The war which began in 1688 with the French invasion of the Rhineland spread rapidly to involve all Europe, with sideshows in America and the Indian Ocean and Africa. After a brief peace between 1697 and 1700, the fighting restarted, first in Italy, and then, from 1702, once again involving all Europe, North America, and the Caribbean. But things inevitably changed along the way. Most importantly for the Caribbean lands and islands, in the first bout of the warfare, England, the Netherlands, Austria, and Spain were allies against France, whereas in the second bout, France and Spain were allies against England (Britain from 1707), Austria, and the Netherlands. Also, in naval terms, the character of the sea war changed, since the French naval effort changed during the wars from a major fleet-based campaign to a reliance on privateering, what the French called ‘guerre de course’.
It had become obvious in the Dutch wars of the 1660s and 1670s that the West Indian islands had become very valuable, and that to deprive one's enemy of them, or at least of their products, was to inflict serious damage. Jamaica soon had a large enough white population to defend itself, and was geographically large enough to be difficult to conquer, as the Spanish had known since the 1650s. But it was also evident that the other English islands were very vulnerable, in particular since the French colonies, all of them much larger than the English colonies, except Jamaica, were capable of fielding comparatively large local forces out of their popula¬tions. Barbados might produce a substantial force, but its white population was by now deeply unwilling to leave the island, fearing either a French attack while they were away, or a black rebellion, or both – and there had been three confirmed conspiracies amongst the slaves in Antigua and Barbados in the 1680s.
Nevertheless, Barbados, with over 21,000 whites in 1684, had a considerable population compared with the English Leeward Islands, where the total white population of the four islands reached only half that. By contrast, Barbados’ black slaves totalled double the number of whites on the island, whereas in the Leewards, whites outnumbered blacks, at least in the 1680s. Martinique and Guadeloupe, however, had comparable populations of whites, though these were not yet outnumbered by their slaves.