In September, 1778, the British Island of Dominica was seized by an expedition from the adjacent French colony of Martinique. The affair was a surprise, and possesses no special military interest; but it is instructive to observe that Great Britain was unprepared, in the West Indies as elsewhere, when the war began. A change had been made shortly before in the command of the Leeward Islands Station, as it was called, which extended from Antigua southward over the Lesser Antilles with headquarters at Barbados. Rear-Admiral the Hon. Samuel Barrington, the new-comer, leaving home before war had been declared, had orders not to quit Barbados till further instructions should arrive. These had not reached him when he learned of the loss of Dominica. The French had received their orders on the 17th of August. The blow was intrinsically somewhat serious, so far as the mere capture of a position can be, because the fortifications were strong, though they had been inadequately garrisoned. It is a mistake to build works and not man them, for their fall transfers to the enemy strength which he otherwise would need time to create. To the French the conquest was useful beyond its commercial value, because it closed a gap in their possessions. They now held four consecutive islands, from north to south, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, and Santa Lucia.
Barrington had two ships of the line: his flagship, the Prince of Wales, 74, and the Boyne, 70. If he had been cruising, these would probably have deterred the French. Upon receiving the news he put to sea, going as far as Antigua; but he did not venture to stay away because his expected instructions had not come yet, and, like Keppel, he feared an ungenerous construction of his actions. He therefore remained in Barbados, patiently watching for an opportunity to act.
The departure of Howe and the approach of winter determined the transference of British troops and ships from the continent to the Leeward Islands. Reinforcements had given the British fleet in America a numerical superiority, which for the time imposed a check upon d’Estaing; but Byron, proverbially unlucky in weather, was driven crippled to Newport, leaving the French free to quit Boston. The difficulty of provisioning so large a force as twelve ships of the line at first threatened to prevent the withdrawal, supplies being then extremely scarce in the port; but at the critical moment American privateers brought in large numbers of prizes, laden with provisions from Europe for the British army. Thus d’Estaing was enabled to sail for Martinique on the 4th of November. On the same day there left New York for Barbados a British squadron,—two 64’s, three 50’s, and three smaller craft,—under the command of Commodore William Hotham, convoying five thousand troops for service in the West Indies.