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Fort Mathew, Grenada - The American Connection

Ó 1999, J. David Zimmerman, Portcullis Limited

    Grenada's Fort Mathew was built in part by Americans. This statement will come as a surprise to those who have always assumed that the strongholds located on Richmond Hill were begun by the French after they captured Grenada in 1779. The new information is derived from 18th century documents recently discovered in the British Public Records Office by a Grenadian scholar and consultant. The antique documents provide a different view of the construction activities which produced the structures which we see today.

    The first fortifications on Richmond Hill were not French, but British, raised in 1778 as part of an island-wide effort to put Grenada in a defensive posture in case France's Toulon fleet threatened Britain's West Indian colonies. Information seems to have reached His Britannic Majesty's dominions that King Louis XVI was going to intervene in the American Revolution on the side of the insurgents and further, that French warships under the command of Count d'Estaing had sailed on April 13, 1778, destination unknown.

    On May 15, 1778 a written request was made by Grenada's resident British engineer to Governor Macartney, asking that certain measures "...be immediately executed for the better Defense of Fort Royal." In addition to citing much-needed repairs to what is now called Fort George and suggesting the placement of cannon and other emplacements on Hospital Hill, the engineer asked permission to "...throw up other Intrenchments upon a height above Mr. Lucas's house to prevent the Ridge (referring to Hospital Hill rather than Morne Jaloux Ridge) being gained by way of the Villa, in case the Enemy should land to the South or South East and march across the country."

    The importance of the proposed action was made plain by the requirement that the entire job should be carried out "...in a fortnight or three weeks." More striking is the fact that Governor Macartney responded to Captain Morse's request on the very next day; saying that funds had been authorized by the House of Assembly and that work should begin immediately.

    As all Grenadians know, Count d'Estaing did not arrive in Grenada in 1778. He spent that year and part of 1779 off the coast of North America in support of the struggle which would eventually win the Americans their independence. But d'Estaing did come to Grenada, and on July 5, 1779 the island again became a French colony.

    During their second occupation of Grenada (1779-1783) the French constructed their own defensive works above Mr. William Lucas's house. They probably incorporated the British "Intrenchments" of 1778, but all of the French fortifications on Richmond Hill appear to have been temporary in nature. A report made a year or two after the British reoccupied the island suggests that other than the souterrains under what is now Fort Frederick and the large cistern and some souterrains within the current Fort Mathew, the British/French works on Richmond Hill were in bad condition.

    After the French left, another British army engineer inspected Richmond Hill with the new British Governor, General Edward Mathew (for whom the present fort was named). He wrote: "The principal Redoubt on this Hill is situated on the highest part thereof..." (the Fort Frederick site) "...this work is in a most ruinous condition, it was originally so ill-constructed, that the French were apprehensive that the firing of its own guns would bring it down. The soil is very loose and the Fraising entirely decayed, so that it will not long resist the violent rains of the Country unless established in Masonry." "The subterraneans under the body of the Redoubt are Bombproof (and) there are other casemates, which being Constructed in a hurry by the French and only covered by rubble Stones, are not to be depended upon." "The small pallisaded Field Works on the right side of the Richmond Redoubt, are in Entire ruin and not to be depended upon." The Engineer went on to suggest that the "Field Works" mentioned above should be abandoned and the redoubt further protected by a new "...deep well fraised ditch..."

    The other end of the works, also attributed to the French (and now covered by Fort Mathew) was described as "...a natural precipice, and from thence to the Richmond redoubt, well scarped in front; there are also some heavy batteries in good order and a most capital large Cistern, cut out of exceeding Hard rock and is perfectly bombproof." The report continues: "There are two other large Tanks not Bombproof." "The powder magazine Situated near the left Flank is not Bombproof, but is entirely covered from the effect of shot."

    Fort Lucas and Fort Adolphus were not mentioned in the report, as they did not yet exist. A hint of their later, and clearly British construction is suggested by the statement: "Should our actual strength on the Island at any time admit of Extending the line of Defense, and the Expence can be spared, it may then become an object of Consideration, to establish a work beyond the Richmond Redoubt, so as to afford a cross fire with the Batteries on the left Flank..."

    It would appear from currently available documentation that when the British returned to Grenada in 1783, they discovered that most of the fortifications on Richmond Hill could not be salvaged and needed to be replaced in their entirety. The effort would require skilled labour and readily available building materials. The British engineer's report addressed those needs by stating: "It is necessary to mention, there is a Quantity of Lumber and other Material belonging to the Government, in store at Grenada, and a considerable number of American Negroes, many of whom are Artificers, which would greatly lighten the expense of constructing Barracks & other Publik Buildings..."

    Who were these "American Negroes" and what were they doing in Grenada? We know that many British troops were transferred to the West Indies from North America after the Treaty of Versailles ended the American Revolution. We also know that at least one Black battalion, the Carolina Corps, was moved from the US to Grenada in late 1783. Given their particular talents, it is may be safe to assume that the "..Artificers.." mentioned in the above report were in fact members of that Black Corps. Skilled, disciplined, and already in the army, the Carolina troops would have been the perfect choice to take on the task of laying out and constructing masonry fortifications on the site of the British entrenchments of 1778 and French earthworks of 1779-1783. The use of these loyal troops would indeed "greatly lighten the expense" of building forts, as the work of slaves would have cost the government a great deal of money. The slaves' labour would have been rented to the army by their so-called owners, who were generally more greedy than patriotic. British troops, no matter what their birthplace or their colour, were already on the payroll.

    The Carolina Corps had been raised in the North American Colony of South Carolina in 1779 from a cadre of free Black men who had remained loyal to the King when other colonists rebelled. The unit consisted of nearly 300 soldiers, divided into units of Pioneers, Artificers and Dragoons. Pioneers were specialized troops who, as part of an army on the march, prepared the way by removing trees and brush and building or repairing roads for the passage of infantry, artillery and supply wagons. Artificers were skilled workers and included carpenters, blacksmiths and farriers, tinsmiths, coopers, wheelwrights, horse-collar makers and even miners, among other specialized trades. Dragoons were infantry who rode horses to the scene of an action and dismounted to fight on foot. In peacetime, they were dismounted and helped their comrades.

    Further evidence of the necessity to build the new and still-existing works on Richmond Hill and praise for the workers who did so, can be found in the "..Minutes of the Assembly of Grenada.." dated March 28th, 1787. The "..5th Report of the Committee of Fortifications, upon a Visit made the 14th of March 1787." said: "Your Committee have viewed with much Satisfaction the very considerable Progress made upon the Works upon Richmond Heights since their last report." After a description of the various structures under construction (which can be identified today) the fortification committee also wrote: "As far as your Committee is capable of judging of the Quality of the Workmanship of the whole of these Works, it seems superiourly excellent and does equal credit to the Chief Engineer who superintends, as to the Artificers who perform the work."

    The Carolina Corps remained in Grenada until 1793. In addition to building Fort Mathew and Fort Frederick, named after the second son of George III, they probably helped to erect Fort Lucas, named for the property owner who surrendered part of his land for the colony's safety. They may even have begun to build Fort Adolphus, named after the eighth son of King George III. The work performed by these men of the Carolina Corps, and by other residents of Grenada, both slave and free, in the building of the Richmond Hill forts on the site of earlier British and French works, is certainly deserving of comment. The positive response to the progress and quality of their work by those serving in the Grenada Assembly in 1787 was no faint praise, given the vast social gap which then existed between governors and governed. The real proof of their good work is that the forts which they built are still standing, over 200 years later.

    Lest anyone think that the soldiers mentioned above were merely labourers in uniform and not effective combat troops, we must remember that the Black Carolina Corps had already served under fire in North America. They were to go on to greater service at Britain's capture of Martinique, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe in 1795. They also served at St. Vincent and Grenada as the First West India Regiment, when in 1796, they formed part of the garrison in St. George's. The few remaining members of the former Carolina Corps went on to win three battle honours; Dominica, 1805; Martinique, 1809 and Guadeloupe 1810. There might even have been an old Carolina man or his Grenada-born son at the battle of New Orleans in 1812.

Glossary-Fort Mathew

Bombproof. A shelter which resists the effect of bombs or shells exploding above it.

Casemate. A shell-proof chamber or tunnel within the walls of defensive works, usually pierced with loopholes for muskets or embrasures for cannon.

Cistern. A covered pool or tank for holding collected rainwater.

Field works. Temporary works, perhaps fraised, made up of earth, facines, gabions and saucissons.

Flank. The side of a position.

Fraise or fraising. A defense of closely placed stakes or logs driven or dug obliquely into the ground in front of a fortification and sharpened.

Intrenchment or entrenchment. Trench or ditch. Unlike modern trenches where troops shelter within them, standing on a step to fire over the protective dirt banked toward the enemy, an 18th century entrenchment had the excavated dirt heaped up behind the trench or ditch to form a dirt wall, sometimes with a palisade or fence on top. The attacking force thus had to deal with the ditch, the dirt wall and the palisade while the defenders fired their muskets from behind those shelters.

Pallisade. Spelled with two internal L's in the 18th century, a palisade was a high fence around a defensive enclosure made of stakes, poles. palings or pickets, supported by rails and set endwise in the ground from six to nine inches apart. Sometimes the lower four feet of the spaces between the poles were in-filled with stakes so as to provide a musket rest and to prevent a successful bayonet or spear thrust at a defender.

Redoubt. An enclosed fortification without bastions. Fort George is a bastioned fort.

Scarp, scarped. In the case of the French works on Richmond Hill the outer slope of the main wall of the defenses. Also the interior side of a ditch.

Souterrain or subterranean. Literally; under earth. An underground chamber, room or series of rooms dug into the ground or bedrock under a fort or other work, to hold supplies, ordnance stores or provisions in a secure and temperate location.

Works. Any man-made fortification or combination of fortifications used for military purposes by defenders or attackers.

Notes on General Edward Mathew:

    Edward Mathew was born in 1729. He was commissioned an Ensign in the Coldstream Guards (2nd Regiment of Foot Guards) in 1746. In 1775 he was promoted to Colonel and appointed Aide de Camp to King George III. He was sent to North America and arrived in New York in July of 1776 as Brigadier general commanding the Brigade of Guards. The brigade consisted of the 1st Foot Guards (Grenadier Guards) the 2nd Foot Guards (Coldstream Guards) and the 3rd Foot Guards (Scots Guards). Brigadier Mathew took part in actions at Kipps Bay, New York and Fort Washington, New Jersey.

    In 1778, the British government decided to use amphibious raids on American coastal towns as a method of defeating those in rebellion against the Crown. General Clinton, Commander in Chief of British forces ashore, called it ‘War by conflagration.' Starting with New Bedford, a number of American towns were put to the torch. A document published in 1796, just 13 years after the war ended, contains a contemporary description of like events in Virginia, in which Edward Mathew took part.

    "Admiral Gambier, who succeeded Lord Howe in the command of the British fleet on the American coast, was recalled in the spring of the present year (1779), and in the Month of April resigned the command to Sir George Collier. Not long after his arrival, an expedition to the Chesapeak, in Virginia, was concerted between him and Sir Henry Clinton, the commander in chief of the British army. A detachment, consisting of the grenadiers and light infantry of the guards, the 42nd regiment, a regiment of Hessians and the royal volunteers of Ireland, with a detachment of artillery, amounting in the whole to one thousand eight hundred men, under the command of (Major) General (Edward) Mathew (promoted spring, 1778), was assigned for the purpose, and embarked on board transports. Sir George Collier, in the Raisonable of 64 guns, and some other vessels (including 28 transports) conveyed them. The fleet entered between the Capes of Virginia on the eighth of May, and on the thirteenth entered the mouth of the Elizabeth river. The British troops effected a landing about the fort of Portsmouth (Fort Nelson). The American garrison, fearful of being surrounded, and having their retreat cut off, hastily evacuated the fort, leaving behind all the artillery, ammunition, baggage and stores. Gen. Mathew, after having taken possession of the fort, took a strong position with his army between Portsmouth and the country, his right wing reaching to the fort, the left to the South branch of the Elizabeth river, the centre covered in front by an impenetrable swamp."

    "The British commander sent detachments to Norfolk and Gosport; and all the vessels in Elizabeth river, with an immense quantity of naval and military stores, merchandise and provisions, were either taken or destroyed by British troops. At Kemps Landing, in Princess Ann county, and at the town of Suffolk, in Nansemond county, an immense quantity of provisions and stores of all sorts, with some vessels richly laden, were either taken or destroyed by other detachments. These services being performed, the British Troops were re-embarked, and the whole fleet, with the prizes, having quitted Virginia, arrived at New-York before the end of the month, having been absent only twenty-four days. The damage done to the Americans has been estimated at half a million sterling, but it did no service to the royal cause."

    Edward Mathew was confirmed in his rank of Major General in 1779 and in June of 1780, took part (as a volunteer) in a raid on Springfield, New Jersey, where he again gave distinguished service to the Crown. He returned to England in 1780. In November of 1782 Mathew was appointed Commander in Chief, West Indies (as Lieutenant General?) and served as Governor of Grenada from 1784 through 1795. In 1797 Edward Mathew was promoted to General. He died eight years later.

Biography:

Mark M. Boatner III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, New York: David McKay & Co., 1976.

Charles Smith, The Monthly Military Repository, Volume I, New York: William A. Davis, 1796.

Notes-Fort Mathew


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