CHAPTER XIV. CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF THE MARITIME WAR OF 1778.
The distance from Europe to America was not such as to make intermediate ports of supply absolutely necessary; while if difficulty did arise from an unforeseen cause, it was always possible, barring meeting an enemy, either to return to Europe or to make a friendly port in the West Indies. The case was different with the long voyage to India by the Cape of Good Hope. Bickerton, leaving England with a convoy in February, was thought to have done well in reaching Bombay the following September; while the ardent Suffren, sailing in March, took an equal time to reach Mauritius, whence the passage to Madras consumed two months more. A voyage of such duration could rarely be made without a stop for water, for fresh provisions, often for such refitting as called for the quiet of a harbor, even when the stores on board furnished the necessary material. A perfect line of communications required, as has been said, several such harbors, properly spaced, adequately defended, and with abundant supplies, such as England in the present day holds on some of her main commercial routes, acquisitions of her past wars. In the war of 1778 none of the belligerents had such ports on this route, until, by the accession of Holland, the Cape of Good Hope was put at the disposal of the French and suitably strengthened by Suffren. With this and the Mauritius on the way, and Trincomalee at the far end of the road, the communications of the allies with France were reasonably guarded. England, though then holding St. Helena, depended, for the refreshment and refitting of her India-bound squadrons and convoys in the Atlantic, upon the benevolent neutrality of Portugal, extended in the islands of Madeira and Cape Verde and in the Brazilian ports. This neutrality was indeed a frail reliance for defence, as was shown by the encounter between Johnstone and Suffren at the Cape Verde; but there being several possible stopping-places, and the enemy unable to know which, if any, would be used, this ignorance itself conferred no small security, if the naval commander did not trust it to the neglect of proper disposition of his own force, as did Johnstone at Porto Praya. Indeed, with the delay and uncertainty which then characterized the transmission of intelligence from one point to another, doubt where to find the enemy was a greater bar to offensive enterprises than the often slight defences of a colonial port.
This combination of useful harbors and the conditions of the communications between them constitute, as has been said, the main strategic outlines of the situation. The navy, as the organized force linking the whole together, has been indicated as the principal objective of military effort. The method employed to reach the objective, the conduct of the war, is still to be considered. (1)
- - 1. In other words, having considered the objects for which the belligerents were at war and the proper objectives upon which their military efforts should have been directed to compass the objects, the discussion now considers how the military forces should have been handled; by what means and at what point the objective, being mobile, should have been assailed. - -
Before doing this a condition peculiar to the sea, and affecting the following discussion, must be briefly mentioned; that is, the difficulty of obtaining information. Armies pass through countries more or less inhabited by a stationary population, and they leave behind them traces of their march. Fleets move through a desert over which wanderers flit, but where they do not remain; and as the waters close behind them, an occasional waif from the decks may indicate their passage, but tells nothing of their course. The sail spoken by the pursuer may know nothing of the pursued, which yet passed the point of parley but a few days or hours before. Of late, careful study of the winds and currents of the ocean has laid down certain advantageous routes, which will be habitually followed by a careful seaman, and afford some presumption as to his movements; but in 1778 the data for such precision were not collected, and even had they been, the quickest route must often have been abandoned for one of the many possible ones, in order to elude pursuit or lying-in-wait. In such a game of hide-and-seek the advantage is with the sought, and the great importance of watching the outlets of an enemy's country, of stopping the chase before it has got away into the silent desert, is at once evident. If for any reason such a watch there is impossible, the next best thing is, not attempting to watch routes which may not be taken, to get first to the enemy's destination and await him there; but this implies a knowledge of his intentions which may not always be obtainable. The action of Suffren, when pitted against Johnstone, was throughout strategically sound, both in his attack at Porto Praya and in the haste with which he made for their common destination; while the two failures of Rodney to intercept the convoys to Martinique in 1780 and 1782, though informed that they were coming, show the difficulty which attended lying-in-wait even when the point of arrival was known.