History’s Unknown: Special Edition, The Untold Story of 2,000: Caribbean POWs on British Soil

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The siege of Fort Charlotte, St. Lucia in 1796 ended with two-thousand African-Caribbean soldiers and their families surrendering to British forces. They threw down their arms and ammo, and marched onto British ships clapped in irons. Terms of the surrender promised they would be treated as prisoners of war rather than cattle (slaves). The soldiers were ex-slaves, freed by France after the Revolution, but a minority of its garrison was white.

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The journey across the Atlantic to Portchester Castle was rough with soldiers and prisoners both suffering from sickness. A total of 268 prisoners and 100 soldiers died. Approximately 2,080 African-Caribbean and 333 white soldiers, and 99 women and children arrived at Portchester in October of 1796.

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African-Caribbean soldiers were subject to abuse and bullying by European prisoners. A physician argued that the prisoners be feed potatoes for dietary staple reasons seeing that was the closest thing to yams.

A year later, in 1797 it seems a large portion of the imprisoned Afro-Caribbean soldiers defected to the British joining their captive’s navy and forming battalions under British command. The soldiers saw action in France, Russia, and Italy.

Britain’s own black population during this time was relatively small, at least 10-15,000. This is a forgotten chapter in black history, and the identities of the POWs have been lost too. A curator at the English Heritage by the name of Abigail Coppins is responsible for finding this lost fabric of history. This past Wednesday, Portchester Castle opened an exhibit honoring the black fighters, a few of whom were the first to fight against slavery.

The most famous prisoner at Portchester, the one whose identity we do know of is Captain Louis Delgres. He was born in Martinique, a man of mixed ethnicity. His parents were most likely a white man, probably French, and his mother an African slave. However, the practice and customs of slavery in the Caribbean differed from slavery in States. Delgres was captured by the British troops in St. Vincent in 1796.

In 1793, colonies in the West Indies belonging to Britain and France were dragged into war by their colonial masters, Britain and Revolutionary France. Victor Hugues captured the island of Guadeloupe from Britain in 1794 with the intention to end slavery.

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