Captains – many of you have, by now, sailed and docked at the island of Guadeloupe in the game. Those who have watched the Pirates of the Caribbean movies may have the impression that it was a jolly den of buccaneers and cutthroats, which it certainly was; but Guadeloupe was also more than that, and during the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars in Europe, Guadeloupe would become one of the most important commercial and military centers of the West Indies.
The story begins with the arrival of the new French governor, Victor Hugues, who was certainly one of the most controversial figures in the region: On 2 June 1794, Hugues landed in Guadeloupe with a force of 1,100 French republican troops- His mission was to re-capture Guadeloupe, and defeat the British forces there- which he swiftly did.
After capturing Guadeloupe Governor Hugues turned his attention to his enemies: The British. Hugues’ grand plan was to cripple all British commercial activity in the Caribbean, so as to weaken the British economy and diminish Britain’s economic-military power back in Europe. The problem was that the French navy in the West Indies was weaker than the British royal navy, and many French naval commanders had defected to the other side, as they were appalled by the results of the revolution back home and were loyal to their deposed King Louis XVI.
Without a navy to back up his plans, Governor Hugues began to issue letters of marque to pirates who would become French privateers; and the results were impressive: French privateers operating from Guadeloupe attacked, sank and captured more than a thousand British and American ships, and by 1797 American losses alone amounted to 27 million dollars worth of ships and goods lost at sea – an enormous cost at that time.
The other interesting outcome of Hugues’ policy was that the ideas of the French revolution began to spread among the privateers themselves: In the past they were simply pirates and criminals, but by the late 1790s some of them viewed themselves as revolutionaries who were supporting the effort of the French revolutionary government. At Guadeloupe political activism began to spread, as the people received news of the revolution in Europe; and the idea of universal equality was persuasive and attractive to those who were previously regarded as menial workers, slaves or criminals. In Guadeloupe the local economy boomed as a result of this revolutionary piracy, and the French revolutionary anthem ‚La Marseillaise’ was sung everywhere. The privateers also had their favorite tavern, named Le Rendez-vous des Sans-Culottes. (San-Culottes were the poor who did not wear silk breeches, and was a term used to describe the poor revolutionary militants of the revolution.)
So the next time you dock at Guadeloupe, spare a thought for its history: It was one of the most important and interesting places in the Caribbean. And if I meet you at the tavern Le Rendez-vous des Sans-Culottes, I’ll buy you a drink!
Salut mes amies, et vive la revolution!