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.
The castle was used as a prisoner-of-war from the late 17th century onwards. In 2017, the English Heritage revealed that some of these POWs were African-Caribbeans who had been captured whilst fighting France for their liberty from enslavement.
But let’s go back to the beginning of this story on the island of St Lucia in the Caribbean.
When war between Britain and Revolutionary France erupted in 1793, the overseas colonies belonging to Britain, France and their European allies, including the Caribbean, were also dragged into the war. The many Caribbean islands were much fought over by European powers vying for supremacy. These islands were mainly inhabited by an enslaved African Caribbean population working on European-owned plantations. (1)
A French-born revolutionary, Victor Hugues, captured the island of Guadeloupe from Britain in 1794. He then declared an end to slavery and enlisted many former enslaved and free people of mixed race into the French Revolutionary army. Across the Caribbean, men of both African and European descent served in racially integrated military units that fought against Britain – which was still a slave-owning nation – on islands such as St Lucia, St Vincent and Guadeloupe. (1)
On 26 May 1796, the French garrison holding Charlotte on St Lucia surrended to British forces commanded. They laid down their weapons and marched out of the fort and onto British ships. The terms of their surrender ensured that they would all be treated as POWs rather than enslaved people. (1)
The garrison was made up of largely local African-Caribbean soldiers, with a smaller number of European French soldiers. There were also women and children among them.
They were brought across the Atlantic in a convoy of ships, arriving on the Solent as winter began setting in. It would have been a complete culture shock. If the contrasting weather and diet were not bad enough, they were also bullied by European prisoners already being detained in the castle.
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.
Notable prisoners included 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.
Among the more charismatic rebels was Jean-Louis Marin Pèdre who was a free-born property owner. He had been driven into armed opposition to the British by the behaviour of the then governor of St Lucia who had detained hundreds of people arbitrarily, demanding money for their release.
After his surrender to the British, Pèdre found himself detained in Portchester Castle – alongside his wife Charlotte.
But the most famous POW was Captain Louis Delgrès, who later became leader of the resistance movement in Guadeloupe, fighting the reinstatement of slavery by Napoleon.
He and his followers died in horrible circumstances in 1802. Facing defeat, he ignited his gunpowder stores knowing that they all would be killed but it would also kill many French soldiers.
By the end of 1797, most of the PoWs appear to have been dispersed, with some going on to form part of a battalion of Black pioneers which saw action in France, Italy and Russia. Some even ended up fighting for the British navy.