- Celebrating the Battle of the Saintes:Imperial News in England and Ireland, 1782*
The same wind that wafted on one of its wings the defeat of the French fleet in the West Indies, attended with a slaughter and carnage hitherto unknown, conveys the happy tidings of ireland’s emancipation on the other, balanced in the calm air of steadiness and unanimity. English valour has triumphed over French pride, and Irish perseverance has broken England’s stubbornness.Freeman’s Journal, 21 May 1782
As news of Admiral George Rodney’s stunning victory over the French fleet at Les Saintes in the Caribbean in April 1782 broke in Ireland, so too did word of Westminster’s repeal of the Dependency of Ireland on Great Britain Act (6. Geo. I, c. 5, also known as the Declaratory Act of 1719). The ebullient pronouncement in the Freeman’s Journal illustrates the apparent contradiction between the applause by patriotic, antigovernment newspapers for Rodney’s imperial victory, and the celebration of Dublin’s independence from Westminster. As Stephen Conway has noted, this enthusiasm for British success seems “odd,” particularly as the Irish Protestant minority had been pulling away from Britain over the course of the American war.1 Yet this paradox, placed against its contemporary networks that passed information from the margins of empire to the metropole and to Ireland, provides an opportunity to examine how imperial news interacted with local politics and shaped imperial sensibilities. Relying [End Page 34] on a comparison of the newspaper coverage of the Saintes and the ensuing celebrations in a selection of London, Dublin, and Belfast newspapers, this essay thus takes the battle—a largely forgotten event in the American war—as a transnational case study in the history of imperial news.
The victory at the Saintes has received little scholarly attention. Military historians have analyzed the innovative tactics that Rodney and his captains employed during the battle, but few historians have paused to consider the wider significance of the events of April 1782.2 Until Conway’s essay on the Saintes in a British context and Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s reexamination of events preceding Yorktown, American and British historiography had largely overlooked the battle. Conway reviewed the celebrations that followed Rodney’s victory in his investigation of the ways in which the American conflict stimulated and redefined a popular sense of Britishness. He argued that the “enthusiastic celebrations of the Saintes … are explicable only when one recognises that Britishness itself was both reconfigured and given a great boost during the American war.”3 O’Shaughnessy examined Rodney and the Saintes in his scholarship on the American Revolution in the context of the British Atlantic. His work has focused on the strategic and practical impact of Rodney’s victory and on other British activities in the Caribbean as they related to developments in the fledgling United States.4 Most recently, Brad Jones included the Saintes in his doctoral thesis on popular loyalism in the British Atlantic during the American revolutionary period. Jones examined how the war and revolutionary ideology affected the ways in which Britons living throughout the Atlantic world understood and articulated their loyalty to Great Britain. According to his assessment, the victory at the Saintes was “constructed as the defining [End Page 35] moment in the American war for Britain’s Atlantic world inhabitants,” who celebrated the victory as exuberantly as those in Britain.5
The Saintes has thus been considered—if minimally—from diverse historiographical perspectives spanning military history, the identity politics of Britain during the American war, and the context of the revolutionary Atlantic. This case study adopts a different approach that is transnational in nature—placing the Saintes and the ensuing celebrations within the framework of new imperial history and “British world” scholarship—two methodologies that have recently begun to converge.6 As Zoë Laidlaw has noted, recent works influenced by new imperial history “range far beyond dissections of metropolitan society and culture, focusing on interactions between widely separated colonial sites, juxtaposing micro and macro, and questioning the relationship between the remarkable and the everyday.”7
In relation to Ireland Niall Whelehan has recently argued that “transnational approaches overlap with...