The Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that spanned more than two decades are rightly famous for the epic battles that helped to decide the fate of a continent; Valmy, Waterloo, Trafalgar, Austerlitz, and Borodino amongst many others. But what is less well known are the machinations of countless traitors, spies and confidential agents that did as much to shape the progress of the war as any general or admiral. With almost constant political turmoil, especially in the early years of the conflict, France always had a ready supply of disgruntled former generals or ministers with axes to grind that were all too receptive to the approaches of foreign agents. Napoleon’s minister of police, Joseph Fouché and his foreign minister, Charles Talleyrand, both actively plotted against him on more than one occasion. Sometimes such men involved themselves in plots or conspiracies to protect their own positions and sometimes it was just for cold hard cash.
In March 1799 Sir James Craufurd, the British government representative in Hamburg, wrote to his superiors in London to inform them of an offer he had received from Antoine Omer Talon, a French royalist and former police agent, and government official. Talon was already known to the British government and their spy agency The Alien Office, having been at the heart of attempts to restore the monarchy. He was also involved in exporting much needed grain from France to Britain, despite the two countries being at war with one another. His wife still lived in Paris and his network of banking and merchant contacts spread right across Europe, and included a good friend of Talleyrand.
Talon claimed that he had been contacted by a group of officials, plantation owners and merchants from the Dutch colony of Suriname. The Dutch were allied with France against Britain and Suriname was one of a series of small Dutch colonies on the north coast of South America above Brazil. The other colonies had already surrendered to Britain, and Talon stated that the consortium he was representing, that included the governor of the colony, was prepared to surrender to the British – for the right price.
Talon’s letter detailed the defences of the colony which consisted of a long series of batteries and forts along the Suriname River on the approaches to the capital, Paramaribo, as well as lists of troops and warships. He made it clear that any attempt to take the colony by force would be costly in men and ships. He was also at pains to point out that Governor Frederici would only do the deal through his own middle man and Talon.
The Royal Navy’s domination of the trade routes back to Europe had meant that the colony’s merchants and planters could not export their produce. To tempt the British, Talon listed 70,000 barrels of sugar, 20 million pounds of coffee, 20 million pounds of cocoa and three million pounds of cotton that was sitting in warehouses in the colony, and he also mentioned that the colony had a good labour force of black slaves. He also pointed out that possession of Suriname would threaten the French colony of Cayenne just down the coast. One of the conspirators was the Dutch commandant of the garrison so the soldiers would do as they were told, he said. He did, however, expect a deposit up front.
Negotiations took place in Hamburg and the price agreed was £100,000, worth around £112M today or US$146M. The British government began to assemble forces to occupy the colony. It was a condition of the plotters that a convincing show of force be made so that they could surrender without arousing suspicion. Talon, with the lieutenant governor Colonel de Cohoin and another associate, sailed for Britain and then to the West Indies, courtesy of the Royal Navy. They travelled as officers of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment of Foot. The 60th had many foreign officers and so it was a natural cover for the three conspirators.
Lieutenant General Thomas Trigge, commander-in-chief for the Windward and Leeward Islands, received his orders from the Secretary of War, Henry Dundas:
“A secret convention having been entered into between certain persons now in Europe acting in concert with Mr Frederici Governor of Surinam and authorised by him, by which it is agreed that he shall place that valuable colony under his majesty’s protection and deliver it over into the possession of the King’s forces. I am now in the most secret and confidential manner to signify to you His Majesty’s command for the execution of this important service.”
Trigge and Vice-Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour, the local naval commander, assembled a force of two ships of the line, five frigates and several smaller ships and transports. On board were over 1,200 soldiers including the 5th Battalion of the 60th, the first, and at the time only, all-rifle armed battalion in the British Army. Recruited from the German states, the jägers of the 5th/60th had seen action in the Irish rebellion the year before, and many of them had also previously distinguished themselves in campaigns in the Caribbean. There were also troops from the Royal Artillery, 87th Foot, and 9th West India Regiment.
Talon and his two fellow conspirators sailed on to Suriname in a Royal Navy ship under a flag of truce, ostensibly to arrange the exchange of prisoners of war. The rest of the fleet arrived off the coast of Suriname on 16th August 1799. They’d received updated intelligence during the voyage on the colony’s defences from the captain of the United States armed brig Resistance. Talon had also reported back to Trigge that the governor was nervous and suggested he exaggerate the number of troops and ships the British had brought with them when negotiating the surrender.
Captain William Cayley, senior Royal Navy captain, and Lieutenant Colonel Baron Francis De Rottenburg, commanding officer of the 5th/60th, were sent up the Suriname River with terms for the colony’s surrender. Governor Frederici asked for 48 hours to consider his reply, and on 18th August he gave the expected answer. The troops were transferred to smaller ships that could navigate the shallow river, and on the morning of 19th August sailed up to Paramaribo. One hundred men of the 5th/60th under Major Dorsner took possession of Fort Amsterdam, the largest fortification in the colony, and the 750-strong garrison were allowed to march out with all the honours of war.
Trigge reported back to Dundas:
“Sir, It affords me very particular satisfaction to have the honor of acquainting you, that the Colony of Surinam surrendered to His Majesty the 20th inst; and that British Troops took possession of Fort New Amsterdam the principal Fortress on the following day.”
Trigge and Seymour lost no time inventorying the captured ships, canon, arms, stores, supplies and even slaves belonging to the garrison. The total value was £86,828 and Trigge proposed a distribution of prize money which would have made him and Seymour a small fortune, and even given the soldiers and sailors the best part of a year’s pay. However, having paid for the colony once, the government was not going to be so generous, so only paid out a quarter of the money.
Trade was soon flowing from the colony again, earning the new rulers thousands of pounds in tax revenue. The 5th/60th were to remain in Suriname until the end of 1802 when the colony returned to Dutch rule during the brief Peace of Amiens. They may have lost no men in the taking of the colony but nearly 300 would die of disease before they left. The British retook the colony after the peace in 1804, and that time no deal was done but the Dutch put up only token resistance. The British forces lost eight dead and 17 wounded. The colony was once more returned to the Dutch in 1814, and gained independence in 1975.
Antoine Omer Talon claimed £70,000 from the British government for ‘expenses’ and in 1800 was able to travel back to Paris, with Fouché’s support, to take up a senior position in the French secret police. He still maintained his links with the British government. In 1803 disaffected generals and royalists, with the support of The Alien Office, attempted a coup against Napoleon. It failed and Talon was one of those arrested and imprisoned.
With Napoleon’s increasing domination of Europe from 1805 many potential plotters bided their time and only when the tide began to turn did Talleyrand, Fouché and many others conspire against him once more.
© Rob Griffith 2017
Secret Service: British Agents in France 1792-1815 – Elizabeth Sparrow
The National Archives – WO 1/87, WO 1/87, WO 1/89 and WO 1/95
About the Author
Rob Griffith has written several espionage novels set during the Napoleonic Wars and is currently writing a history of the 5th Battalion 60th Foot for Helion & Company, due to be published 2019.
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