New interpretation now open at Portchester Castle tells the story of a little-known aspect of the castle’s history – its role as a prison for prisoners of war. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars with France of 1793–1815 the number of prisoners of war held at the castle reached its height. Curator Abigail Coppins has been researching the story of one group of mainly black and mixed-race prisoners who were brought to Portchester from the Caribbean. We sat down with Abigail to find out more about her research and why this extraordinary story is only now being told.
What’s the story?
This story is about how over 2,000 black and mixed-race men, women and children came to be at Portchester Castle at the end of the 18th century.
Most of them were captured on the island of St Lucia when Britain attacked the island in May 1796. They were part of the French garrison of Fort Charlotte, and when British forces captured the fort, the defending soldiers were taken as prisoners of war and sent to Britain to be imprisoned at Portchester. Most of the soldiers defending Fort Charlotte were local Caribbean troops, but there were a few European soldiers too. What’s really surprising is that some of the soldiers had their wives and children with them.
Why were they fighting?
When war broke out between Britain and Revolutionary France in 1793, their overseas colonies were dragged into the war. France declared an end to slavery, and across the Caribbean many former slaves and free people of mixed race, as well as the indigenous people of the Caribbean, took up arms to fight against Britain in the French Revolutionary army.
Many of those captured at Fort Charlotte had once been slaves, and some of them were from the important free black communities on the islands of the Caribbean. We even have a black general, General Marinier, interned at Portchester.
What happened when they got to Portchester?
By the time the prisoners got to Portchester it was the beginning of winter and they weren’t really equipped to survive the cold English climate. They were given extra clothes and food, but conditions were still tough for them. Then the other prisoners started to steal from them. In the end the prison staff separated them from the other prisoners so that they had some protection.
Life was a bit easier for their wives and children. They were sent to Forton prison and hospital in nearby Gosport. They were given one of the hospital wards to live in and eventually their husbands were allowed to join them as well.
Eventually many of the soldiers and their families were sent to France as part of an exchange of prisoners, but it’s also possible that some of the soldiers enlisted in the Royal Navy or the British Army. It may seem strange to us now, but both services were actively recruiting from among the prisoner-of-war population at the time.
How did you come to research this story?
I’d been re-packing some of the finds from excavations at Portchester in the 1960s and 1970s. I got interested in the 18th-century prisoner of war phase at the castle and I started to look more closely at it. One of the things that really surprised me was just how many different nationalities were actually interned or imprisoned at the castle at that time. When I saw that some of them were recorded as being from the West Indies, I started to wonder what their story was, particularly as the transatlantic slave trade was at its height during that period. So I decided to go straight to the original records and see what I could find out.
I wasn’t expecting to find out quite as much as I have done, and I’m still uncovering more detail. I now know that until you actually get into the records you just can’t tell what you’re going to find.
Why do you think this story hasn’t been told until now?
There could be many reasons. History has tended to concentrate on the lives of kings and queens, the aristocracy, generals and admirals. It can be easier to research the rich and famous as they tend to be written about more and recorded in documentary sources. That has been changing for a while now, but it’s meant that for a long time the sort of history that covered the lives of ordinary people, and especially ethnic minorities, has tended to be overlooked. So we have a lot of catching up to do.
I also think that this sort of history has been seen as rather niche – the Napoleonic wars in the Caribbean are not much studied in schools! But I think this is of interest to everyone and is a really important story for English Heritage to tell.
Why does this story matter?
In this country I think we often see the lives of black people in history represented either in their role as servants or as possessions in large country houses or plantations. Or we see them through the eyes of white evangelicals like William Wilberforce. There are some exceptions of course, but most black history in this country isn’t more widely known, particularly the incredible struggle against slavery in the Caribbean during the 18th century. These events are well known in the Americas and the Caribbean, but not so much in the UK, even though Britain was a major player in those events. I really hope this changes.
The black prisoners at Portchester were active participants in the fight against slavery in the Caribbean. I really hope we can be inspired by them. I also hope that somewhere in the world today there are people who can trace their ancestry back to these extraordinary people.
You can learn more about the amazing story of the Caribbean prisoners in the new displays at Portchester Castle. This includes a listening post where you can hear extracts from the original records that detail the lives of the prisoners and those who came into contact with them at Portchester.