Haiti is a country with a lot of history that deserves to be better known in Britain, and a small percentage of that includes armed Brits roaming the place.
The early years of our involvement with Haiti were mainly to do with English pirates, and one name in particular stands out here – Tortuga.
It’s one of those names you may well have heard of, without knowing exactly where it is. It’s a Haitian island lying off the north coast and it’s big in the history of British pirates. And French pirates. And a few Dutch and other ones. Lots and lots of pirates, in fact. In the early seventeenth century there was a sort of ongoing tug of war here between the Spanish on one side and French and English pirates on the other. The Spanish would intermittently attempt to force the pirates out and the French and English would either resist and/or wait until the Spanish had gone away before returning. In 1654 the Spanish recaptured the island for the fourth and last time, but in 1655 the English and French were back and Colonel William Brayne, acting as military governor on Jamaica, appointed Elias Watts �?governor’ of Tortuga. After that, the French took over, although that wasn’t the end of English pirates on Tortuga.
Soon, though, it wasn’t just pirates heading to Haiti from Britain. As the eighteenth century wore on, we had a number of cracks at what had by now become the French-controlled territory of Saint Domingue. Sir Charles Knowles didn’t always have the most successful time at sea (see Cuba), but on 8 March 1784 he attacked the French-held Fort Saint Louis de Sud in Saint Domingue. His squadron bombarded the fort heavily and eventually the garrison was forced to surrender.
In the late eighteenth century, with the French Revolution taking place in France and with France struggling to hold in check rebellion in Haiti, we saw an opportunity. War broke out between Britain and France in 1793 and we installed a naval blockade against the French forces on the island. On 19 September 1793, British forces landed at Jeremie in Haiti. Many of the local white property owners supported their arrival, thinking Britain would restore their position, and by June 1794 British forces held the capital, Port au Prince, and most of the port towns. But British success was not to last. Rebels and the revolutionary French did a deal that would give citizenship to all people on the island of any ethnic background, and the efforts of the French and the rebels, combined with the damage done to British forces and their morale, gradually wore our troops down. The black Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture proved particularly successful in fighting our troops. On 31 August, British General Thomas Maitland signed a deal with him and finally, in October 1798, we withdrew entirely from the country.
Recently, the Royal Navy returned to Haiti in Operation Panlake, with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary supply ship Largs Bay, at the request of the UN, helping to move supplies after an earthquake.