27 April 1802
Fort Shirley at Prince Rupert’s Bay on the British controlled island of Dominica was possibly one of the bleakest and most disease ridden outposts in the Caribbean. Perched on a barren headland and hemmed on its landward side by swamps, it was the garrison base for the black troops of the Eighth West Indian Regiment.
In the spring of 1802, the soldiers’ wages had not been paid for several months when they were set to work draining the surrounding mosquito ridden swamp land, seemingly for the sole financial benefit of the island’s governor, Alexander Johnstone, who hoped to turn the land over to sugar cultivation. When rumours circulated that the regiment was to be disbanded and the ordinary ranks forced into slavery, many men believed them.1 Fearing they would soon loose their freedom, on 2 April they seized the fort, killing three white officers and an NCO and taking another three officers hostage, with a newspaper report subsequently acknowledging that ‘they treated them with respect.’2
On the morning of 12 April, Johnstone arrived with a force of 500 white troops, sailors and militia. After some negotiations, the mutineers allowed them to enter the fort without firing a shot. Once inside, the governor found ‘the mutineers drawn up on their usual place of parade with the colours to their front.’ On command, they duly shouldered and lowered their arms. However, when the governor ordered them to advance three paces in front a sergeant shouted out ‘No, general, no,’ and this was followed seconds later by an exchange of fire, though it would seem the governor’s men, not having lowered their arms, possessed a crucial advantage.3
During a few brief minutes, about a hundred mutineers were shot dead, with only a few white casualties. According to the Barbados Mercury, ‘the daring banditti’ were almost ‘wholly exterminated’ while ‘we find our own loss has been very trifling, according to the best accounts, amounting to twenty killed and wounded.’ The paper added that some mutineers who managed to escape alive, ‘threw themselves headlong’ over a cliff.4 Most of the mutiny’s ringleaders were killed as the fort was retaken, but twenty three of the surviving soldiers were shipped to Martinique where they were tried before a court martial. Eleven were condemned to death, seven where severely whipped and five acquitted. The condemned men, of whom we know the names of at least six ( Manby, Lively, Genius, Pedro, Cuffy and Congo Jack), were shot at dawn on 27 April.5
- Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2009, pp. 228-229 and Tim Lockley, ‘Mutiny ! The Story of the Eighth West India Regiment,’ The British Library, 16 November 2017, accessed online at urlhttps://www.bl.uk/west-india-regiment/articles/mutiny-the-story-of-the-8th-west-india-regiment
- Saunders’s News-letter and Daily Advertiser, 17 June 1802, p. 1
- The Barbados Mercury, 24 April 1802, cited in ‘The Mutiny at Dominica,’ The Kentish Weekly Post, 15 June 1802, p. 2
- There are some differences to the total given for the number executed. Michael Craton, op. cit., writes that six were executed. Tim Lockley, op. cit., writes that eleven were executed, while a report in the London Evening Mail, 30 August 1802, p. 3 noted that ‘great numbers have been executed’ without giving an actual figure.
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