CHAPTER XIV. CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF THE MARITIME WAR OF 1778.
Posts like Martinique and Sta. Lucia had therefore for the present war great strategic advantage over Jamaica, Havana, or others to leeward. They commanded the latter in virtue of their position, by which the passage westward could be made so much more quickly than the return; while the decisive points of the continental struggle were practically little farther from the one than from the other. This advantage was shared equally by most of those known as the Lesser Antilles; but the small island of Barbadoes, being well to windward of all, possessed peculiar advantages, not only for offensive action, but because it was defended by the difficulty with which a large fleet could approach it, even from so near a port as Fort Royal. It will be remembered that the expedition which finally sat down before St. Kitt's had been intended for Barbadoes, but could not reach it through the violence of the trade-wind. Thus Barbadoes, under the conditions of the time, was peculiarly fitted to be the local base and depot of the English war, as well as a wayside port of refuge on the line of communications to Jamaica, Florida, and even to North America; while Sta. Lucia, a hundred miles to leeward, was held in force as an advanced post for the fleet, watching closely the enemy at Fort Royal.
In India the political conditions of the peninsula necessarily indicated the eastern, or Coromandel, coast as the scene of operations. Trincomalee, in the adjacent island of Ceylon, though unhealthy, offered an excellent and defensible harbor, and thus acquired first-rate strategic importance, all the other anchorages on the coast being mere open roadsteads. From this circumstance the trade-winds, or monsoons, in this region also had strategic bearing. From the autumnal to the spring equinox the wind blows regularly from the northeast, at times with much violence, throwing a heavy surf upon the beach and making landing difficult; but during the summer months the prevailing wind is southwest, giving comparatively smooth seas and good weather. The "change of the monsoon," in September and October, is often marked by violent hurricanes. Active operations, or even remaining on the coast, were therefore unadvisable from this time until the close of the northeast monsoon. The question of a port to which to retire during this season was pressing. Trincomalee was the only one, and its unique strategic value was heightened by being to windward, during the fine season, of the principal scene of war. The English harbor of Bombay on the west coast was too distant to be considered a local base, and rather falls, like the French islands Mauritius and Bourbon, under the head of stations on the line of communications with the mother-country.
Such were the principal points of support, or bases, of the belligerent nations, at home and abroad. Of those abroad it must be said, speaking generally, that they were deficient in resources, - an important element of strategic value. Naval and military stores and equipments, and to a great extent provisions for sea use, had to be sent them from the mother-countries. Boston, surrounded by a thriving, friendly population, was perhaps an exception to this statement, as was also Havana, at that time an important naval arsenal, where much ship-building was done; but these were distant from the principal theatres of war. Upon New York and Narragansett Bay the Americans pressed too closely for the resources of the neighboring country to be largely available, while the distant ports of the East and West Indies depended wholly upon home. Hence the strategic question of communications assumed additional importance. To intercept a large convoy of supply-ships was an operation only secondary to the destruction of a body of ships-of-war; while to protect such by main strength, or by evading the enemy's search, taxed the skill of the governments and naval commanders in distributing the ships-of-war and squadrons at their disposal, among the many objects which demanded attention. The address of Kempenfeldt and the bad management of Guichen in the North Atlantic, seconded by a heavy gale of wind, seriously embarrassed De Grasse in the West Indies. Similar injury, by cutting off small convoys in the Atlantic, was done to Suffren in the Indian seas: while the latter at once made good part of these losses, and worried his opponents by the success of his cruisers preying on the English supply-ships.
Thus the navies, by which alone these vital streams could be secured or endangered, bore the same relation to the maintenance of the general war that has already been observed of the separate parts. They were the links that bound the whole together, and were therefore indicated as the proper objective of both belligerents.