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A Bay by any other name

If this is the time of year when St Lucia welcomes the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers fleet, it is only fitting that we pay tribute to the daring Admiral, with close links to the island, whose boldness irreversibly changed the course of Caribbean history. Without his exploits, it would quite possibly be ‘Le ARC’ which arrives in St Lucia’s eponymous Baie de Grasse for some celebratory wine and cheese. From there, boats might head north, stopping off at the chic boutiques in Antigua’s ‘Villeneuve’s Dockyard’, or stocking up in the Caribbean’s main port of Oraanje Baai in St Eustatius. They may even head on up to cruise around the ‘Iles Vierges Francaises’. But no…

Between 1761 and 1782, Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney’s rampaging around the Leeward and Windward Islands prised the Antilles out of French hands for long enough to keep them out of reach forever. In St Lucia, where his fleet was based, Rodney Bay bears his name and keeps the legend alive.

Born in 1719, Rodney’s nautical life began at the age of 13. By the age of 23, the Harrow-educated toff was commanding a 60-gun ship. In 1761, he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Leeward Islands, with orders to capture Martinique. By early 1762, he had forced a French surrender, and went on to capture Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent. Mission accomplished, he returned to England, only to reappear again in 1779.

As the American War of Independence neared its conclusion and the Royal Navy was straining to defend its territories, the French and Spanish were determined to bag as many British islands as possible. St Kitts had recently fallen, and only St Lucia, Antigua, Barbados and Jamaica remained. The Gallic plan was for the French fleet under Admiral de Grasse to leave from Martinique, link up with the Spanish troops in Santa Domingo, and capture the British HQ in Jamaica.

Admiral Rodney had other ideas. His fleet was anchored in Gros Islet, and from the heights of Pigeon Island, he was able to keep a lookout on the French movement.

On April 8, 1782, 33 French ships of-the-line and some 100 cargo ships left Martinique. The alarm raised, Rodney’s 36-strong fleet weighed anchor and set off in pursuit. The first skirmishes began on the 9th off Dominica, but it wasn’t until three days later that the two fleets met in one of the most famous naval battles in history – the Battle of the Saints.

Nowadays, Les Iles des Saintes off the coast of Guadeloupe are one of the most charming anchorages in the Caribbean. On April 12th, 1782 the area was mayhem. During the battle, Rodney famously broke with battle protocol to steer through the French line, which had been scattered by a wind shift. At the time, an Admiral was obliged to continue action with his ships in the order in which they had started. Rodney ‘Crossed the Tee’, baffled the French and captured de Grasse’s 130-gun flagship Ville de Paris.

Rodney’s victory bathed him in glory, although he was much criticised in some quarters for the fact that he allowed 26 French ships to continue north. The battle itself yielded only five ships. Symbolically, though, Les Saintes shattered French prestige and established the British as the dominant naval power. Rodney, by all accounts a rather arrogant fellow, was pretty pleased with himself, too, writing that, “Within two little years, I have taken two Spanish, one French and one Dutch admirals.”

St Lucia’s Admiral Rodney trail…

1. Rodney Bay. Nowadays a full-service marina that welcomes the ARC.

2. Pigeon Island Museum & Interpretive Centre. Houses a British Officer’s mess, restored to its 1808 elegance, as well as an Admiral Rodney exhibition. Call St Lucia National Trust on (452-50005).

3. Fort Rodney. Walk to the top of Pigeon Island and you can enjoy the view across to Martinique, as well as the tips of the Pitons on a clear day. It is rumoured that Rodney himself perched on nearby Signal Hill to keep an eye on the French.

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