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The French Connection

The ill-fated Coquette Expedition.

By John de Bry, Center for Historical Archaeology

They say histories are usually about wars and always written by the victorious. It is refreshing to be able to look at a well-known conflict through the eyes of a participant on the losing side. Following a (very) minor engagement on Grand Turk in 1783, during which the squadron he commanded was unable to defeat a 60-man French force dug in on Fire Hill, none other than Capt. Horatio Nelson concluded his dispatch with “With such a force, and their strong situation, I did not think anything farther could be attempted.” But there is another, far more informative and thrilling account written by the commander of the opposing French naval force, Lt. Grasse-Brianson.

The following account was transcribed, interpreted and translated by Dr. John de Bry of the Center for Historical Archaeology in 1994 during a TCNM-sponsored search for old records pertaining to the Turks & Caicos Islands in various French repositories.

Horatio Nelson commanded a squadron that was defeated by the French on Fire Hill, Grand Turk in 1783.

The attempt on the part of France to take over the Turks Islands in 1783 was largely a privateering endeavor rather than an initiative emanating from Versailles. It is easy to imagine the Sieur de Courrejeolles, mentioned in the first paragraph of the account below, as a shady character straight out of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”  Courrejeolles remains an enigmatic player. His role in the invasion and capture of Grand Turk is surely understated and deserves elaboration. Additional research has so far failed to fully identify him. His name does not appear on any official naval papers, which only confirms that he was either a privateer or a pirate with a certain flair and sophistication. After all, he was the one who managed to sell the Turks Islands to the Prince and Princess of Nassau-Siegen several years later, even though he had absolutely no right to any property title on these islands!  Although the direct involvement of the Governor of Saint-Domingue, Comte Robert d’Argout, is evidenced by the commission he gave to the Sieur de Courrejeolles on 11 September 1778, it is equally clear that Versailles strongly disapproved and condemned the actions of d’Argout and Courrejeolles.

Abstract of the expedition of the King’s corvette la Coquette to the Turk Islands

Followed by details of its capture

Monsieur de Bellecombe, Governor-General of Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti), assigned the corvette la Coquette to the Turk islands expedition, along with two vessels of the colony, the Dauphin and Cornwallis. I [naval officer Grasse Brianson, in my capacity as acting captain and expedition leader] immediately endeavored to load all the necessary material, everything being ready on 8 February.  Four detachments from different infantry regiments came aboard, as well as Monsieur de Courrejolles, Engineer of the Colony, who would take control of these Islands away from the English.

This map of the southern end of Grand Turk shows where the engagements detailed here took place.

The bay of Cap-Français [modern Cape Haitian] was blockaded by the English. But on the morning of the 9th, seeing the fleet somewhat distant, I took advantage of this situation to set sail with the vessels under my command, closely hugging the coast. We anchored at Port­-Français, two leagues to the West to have the advantage of leaving during the night, which was done, thus allowing us to get under way without being seen.

We sighted the Turk islands on the morning of the 12th, but the hour at which we arrived exposed us to the danger of being spotted from a long distance, so in order to avoid this inconvenience, I anchored at the Petite Saline [Salt Cay], one of the islands which is uninhabited, from which, without being seen, it was easy to observe if any vessels were at the Grande Saline [Grand Turk]. I only saw fishing boats. During the night I sent the brigantine Cornwallis to cruise to the North in order to be within range of intercepting any isolated vessel which might report [to the enemy] our presence. We also wanted to take the commanding English officer by surprise; to this effect, Monsieur de Courrejolles left during the night aboard rowboats and long boats, and landed with part of the troops on the South point, while I arrived in daylight in front of the dwellings. As soon as I was anchored, I landed the rest of the detachments; all of our plans succeeded, and we took control of the island of Grande Saline without encountering any resistance.

I immediately sent ashore all the workmen I could find among the crews and, further, assigned daily sixty men to work under Monsieur de Courrejolles, at the various tasks which had to be performed at the same time, I unloaded ammunition and cannon as and when required.

We had brought with us four 24-pounder cannon with which Monsieur de Courrejolles built a battery on the seashore, in front of his ammunition stores and living quarters. We anchored the ships a quarter of a league away, a reef line preventing us from coming any closer. It was unanimously determined that we could not be adequately protected in this situation, and that I would have no other choice than to set sail, should I be in danger of being attacked.

Wanting to contribute all of my resources to the establishment [of the stronghold], I provided Monsieur de Courrejolles everything that he asked, even an additional nine quintals [1,980 pounds] of powder and two of my cannons, in order to build a battery on a small island located east of the Grande Saline [called Gibbs Cay today, it appears on French maps as Isle de Fort Castries, evidently named after the Marquis de Castries, then Secretary of the French Navy], which he intended to use as a retreat point if the situation dictated it. I planned, upon my departure, to leave the Cornwallis under his command. Judging that she was not safe where we were, I had her anchor under this new battery which she managed to reach only after zigzagging among rocks, and because she drew little water, which afforded her shelter from attacks. I was also required to put ashore my water as well as my casks, consequently I kept only what was necessary for my crossing [back to Saint-Domingue].

Monsieur de Bellecombe stipulated that I must stay in the Turk Islands not only until the stronghold which we wanted to establish was completed, but also to leave as to arrive at the Cap no earlier than March 6th, in order that my mission be kept secret until that date. The 27th of February, everything being finished at the Grande Saline, the workmen were kept occupied constructing the gun battery on the small island [Gibbs Cay]. This work, meant to be the last, was well-advanced within the next two days, which allowed me to set my departure date between the 4th and the 5th. I had been, up to that point, as lucky as I could have hoped to be, all the operations being completed, and I enjoyed the satisfaction of having precisely fulfilled the mission that had been entrusted to me, confident of the good fortune I still needed for my return journey.

On the 2nd of March, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the rowboat and long boat being occupied, the first transporting timber from the Grande Saline to the small island to finish the cribbing, and the long boat gathering ballast, the lookout posted on land signaled seeing sails. Nothing had yet been spotted from the top of the masts where I myself climbed having only a few officers, but no sooner were we in position to observe than two vessels that had been hidden by the upper elevations of the island, suddenly appeared behind a lower land feature, heading toward the North point. Because of their proximity we were able to recognize a vessel with two batteries [two gun decks] and a frigate, and at the same time able to judge our tardiness in spotting them. We did not have any time to waste, prompting me to cut the [anchor] cable on the spot.  I also hailed the Dauphin who took the same action, and we headed to the south of the channel, raising sails as promptly as possible. I had sixty men ashore, and the Sieur de Gaillard, garde de la marine, was also there on duty, but not having enough men for maneuvering, I found the circumstance too pressing to wait for them.

The vessel appeared after a few moments, having passed the tip of the island and chased us, being two small leagues to our rear; it did not take us long to realize that they had superior speed; however, the distance which separated us left me the hope that they would not catch up with us until night. At three thirty, the vessel had closed in considerably; the Dauphin, which had stayed within shouting distance downwind from me, cut down his fore-topmast, although the sea and wind were favorable to sailing with light sails. I signaled to him to assume chase at the speed which he would deem the less disadvantageous in his situation; he maintained his speed, and I somewhat succeeded in this maneuver which forced the enemy to decide which one of the two vessels [to chase], giving me the confidence that the Dauphin would escape.  I hoped that he [the enemy vessel] would abandon pursuit of the Dauphin and try to catch up with me, thinking that the frigate which was following him would be able to capture the Dauphin. He fired a few cannon shots as he passed him, but at too great a distance to threaten the Dauphin.

I used all the means at my disposal to reach maximum speed. Unfortunately, nothing succeeded nor made up for the disadvantages of not having a hull sheathed with copper, of having last been careened a year ago, and for the lack of stability caused by the quantities of water casks and other objects of considerable weight which I was obliged to put ashore on Turk island.

At five o’clock the vessel having approached me within short range, and not firing, I lowered the English flag to raise the French flag, and warned him with my cannon which I had kept retracted, he responded with his chase ordnance. The exchange of fire continued between one and the other for approximately twenty-five minutes; I aimed the guns in such a manner as to cause damage to his masts, which might delay him and give me time to escape, but did not succeed. At five thirty the enemy caught up with me and followed downwind at pistol shot range, I then opened fire with the battery that I had managed to arm with the remaining personnel. At the same time, he fired upon us broadside with his entire battery and his muskets. Having employed all the means of defense against such superior forces, I had the painful duty to surrender the King’s corvette, after having thrown into the sea all the signals and instructions pertaining to my mission. We were boarded by the English vessel named the Resistance, carrying 56 guns; her escort, which was not functioning properly, caught up with us three quarters of an hour later, the distance and the already obscure night had caused her to lose sight of the Dauphin, which I have since learned happily arrived at Port-de-Paix, on the coast of Saint-Domingue.

Among the casualties which the Coquette sustained on this occasion, is the Sieur Courdoux, auxiliary lieutenant, who received a gunshot wound to the hand, losing use of it, and a strong concussion to the chest, caused by a flying fragment of wood. The praises that his conduct commands, the great number of campaigns at the King’s service, and the seriousness of his wound, are grounds for hoping to obtain the graces of His Majesty.

I feel compelled to add at the end of my log summary what I witnessed relative to the attempt made by the English to retake the Turk islands, while I was prisoner aboard their vessels.

On March 5th, the vessel the Resistance, along with the frigates Tartar and Albermarle, which were joined as well by the brigantines Drake and Barington, having planned to retake the Turk Islands, anchored on the 6th on the south part of the Grande Saline. On the 7th, the ships fired several grapeshot broadsides on the [aziers?] which fringe the coast, and on the promontory where they intended to land in order to make sure that we did not have any fortification there. They landed approximately two hundred men, soldiers as well as sailors, with the two brigantines anchored in front of the dwellings in order to provide cover for the advancing troops. They did not know the location of our battery, and thought it to be made up only of cannons from the Coquette. They were fired upon with the 24-pounders but held their position for approximately one hour, vigorously responding with their small artillery. [The English ships] having been hit by two cannon balls which caused damage and wounded several men, cut their [anchor] cables and returned to their original anchorage. The English troops returned to their ships in the evening without daring to leave the protection of the vessels, having seen us [the French forces on the island] well dug in, and with field artillery which they themselves lacked.

The English had the intention of resuming their attack the next day, but the wind, which shifted to the West during the night, caused their plan to fail. They became preoccupied with the danger that they faced; managing to escape [the danger of being driven onto a lee shore] with great difficulty. They completely abandoned their project and departed.

I must give great credit to the crews of the corvette, for keeping silent on the subject of the forces that we had on the island, as well as the positions [batteries and fortifications] which we had established on the island despite the tortures that were inflicted on several of them.

At the Cap, 18 April 1783

Grasse Brianson

Postscript

No documents have turned up that tell “the rest of the story.” At some point soon after the Nelson’s squadron departed Grand Turk, so did the French garrison, perhaps aboard the small vessel Cornwallis, left behind in Hawk’s Nest anchorage. It seems odd that in both English and French accounts there is no mention of the people living on Grand Turk at the time, just “dwellings.” The conflict was not about them, whoever they were, but about determining which European nation could make its claim of possession stick. England’s superior sea power accomplished that once and for all in 1783, even though both Spain and France both had designs on the Turks Islands for centuries.

Do any traces of the French Invasion of 1783 survive? Historian H.E. Sadler writes that “an old French cannon” was uncovered during the construction of the American missile-tracking station around Fire Hill at the south end of Grand Turk and that it was taken away and put on display at the Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral.  This remains to be verified, but low stone foundations on top of Gibbs Cay may well be the remains of Courrejeolles’ “fall back” position.



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Marta Morton, owner of Harbour Club Villas, shot this photo on the magical island of Salt Cay. The foreground is filled with the endemic National Flower Turks & Caicos Heather in full bloom. St. John's Anglican Church, built in the early 1800s, is in the background. To see more of her work, visit www.myturksandcaicosblog.com

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