CHAPTER XIV. CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF THE MARITIME WAR OF 1778.
The commercial value of the English West Indies made them tempting objects to the French, who adapted themselves with peculiar readiness to the social conditions of that region, in which their colonial possessions were already extensive. Besides the two finest of the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe and Martinique, which she still retains, France then held Sta. Lucia and the western half of Hayti. She might well hope by successful war to add most of the English Antilles, and thus to round off a truly imperial tropical dependency; while, though debarred from Jamaica by the susceptibilities of Spain, it might be possible to win back that magnificent island for an allied and weaker nation. But however desirable as possessions, and therefore as objects, the smaller Antilles might be, their military tenure depended too entirely upon control of the sea for them to be in themselves proper objectives. The French government, therefore, forbade its naval commanders to occupy such as they might seize. They were to make the garrisons prisoners, destroy the defences, and so retire. In the excellent military port of Fort Royal, Martinique, in Cap Francais, and in the strong allied harbor of Havana, a fleet of adequate size found good, secure, and well-distributed bases; while the early and serious loss of Sta. Lucia must be attributed to the mismanagement of the French fleet and the professional ability of the English admiral. On shore, in the West Indies, the rival powers therefore found themselves about equally provided with the necessary points of support; mere occupation of others could not add to their military strength, thenceforth dependent upon the numbers and quality of the fleets. To extend occupation further with safety, the first need was to obtain maritime supremacy, not only locally, but over the general field of war. Otherwise occupation was precarious, unless enforced by a body of troops so large as to entail expense beyond the worth of the object. The key of the situation in the West Indies being thus in the fleets, these became the true objectives of the military effort; and all the more so because the real military usefulness of the West Indian ports in this war was as an intermediate base, between Europe and the American continent, to which the fleets retired when the armies went into winter quarters. No sound strategic operation on shore was undertaken in the West Indies except the seizure of Sta. Lucia by the English, and the abortive plan against Jamaica in 1782; nor was any serious attempt against a military port, as Barbadoes or Fort Royal, possible, until naval preponderance was assured either by battle or by happy concentration of force. The key of the situation, it must be repeated, was in the fleet.
The influence of naval power, of an armed fleet, upon the war on the American continent has also been indicated in the opinions of Washington and Sir Henry Clinton; while the situation in the East Indies, regarded as a field by itself, has been so largely discussed under the head of Suffren's campaign, that it needs here only to repeat that everything there depended upon control of the sea by a superior naval force. The capture of Trincomalee, essential as it was to the French squadron which had no other base, was, like that of Sta. Lucia, a surprise, and could only have been effected by the defeat, or, as happened, by the absence of the enemy's fleet. In North America and India sound military policy pointed out, as the true objective, the enemy's fleet, upon which also depended the communications with the mother-countries. There remains Europe, which it is scarcely profitable to examine at length as a separate field of action, because its relations to the universal war are so much more important. It may simply be pointed out that the only two points in Europe whose political transfer was an object of the war were Gibraltar and Minorca; the former of which was throughout, by the urgency of Spain, made a principal objective of the allies. The tenure of both these depended, obviously, upon control of the sea.