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Mon, 04.02.1810

The Corps of the Colonial Marines, a story

*The Corps of Colonial Marines began on this date in 1810.  They were two different British Marine units raised from former Black slaves for service in the Americas. At the behest of Alexander Cochrane, the units were created at two separate points during the wars (Napoleonic Wars, War of 1812), and were later disbanded once the military threat had disappeared. Apart from being created in each case they had no connection with each other.  

The first Corps was a small unit that served in the Caribbean from 1808 to October 12, 1810, recruited from former slaves to address the shortage of military manpower in the Caribbean. The locally recruited men were less susceptible to tropical illnesses than were white troops sent from Britain. The Corps followed the practice of the British Army's West India Regiments in recruiting former slaves as soldiers. In the previous year, the Mutiny Act of 1807 emancipated all slaves in the British Army and, as a result, then enlisted slaves were considered free on enlistment.  

The second, more substantial, Corps served from May 18, 1814 until August 20, 1816. The greater part of the Corps was stationed at St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast, with a smaller body occupying the future Negro Fort, on the Apalachicola River in remote northwest Florida. Recruits were accepted from escaped slaves who had already gained their freedom on coming into British hands and who were unwilling to join West India Regiments. The establishment of the force sparked controversy at the time, as the arming of former slaves was a psychological as well as military threat to the slave-owning society of the Antebellum South

As a consequence, the two senior officers of the Corps in Florida, George Woodbine and Edward Nicolls, were demonized by white Americans such as Hezekiah Niles in his Baltimore publication, the Weekly Register for their association with the Corps and inducing slave revolt.  At the end of the War of 1812, as the British post in Florida was evacuated, the Corps' Florida detachment was paid off and disbanded.  They evolved into the Merikin community. Although several men accompanied the British to Bermuda, the majority continued to live in settlements around the fort the Corps had garrisoned. 

This legacy of a community of armed fugitive slaves with a substantial arsenal was unacceptable to the United States of America. After the Fort was destroyed in the Battle of Negro Fort of 1816, the former Marines joined the southward migration of Seminoles and Africans escaping the white American advance. Members of the Colonial Marine battalion who were deployed on the Atlantic coast withdrew from American territory. They continued in British service as garrison-in-residence at Bermuda until 1816, when the unit was disbanded and the ex-Marines resettled on Trinidad.  


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