The Barbadian Adventurers
By Peg Eastman
The earliest-known map of Barbados alone, from Richard Ligon’s book A True and Exact History of Barbadoes, 1673. According to the British Library, “Ligon is believed to have redrawn the map from an original, now lost, made by John Swan.”
Slowly emerging from a feudal economy, European nations began searching for trade routes to the riches of the Far East, and in the process discovered new lands with vast resources to exploit. Fortunes in gold and silver were stolen by the Spanish, and English pirates delighted in relieving their cumbersome galleons of their treasure.
The land controlled by England was considerably less than rival nations, and as a result, the discovery of a seemingly deserted island at the easternmost edge of the Caribbean Sea in 1625 was a welcome addition to the British colonies.
The island had been discovered years earlier and appeared on a map as early as 1519. It had various names until the Portuguese name “Los Barbados” (the bearded ones) stuck. Presumably the name referred to the indigenous fig trees that send down clusters of roots that resemble beards. Or it may have described the native Indians with beards who lived on the island when it first was discovered.
In the early days of British colonization, settlers survived by exporting tobacco and cotton. Most of the workers were indentured white males, some of whom had been kidnapped by unscrupulous labor suppliers. (Interestingly, the Charleston Mercury editorial staff has learned that the Red Legs who live on the island today are descendants of the original kidnapped Irish who were among these forced laborers.) The practice was so widespread that the term “barbadoed” had the same meaning then that the term “shanghaied” acquired 200 years later. Barbados quickly became a lawless frontier on the edge of civilization where might was right and social restraints gave way to the pursuit of wealth and its pleasures.
With the introduction of sugar cane from Brazil in the 1640s, Barbados’s culture changed radically. Sugar cane and its by-products, rum and molasses, quickly became an incredibly lucrative cash crop in the world market. The allure of attainable wealth captured the attention of English adventurers who flocked to the island, and the price of land exploded. With little more than 100,000 acres of arable land on the entire island, large plantation estates began to displace the small holdings of the early settlers.
Because slave labor was easier to manage, enslaved Africans rapidly replaced the indentured white labor force, and in a very short period, an elite of fabulously wealthy planters dominated the colony. Barbados soon became the richest English colony in America.
But for even the most prosperous inhabitants there was always a dark side to this island paradise. The need for more labor caused the importation of thousands of African slaves. They quickly outnumbered the white settlers, and there were uprisings. Repressive slave codes began to be enacted as early as 1661.
Concurrent with Barbados’ growing sugar wealth, civil war was raging in England. During the early stages of civil strife, Barbados had become an asylum for both Royalists and Parliamentarians, with Royalists in the majority. The colonials lived amicably together until King Charles I was beheaded on scaffolding in front of Whitehall in 1649. TheEnglish government fell under the control of a Parliament that sought to bring the rich colony to heel by armed might and by imposing restrictive trade laws.
By the time Charles II returned from exile 11 years later, planters not only needed land to expand; the Royalists expected some reward for their pain and suffering during the lean years. The always-cash-strapped king rewarded 13 gentlemen of Barbados with empty titles for their loyalty. The king and his ministers, however, ignored the plight of other Royalist supporters, and to raise revenue, they levied an irrevocable and permanent tax to be applied to the satisfaction of Barbadian land claims, with the remainder to be placed at the disposal of the crown. Finding themselves being taxed out of their estates, many colonials hoped to improve their fortunes elsewhere.
Meanwhile, in 1663, Charles II bestowed upon some of his most powerful supporters the Carolina land grant, notwithstanding the fact that in 1629 his father had had granted his attorney general, Sir Robert Heath, all the territory in America lying between 31 and 36 degrees north latitude (south of Virginia to Spanish Florida), extending from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The gift was named “Carolana” in honor of Charles I.
George Monck, later the Duke of Albemarle, was most instrumental in Charles II’s restoration. Other aristocrats who had supported the exiled Charles II during the Cromwellian era and helped him return to England included Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon; William, Lord Craven; John, Lord Berkeley, and his brother Sir William Berkeley; Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper of Wimborne St. Giles (later first Earl of Shaftesbury); Sir George Carteret and the recently — created Baronet John Colleton. Colleton had fought for the royal forces under Lord Berkeley until the parliamentary forces succeeded, and then he retired to Barbados where he remained loyal to the crown. Collectively, this group is known today as the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. Colleton, who was related to the Berkeleys and Albemarle, returned to England to help plan colonization of the Carolina grant.
Upon hearing the news of the Carolina land grant, a group of about 200 Barbadians, including many “persons of good quality,” formed a syndicate called the Corporation of Barbados Adventurers, and they lost no time preparing settlement proposals for submission to the Proprietors.
Without waiting for their response, the Adventurers engaged Captain William Hilton to search for a suitable settlement location. Hilton was an ideal choice — in 1662, as captain of the Adventure, he had already led an expedition of New Englanders to the area near the Cape Fear River. When the expedition returned to New England after a scouting trip of several weeks, Nicholas Shapely created the earliest-known map from the information they gathered, dated November 1662.
In August 1663, with a crew of 22 and provisions for seven months, Hilton’s expedition left from Spike’s Bay aboard the Adventure, this time to explore the coast south of the Cape Fear River. The party returned to Barbados on January 5, 1664. Hilton described the expedition in A Relation of Discovery published in London later that year. Hilton is largely forgotten today, but his name survives in South Carolina at Hilton Head.
When Hilton’s expedition returned, Thomas Modyford, a former governor of Barbados, and Peter Colleton, son of Sir John, who were members of the Barbadian Adventurers syndicate, asked that they might be permitted to purchase a tract of 1,000 acres from the Carolina Indians and that they be granted some powers of self-government. The Proprietors did not accept their proposals and nothing came of the Barbadian Adventurers’ first attempt to settle Carolina.
Meanwhile, other Barbadians obtained a concession to establish a colony called Charles Town on the west bank of the Cape Fear River. The fact that the second group included a large number of wealthy men, a good many of whom had served in the Barbados legislature, may have contributed to their success.
Or it could have been because the Proprietors were becoming anxious to cash in on their vast grant. Originally, the Proprietors envisioned populating Carolina with experienced settlers from other established English colonies. As land was plentiful, inducements were made to attract settlers from the already overcrowded English West Indian islands. But this approach produced no settlement.
But the climate was ripe for the Barbadian Adventurers to clamor for settlement of the Carolina coast. Barbados had experienced a series of hard times in the 1660s: First a locust plague destroyed crops and then a fire destroyed Bridgetown.
Enter Sir John Yeamans.
To be continued in Part II of the Barbadian Adventurers series. My appreciation to Bob Stockton for contributing to this story, which is the prequel to The Evening Post’s upcoming book, Broad Street, Charleston’s Historical Nexus of Power. Anyone with a good Broad Street story is invited to contact email@example.com.
“Hilton, William,” by Chris Furr, from Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, William S. Powell, ed. (University of North Carolina Press), ncpedia.org
The Barbados-Carolina Connection by Warren Alleyne and Henry Fraser
The History of South Carolina Under the Proprietary Government 1670-1719 by Edward McCrady