The wreck of the London, 1796: what happened next?
Today’s guest blog comes from Abigail Coppins, a historian specialising in the history and heritage of Black prisoners of war of the Napoleonic era: she recently helped to develop the award-winning display at Portchester Castle telling the story of the POWs who ended up there.
Here she sheds new light on the fate of the prisoners of war who escaped alive from the wreck of the London. Abigail writes:
Historical background and legend intertwined:
The stranding of the London, at Rapparee Cove in Devon in October 1796, has become part of local legend and folklore on a coastline which has seen more than its fair share of wrecks, including the 1691 loss of a vessel bound from Cork for Brest with Irish soldiers or ‘rapparees’, of which only six escaped alive from the passengers and crew. Documentary evidence for wrecks in this area before the 17th century has largely not survived, but since that time over 30 vessels have stranded in and near Ilfracombe with its rocky coastline and high cliffs. (1)
The London is often described as a ‘slaver’ carrying a cargo of gold and Caribbean slaves or prisoners to be sold in Bristol. This legend is helped along by the periodic exposure of both coins (one of which is definitively Roman, so clearly antedates the wreck) and human remains at the cove. In 1997 a rescue dig at the cove uncovered more human remains, which were believed to be associated with the passengers and crew of the London.
Their possible identity in the context of a lack of formal burial, consistent with burial practice in cliff locations, has enabled the London to become, perhaps, one of the most controversial wrecks in Britain.
It would be another 12 years following the wreck before the Burial of Drowned Persons Act 1808 compelled the interment of shipwrecked bodies in consecrated ground. Elsewhere in England, other mass graves of shipwreck victims where they were washed up are attested, including crew members from HMS Anson, lost in 1807 in a similarly inaccessible location which prevented rescue: and in Northern Europe such burials also persisted until well into the 19th century. (2) Of course, until there is an analysis and published report on the human remains, their identity will, for now, be a matter of conjecture.
However, there is much more to the story of the London than the human remains possibly from the wreck. This blog will pull together what I have managed to piece together about the London, its passengers and what happened to them.
The French Revolution in the Eastern Caribbean
The story of the London and her passengers begins in the Caribbean. In 1793, when Britain and France went to war, their Caribbean colonies were also caught up in the fighting. In 1794, Victor Hugues, the French-born revolutionary, captured the island of Guadeloupe from Britain and declared an end to slavery on the island. The formerly enslaved plantation workers were enlisted into local regiments as part of a levée en masse, with many of their officers coming from amongst the free-born black and mixed-race population. As free French soldiers, they fought against Britain on islands including St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Martinique and Grenada. The conflicts on these islands are characterised by the coming together of the internal slave rebellions with the political ideology of the French Revolution to form a powerful new force in the fight against slavery in the Caribbean.
As a result, Britain undertook numerous campaigns in the Caribbean to take and re-take various islands, with some islands changing hands several times. The locally enlisted free Black French troops were powerful tools in this military (and ideological) war against Britain and the Black soldiers proved to be formidable opponents.
Despite this, Britain’s campaigns in this part of the Caribbean resulted in the capture of large numbers of free Black French soldiers on islands such as St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent and Martinique. Most of the captured Black soldiers were regarded as French prisoners of war, although there were exceptions. Once captured, these soldiers were placed under guard on military transport ships whilst arrangements were made to send them to the prisoner of war depots in Britain.
Some of the Black prisoners of war are likely to have been from the French garrison at Morne Fortuné, St. Lucia, who had capitulated to the forces led by Sir John Moore on 26th May 1796, under terms that stated ‘The Agent General, the Commander in Chief, and the Forces of the Republic, who have defended the Island ….. shall be treated as Prisoners of War….’ .
The Journey of the London
In July 1796 a convoy of ships, including the London, left the island of St. Kitts and set sail across the Atlantic, escorted by HMS Ganges. The ships were carrying around 3,000 mainly Black French soldiers (prisoners of war) who had been captured on the islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Grenada. The London was carrying ‘…one Officer, Eight Serjeants, and Eleven Privates of the 66th Regt and 106 French Prisoners (Black)….’. (3)
The convoy arrived off the coast of Ireland in September and then divided. One group of ships set off for Liverpool – probably to offload prisoners at the prisoner of war depot at Liverpool. The rest headed south-east, with most of the convoy arriving at Plymouth and the associated prison (Mill Prison) at the beginning of October. When it was discovered that the prison there was full, the ships sailed on to Portsmouth (Portchester Castle).
It seems likely that as the London was wrecked on the North Devon coast she was sailing directly through the Bristol Channel to an alternative prisoner of war depot in Bristol (Stapleton Prison) when she hit bad weather and was wrecked. Another (unnamed) vessel from the convoy also got into difficulty off the South Wales coast, suggesting that it was possibly also making its way to Bristol.
The wreck at Ilfracombe
On 14th October 1796, a letter informed the War Office that the London had been wrecked at Ilfracombe and that the Surrey Fencibles had been sent from Barnstaple to guard the surviving prisoners. Casualties were estimated at one private and two serjeants of the 66th Regiment and 31 black soldiers (prisoners) dead, plus around 40 of the London’s crew. A contemporary newspaper account read as follows:
‘October 16th: This evening a very melancholy accident happened at Ilfracombe: a ship called the London, from St. Kitts having on board a considerable number of blacks (French prisoners) was driven on the rocks, near the entrance of the pier, by a violent gale of wind, by which about 50 of the prisoners were drowned; those who got on shore exhibited a most wretched spectacle, and the scene was altogether too shocking for description.’ (5)
Thirty of the London’s prisoners, including one woman, were then taken to Stapleton Prison, arriving there in December. The timescale between the wreck and the prisoners’ arrival at Bristol suggests that they may have been held somewhere else before arriving at Bristol. The Stapleton prison register records that these thirty prisoners were captured on Grenada and St. Vincent. Other survivors from the London may have been sent to Mill Prison, or possibly to join the over two thousand Black prisoners of war at Portchester Castle.
Women and capture
The woman from the London was Madame Heaurlaux, wife of Colonel Heaurlaux, commander of Fort Charlotte on St. Vincent. Both she and her husband were sent from Stapleton to Chippenham on ‘parole’. Captured officers were often allowed to live outside prison in specially designated parole towns – there were over sixty in Britain at this time.
The presence of Mme Heaurlaux aboard the London is not unusual. Women often accompanied their husbands on campaign, and sometimes into captivity, and women and children are also recorded on board ships from the rest of the convoy. There were approximately 100 women and children amongst the over 2,000 mainly Black prisoners of war who arrived at Portchester Castle. Portchester’s registers of arrivals record that they were a mix of both Black and European women and children.
At Portchester the women were placed in separate accommodation before being sent to nearby Forton Prison in Gosport. Once there they were given a large room in the prison hospital to live in. Most were soldiers’ wives, following the drum with their husbands and children, and most had been captured on the island of St. Lucia.
Stapleton Prison, Prisoner Exchange and Cartels
The prison register for Stapleton records that all prisoners arriving from the London, both Black and European, were exchanged for captured British soldiers via the ‘cartel’ vessels Nancy and Smallbridge.
Cartel vessels were used to repatriate prisoners of war, and tended to be merchant ships which flew a white flag and a flag of truce. (4) There were regular prisoner exchanges between Britain and France during the French wars. Cartels were also a chance for both France and Britain to do a bit of spying on each other as well!
The first Black prisoner from the London, Timothee, was exchanged to France in October 1797, around the same time that the Black prisoners from Portchester also began to be exchanged. Timothee arrived in France just under a year after he had first arrived at Stapleton Prison, with the rest of the Black prisoners from the London following in January 1798.
Black Caribbean soldiers in France
Once in France, Black soldiers were sent to the French colonial army depots in places such as Brest, before being brought together at Rochefort and the Ile d’Aix. They were eventually consolidated into Le Bataillon des Pionniers Noirs and went on to fight across Europe for France in places such as Italy and Russia.
Some, such as Louis Delgrès (who was imprisoned at Portchester Castle), made it back to the Caribbean and fought in the wars in San Domingue (Haiti) and Guadeloupe. Others may have been recruited from prison into the Royal Navy.
The black prisoners from the London and the other vessels of the Ganges convoy are incredibly important to the history of race and diversity in Britain. They are also internationally significant because of the role they played in the struggle for freedom in the Caribbean. They transformed the political ideals of the French Revolution into an idea of universal rights for all. These were ideas that they fought and died for.
The story of the London and its passengers deserves a new place in our history.
More from Abigail Coppins on Wreck of the Week: The Duke of Wellington and the Amsterdam
Abigail will be giving a free talk in London: The Revolution Comes to Hampshire: Black Revolutionaries in an English Castle 1796-1800 on Tuesday 6 November 2018, 5.15pm
(1) Source: Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, October 2018
(2) Hasse, J. 2016 Versunkene Seelen: Begräbnitzplätze ertrunkener Seeleute im 19. Jahrhundert (Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Verlag Herder GmbH)
(3) The National Archives, WO 40/8
(4) We know of other cartel vessels wrecked on the English coast during the Napoleonic Wars. [Source: Historic England National Record of the Historic Environment database, October 2018]
(5) Sherborne Mercury, 17 October 1796, No.2,489, p3