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The death of Chatoyer – A different view

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As we celebrate another National Heroes Day, there is still a lot about our National Hero that is unknown and there are still many myths that abound. One issue that needs to be put to rest has to do with the death of Chatoyer. We had for long accepted the version given to us by Charles Shephard who had indicated to us that his book, An Historical Account of the Island of Saint Vincent, first published in 1831, was done “at the request of several Gentlemen of the Colony, who were anxious that the particular circumstances attendant on the Insurrection in 1795, should be preserved in a convenient form, and with more minuteness, than has hitherto been done…”{{more}} This should have alerted us to the kind of biases that we were likely to find, given the mindset of the ‘Gentlemen of the Colony’. Writing about the death of Chatoyer, the author stated, “…he therefore fell unregretted in single combat with the brave Major Leith of the Militia”. Any reflection on the nature of the battle during which Chatoyer was killed was bound to raise some doubts about his version. One wondered about the circumstances which led to a duel between Chatoyer and Leith.

Official versions about the death of Chatoyer tell a different story. In one of the colonial documents (CO 261/9), an item, Extracts from the “Narrative of the Insurrection in the Island of St.Vincent” – St.Vincent, March 30, 1795, states the following; “…it was judged expedient by the Governor to make an effort to dislodge the Enemy before their Cannon was in sufficient preparation to annoy our posts or defend their own. He was no doubt much encouraged to this by the arrival of Captain M. Iver in the Roebuck, who most readily concurred in giving every assistance in his power. It being determined to storm Dorsetshire Hill…The party met and formed at Haartley’s house at 12 0’clock on the night of the 14th instant, consisting of detachments of Seamen and Marines from his Majesty’s ships Zebra and Roebuck, sailors from merchant ships under the Lieutenants Hill and Groves, the company of the 46th under the command of Captain Campbell, a detachment of militia under major Whytell, and armed slaves commanded by Capt. F. Campbell; the whole under the command of Capt. Skinner of his Majesty’s ship Zebra…The word march was given at a quarter past 12 o’ clock and cheerfully obeyed, the whole party mounting in the preceding order the steep and rugged path in regularity and silence. They ascended within 80 yards of the main post, when they were discovered by a century who challenged and fired. The enemy appeared no wise discouraged at the surprise but shouted and opened a smart fore of musquetry (sic) on us. As soon as the party had got up within twenty yards of the enemy, orders were given to fire a volley and charge. They were obeyed with the greatest vivacity…The buildings in which the enemy sheltered themselves were stormed and such of them as made resistance were put to the bayonet- Many escaped through the darkness of the night.

In this attack, five seamen were killed and Lieut. Hill and four men wounded. The principal share of honour undoubtedly fell to Captain Skinner and Lieutenant Hill, of the Zebra, to whom the service owes infinite obligation… On the side of the enemy, Chatoye, the Charaib’s chief, was killed, with several other Charaibs and inhabitants of French extraction, subjects to his Majesty. Their two pieces of cannon were taken; the one a heavy six pounder, they had dragged nine miles. But the advantages derived to us from success were not confined to these:…”

What is of interest here is that there was no mention of Major Leith. And of course the Caribs were caught unawares, not expecting a British attack at that time.

We also have Governor Seton’s version in a letter entitled “Ambush of Caribs and Death of Chatoyer”. The British Company “…stormed the hill near the flag staff at one o’clock in the morning and every person that made resistance was put to the bayonet; Chatorie, the Charaibs and some French men were killed, 25 wounded, 50 made prisoners and two pieces of Cannon were taken- The enemy consisted of about 120 whites and 250 Charaibs, the loss on the side of the British consisted of 4 seamen killed, Lieut. Hill and 2 seamen wounded- Has ordered the buildings to be destroyed and the hill to be abandoned, establishing posts nearer Fort Charlotte, which will protect the town, if no artillery is brought to bear against it from enemy’s former post…”

In the Governor’s version no mention was made of Chatoyer and Major Leith. He particularly mentions for praise Capt. Skynner and Campbell and Lieut McIver. Yet the so-called feat of Major Leith is proclaimed in the annals of our history and his tombstone placed at the Anglican Cathedral, to give substance to this.

Quite a long time ago after reading Shephard, I was of the view that Chatoyer was killed on March 15 and not on the 14th. I raised the matter then with Dr. Kirby and others but was virtually brushed aside. I did not then pursue it, but on rereading Shephard I became more convinced. Then I saw the account of the battle from Governor Seton and the Official Narrative of the Insurrection which point that way. Governor Seton in his letter stated that the contingent “stormed the hill near the flag staff at one o’clock in the morning”. The narrative of March 30, noted, “The word march was given at a quarter past 12 o’clock”. All of this means that Chatoyer really died in the early morning of March 15 and not late on March 14.

This point is made not to create confusion but to try and set the records straight. This is nothing unusual with historical data. After all we had celebrated ‘Discovery Day’ for quite a long time until the historical data showed us otherwise. We are still in the process of uncovering our history. This involves not only destroying the myths but looking fully at the historical data and reinterpreting them, looking at them with fresh eyes and seeing the people of the country as subjects rather than as colonial objects.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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