Prince Rupert in the West Indies, 1652-3

On 9 May 1652, Prince Rupert's squadron set sail from the Cape Verde Islands for the West Indies . Rupert's flagship was the Swallow, his brother Prince Maurice was in the Defiance. Other ships in the squadron were the Honest Seaman, the John, the Sarah and one of the prizes recently taken in the Cape Verde Islands. During the crossing of the Atlantic, the squadron went off-course after chasing a ship that eventually succeeded in escaping, and finally arrived at a deserted spot on the west coast of St Lucia in the Windward Islands on 29 May. After replenishing water supplies, the Royalists sailed north to the French colony of Martinique, where Rupert and Maurice were warmly welcomed by the governor. On Martinique, Rupert learned of Sir George Ayscue's success in securing Barbados and other English colonies in the Americas for the Commonwealth.

Prince Rupert in the West IndiesPrince Rupert in the West Indies

With no secure Royalist base in the Caribbean, Rupert's squadron sailed north from island to island in search of prizes. One was taken at Montserrat and another from under the guns of the fort at Nevis, where Rupert's secretary was killed. On 8 June, the squadron arrived at St Christopher's Island (now St Kitts) which was partitioned between England and France. The English colonists warned Dutch merchants that their goods would be confiscated if they traded with the Royalists. However, Rupert anchored in the French part of the island and sold his prize cargoes. On 20 June, the squadron sailed to the Virgin Islands where Rupert fortified a small harbour against possible attack by the Spanish and spent several weeks refitting and repairing his ships. The squadron put to sea again on 29 August.

On 13 September 1652, almost one year after the storm that had wrecked the Constant Reformation, the Royalists were caught in a violent northerly hurricane that scattered the ships and broke up the squadron irrevocably. Prince Rupert's flagship the Swallow ran before the storm for four days, losing most of her sails and masts. By skilful seamanship and great good fortune, the crew finally succeeded in bringing her into a sheltered anchorage at St Ann's in the Virgin Islands on 17 September (this was possibly Tortola, originally named Santa Ana by Columbus). The other ships in the squadron, including Prince Maurice's flagship the Defiance, were lost in the storm. Neither the ships nor most of their crews were ever seen again.

Repairs were made to the Swallow and stores of fresh water taken aboard, but food was running low. With every man on reduced rations and starvation a real threat, the Swallow set sail on 25 September in search of supplies. Sailing south-east along the Leeward Islands, Rupert arrived off Montserrat on 5 October where he captured a small English ship of ten guns. After an abortive pursuit of a Spanish ship, he arrived at Guadeloupe on 10 October where he was able to replenish the Swallow's provisions. To Rupert's distress, there was no news of Prince Maurice or the missing ships. However, he was informed that the Commonwealth of England was at war with the States-General of the Netherlands and also that there were some English merchantmen at Antigua, which he resolved to capture if he could.

The Swallow, accompanied by the prize captured at Montserrat, arrived off Antigua on 30 October. Two English ships were sighted at anchor in Five Island Harbour under the protection of a gun emplacement. Rupert sent a party of fifty men ashore under the command of Captain Holmes to attack the guns while he sailed into the harbour to seize the ships. The defenders abandoned the guns and Rupert captured the ships without resistance. The Royalists returned to Guadeloupe where another English vessel was seized on 11 November.

Early in December 1652, the Swallow and the four prizes returned to the Virgin Islands. Rupert heard a rumour that Prince Maurice had reached safety on the island of Tortuga off the northern coast of Hispaniola, but could find no confirmation of the report. He could not risk sailing into the area to search for Maurice and the lost ships because it was hostile Spanish territory and his own ships were short-handed after assigning prize crews. Furthermore, Rupert had fallen ill with a tropical fever. Reluctantly, he decided to return to Europe with the four prizes and sailed from the West Indies on 12 December.

The return voyage across the Atlantic was uneventful until the Royalists approached the Azores on 16 January 1653. Prince Rupert expected a friendly reception from the Portuguese but had to withdraw quickly when the fort on Fayal opened fire on his ships. While the Royalist squadron had been in the West Indies, the Portuguese government had officially recognised the Commonwealth of England and established diplomatic relations with London. Furthermore, Portugal had agreed to pay £50,000 to the Commonwealth as compensation for losses to English commerce during the period when Rupert's squadron had sheltered at Lisbon.

The Royalists sailed on towards France. After an unsuccessful attempt to capture another ship off Cape Finisterre, the Swallow and the four prizes arrived in the mouth of the River Loire on 4 March 1653 and anchored off St Nazaire. The Swallow was the only surviving vessel of the squadron that had set sail from Helvoetsluys four years previously. Once Rupert came ashore, he succumbed to physical exhaustion and lay at Nantes desperately sick from fever and internal bleeding for several weeks.

When news of Rupert's arrival in France reached the exiled court of Charles II in Paris, welcoming letters were sent by Charles himself, Lord Jermyn on behalf of Henrietta Maria, and Sir Edward Hyde. Rupert travelled to Paris early in April 1653 but remained in poor health for several more weeks and never fully regained his former vigour. Captain Craven arrived in France in June 1653 with news that his ship the Honest Seaman had been wrecked in the hurricane of September 1652, yet some of the crew had survived. Craven had no news of the fate of Prince Maurice or the Defiance. Rupert left Paris in June 1654 having quarrelled with Charles and Hyde over the disposal of the proceeds of his voyages, particularly over Charles' refusal to pay off the debts that Rupert had run up at Toulon in the King's service during 1650-1. Rupert went to Germany where he lived in obscurity for several years.


S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. ii (London 1903)

Frank Kitson, Prince Rupert, admiral and general-at-sea (London 1998)

Eliot Warburton, Memoirs of Prince Rupert and the Cavaliers vol iii (London 1849)


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