HIDDEN STORY OF 2,000 AFRICAN-CARIBBEAN POWS IN A MEDIEVAL CASTLE
A new exhibition at Portchester Castle opens on July 20, 2017. Curated by Abigail Coppins, it tells the story of men, women, and children transported from St. Lucia after fighting for France against Britain, according to Mark Brown (The Guardian):
The remarkable overlooked story of more than 2,000 African-Caribbean soldiers imprisoned in a medieval castle in the 18th century is to be told in a new exhibition by English Heritage. It comes after more than five years of painstaking research into the men – and 99 women and children – who were transported from St Lucia in 1796 to Portchester castle, which overlooks Portsmouth harbour. All were black soldiers and their dependents, freed from slavery by the French in 1794 and fighting for France against the British.
Among the names were Louis Delgrès, General Marinier and his wife Eulalie Piemont and Charlotte Pedre and her husband Jean-Louis Marin. Curator Abigail Coppins said that discovering individual identities had been astonishing.
She said: “At a time when the entire black population of Britain was roughly 10-15,000 our exhibition completely turns the tables of the views of the period. These were not slaves, but free men and women, fighting and in some cases dying for a cause they believed in. Research is ongoing but these names and this exhibition restore a forgotten chapter of black history in England’s story.”
The story of the prisoners of war is fascinating and little-known. After the French Revolution, slavery had been brought to an end on the islands of Guadeloupe, St Lucia, and St Vincent and many of those families joined the fight against the British.
In 1796, Fort Charlotte, a fort on St Lucia, surrendered to the British, which meant more than 2,000 African-Caribbean soldiers and their families came into their care. As was the convention of the time they were treated as prisoners of war to potentially be traded in exchange for British PoWs.
They were brought across the Atlantic in a convoy of ships, arriving on the Solent as winter began setting in. It would have been a complete culture shock. If the contrasting weather and diet were not bad enough, they were also bullied by European prisoners already being detained in the castle.
Coppins said there were attempts at compassion with, for example, the prison doctor insisting on the prisoners being fed more potatoes because it was the nearest he could think of to yams. At some point they were moved from the castle to two brand new prison hulks, Captivity and Vigilant, moored close by.
By the end of 1797, most of the PoWs appear to have been dispersed, with some going on to form part of a battalion of black pioneers which saw action in France, Italy, and Russia. Some even ended up fighting for the British navy.
Coppins first came across the story by accident. “It was a long cold winter and I’d been repacking the archeological files from the castle and I’d had enough of Roman animal bones,” she said.
She turned her attention to the Napoleonic period when the castle was used as a detention centre for prisoners of war. “What little I did find out stopped me in my tracks … I just hadn’t realized how many different nationalities were imprisoned or interned at the castle.” Sifting through archives, Coppins has managed to put names to people who have fallen through the gaps of history.
The most famous of the names she has discovered is Captain Louis Delgrès, who laterbecamea the e leader of the resistance movement in Guadeloupe, fighting the reinstatement of slavery by Napoleon. He and his followers died in horrible circumstances in 1802. Facing defeat, he ignited his gunpowder stores knowing that they all would be killed but it would also kill many French soldiers. Coppins said discovering the identities was an important exercise. “It is almost impossible to find images of the soldiers but by giving them names you give them their place in history and their relevance.”