The Island that Disappeared: The Lost History of the Mayflower's Sister Ship and Its Rival Puritan Colony

The Island that Disappeared: The Lost History of the Mayflower's Sister Ship and Its Rival Puritan Colony

by Tom Feiling


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The creation myth of the United States begins with the plucky English puritans of the Mayflower—but what about the story of its sister ship, the Seaflower

Few people today know the story of the passengers aboard the Seaflower, who in 1630 founded a rival puritan colony on an isolated Caribbean island called Providence. They were convinced that England’s empire would rise not in barren New England, but rather in tropical Central America.

However, Providence became a colony in constant crisis: crops failed, slaves revolted . . . and then there were the pirates. And, as Tom Feiling discovers in this surprising history, the same drama was played out by the men and women who re-settled the island one hundred years later.

The Island That Disappeared presents Providence as a fascinating microcosm of colonialism—even today. At first glance it is an island of devout churchgoers - but look a little closer, and you see that it is still dependent on its smugglers.

At once intimate and global, this story of puritans and pirates goes to the heart of the contradictory nature of the Caribbean and how the Western World took shape.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612197081
Publisher: Melville House Publishing
Publication date: 03/20/2018
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 545,863
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 16.50(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

Tom Feiling is a writer, journalist and award-winning documentary filmmaker and the author of two highly accliaimed books Cocaine Nation How the White Trade Took Over The World (Pegasus 2010) which was based on over 60 interviews with those involved in all aspects of the cocaine business and Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Columbia (Penguin, 2013), a travelogue exploring that country's culture, history and politics.

Read an Excerpt

The Island that Disappeared

What should we do but sing his praise

That led us through the watery maze

Unto an isle so long unknown,

And yet far kinder than our own?


Now that bird…is maybe two hundred years old, Hawkins—they lives for ever mostly; and if anybody’s seen more wickedness, it must be the devil himself. She’s sailed with England, the great Cap’n England, the pirate. She’s been at Madagascar, and at Malabar, the Surinam, and Providence and Portobello.


I LIKE TO THINK OF The Island That Disappeared as akin to one of those self-contained wintery worlds encased in thick glass that you find in secondhand shops; a world in miniature; a world familiar, yet made strange by its diminutive size. This book tells the story of Old Providence, a five-mile-long island one hundred fifty miles off the coast of Nicaragua, of which few people in Britain or the United States have ever heard. Though tiny, the island offers a precious view of the Atlantic world in microcosm. The island’s history is a rambling trek through four hundred years of Caribbean history. Though the path through time gradually grows narrower and more overgrown as it comes into the modern era, it offers the same broad vistas over the New World in 2017 as it did in 1629, when the first English settlers stumbled onto the island’s pristine white sands in search of a refuge from the violence of the Old World.

This book began with a conversation I had with my editor at Penguin a few weeks after the publication of my last book, Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia. In the course of my research, I had traveled the length and breadth of Colombia, and spoken to a lot of Colombians about their country’s history, politics, and culture. ‘How about writing something similar about the U.K.?’ she suggested. She received a lot of pitches from British writers proposing to write books about far-flung parts of the world, but few of them seemed interested in reporting on the state of their own country.

This suited me fine; after spending several years in far-flung places, I was keen to know more about my own country. So in the spring of 2012, I bought a camper van and spent the next six months traveling around the country, navigating by a self-imposed rule that I would avoid all towns and cities, and stick to the back roads, guided only by a compass. I wanted to stop thinking about Britain in terms of A to B and instead attune myself to the natural boundaries of cliffs, rivers, and hills. When I wasn’t driving, I was sightseeing, and when I wasn’t sightseeing, I was reading about British history.

The problem with writing books—as well as sightseeing—is that everyone wants to visit the best bits. The English—like the Americans—think they have their history sewn up. There are thousands of newspaper columnists and TV producers who take it upon themselves to distill the essence of the national character, as revealed in a series of cherry-picked favorite episodes. They seem content to pore over a tide of books, films, and documentaries that largely rehash what we already know. In order of immediacy, Britain’s cherries are deemed to be the Second World War (reduced to a simple struggle of good over evil), the First World War (patriotic sacrifice), the Victorians (enterprise, industry, and sexual repression), Elizabeth I (a secular Virgin Mother), and Henry VIII (the original macho brute). The same selective focus is apparent in the United States, where hordes of media producers home in on what they consider the best bits of their history, be it the landing of the Mayflower, the triumph of the Union in the Civil War, or landmark successes in space travel.

One evening in midsummer, I parked up outside a small, isolated church near Stokesay in Shropshire. I was too cut off from everything to know it, but that night, Danny Boyle would present his take on the meaning of Britain’s history at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London. While he was transmogrifying England’s dark Satanic Mills to become the postwar light that is the National Health Service, I was reading about the English Civil War in the van.

Why did I know so little about England’s last and greatest domestic conflagration? I wondered. Somewhere along the way, I had picked up the bare bones of the plot: how the Roundheads fought the Cavaliers, and Charles I ended up losing his head. But the hours I had spent watching history documentaries on BBC2 had given me next to no understanding of the causes of a war that raged for over ten years and killed two hundred fifty thousand Britons.

As I read more about the English Civil War, I was struck by mention of the Providence Island Company. It was not often mentioned, but among its members were most of the Puritan nobles who had led Parliament into war against the king. Providence…I recognized the name from my time in Colombia. The congressman who represents the department of San Andrés and Providencia is the only native English speaker in the chamber. Since the islands are five hundred miles north of the mainland, most Colombians don’t pay them much attention. While living in Colombia, I had, like them, occasionally wondered about tiny Providence, cut adrift one hundred and fifty miles off the Miskito Coast of Nicaragua, but not enough to visit.

Guided by an inkling that the island had something new and original to tell me about England, I began trawling the Internet for leads. I discovered that the Providence Island Company’s records had been lost for two hundred fifty years. Only in 1876 did the archivists at the U.K.’s Public Record Office realize that the records had been mistakenly filed under New Providence, the first English settlement on the Bahamas. In fact, Old Providence predates both New Providence and Providence, Rhode Island. I ordered the only three books to have been written about the place, and began reading.

Though long forgotten, Old Providence had once been hugely important to England, for the island was the site of one of its first and most ambitious colonies. The first settlers arrived on the Seaflower in 1631, ten years after its sister ship, the Mayflower, landed at Plymouth, Massachusetts. Like their brethren in New England, most of them were Puritans, desperate to escape persecution at home and start over in the New World. Unlike New England, the colony on Providence had a short life, for it was wiped out by the Spanish in 1641. Yet a remarkable story emerges from those ten years, of how the colony’s idealistic Puritans were fatally undermined by the unscrupulous pirates and slave owners in their midst. It seemed to me a neat précis of how and why the English first settled the Americas, and the legacy they left for generations to come.

No one I spoke to in London had even heard of Old Providence. But then I met a Colombian artist at a gallery opening who had spent several summers on the island when he was growing up. What was it like? I asked him. Well, the islanders were nothing like the archetypal villagers that Gabriel García Márquez described in One Hundred Years of Solitude, he told me. Most of them were Baptists for a start, and although they understood Spanish, many refused to speak it. They had been hospitable enough, at least to begin with, and the older islanders were noticeably pious and well educated. Crime was practically unheard of, and usually involved nothing more serious than the theft of coconuts. But his memories of the island had been tainted by an acrimonious dispute that flared up between his parents and the island’s mayor, which had only ended when they sold up and returned to the mainland. In spite of their outward show of piety, there were still a lot of pirates on Providence, he concluded.

I wanted to see what had happened to Old Providence since it sailed off the edge of the world stage; as well as to listen for echoes of the dramatic confrontation between Puritans and pirates that took place there three hundred eighty years ago. I had reasons of my own for going there too: a desire for a refuge from the world. I certainly wasn’t being driven into exile, as the Puritan settlers were, but the desire for ‘purification’ from the ‘contaminants’ of the modern world has not gone away, and neither has the instinct that told me I would find it on a faraway tropical island.

I spent four wonderful months on Providence, an earthly paradise that may well be the last vestige of the Caribbean as it was before the drug trade, corruption, and mass tourism became facts of life. It was not easy to piece together the story of what happened following the resettlement of the island in 1789. There is no Public Record Office on Providence, and what passes for truth is often closer to myth. To piece together the story of the colony, and the completely overlooked community that emerged from its shadow one hundred fifty years after it collapsed, I had to become a very local historian. This meant ditching the history books for the Dictaphone, and listening to the stories told by the five thousand people who live on the island today.

I found the diminutive story of the island enchanting, for the very act of looking at a microcosm reminds us that there are epic dramas being played out on stages large and small. I found that there are indeed still pirates—and Puritans—on Providence. Through them, I learned a great deal about the legacy of the early colonial period, not just for the Caribbean, but for England, the United States, and the Atlantic World their peoples forged. So while the story you’re about to read might be set on a tiny stage, its principal concern is nothing less than how the western world came into being, and the impact that its founders continue to have to this day.


Part One covers the rise and fall of the original Puritan colony on Providence. Part Two covers Henry Morgan and the Brethren of the Coast who took the Puritans’ place. This takes us up to the interval: the century after 1680 when the island was abandoned. Part Three opens with my arrival on the island and goes on to explore how Britain grew rich on the back of a very different kind of colony—Jamaica—and how the Puritans and pirates of the Caribbean were mythologized by the empire builders of the Victorian era. This is where I look into the fascinating story of what happened after Francis Archbold resettled the island in 1789. Finally, Part Four looks at the legacy of Puritanism and piracy, and the challenges the islanders face today, as their isolation comes to an end.

A few words on the text: In colonial times, the English called the island ‘Providence’, while the Spanish called it ‘Santa Catalina.’ After gaining independence from Spain, the Colombians called it ‘Providencia de Santa Catalina,’ but these days, they just call it ‘Providencia,’ while English speakers call it ‘Old Providence.’ I have chosen to use all these names, depending on the period, and whose point of view I am trying to convey.

The neighboring island of San Andrés, which lies forty miles south of Providence, has also been through several monikers: The first English settlers called it ‘Henrietta,’ after King Charles’s French wife, but the island was largely ignored until 1785, when the Spanish crown reasserted its claim to what it called ‘San Andrés.’ The islanders preferred to call it ‘St. Andrew’s,’ but these days, most of them use the Spanish name, and I have done the same.

The Mosquito Coast, as the Caribbean coast of present day Nicaragua is known, is not what it was either. The name has nothing to do with flying insects, and everything to do with the tribe the English settlers encountered when they first ventured from Providence to the coast of Central America. In modern times, it became known as the Misquito Coast, then the Miskito Coast, and now there is talk of it becoming the Miskitu Coast. I have opted to use the second, most common name.

I have amended citations from the original sources to conform to modern English spelling, but left them otherwise unchanged. In most instances, I have converted seventeenth-century prices into their modern-day equivalent with the help of several handy online currency converters.*

*The National Archive’s currency converter can be accessed at:​currency/​results.asp. Francis Turner’s article, Money and Exchange Rates in 1632, can be found at:​RDavies/​arian/​current/​howmuch.html. Pirate Money can be found at:​money.html. To calculate the present day purchasing power of Dutch guilders, I used:​hpw/​calculate2.php.

Table of Contents

Introduction vii

Maps of the Western Caribbean and Providence Island xiii

Part I 1

1 Building New Westminster 3

2 Educating Essex 21

3 The Seaflower 35

4 Cake, Ale, and Painful Preaching: A Banbury Tale 49

5 The First Voyage to the Miskito Coast 61

6 The Pride of the Righteous 73

7 The Africans, 'During Their Strangeness From Christianity' 87

8 'A Nest of Thieves and Pirates' 99

9 'Raw Potatoes and Turtle Meat' 113

10 The Last Days of Their Lordships' Isle 129

Part 2 151

11 'Little More Than the Summit of a Hill' 153

12 The Western Design 169

13 The Rise of Port Royal and the Recapture of Providence 187

14 Henry Morgan, Admiral of the Brethren 205

Part 3 223

15 Mariners, Castaways, and Renegades 225

16 The Last Englishman 255

17 'A Sort of Lying That Makes a Great Hole in the Heart' 273

18 How the Light Came In 295

Part 4 313

19 Modern Times 315

20 'Maybe They Don't Know What Is an Island' 335

21 'Still a Little Behind Time' 347

Epilogue 363

References 367

Acknowledgments 385

Index 389

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