brought back to shore. A final tactic used by Deveaux was painting and disguising his troops to resemble Indians, a feared enemy of the Spanish on the island. These methods intimidated the Spaniards, but were all a ruse.
And the Spanish bought it. Encouraged by a decisive cannon blast of the Governor’s House, Claraco immediately surrendered. The Spaniards were horrified when they learned of the real number of their opponents who looked ludicrous in dress and appearance. The terms of capitulation included the seizure of the Governor’s House by the British Crown; the governor and his troops were allowed to march to Fort Montagu with all the honors of war and permission to fly the Catholic flag; the captives received provisions at the expense of the British Crown; vessels would be made available to carry the Spaniards to Havana and the governor to Europe; the Spaniards kept their personal possessions; all the Spanish vessels were turned over to the British; Spanish merchants were given two months to settle accounts; Spanish troops surrendered their arms and were escorted to Fort Montagu where they were placed under watch of British troops. Thus, on April 18 the Spanish had surrendered the Bahamas to Andrew Deveaux and his ragged militia.
Deveaux’s expedition was well received by the Crown. Brig. Gen. Archibald McArthur considered it “a very splendid action lately performed by Major Deveaux of the Beaufort militia.” Commissioners examining the loyalist claims gave Deveaux an annual allowance of one hundred pounds for his actions, “an act of Spirit which we admire and which we think ought not to go unrewarded.” Despite the success of the action at Nassau, it could have been avoided if Deveaux had believed Governor Claraco.
The men who partook in the expedition were the first loyalists to be granted land in the newly acquired Bahamas. None won more than Deveaux himself. He gained 250 acres of land in Eastern New Providence accompanied by another 1,000 acres on Cat Island. His status as a landowner on the islands was established long before loyalist refugees began to resettle there in 1784 and 1785, and he continued to buy Bahamas land throughout his life. He did not choose to reside on the islands, however, instead preferring a life in New York where he married and raised a family. By the time of his death in July 1812 in Red Hook, New York, Deveaux had sold off much of his Bahamas lands but in his will left 420 acres on eastern New Providence, 430 acres on the island of Highborn Cay, 340 acres on the islands of Little San Salvador, and 1,380 acres between Red Pond, Boatswain Hill, and Cat Island.
Andrew Deveaux’s expedition to the Bahamas was one of the last military actions of the American Revolutionary War. It is significant because it effectively took the Bahama islands away from the Spanish by deceit even though, unbeknownst to Deveaux, they had already been turned over to the British in the peace preliminaries. Regardless of its ultimate importance, this story is one aspect of the American Revolution in the West Indies that is often overlooked. The East Florida Gazette provides much new information on this little-known subject.
For further reading on the British invasion of the Bahamas in 1783 see Catherine S. Crary, The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973); Michael Craton, A History of the Bahamas (London: Collins, 1962); Michael Craton and Gail Saunders, Islanders in the Stream: A History of the Bahamian People Volume I: From Aboriginal Times to the End of Slavery (Athens, The University of Georgia Press, 1992); David F. Marley, Wars of the America: A Chronology of Armed Conflict in the New World, 1492 to the Present (Denver: ABC-CLIO, 1998); Charles Loch Mowat, East Florida as a British Province, 1763-1784 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1943); Daniel L. Shafer, “St. Augustine’s British Years 1763-1784,” El Escribano: The St. Augustine Journal of History 38 (2001): 1-283; Wilbur Henry Siebert, Loyalists in East Florida, 1774-1785: The Most Important Documents Pertaining Thereto Edited With An Accompanying Narrative Volume I: The Narrative (DeLand: Florida State Historical Society, 1972); Wilbur H. Siebert, The Legacy of the American Revolution to the British West Indies and Bahamas: A Chapter out of the History of the American Loyalists (Boston: Gregg Press, 1972); Michael Craton, “Hope Town and Hard Bargain: The Loyalist Transformation in the Bahamas,” in Settlements in the Americas: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1993); East Florida Gazette, Volume 1 Number 14, April 26 to May 3, 1783.
East Florida Gazette, Volume 1 Number 14, April 26 to May 3, 1783. Crary indicates the expedition set out with sixty-five men, Siebert also says sixty-five men. The East Florida Gazettesays forty to fifty.
For further information on David Fanning see Alred William Savary, Col. David Fanning’s Narrative of his Exploits and Adventures as a Loyalist of North Carolina in the American Revolution … With an Introduction and Notes by A.W. Savary (Toronto: reprinted from the Canadian magazine, 1908).