back in 1804, Napoleon was the undisputed master of Europe but Britannia still
ruled the waves — including most of the Caribbean.
It was common knowledge that the barren, snake infested Diamond Rock, on the
south coast of Martinique, would make an ideal location for the British to
station a vessel—if they had one—but they didn’t.
This was about to change . . .
The British and French were old
adversaries and fought over so many islands in the early 19th century that
vessels had become scarce. Digging deep into their coffers, the British
commissioned the 74-gun armored cruiser Centaur
to blockade the ports of Martinique and
plunder French vessels at each and every opportunity.
Martinique has always been
associated with supplying a vast range of exotic and European delicacies, a
sort of bread basket for the Caribbean. This
must have come as welcome news for the British crews
after a diet of limes, hardtack with weevils and the lash.
By capturing a French ship, the
battling Brits were able to double their effectiveness but were still spread
thinly between Martinique’s two harbors, St. Pierre in the north and the bay, (since
renamed Fort de France) in the south.
Short of ships but not ideas,
Commodore Sir Samuel Hood declared Diamond Rock a man-of-war—H.M.S.
Diamond Rock—and proceeded to
fortify it with all manner of nastiness. H.M.S.
Diamond Rock bristled, a sort of prickly Gibraltar, as she
overlooked the passage between the rock and Martinique.
The battling Brits even built a
hospital in one of the rock’s caves—they intended to stay—the
French had other ideas.
They weren’t happy,
especially Napoleon. Empress Josephine, a native of Martinique’s
Trois Ilets was probably on
the little emperor’s case on a daily basis . . . “It’s
ze noise Napoleon, I can’t sleep, mon dieu!”
Sacre bleu—not tonight Josephine!”
The effects of what happened next
were to influence that most historic of naval battles—Trafalgar.
After delivering no end of
‘welcomes’ to vessels bound for Martinique—and
ruining Josephine’s sibling’s weekends—Napoleon galvanized
French Admiral Villeneuve into action.
was charged with not only freeing the rock but giving British Admiral Horatio
Nelson a spanking whilst he was about it. Not wanting to be in Napoleon’s
bad books Villeneuve slipped under the British
blockade in France and set
sail for Martinique.
Nelson, with his well trained and
trophy-hungry fleet, smelled French blood and bounty and set off from England in hot
pursuit. But it wasn’t to be plain sailing for the pursuing pack. Poor
information was to be their nemesis. After a wild goose chase, the fleet of
Brits ended up in Trinidad—trophyless.
fared better. He duly liberated H.M.S. Diamond
Rock and returned to France,
prudently steering well clear of the nasty Nelson.
Even though Villeneuve
succeeded, Napoleon wasn’t impressed, (I blame Josephine) and was ordered to report in disgrace. Preferring
death to dishonor, Villeneuve put his ill-prepared
fleet to sea to take on Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Ironically,
Villeneuve, who wished to die, survived; whilst Nelson,
well, you know the rest.