365 The Hub of Empire


‘By what right?’ In this episode we think about how the early English colonisers viewed their Westward Enterprise, and legitimised their activities. And then turn to the region Eric Williams described as ‘The Hub of Empire’. The Caribbean.

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Last time I made a rather feeble attempt to draw a very broad picture of the world into which the English were to blunder in the 17th century. Today I have three objectives; firstly, to think about where the English got their ideas about colonisation from – did the idea simply come to them in pyjamas one night, that this would be a jolly good idea, and here was how they’d do it? And if not, from where? The, we’ll move on to ask the question – by what right? We’ve got all these Europeans trampling all over the crops and planting, well, you might ask, as did Edward I of his nobles I think, Quo Warranto? Was the answer effectively the same as the Warenne Earl of Surry, smashing his rusty sword down on the clerks’ table – by right of conquest, or was there something more complicated going on? That will take us roughly half the episode, and then we really will start getting down to brass tacks, and we’ll turn to the Hub of Empire – the Caribbean. OK, alles clar? Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin.

I am going to assume that we all know a certain amount of stuff, which to be fair we have kind of covered; so, the Elizabethan voyages of discovery, John Hawkins, West Africa and the abortive experiment in the slave trade; the Spanish and Portuguese empires we have spoken of many times; Roanoke and its mysterious disappearance, the Spanish domination of the Caribbean. Already, the Spanish and Portuguese empires were well established, and even the French were further advanced than the English. The question has been asked – well – why were the English so slow? After all, the Elizabethan’s had done the discovering stuff – so why so slow with exploitation?

One is to explode the implied assumption that exploration inevitably meant exploitation would follow. The number of English merchants interested in the Atlantic, Asian and African trade was low, and the state was, by comparison with Spain, Portugal, the Dutch and even France supremely uninterested. A feature of English colonisation will be the primacy of private enterprise and the lack of state co-ordination and sponsorship. And activities in Asia, Africa and the Levant remained resolutely trade focussed and not considered Imperial – only in the Americas did writers like Hackluyt advocate imperial colonisation. And most people – including the likes of John Winthrop, for example, soon to be a leading light in New England, saw Ireland as the more attractive proposition for plantation.

‘I wish oft God would open a way to settle me in Ireland, if it might be for his glory’

he wrote. The mention of Ireland is interesting, because for intellectual and practical reasons, the Plantations in Ireland shed a light on English colonisation in the Americas. First of all, they demonstrate that the ideal of colonisation was not intrinsically only about places outside Europe. Europeans were deeply conscious that the ancients had used colonisation as a way of bringing their brand of civilisation to those that lay outside their borders, whether that be the Greek approach on the shores of Anatolia, or the much more centrally driven and state sponsored approach of the Romans. The English were acutely aware that they were the subject of such colonisation, by the Romans and Normans, including Norman and Plantagenet involvement with Ireland and Wales. To the English, the Lowland Scots and the Old English in Ireland, this history had a special resonance, that both their own societies owed their origin to conquest. So it seemed logical to many that what they saw as a ‘civilising’ mission should be started close to home with the Gaelic Irish. These ventures would serve multiple purposes of protecting Britain’s borders by growing the extent of their civil society, and improve the life of Gaelic populations by extending civilisation – in the same way as the Romans had civilised the Ancient Britons. They called on God also; John Milton described God as the ‘sovereign Planter’. Obviously there were other reasons too; finding a home for troublesome border reivers, making a better life and making money and fame among them.

The Roman experience, though, led the English into some false trails when the endeavour was transferred to entirely different environments across the Atlantic. As the various sponsors set up enterprises there’s a lot of commonalty among them that takes no account of the differences involved. I come across quite a common tone of amazed contempt in modern writings on the matter of how the early colonies stumbled and messed up and blundered – but then how would they have known? All they could do was refer to what they did know from precedence. So usually there was one person to represent the company’s interest, to report back for instruction; models of plantation assumed the new model societies would of course be ideal for skilled artisans and that people would of course become rich and successful. Often in practice, the skills of those that went abroad, were not those required. There were assumptions on Roman precedent on the way plantations should be laid out and managed, that towns would be required for trade and protection. Whereas of course again in the Chesapeake it was an entirely different settlement type that would in the end succeed.

A couple of other general things about the impact if Ireland, in no particular order. The plantations there were of course the joint enterprise of English, Scots and indeed, don’t shout at me, Irish – the Earl of Antrim for example was an enthusiastic participant, and local Irish may well have been deeply unwilling participants, but formed an essential part of the tenantry. It is from Ireland then, that the idea that colonisation and empire was a British rather than simply English endeavour started, and the word starts getting used there. Having said that, the extent of Scottish involvement in the Ulster plantations in terms of people and capital, prevented them from having the resources available to participate to any great extent in the earlier stages of what became a very English series of ventures across the Atlantic or to launch their own. Obviously, that would change, especially after 1707.

Then, the experience of the London Merchant’s involvement in the Ulster Plantations was not positive; it was a vast investment, and yet they were continually being chivvied to live up to the full extent of their commitment; when it came to the transatlantic enterprises in these early days, the London merchants preferred to focus on trade particularly with Asia; and by the end of the century, England was already overtaking the Dutch as the largest carrier of Asian trade. Conversely though, many other observers thought very much otherwise, and argued that the government should not focus on Asia either – because it took English sailors away from domestic shores, which they considered essential to security. Also the Asian trade depended, essentially, on exporting bullion, because the sophisticated Asian markets didn’t really want anything else the comparatively undeveloped English industry produced – there wasn’t a big market for nice thick and comfy woolly hose for example. And in the 17th century, protecting your supply of bullion was considered important, so the trade in Asia not necessarily positive. Furthermore, in a time of peace and coming after a century of population growth, people considered colonisation an excellent way to

Unload their populous state which else would overflow its own banks by continuance of peace and turn head upon itself or make a body fit for any rebellion[1]

These attitudes in the 17th century meant that consciousness of Asia trade was very low among the general population. They meant that colonisation, in so far that it reached public consciousness at all, was seen as a mainly westward enterprise. In the 1650’s Cromwell’s Western Design on the Caribbean was in most ways pretty disastrous, but it was the first time a specific state sponsored enterprise to extend the English colonies was undertaken – for the most part until then, England’s approach had been entirely unlike the state driven endeavours of Spain, Portugal, France and even to some degree the Dutch, and until 1689, really the colonising effort was always tentative and low priority. The Western Design began to change all that, and brought within English control far and away their largest Caribbean possession, Jamacia. And far into the future, as Roifield will tell you, the seeds were set for the transformation of England, her culture, society and particularly music, obviously. By the end of the 17th century, westward colonisation had changed from being on the edge of English consciousness, to being seen as an essential element of the English economy, and by then its economic success was beginning to be plain to all.




Throughout the period, the English were troubled by a question; by what right? To begin with, there wasn’t really a great issue; the Elizabethans didn’t go to put down roots; they went to find what the Spanish had found, gold; it took some time to realise that the Spanish had just been extraordinarily flukey finding the Aztec and a mountain made of Silver, and lightening never strikes twice.

Next the answer that came seemed clear enough, as described by Hackluyt and other writers – the English went very consciously to bring civilisation and religion and make a better world; they were horrified by what they had heard and seen of the Spanish and Portuguese empires and they were going to do better; or alternatively, as initially in the Caribbean they were going to make war on the Catholic Spanish by fair means or foul, and the ends of resisting what they described as Catholic tyranny justified the fact that they clearly went to make a bundle as well. But as things progressed, you would of course be hard pressed to tell the difference in terms of the impact on the local populations between English and Iberian colonisation. In the Americas they faced formidable, organised and widespread resistance – and thus warfare became an integral part of colonisation and expansion. In Asia the problem didn’t appear in the 17th century, because contact was purely about trade, but in the Americas they faced a moral dilemma that Cicero had placed before the world many centuries ago, about which imperial adventurers from Ralegh to Clive worried. Cicero had written

The best state never undertakes war except to keep faith or in defence of its safety[2]

It has to be said, pots calling kettle black does spring to mind, and I wish the lad had mentioned that to Caesar and a few others, but never mind – the statement forced the English to look at themselves in the mirror and ask – how could the Americans, having never even heard of their very existence, have been said to have harmed the English and therefore justify war? It’s not a bad question, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Well, there were some off the shelf options out there. The massive Spanish intellectual bust up, the Salamanca debate, tried to find answers but it was clear enough – the Spanish had engaged on a self confessed war of conquest, legitimised by Alexander VI’s papal bulls of occupation; they held their Empire by right of Conquest. The English consciously rejected this idea and anyway had no higher authority to apply to. Unless it be God; there was a handy Calvinist theory, the theory of Revolution; whereby a people not sufficiently Godly could hold no rights. But the English didn’t like this one either; first of all, because they sought to establish rights over land, not people. And anyway – it was way, way too arbitrary; who got to define quite Godly, reasonably Godly, Godly enough or super Godly? It sounded like a dangerous policy that could be turned to a number of uses.

It’s again well beyond our period, but it was John Locke that provided a sophisticated exposition of the answer. First of all, it has to be said, he finished off the conquest argument when he wrote:

idolatry, ignorance or mistakes gives no right to expel or use them ill’

Which sounds very good, and I have always vaguely thought Locke a good guy, defender of personal liberties and all that. Sadly, though, his views on property are less popular with me; it appears he is the originator of the hideously binary property laws we have now – but I am on the verge of using this as an excuse to campaign on behalf of the right to roam movement – rightotoram.org.uk by the way – so we can’t have that. Anyway, Locke was personally involved with the colonies – a member of the board of Trade 1696-1700, with investment in the Royal African Company, whose business was the buying and selling of enslaved people. In his second treatise of government of 1689-90, he developed the theory that people only had a right to land when they had, and I quote

‘mixed their labour with it’

Unless a people had done this – which effectively meant agriculture – the lands were considered unoccupied. Now in fact variations of the theory, less elegantly put than Locke would achieve, had been in the air for a while; John Donne in 1622 put it like this to the Virginia company as they developed their plans and sought to understand their legitimacy

A land never inhabited by any or utterly derelicted and immemorially abandoned by the former inhabitants becomes theirs that will possess it.

This in itself was a development of a theory in roman law, res nullius; this maintained that all empty things remained the property of all mankind. It was res nullius then, which legitimised English colonisation. We’ll come in a minute to the obvious flaws, but it did have an impact on the form of Early English Colonisation. Because English colonisation, which came later than many other European nations,  looked rather different to that which went before or alongside it. The Spanish and Portuguese models of conquest created new integrated societies with indigenous peoples, albeit putting them right at the bottom of the social scale, including slavery. But then they had invaded highly and densely populated areas, and despite the horrific death rate, far more indigenous peoples therefore survived. The French tried to convert the people they met into French people – frenciser, as they called it. The English tended to separate their societies and create borders to keep indigenous and English distinct; unless indigenous people adopted English culture. If separation led to conflict, then war and even annihilation, such as with the Pequots, that was then a legitimate response to a threat in their view.

Now the obvious flaws in this was that, as we discussed in the last episode, indigenous peoples did indeed manage their environment and join their labour with it, even if you accept the premise of Locke’s treatise. But to the English and indeed European eye, it didn’t look like anything they recognised as such, they pointed to the lack of a money based economy and the kind of commercial exchange they were used to, and concluded that indigenous peoples were in what they called a ‘state of nature’.  And therefore it was the right and more than that, the responsibility of colonists to develop the land as they believed God had commanded them.

The theory of res nullius caused problems even to the colonists. English colonists would prove brutal at time no doubt, but the majority did not wish to behave so and genuinely rejected the idea that theirs would be an empire based on conquest. As pressure grew on land, in New England in particular, despite Pequot wars and king Philip’s war, the model adopted was to buy land from the indigenous peoples. How could you do this if apparently they, the indigenous peoples had no right to the land according to Locke and the idea of res nullius? And so voices were raised in defence of indigenous rights, from Roger Williams, who claimed that in ‘giving the land to his English subjects which belonged to the native Indians’, the king had committed an injustice; or much later in 1721, Jeremiah Dummer would argue that the Indians had ‘as good a title to their lands as the Europeans had to theirs’. As late as 1781, Samuel Wharton was arguing the same point to the American government, that the indigenous peoples had a right to their lands because it constituted their means of existence.

I have probably over done this, but there is one piece of musing I feel inclined to give in to; did the people involved actually believe this, was it important, did it drive behaviour? I confess to know that I would need to be a genuine academic scholar specialising in the area, to answer it, and I am not. It is awfully tempting to see these theories as post rationalising, or cynical justification. And sometimes they are patently absurd; in 1627 for example the French Crown laid claim to a territory that stretched from Florida to the Arctic circle, an area in which they had precisely 107 colonists at the time. And yet the French King Francis I had himself icily informed the Spanish Ambassador to the French court that

To pass by and eye is no title of possession

The exceptions in practice to all these rules seem overwhelming. But if Andrew Pagden, who is a specialist and a scholar, is to be believed,

‘few Englishmen believed they had entered land belonging to anyone or had deprived anyone of their own heritance. [3]

At the time one Robert Gray declared that the English

had no intention to take away from them by force that rightful inheritance which they have in that country for they are willing to entertain us, and have offered to yield into our hands on reasonable conditions more land than we shall be able this long time to plant and manure

None the less of course, that is exactly what we did, take away their rightful inheritance. But in the English self image they came not as conquerors to the indigenous peoples but their potential saviours from paganism, pre-agricultural subsistence and from the threat of Spanish tyranny. Even the wars in Virginia against Powhatan were justified on the grounds that Powhatan had submitted to be a subject of the English king and then rebelled. An interpretation with which Powhatan would most certainly disagree, with some force.

Gosh that took longer than I planned. So back to the narrative. We ended on the edge of contact, but let me not start with the English, Jamestown or Barbados, let me start with Hernando de Soto in 1539. De Soto had a history of conquest and war in South America, and in 1539 landed in Florida with 600 men, 200 horses and 300 pigs; he came to find another mountain of gold or silver as they had in the south. It is a story that could take up a lot of time, but I will resist. Basically over 3 years, De Soto and his party went on an extraordinarily brutal rampage through Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, forcing cooperation through torture, hostage taking and executions, seizing food as he went. As news spread of his destruction and untrustworthiness spread, Indian communities started fighting back; on one occasion in 1541 the Chickasaw rebelled, managed to kill 40 Spaniards, and seemed to have De Soto at their mercy – but let him escape. On another, De Soto dealt with rebellion by having 13 villages completely destroyed. The point of this story is twofold; firstly in terms of settlement, the Spanish after another couple of expeditions seem to have largely lost interest in lands north of the Rio Grande, with the exception of keeping Florida free of rivals who might prey on their Caribbean possessions. This included wiping out the French colony of St Augustine in 1565. The reason seems to be that without the gold, it seemed hardly worth the effort given the extent and richness of their existing possessions in Central and Southern America.

The other point is the start of a story even more hideous than De Soto’s expedition. It is the pigs he brought that at the moment get the blame for what happened – which was the first arrival in the north of European diseases and the start of catastrophic levels of devastation and death that by the end of it would make the Black Death look forgiving by comparison. It is important to note that there’s also a rising view that displacement, war and enslavement through the colonisation made a significant impact on population decline; but its clear disease plays a huge part. In this case, it’s not thought De Soto’s army by itself could have caused the mayhem that seems to have followed, and therefore there’s a theory, and it is just a theory, that many pigs must have escaped, and spread disease.

It is thought that the Caddo peoples were decimated – well more than decimated. They lived close to De Soto’s raids on the Texas Arkansas borders, and Western Georgia. They were mound builders, and constructions abruptly cease; while it is impossible to emphasise enough just how impossible it is to create accurate and reliable population estimates for the period, it is thought that the Caddo may have numbered 200,000 and fallen by over 90% to 8000, and by the 18th century there would be just 1,400 of the Caddo remaining. These are of course disasters on an unthinkable scale – and yet not completely exceptional. It is impossible fully conceive what that sort of catastrophe would do to a society and individuals. The stories that survive from the black death are hideous enough; but that plague, was one disease that swept through the old world; the diseases that swept through the indigenous peoples of American were described as ‘virgin soil’ epidemics, because not only was there no immunity to a disease like, say, small pox, but surviving an epidemic of small pox still left you vulnerable to influenza, and then measles and so on – wave after wave, disease after disease. I remember reading again about the black death, and the fact that it was not only the crisis of the mid 14th century – but the fact that Bubonic Plague recurred and recurred, and in subsequent waves such as 1377 hit children particularly hard. The same is true of the indigenous peoples of north America then; they were hit by wave after wave at varying times, and English colonisation will be deeply affected by it. The Mandans in North Dakota would suffer a small pox epidemic in 1837, and by the end of it, 2,000 Mandans had become just 150; in the pacific North West, epidemics among indigenous peoples occurred well into the 19th century.[4]

John Winthrop, in 1634 attributed the empty land they had available to inhabit, to the hand of God

For the natives, they are near all dead of smallpox, so as the Lord hath cleared our title to what we possess.

It’s also worth remembering that the European colonists were often hit hard too by disease – in the first years of the Jamestown settlement, 80% of the English died; I saw somewhere that the families that come to dominate later Virginian society, such as an obscure family no one has ever heard of called the Washingtons, don’t come from the first wave of colonisation, but second or third – because the original colonists just died.

We will come back to disease at a couple of points as it directly impacts our story, but here’s one last word, a story told among the Kiowa (Kie-owa) of the Great Plains, about a trickster hero, Saynday, who meets a stranger dressed in black who identifies himself as smallpox. Where do you come from and why are you here, Saynday asks

I come from far away across the Eastern Ocean. I am one with the white people…I bring death. My breath causes children to wither like young plants in the spring snow. I bring destruction, no matter how beautiful a woman is, once she has looked at me, she becomes ugly as death. And to men I bring not death alone but the destruction of their children and the blighting of their wives. The strongest warriors go down before me. No people who have looked at me will ever be the same.

That communicates a little of the feeling of this disaster and fear it engendered, caused quite unwittingly by the European arrivals wherever they went throughout the Americas, and deeply impacting the formation of the new colonies.

Now then, finally finally I get to the story of what happens in the first part of the 17th century between the, mainly English, and the Americas. Let us go from south to north, so starting with the Caribbean today, the Chesapeake next time, and New England after that at which point we will be at the end of the mini-series. Now my reason for starting here was not that it is the site of the first surviving colony – that prize goes to Jamestown – but because it was described by Eric Williams in 1944 as ‘the hub of Empire’, and such it will prove to be. Eric Williams is super famous, one of those rare historians who transformed the study of Empire and slavery with his doctorial thesis at Oxford, which was published in America as a book in 1944 called Capitalism and Slavery. A British edition had to wait for 1964. The book both challenged the historiography of the British Empire, and refuted the view of abolition as a moral act, and explained it in economic terms. Williams’ thesis is no longer widely accepted, on the evidence that the British Slave was profitable and growing in 1807, and the world, irritatingly, has to accept that Britain did do a good thing, but there’s no doubt of his impact on historical study. Rather acidly, I think he once remarked that he thought the British took part in the Atlantic salve trade just so that they could claim credit for abolishing it, so I think it’s fair to say he did not look entirely kindly on Empire. Williams came from Trinidad and Tobago where he’s known as father of the nation, led it to majority rule in 1956, independence in 1962 and a republic in 1976. I also feel a personal connection, on the slightly flimsy grounds – well very flimsy actually – that I wrote a project on Trinidad and Tobago at the age of 9 at Primary school, without prompting, because I claim always to have been a goodie two shoes. I handed it in the Headmaster, Mr Timpson. Mr Timpson then failed to read it, and in fact lost my magnus opus, and a work of possible genius was lost to the world, and I turned instead to a life of crime and moral dissolution. Actually, I think I could have done with a little more moral dissolution in my life, but that’s another story, maybe for later.

Anyway, hub of Empire. The Spanish Caribbean had of course famously been like a blackcurrant sandwich to the English naval bluebottle, just to mangle a famous phrase which I think is by George Orwell, and the focus of exploration and war. In war, to wreak havoc on the Catholic enemy of an English state beset with danger and threat, in privateering to further this struggle and make more than a few quid on the side, doing well by doing good sort of thing, to now mangle a song by Tom Lehrer about the old dope pedlar. I feel I’ve quoted that before – sorry, I’m getting old, but it is a good song. It’s been estimated that the doing well by doing good policy, good of course in the 16th century idiom, brought between £100,000 and £200,000 back to blighty. Exploration, like the Spanish, could rarely ignore the lure of Gold – whether to find the source, or half inch it from the Spanish.

The driver for English Westward enterprise changed to a degree on peace with Spain in 1604, though not entirely by any means, privateering did not disappear, and also began to change as it became clear that the Spanish had just hit a lucky streak with the gold and silver, not to be repeated. In 1612 Bermuda in the North Atlantic, considered to be in the Americas but not the Caribbean, was settled by the English, and can claim a number of firsts; the oldest Anglican church in the Americas, the oldest conservation laws in 1616; but less happily, the arrival of the first of the enslaved in the English Americas also in 1616.

By the 1620s, and failure of the Virginia Company in 1624, and its royal takeover, it might be claimed that a two things had come to be more central themes in English westward colonisation efforts. Firstly, The most attractive options seemed to be increasingly permanent settlement, the economic argument was driven by the production of exportable agricultural crops, rather than finding gold or minerals. Secondly, it was becoming orthodoxy that the English in far flung colonies had a right to substantial levels of self government, and anyway colonies were not amenable to being managed from all the way in England. These are not hard and fast rules, by the way, in the early days at least.

But in 1622, English Colonisation in the Caribbean started with Thomas Warner, seeking an opportunity to establish a colony, to produce tobacco in a plantation system. St Kitts was one of many islands owned by the Kalinago, one of the groups of indigenous peoples of the Caribbean islands – namely the Ciboney, the Taino and the Kalinago. The naming of these peoples confused me a little; apparently the early Spanish invaders called the Taino they considered to be hostile Caribs and the friendly ones Arawak, which doesn’t seem a solid nomenclature. Originating in the Guiana area of South America, the Ciboney were the first to the Caribbean islands around 300 BC, followed by the Taino around 200AD, establishing themselves in the Greater Antilles by 650 – for which I assume you like me will need a map by your side, and there are some useful maps on my website for the curious, but basically the Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamacia neck of the waters. The Kalinago started to arrive by 1000AD, and were still arriving by the time Colombus rocked up in 14 Ninety I needn’t tell you the rest. The Kalinago started having a hack at the Taino as it happens, taking over the lesser Antilles and parts of the Greater Antilles; so by the time Colombus arrived on the scene, the Taino were to some degree on the back foot and under pressure.[5] Within thirty years, it’s estimated that 80-90% of the Taino were dead.

The Carib nations fought against the colonists, and when Thomas Warner arrived in the Caribbean, the Kalinago had an already long history of resistance to European rule, including working together with other Kalinago on other islands. Yet When Warner established a colony on St Kitts, the local ruler Tegremante seems to have agreed to their presence. In 1625 the French arrived on the island, and established colonies too; Tegremante by this time realised the reality of the situation and the danger his people were in and appears to have planned to attack the English settlement; the English though were warned. The consequences were appalling; working together, the French and English attacked at night and slaughtered 2000 people for the loss of 100 colonists; an observer wrote of the piles of bodies on the beach and river, so much so that this part of the island is called Bloody Point to this day. Meanwhile Warner had started importing African slaves in large numbers and established tobacco plantations and later sugar. He would be governor of Barbados and Montserrat and would die in 1648 in a financial situation that meant he would never have to worry about the grocery bill ever again. The Kalinagos would continue to fight hard to resist European incursion.

After St Kitts, the English established more colonies in the Leeward Islands – Nevis in 1628, Montserrat and Antigua in 1632; Sugar production in the Lesser Antilles would never really take off to the extent it did elsewhere and the economy remained more varied indigo, tobacco, ginger, cattle and fish as well as sugar. Other colonies – such as the very interesting example of Providence Island – would also not focus on sugar; part of the reason was their vulnerability to attack from the Spanish and other Europeans. Sugar demanded very high capital investment and therefore low risk was the thing. It is therefore the colony established at Barbados in 1627 which would be critical to the English West Indies – and indeed to the whole Atlantic trade system, particularly the survival of New England. In 1655-6, Cromwell added Jamaica to the list, which was a much bigger proposition, but in the early years it was Barbados, in the Windward islands.

Barbados is a scrap of land of about 170 square miles, and its early history demonstrates the intimate connection with English nobility and gentry, and how influence at court worked. I believe Barbados was pretty much setled in 1627, by a London Merchant called William Courten; he had been involved with the Dutch, who were well ahead in terms of investment and activities in Guiana; and his energy and knowledge made the early settlement of Barbados successful, starting with about 50 settlers, but growing fast.

However, you may remember James Hay, the Earl of Carlisle, married to the redoubtable Lucy Hay; James had come to England with James VI and I, and he and Lucy remained influential at court. Hay was interested early in the potential of colonisation; he was a director of the Virginia Company from 1612. But he was also rotten at managing money and by the 1630s was laden with debt. No matter, he turned to his mate Charles I and asked him for a grant to the ‘Caribbees’ – a rather poorly designed grant to a bunch of land to which Charles had no right anyway, but what the heck, possession is 9/10ths and all. This is often a feature of royal land grants – they frequently had naff all idea of what they were giving away and where, and it was up to the colonists to sort out the overlaps. Anyway, although he had doubly no rights – because William Courten owned the rights, such as anyone did and had spent time, money and effort developing the island – James and Lucy immediately set about making grants of land to all and sundry. Courten struck back, but his friends, like the earl of Pembroke, were less influential and so he lost – Charles issued a more specific grant to his pals, quoting Barbados by name, and Courten was forced to walk away, muttering about what became known as the ‘Great Barbados Robbery’.

In the formative years of Barbados’ life as an English colony, with Dutch expertise and capital to help, it was tobacco and cotton cultivation which drove its economic success;[6] because there was no indigenous population, it relied on the labour of thousands of British Indentured labourers, the nature of which we might spend more time on when we get to Virginia. From the start, Barbados relied on the cruel barbarity of the enslavement of Black Africans as well, but in small numbers to begin with. Despite the addition of Jamaica, it was still little Barbados that developed the largest labour market in the Windies in the 17th century – because in the 1640s it led the way into sugar production, By the early 1650s, Barbados produced an annual crop worth £3m a year, and was the richest spot in the new World, replacing Hispaniola and the French colonies as the centre of sugar production – albeit the harvests and incomes of those islands grew also.

I should note at this point though, returning to Eric Williams’ ‘hub of the Empire’ comment, while sugar was immensely profitable, and so too the slave trade later on, when England became traders rather than mainly buyers, the Caribbean colonies played a still more critical role in the development of Empire; and this is why the debate about the economics of the westward enterprise has moved on from purely the slave trade, to the wider picture of the Atlantic economy. Because the colonies that emerge like Barbados focussed all their energies on a monoculture of sugar, they left no space for subsistence or grain. They came to rely very much then, on importing grain – from New England. The New England economy only began to flourish and emerge from subsistence when this new market grew.

Infamously, sugar product was a brutal business which relied on hard and heavy manual labour, with refining stills working all day and night and the enslaved workers organised in 24 hour shifts to match. By 1655, the population of Barbados had reached about 43,000, and was a full-blown slave society – with 23,000 whites and 20,000 black slaves; by the turn of the century the population of black slaves there had reached 42,000; this compares to 7,000 whites in Jamaica, and 30,000 enslaved black Africans.

Meanwhile the white population in Barbados had actually fallen to about 17,000. Partly of course this was due to the replacement of indentured servants with enslaved black Africans; but it was also due to the increasing sclerosis of Barbadian society. The Largest planters with the largest capital and land were much more likely to succeed. So whereas in early days settlers with relatively small capital could come and make good, by the end of the century Barbados was no place for ambitious start-ups – it was a society dominated by large planters with large numbers of enslaved workers; Barbados was wildly successful economically, and wildly unsuccessful in terms of developing a vibrant, integrated and varied society. By the 1660s, the English Caribbean depended on the African Slave trade, mostly still carried by Spanish and Portuguese, with some English, Dutch and French, with their largest demand from Brazil; the mortality of the enslaved was high, so in addition to a life of misery, the enslaved died in droves; by 1688 it was estimated that Barbados needed 4,000 new slaves every year to simply maintain their workforce.

An example of the emerging English Caribbean might be the life of Thomas Modyford, who arrived in Barbados in 1645, buying 500 acres with a labour force of 28 English servants and 90 slaves; by 1647 he’d already made a fortune and became governor in 1660. He expanded his interests into Jamaica, and became Governor there in 1664 – by 1679, he owned the largest plantations in the West Indies, with over 600 slaves and servants.

I mentioned that the experience of Virginia had established early the principle that these colonies needed to be self governing to survive; and maybe that is partially why, in addition to economics and simple greed, such societies were allowed to develop, though I am busking, it is not something about which I have read. But these islands were to some degree at arms length, with oversight by Governor, often far away from England. Though it’s important to note that petitions often came before parliament, such as the 1659 Noell case. But each colony had its own legislative assembly; the one on Barbados was established in 1639, when the governor conceded it to the large and powerful planters, who might otherwise have chucked him out; the Legislative Council of the Leeward Islands closely followed its model. It is in Barbados that the first of the codes emerge that regulated the lives of both servants and the enslaved, starting from 1661, codes which would be very influential throughout slave societies in the English Atlantic, including Virginia; and the servant codes in Maryland from the 1670s.

While earlier records suggest that black Africans had a rather different and more flexible part of colony life, as the 17th century progressed that closed down. Codes covered every area of the enslaved’s existence; they were subject to brutal punishments, had precious few rights of privacy, constantly subject to search, and banned for anything which might make the frequent slave revolts easier – such as being forbidden to ‘beat drums, blow horns or use other loud instruments’. Slaves were property, unlike indentured servants, and were not allowed to own private property, and therefore there was no possibility of social mobility. They could be punished by death for hitting a white person.

It’s not a great note on which to finish a history of England episode. So let me finish with the story of providence island just briefly – not that it’s particularly happy and joyful but it’s interesting, though not necessarily typical, but an example of an older style of motivation. Providence Island was a 7 square mile islet close to Nicaragua. In 1630, with economic depression all around, the collapse of the wool trade due to war in Europe and the political shut down of personal rule upon them, many of the leading puritan parliamentarians looked for other projects in which to advance and defend the cause of protestantism. The group that formed the Providence company in 1630 read like a role call of the malcontents who fought for parliamentary rights and chafed under the increasing rise of Laudianism. Its treasurer was John Pym; they met at Brooke house, the home of the puritan Robert Greville, they were joined by the Rich brothers, Robert the earl of Warwick and Henry the Earl of Holland, and by William Fiennes, Lord Saye and Sele. Also Edward Montagu soon to be the earl of Manchester; and MP Benjamin Rudyard, and many more.

Their vision for Providence island feels more Elizabethan than 17th Century in a way. These were militant protestants, who didn’t believe in waiting for Catholic invasion to fall on them, they believed in getting their retaliation in early. Providence was named in the powerful belief of the Godly that God intervened daily in the affairs of men high and low; it was to be a model Godly society; but it would also carry war to the catholic enemy, in the form of privateers that could use the island as a base. I might mention that I saw a rather distressing entry on Wikipedia about the colony that said people don’t understand that attitude because it should be against puritan belief. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of Early Modern Europe; the religious in both camps would have nothing to do with such lilly-livered, mr nice guy tripe; they were engaged in a war. And the English Godly only had to look across the channel to Germany to see that. The anti pope must be resisted. This is not a party political party on behalf of the Godly party I should add, hastily. Just telling you how it was.

The thing is, these armchair colonists in London understood nothing of the dynamic in the Caribbean. When Spanish governors and soldiers came from Madrid, sure, they try to wipe out English colonies where they could. But that was rare. In the Caribbean, everyone just agreed to trade with each other, because they needed stuff to survive, and Europe was a long way away. The other things was, that the Providence Island company had not yet learned the lesson from Virginia; they held all the land and colonists were tenants at best. In an interesting twist on famous give a man a fish and he’ll fry some chips quote, Arthur Young in the 18th century remarked

Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock and he will turn it into a garden; give him a nine year lease and he’ll turn it into a desert

Probably he’ll fry chips too, but I couldn’t say. The Providence Island approach demonstrated the weakness of this centrally driven and authoritarian approach. By 1641, despite the colony’s adoption of slavery, and adoption of tobacco planting, despite their leaders’ disapproval, the colony did not prosper and was riven with dissent

‘I never lived amongst men of more spleen nor of less wit to conceal it

Wrote one of their governors, and yet the colony’s means of arbitration was not at hand, as it would be in New England, but several weeks away across the sea. In desperation in 1640, John Humphrey was persuaded to bring 300 colonists from New England. But by then the flaws in the model of Providence were too deep. In 1641, one of those emissaries from Madrid, General Pimenta attacked and destroyed the Providence colony, and sent its members home, and Providence was no more.

By this stage, the political balloon was of course rising above the Scottish hills and Westminster streets and so the attention of all, including potential colonists, moved back to home and away from the Atlantic world. And interesting example of this – or I thought it was interesting – was that the aforementioned John Humphrey, having returned to Boston with the disappointed New Englanders, set off home for England. In 1640 he was the man who carried the Sword of State before John Bradshaw, Lord president of the High Court that tried and condemned Charles I.

[1] Canny, N, A ‘The Origins of Empire: A Introduction’ in Canny, N, ‘The Origins of Empire’ p20

[2] Pagden, A ‘The Struggle for legitimacy and the image of Empire in the Atlantic to c1700’ in Canny, N, ‘The Origins of Empire’ p35

[3] Pagden, A ‘The Struggle for legitimacy and the image of Empire in the Atlantic to c1700’ in Canny, N, ‘The Origins of Empire’ p53

[4] Kidd, American Colonial History p9

[5] Beccles, H, ‘Kalinago (Carib) Resistance to European Colonisation of the Caribbean’ in Caribbean Quarterly , December, 2008, Vol. 54, No. 4

[6] Beccles, H ‘The Hub of Empire: Britain and the Caribbean in the 17th Century’  in Canny, N, ‘The Origins of Empire’ p222

2 thoughts on “365 The Hub of Empire

  1. The diseases were not *always* caused unwittingly. In our own dear Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company is known to have sold “smallpox blankets” as a form of biological warfare.

    1. True. And I think there’s another suspected incident of the same in the 18th century. But they are small individual exceptions, criminal acts

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