BLACK HISTORY MONTH: How much do you know about Portchester’s prisoners of war?
PUBLISHED: 13:30 08 October 2020 | UPDATED: 14:59 09 October 2020
When 2,500 prisoners travelled over 4,000 miles from St Lucia to Portchester, little did they know the impact they would have on Hampshire’s history
Portchester Castle has a remarkable history dating back centuries, from Roman fort to Saxon settlement, it has served as a Norman castle and gathering point for medieval kings before crossing the Channel.
However, it is its history as a prisoner of war camp at the height of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars which has led to some remarkable revelations in recent years.
A chance find for Abigail Coppins, a PHD research student from the New Forest, who discovered the extraordinary story of black prisoners of war being held at Portchester in the late 1790s.
“I was repacking a lot of archaeological stuff from Portchester and came across some objects that French prisoners had made. I was really interested in them and started researching but couldn’t find any answers,” explains Abigail.
“Something in the excavation report talked about West Indian prisoners in the castle. I wondered who they were. Were they black? Were they slaves? This was the eighteenth century – these were the questions that you’d ask.”
Beginning at the National Archives at Kew, Abigail realised quickly that she had stumbled upon a fragment from Portchester’s unexplored past.
“The way the castle has been written about and interpreted in the past has led to a certain viewpoint,” she tells. “Early guidebooks about Portchester were very much focused on the architectural history of the site, history of men waiting to go to Agincourt, information about royal visits. Actually, Portchester is far more interesting than that.”
Looking at historic prison registers gave her the clues she needed to begin unravelling a mystery leading back to the Caribbean island of St Lucia.
“It hadn’t been forgotten. It was just that no one had asked those particular questions before. It was about looking at the material and asking what else can we find out from it.
“I started to untangle how people were captured during warfare and that it wasn’t just white male European soldiers,” Abigail shares.
When Britain and France went to war in 1793 so did their overseas colonies, with many of the Caribbean islands being fought over by European powers keen to exact their supremacy.
It was men of both African and European descent serving in racially integrated military units which fought against Britain on the islands of St Lucia, St Vincent and Guadeloupe.
When the French garrison of Fort Charlotte on St Lucia surrendered to British forces in May 1796, it was mainly local black soldiers with some European French soldiers that were captured as prisoners of war. Amongst these free men captured defending their island home were women and children.
How did these prisoners end up at Portchester Castle? The key to this lay in Portchester’s own history as a prime location within Portsmouth’s harbour. What can be seen today at the castle isn’t a reflection of its role in the eighteenth century.
During the Napoleonic wars, Portchester was being fitted out as a barracks, with building work initially for housing soldiers.
As Abigail explains, prisoners of war were actually being kept in all sorts of places across the country - nearby Hillsea served as an internment camp before Portchester replaced it.
“It was a continuance of what had gone before at Portchester in wartime. The British state was always weighing up how much it was going to cost to hold any prisoners of war as they had to be fed, guarded, clothed and exchanged for British prisoners elsewhere.
“With the Caribbean prisoners, it was no different. When they were captured there was still a brutal war going on. It was cheaper to look after them in the UK, especially as they were viewed as dangerous revolutionaries who would escape and carry on the Revolution in the islands.”
Journeying across the Atlantic was difficult and up to three hundred died on the voyage, some of whom were wounded or sick before they set sail.
Uprooted some 4,000 miles from their home and arriving at Portchester, the circa 2,500 prisoners were issued with socks and woollen vests. Suffice to say they were woefully unprepared for their new surroundings.
The women and children were initially held alongside the men but were sent on to Forton Prison in nearby Gosport. Surviving letters show that Dr James Johnston, a Royal Naval Surgeon and one of the prison commissioners tried his best to treat the prisoners with care and consideration, arranging for a special diet and for beer to be flavoured with warming ginger.
He even had them moved to prison hulks in the Solent to improve their living conditions.
“None of the shoes that had been ordered for the prisoners fitted. Most of the Caribbean prisoners had much larger feet than European sizes,” recounts Abigail.
“The great thing about the period is that everything was written down and reported on, everything was filed away. You just have to find where it is.”
As Abigail’s research continued, she was able to trace and indeed name many of the black and mixed-race soldiers. Notable prisoners included commander-in-chief of French forces in St Lucia, General Marinier, who had organised resistance to British rule and been captured on St Vincent with his wife Eulalie Piemont.
Commander of the Caribs (Garifuna), the indigenous people of the Caribbean, Jean-Louis Marin Pedre was also held alongside his wife, Charlotte, and Captain Louis Delgrès, who later led the resistance of Napoleon’s attempt to re-enslave Guadeloupe and is now honoured as a national hero at the Panthéon in Paris.
The prison registers show those held were not slaves but highly-regarded career soldiers, free men and women. Their stories not only inform us of the role they played in the struggle against slavery in the Caribbean but also of the history of race and diversity in late eighteenth-century Britain, and their continued fight for equality and recognition.
“There’s a long proud history of people of colour in the county, probably stretching back to the Roman times. I look at it as human history,” Abigail offers.
“People have always moved about so we shouldn’t be surprised when history shows us people ending up where we might not expect them. As humans, some of us always have an eye on the horizon. Sometimes we are moved out because people are picking on us, sometimes it’s because we’ve been enslaved, or war is pushing us out or away.”
In 1797, a year after they had arrived, many of Portchester’s prisoners started being sent back to France, and ended up being moved around the world in various factions of the French army.
However, some remained here, recruited into the British Army and Navy, others joined local militia. Abigail believes there’s more that could inform us about people of colour living in eighteenth century Britain.
“Britain was a big player in the Caribbean. We need to engage with this history. British historians should be part of the discourse when it comes to that,” Abigail adds.
Portchester’s exhibition of the black prisoners of war is now a permanent fixture and the accounts of their time at Portchester continue to inspire Abigail’s research as she delves further into the archives.
No doubt this is just the start of discovering more about Hampshire’s rich and diverse cultural history.