Early in the 1600s, England, Spain, France, and the Dutch scoured the new world for gold and land to build their fortune and expand the empire. The Caribbean was a stepping stone to the riches of precious metals abundant in the exotic land of the Incas, the Kaligano, and the Amerindians. (i)
It was a dangerous time to sail the oceans of the south Atlantic. Rogues, pirates, and galleons roamed the seas, looking for an easy target, a predator, treasure, and land to conquer. Men who dared to command a ship were fearless rogues and adventurers like Sir Walter Raleigh. (ii) This and more is included in the upcoming book Rogurs in Paradise.
The explorers and adventurers sailed straight into any storm to plunder galleons and armadas, winning the day with guile, skill, ingenuity, and unfailing courage. All in the name of the crown, for king and country and the rewards that might bring.
The crew was often a motley gang of rebels and able-bodied men abducted against their will.
Sailors were controlled with strict discipline. Anyone who stepped out of line risked being ‘tarred and feathered,’ ducked overboard, dragged under the ship, and drowned: (iii) A cruel punishment meant to deter any thought of rebellion or escape.
A Fearful Example
The early excesses set the example for the future. No wonder, then, that there was widespread drunkenness and immorality among the planters who set up their homes in Barbados. Visitors to Barbados thought the lack of clergy and a failure to maintain a strong religious influence were to blame for the rowdiness of the settlers. (iv)
The inherited nature of the early sailors and settlers was a precursor to how some planters would control their slaves in the years ahead. No wonder these same ruffians did everything they could to make the most of a situation. No wonder they enslaved African people and exerted a penal system of work and punishment: It was what they were used to.
It is important to know that not all the early sailors were the same. The book Rogues in Paradise offers examples of conscientious English colonials who were somewhat sensitive for their time. The abolitionists were people from all walks of life who eventually ended the slave trade and brought freedom to all Africans enslaved in all of the colonies. The early adventurers were men of all persuasion, but the leading ambition and focus was that of a warrior. They were people tasked with the job of subjugating land and winning treasures and fortunes for their leaders and the crown. Sensitivity was not a requirement.
Throughout the history of Barbados, the island remained in English hands from its early settlement. However, it was not without contention. It was claimed by Sir William Courteen, who had Captain John Powell investigate the island and report back. Sir William was granted the right to settle the island by King James I. But James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle, claimed a lease of all Caribbean islands under deeds of 1627 and 1628, and was determined to seize Barbados (v).
On the 5th of July, 1628, about 70 men arrived from St. Christopher, planning to settle in Barbados in the name of the Earl of Carlisle. The Earl’s Captain, Charles Wolverstone, revealed a letter to the Governor, Captain John Powell, saying they were to join them in building the colony. The invaders were ‘entertained’ by the planters until it became clear that they would set up the authority of the Earl of Carlisle over all rival claims. The incumbent settlers took up arms and were ready to fight to defend their rights.
Bloodshed was prevented only by the intervention of the Reverend Mr. Kenntlane and by Woverstoness’ promise to continue as before. However, Wolverstone seized the Plantation Fort and imprisoned many objectors, including Thomas Paris and Governor John Powell. Things did not end there:
On the 14th of January 1629, Captain Henry Powell, uncle of John Powell, arrived from England with 80 men. Powell then landed with his men, armed with their muskets. They took possession of the Fort, seized Carlisle’s ringleaders, and after restoring his own nephew as Governor Powell, carried them back to England.
Of course, the Earl Of Carlisle struck back. By luck, his ship, the Carlisle, was on its way to Nevis. It was diverted to Barbados and arrived in with “a rude company of people from London,” including Captain Henery Hawley, “a man of very determined character” (vi).
Hawley set about to take control by any means. Under the guise of friendship, he invited Governor John Powell, who had greeted him courteously, to join him on his ship. After breakfast, the ship’s guards clapped him in irons and tied him to the mast.
Powell remained tied to the mast for a month while Carlisle took control of the government and tried to appease Courteens’ planters. Courteen was enraged: His colonists took up arms again and attacked Carlisle’s men. Ultimately, they were defeated, and Sir William Courteen lost his entire investment in the island–a loss he never recovered from.
Captain John Powell was later captured by the Spaniards at Nevis and died shortly after.
(C) Ian R. Clayton – Author of Rogues In Paradise
Rogues in paradise is the upcoming book on the Story of the People of Barbados.
The island was named by the Portuguese navigator Pedro A. Campos because of the magnificent Bearded fig trees that were abundant on the island. It means “the bearded one” in Portuguese. The Spanish also occupied Barbados for some time before it was claimed by the British.
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Featured image -Capture of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga by the British ship HMS Centurion, a 1743 oil painting by Samuel Scott. (Royal Museum, Greenwich, London)
(i) “Gold of the Indies.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ingd/hd_ingd.htm (October 2002)
(ii) Sir Walter Raleigh: https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/raleigh-sir-walter-ca-1552-1618/
(iii) Condition on the ships: https://owlcation.com/humanities/Harsh-Life-Aboard-Navy-Sailing-Ships
(iv) Planters’ early behavior: https://wikisummaries.org/english-discover-and-colonize-barbados/
(v) James Hay, 1st earl of Carlisle, claiming a lease of all Caribbean islands under deeds of 1627 and 1628, seized Barbados in 1629. On the 2nd of July 1627 Lord Carlisle obtained from the king a grant of all the Caribbean Islands, including Barbados, this being a confirmation of a former concession given by James I. https://theodora.com/encyclopedia/c/earls_of_carlisle.html
(vi) Carlisles’ Rude company of Men Imprisoned John Powell: https://www.amazon.ca/Cavaliers-Roundheads-Barbados-1650-1652/dp/0342051008