On a tiny Caribbean island in the 1630s, England vested her hopes of global domination.
In 1631, 10 years after the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Seaflower drew ashore on Providence, 150 miles off the coast of Nicaragua. Funded by wealthy English shareholders, the ship brought young men “driven to leave home by land hunger, the collapse of the wool trade, and their exasperated fathers.” On the island’s lush terrain, the shareholders hoped to reap financial rewards from bounteous crops and to establish a flourishing colony in the New World that “would dwarf their outposts in Virginia, Maine, and New England.” In a spirited narrative bursting with eccentric characters, Feiling (Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia, 2013, etc.) traces nearly 500 years of the island’s history, presenting it as a microcosm of European imperialism. From the beginning, the shareholders confronted dire problems: failure to find a marketable commercial crop, rivalry among the settlers, threats from Spanish strongholds throughout the region, and a dismaying lack of labor. The solution to the latter was slavery. By 1638, Africans outnumbered the English, who became “the privileged minority in a racial hierarchy of their own making.” Despite challenges, England considered the island vitally important “as a refuge for godly migrants, base for the evangelization of the Miskito Indians, or fortress to protect a future English colony in Central America.” Feiling vividly portrays the rise of lawless privateers who preyed on conflict and seized Spanish ships for their bounty in cargo and slaves. Among the most colorful of the buccaneers was Henry Morgan, a ruthless commander who signed on hundreds of sailors for his forays against Spain. Morgan, writes the author, became a folk hero in his own lifetime—not unlike drug mogul Pablo Escobar. Both men “defied the cant of the moralizers and the might of the most powerful nation on the planet”—for Morgan, that meant Spain—to reap riches. Visiting the island today, Feiling finds evidence of post-colonial neglect, with only stabs at tourism infusing the island’s economy.
A tumultuous history briskly told.