Friday, July 11, 2014

The British Colony That Never Was - Trinidade in the South Atlantic

By Mark Patton.

The island of Trinidade lies in the South Atlantic, some 740 miles east of the Brazilian port of Vittoria, and is a mere four square miles in extent. It was uninhabited when it was discovered, in 1502, by the Portuguese explorer, Estevao da Gama. It is, today, a Brazilian naval outpost, but, for 18 months in 1781-82, it was a British colony of sorts.

Photo: John Vergari (licensed under CCA).

The decision to "colonise" the island seems to have been taken unilaterally by Commodore George Johnstone, unwilling to return to Britain empty-handed after the failure of his secret mission to capture the Cape Colony from the Dutch.

Commodore George Johnstone

The tiny island would, he thought, be ideal as a provisioning base for outward-bound Indiamen. The proposal was met with scepticism from some of his officers. Thomas Pasley, the captain of HMS Jupiter, wrote:

"How my commodore's scheme may be relished at home, I know not, but he is indefatigable in every project he undertakes."

HMS Jupiter with HMS Medea, in action 
against the French ship, Le Triton, 1778 

Pasley was similarly sceptical about the man Johnstone chose as effective governor of the island, the Jerseyman, Philippe Dauvergne, recently promoted as captain of HMS Rattlesnake.

"I do not think him in any way calculated for it, as he is trifling indolence itself, though with a good deal of genius."

Philippe Dauvergne

Johnstone and Dauvergne, however, were leaving nothing to chance. "My Jupiter," wrote Pasley, "is at present a perfect Noah's Ark: bulls, cows, rams, ewes, ram goats, ewe goats, lambs and kids in variety, calves of both species, boar and sow pigs with old and young, turkeys, geese, ducks, fowls, singing birds of different kinds to turn loose, all kinds of trees to plant, and grasses of every kind, seeds both Cape and European without number and without name - water cresses, sorrel, water dock, purselayne, wild mint, thyme, and the Lord knows what ..."

The enterprise got off to an unpromising start when Dauvergne's ship, HMS Rattlesnake, was caught in a storm, and he had to run her ashore to avoid losing her with all hands. He was able to unload most of the provisions before the inevitable break-up of the ship. Pasley urged him to abandon his mission, and to place himself and his men on the other ships of the squadron, but Dauvergne was having none of it. Pasley unloaded his menagerie and, in November 1781, sailed away to engage in bounty-hunting along the South American coast, leaving Dauvergne in charge of his "colony" of thirty men and, it would seem, one woman, Rebecca Stephens, the wife of a Warrant Officer.

Dauvergne produced a map of the island, showing the location of a maize plantation, and the positions of gun emplacements established as a defence against any attack by the French, or from pirates. It is also clear from the map that the initial settlement in "Dauvergne's Bay" (later called "South-West Bay") was abandoned "for want of water," and that a new settlement was created on the north coast, close to the mouth of "The River."

HMS Jupiter returned with further provisions in January 1782, but Dauvergne's "colony" was then left to its own devices until the 28th December that year, when HMS Bristol, having been blown off course on a passage to India, came within sight of the island. Dauvergne fired a distress signal, and the Bristol's captain, James Burney, sent a boat to rescue the survivors, twenty-eight men and a woman, Mrs Stephens.

                               HMS Bristol 

Little is known of what actually happened on the island. In the National Archives at Kew, I found the muster-list for HMS Rattlesnake, but not the log-book, presumably lost when the ship sank. Dauvergne and his men must have survived on the rations left by HMS Jupiter, and by eating the land-crabs that infest the island, and turtles which come ashore to breed. A deal was struck between the British and Portuguese governments, confirming Trinidade as a Portuguese possession.

Map of Trinidade, 
drawn by Frederick Knight in 1889 

Dauvergne went on to have a distinguished naval career, running an espionage network from the Channel Islands during the French Revolutionary Wars. Having been ship-wrecked on the coast of Brittany, he was also adopted by his near-namesake, Godefroy de la Tour d'Auvergne, Prince de Bouillon, and was briefly Prince de Bouillon himself, before the territory was absorbed into France.

Coin minted by Philippe Dauvergne
as Prince de Bouillon

When the adventurer, Frederick Knight, visited Trinidade in 1889, in search of pirate treasure, he judged it to be " ... one of the most uncanny and dispiriting places on Earth ... the jagged and torn rocks, the profound chasms, the huge land-slips of black rock, the slopes of red volcanic ash destitute of vegetation." He found an abandoned settlement of stone-built cottages on the north of the island, which he believed to be the remains of a Portuguese penal colony, but which was, almost certainly, Dauvergne's "Second Station." His abiding memory of the island, however, was of " ... the loathsome land-crabs," which "might well be the restless spirits of the pirates themselves, for they are indeed more ugly and evil, and generally more diabolical-looking than the bloodiest pirate who ever lived."

The Trinidade landcrabs Gercarcinus lagostoma

Unless otherwise stated, images are in the Public Domain.


Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.


  1. Excellent post, Mark. Believe it or not, this last few days I have been investigating "Fernando de Noronha - an archipelago of 21 islands and islets in the Atlantic Ocean, 354 km (220 mi) offshore from the Brazilian coast." I have never heard of Trinidade which is obviously further out to sea. Thanks for the info.

  2. I did, at one stage, think of writing a novel about Trinidade, and made enquiries about the possibility of visiting, but the answer that came back from the Brazilian authorities was an emphatic no. They have a naval base there, and no foreign civilians are allowed.

  3. It would have been horrid to be the lone woman in such an inhospitable place.

  4. It must have been! It's a pity we don't know more about her. I spent several days at Kew, but found almost nothing - I think she may well have been born and married in one of the colonies. She was probably on her way home following her husband's retirement. The one good thing we know is that she survived - she is mentioned in the "in-letter" of the Bristol's captain.

  5. A great story Mark - thanks for posting!


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