The island that disappeared: old providence and the making of the western world

The creation myth of the United States begins with the plucky English Puritans who landed on the Mayflower, and went on to build the most powerful nation on earth. This is the story of the passengers aboard its sister ship, the Seaflower, who in 1630, founded a rival Puritan colony on an isolated Caribbean island called Providence, convinced that England’s empire would rise not in barren New England, but tropical Central America.

 

But their crops failed, their slaves revolted, and as crisis loomed, the worldlier settlers turned to piracy. After ten years of conflict between God-fearing Puritans and devil-may- care buccaneers, the Spanish invaded, and the colony was wiped out.

 

Providence was soon forgotten in England, but as Tom Feiling discovers, the same drama was played out by the men and women who resettled the island 100 years later. These days, the island is a fascinating microcosm of the Atlantic story. At first glance, Providence is an island of devout churchgoers, but look a little closer, and you see that it is still dependent on its cocaine smugglers.

 

At once intimate and global, The Island that Disappeared goes to the heart of the contradictory nature of the Caribbean. But this story of puritans and pirates also offers a telling insight into the role that Britain imagines itself playing in the world post-Brexit.

 

Available 4 May 2017 published by Explore Books.

 

The Island that Disappeared: Old Providence and the making of the Western World

 

See also oldprovidenceisland.com


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Extracts from 'The Island that Disappeared: Old Providence and the Making of the Western World'

 

Daniel Elfrith discovers the island

1629: emerging from a sea that shimmered near silver in the light of mid-morning, the island looked like a black peaked hat. As the Robert drew closer, the island’s flanks turned dark green, suggestive of rich, fertile soils, and the seabed rose steeply from the depths, turning the water a brilliant turquoise.

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Captain Daniel Elfrith dropped anchor at the edge of the coral reef that runs down the eastern side of the island, and had his men row him ashore in a longboat. He stepped onto a beach of fine, white sand that rose steeply into deep forest. Ahead of them, the sunlight was playing on the fronds of tall palm trees that marked the watershed of a lush valley. They made their way to the fast-running stream, which gave them their first taste of fresh water since leaving the Somers Isles, 1,800 miles to the northeast.

 

Captain Elfrith resolved to explore his discovery. The undergrowth was dense, and they had to clamber over the roots of huge cotton trees, so they stuck to the course of the stream. As they climbed higher, the trees thinned out. Emerging onto flatter ground, they found wild orange and lemon trees growing in abundance. They also found trees bearing fruit that none of them had seen before: papaya, guava and soursop.

 

It took them several hours to reach the summit of the island’s highest peak, but once there, the lie of the island became clear to them. Fresh-water streams coursed through steep-sided valleys that branched out in every direction, levelling out as they approached the shore, 1,000 feet below, where they could see the Robert riding at anchor. They could see shades of brilliant aquamarine around the coral reef, which stretched out of sight to the north.

 

There were also masses of birds, which chattered over their heads as they passed under the boughs of the cotton trees. Through his spyglass, Captain Elfrith watched a pelican scoop plump fish from the glittering sea; a solitary heron standing sentinel in the mangroves; man-of-war birds (or frigatebirds) nesting on the rocky off shore cays. He didn’t know it, but many of the birds he saw had come to the island to escape the winters of New England, where another band of English pioneers was struggling to keep from freezing to death.

 

 

The Rise of the Buccaneers

William Blauveldt was their introduction to the community of 600 foreigners who lived on the coast, many at Bluefields, a community of itinerant buccaneers that had been named after the old Dutchman. Most of Bluefields’ inhabitants were English or African, and many were veterans of the colony on Providence. MORE

The contrast between life in New Westminster and life on the Miskito coast could not have been starker. On Providence, they had long wrestled with the competing claims of hectoring preachers and abusive captains, and they had no interest in returning to the life of the indentured servant. Lord Saye had warned against democracy, a world in which ‘every man is a master, and masters must not correct their servants.’ Yet the buccaneers lived with so little government – indeed, so little subordination to any form of authority -– that for a time they were indeed all masters.

 

The democratic spirit that prevailed on the coast owed much to the culture of their Miskito hosts. When the first settlers of North America called the natives ‘faithless, lawless and kingless,’ they had meant it as an insult. But the buccaneers would have considered it a compliment, for their indomitability was akin to a badge of honour. The humble toil and patient accumulation that had been urged on them by Providence’s Puritan ministers meant nothing to them now, and after 24 years of buccaneering, the routine humiliation they had suffered at the hands of their employers was a distant memory. Free to live as they liked, they fashioned dice from the teeth of the manatee, and gambled away what little they had. No longer tied by the strictures of Providence’s artificial ‘families’, or Reverend Hope Sherrard’s watchful censoriousness, they were free to drink mishla with the Miskito men, take their friends’ sisters as wives, and raise families of their own.

 

Like the Miskitos, their lives were often idle, broken by spells of frenetic, sometimes violent activity. They learned to sleep in hammocks strung between poles, and preferred to hunt fish than till fields. They made what little money they needed by cutting dyewoods, which they sold to passing merchant ships from Jamaica, and running contraband to isolated Spanish settlements further down the coast. Sometimes, guided by their Miskito friends, they ventured inland to raid the Spaniards’ cocoa plantations.

 

Like the Miskitos, they produced no cloth, pottery or basketry. But they appreciated the fruits of other men’s industry, and they relied on the leather and metal goods they were able to procure from the merchant ships. Whenever they came by a cargo of clothing destined for the wealthy households of Granada or Panama, they lavished attention on their costumes. To parade on the beach in stolen ruffs and silk shirts was a form of drag, as subversive as it was ridiculous (although the suggestion that they wore earrings is a figment of a Victorian writer’s imagination).

 

 

Talking to an island musician

“The typical music that we play from my grandfather’s time is from Jamaica,” Willy B told me over a post-gig drink. “We call one of the tune pasillo, one quadrille. One is jumping polka. Call one wals, call one schottis, call one mazorka. Look very pretty to see. We don’t want this music to abolish, so we training so young one come to know it.” MORE

“Have you ever been to Jamaica?” I asked him. “Yeah. I been a cook on a small tanker carrying oil and we went to Jamaica plenty time. They have big tubes running under the earth, taking crude oil fifty miles off shore from the Gulf to Mexico. Hard work, man. But I got sick with my heart running brown sugar to Bahia Dulce, Guatemala, so when I reach home, they take me Medellín and put in a pacemaker. After that, all work was over.”

I asked Willy what happened to the English who first settled the island. “We never see them anymore. This Providence was given by England to Colombia, so we speak English. Then we was vexed because we said, ‘Why the hell you did that? You should keep us.’” But that was a long time ago, I said. “Yes, long time ago,” he said in a whisper. “Bad people fi that, because Colombia treat us like dog. Spanish up in Bogotá take up all the money and put it in him pocket. If England could take it over back, I would rather that.”

 

I had heard variants of the same story from several of the older islanders: Queen Victoria had given Providence to Colombia as a gift when the new republic won its independence from Spain, but on one condition: that if they ever gave the islanders cause for complaint, she would take it back. It was a nice story, but one that owed more to the fantastic Edward Seaward than it did to the real Francis Archbold.

 

“Well, I will be soon out of this punishment,” said Willy. “That’s the last touch, because 76 years I have now.” He asked me how long I’d been away from England. About three months, I told him. He thought for a moment. “England is by America?”

 

 

 

 

Pictures from Old Providence Island

Click on an image to see a large version

Providence, or Providencia as it is known to Colombians, is an English speaking island in the Caribbean, 150 miles east of the Nicaraguan coast. These days it belongs to Colombia. Though completely forgotten by the British, Providence was one of England's first colonies. The Providence Island Company's experiment began in 1630, when puritans aboard the Seaflower landed with hopes of establishing a refuge from persecution. But rows between puritans, soldiers, slave owners and abolitionists kept the colony in uproar. The experiment ended in 1641, when the Spanish invaded the island and expelled the English. The flag of Providence makes reference to the treasure reputedly buried on the island by English pirates and privateers in the years following the collapse of the colony in 1641. OIn the 1700s, Providence was one of several English-speaking communities that were absorbed into the Spanish speaking countries of the Western Caribbean and Central America. This is the flag of Miskitia, which lies on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. It gives a clue to the largely forgotten role Britain played in settling this part of the world. Providence is about five miles long. To the north is a smaller island called Santa Catalina or Ketleena to the locals. Together they are home to about 5000 people. The highest point on Providence is known as the Peak. The island began as an underwater volcano. Fire from below and rain from above also created the land bridge that connects North and South America. Split Hill, looking south; as it cooled, lava from the original volcano created steep hills and in time, fertile soils. Sailing east from Providence, the nearest landfall is the Windward Islands, 1300 miles away. However rough the weather coming in from the Caribbean Sea, Providence is protected by the coral reef that runs off its eastern shore. A black iguana, known as a rocco. The first English settlers were relieved to find that there were no dangerous beasts or venomous serpents on Providence. One of the few remaining ironwood trees on the island. Long after the original colony fell in 1641, the English would return to the deserted island from their colonies on Jamaica and the Miskito coast to fell timber for their houses and ships. The Providence Island Company called their first and only settlement New Westminster. These days, locals call it Old Town. Sadly there are no remains of the original settlement (although there is a solitary English brick in the museum on Big Corn island). Today Santa Isabel, better known as Town, is the largest settlement on Providence. There is just one road on the island. It is 11 miles long and follows the shore, linking the island's seven villages. The road through Lazy Hill. Following the resettlement of Providence by white Jamaicans and their slaves in about 1788, the villages of Town, Free Town, Lazy Hill, Southwest Bay, Bottom House, Smoothwater Bay and Rocky Point each developed a distinct identity based on the families that built them. Although most of the islanders live in one of the seven villages, some of them live in isolated households in the hills. Looking down on MacBean Lagoon: the mangroves around the lagoon once abounded with green turtles, whose meat was coveted by early English sailors. Sailing and fishing have been the lifeblood of Providence for generations. Until the 1950s, the islanders grew oranges, gungo peas, mangos and coconuts in the hills, which they traded with English-speaking communities in Central American towns like Colon, Limon, and Bluefields. The boundaries of what were once family plots are still discernible. As farming went into decline, many islanders left Providence to work in Panama, Colombia or the United States. Others found work on the cargo ships plying the Caribbean. Not all of them came back. Left untended, the fields became over run with cockspur bushes. Known on the island as caspar, the cockspur bush has thorns sharp enough to keep out even the hardiest hill walker. The cockspur bush is home to the associate ant, with which it has a symbiotic relationship. Inside each of the bush's thorns is a tiny sac of protein for the ants. In return for this sustenance, the ants will attack anything that comes near the bush. As any islander will tell you, associate ants have a very nasty bite. There are few farmers working on Providence today, but soursop, lemon, orange, fig and tamarind trees still grow wild in the hills. In the 230 years since Englishmen and their slaves came from Jamaica to resettle Providence, the racial thinking that kept the whites in Town and the blacks in Bottom House has been discredited. But islanders are still divided by race, class and history. The abandoned church at Smoothwater Bay. Religion and education were key to overcoming the island's poverty and isolation. Inadvertently, the descendants of those who resettled the island in 1788 realised the hopes of the puritans who arrived aboard the Seaflower in 1630: to build a peaceful and orderly Christian community. The old Texaco station at Bailey. Today there is just one petrol station on the island. There is also a landing strip, a diesel-powered electricity generating plant, two cash points, several hotels and patchy internet access. Isolated and neglected by greater powers for centuries, in recent years the outside world, in the form of tourists and drugs runners, has started to impinge on island life. The sea sets the imagination free, to shore up the fragments of Africa and England on which the colony was built, or cast them into the waves.a In 2012, the International Court at The Hague granted seas long fished by the islanders to Nicaragua. The ruling has brought home to the people of Providence the need to educate their children about the history of their island, and organise them for an uncertain future.