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Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Durham’s Feud in the Leeward Islands, June 1815

Posted by Hilary Rubinstein, on May 15th, 2019


This heated letter, from Lieutenant-General Sir James Leith to Rear-Admiral Sir Philip Durham, shows the difficulties of cooperation between the army and navy in Britain’s distant colonies.

Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape from Elba in 1815, concerns arose as to the allegiance of the French islands Martinique and Guadeloupe. After Guadeloupe declared for the Bonapartists, Leith – governor and commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands – requested assistance from Durham, his naval counterpart. Durham, who had received orders from the Admiralty not to engage those flying the tricolore flag unless provoked, or until war had been declared, refused to carry Leith’s troops.

This letter is Leith’s response to that refusal.

Leith describes ‘difficulty and embarrassment’ on behalf of the army, who had been ordered to directly support the Bourbon cause and to ‘resist by arms all attempts under the tricolour flag to overthrow the government of Louis XVIII’. He further notes that Durham’s abstention is based on Admiralty policy, and not ‘any particular line of state policy’.

The matter was eventually resolved after Durham received the appropriate authorisation from the Admiralty; however, this incident perfectly encapsulates the tensions that could arise between the two very separate command structures of Britain’s army and navy.

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