The Island that Disappeared

An Englishman searches for what’s left of Providence, a failed Puritan colony in the Caribbean.

Tom Feiling | The Island that Disappeared | Melville House | March 2018 | 10 minutes (2,711 words)

“Tank’s empty,” said the attendant at the island’s only gas station, who I found dozing in a hammock strung up between the pumps. It wasn’t a problem, he assured me — any cargo ship leaving San Andres for Providence knew to bring gas. One would be arriving the following day — probably. I used the little fuel I had left to scooter back to Town for something to eat. I found nothing open bar a white-tiled, fluorescent-lit box opposite the mayor’s office, where I bought a hot dog bursting with salty, molten fat and topped with broken crisps. There were a few more options for the handful of Colombian tourists staying in the chalets at Freshwater Bay, but they weren’t cheap.

The following morning I headed to what looked to be the most popular of the three little supermarkets in Town for a look around. The wooden shelves were laden with tins of spaghetti and meatballs from Ohio, pork and beans from Medellin, tomatoes from Nebraska, and Spam from Brazil. In the vegetable aisle were some pitifully shriveled onions, garlic, and red peppers, which had been flown in from Costa Rica, and some Chilean apples. The only things that hadn’t been imported were the shelves, which had been coated in thick layers of gloss paint to keep the termites at bay.

On the back wall was a large, brightly colored map of the world. I found plenty of the world’s other tiny islands: Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia, and even Pitcairn, which has a population of just 50. But Providence wasn’t marked, and neither was San Andres. Perhaps it was because their distant relatives have the initials ‘U.K.’ in brackets after their names, whereas the inhabitants of el archepiélago de Providencia, San Andrés y Santa Catalina lost touch with their progenitor state long ago. Providence is a fragment chipped off an empire that no longer exists. Even if the chip were restored to the block from which it fell, it would no longer match, for its contours have been worn smooth by the passage of time. But perhaps ‘fragment’ is a misnomer. Empires are not as clearly delineated as the solid blocks of color on the old maps suggest. Alive, they are dynamic, porous, and hybrid creations, but even once dead, the colors continue to bleed. The British might have forgotten about Providence, but for the islanders, England remained as real, and as unattainable, as an absent father.

The British might have forgotten about Providence, but for the islanders, England remained as real, and as unattainable, as an absent father.

It was strange to think that the hopes of a generation of British empire builders had once rested on Providence. Those who sailed on the Seaflower in 1631 believed that their Puritan colony would in time eclipse the one that had been built by the passengers of the Mayflower ten years before. But New Westminster was abandoned just eleven years after the foundation stone of the governor’s house was put in place, while New Plymouth went on to become a beacon of righteous autonomy for the generations that succeeded the Pilgrim fathers. Cold, barren New England had trumped balmy, verdant Providence. Wasn’t that what all those tins, packets, and cartons from the United States were trying to tell me?

Outside the supermarket, I bought a soft drink from a short, elderly woman who was sitting in the shade of an almond tree. “My name is Miss Amparo,” she said with a smile when I told her why I’d come to Providence. Amparo is Spanish for ‘protection,’ and she was the picture of kindness. She had a round face and distinctly Miskito features, which were not common on the island. “I am Archbold, but my father is Archbold Taylor, so I am Taylor from my father’s mother’s side. She was Taylor, so he becomes Taylor from his mother, and Archbold through his father. And I have Archbold Newball from my mother. Her father was Newball, and my grandmother was Archbold.”

I was confused. I asked her where the first Taylors had come from. “My people told me that they were from Central America. You goes to Nicaragua, you find Taylors, because the pirates and those English people get to Central America before they get to Providence.” This wasn’t quite true, but I wasn’t going to hold it against her.

“Do you know when they came here?” I asked. “I really can’t tell you,” said Miss Amparo apologetically. “My father used to read the history book, but maybe I was foolish them time to intercede more about it, because I don’t have that thing.”

We were interrupted by a delivery for her little shop, which she was having fitted out with sinks and fridges. Miss Amparo was going to open a fried chicken shop. We watched as the deliveryman struggled with box after box of frozen chicken legs from vast American and Canadian farms with names like Happy Valley and Imperial Foods.

“The food must have changed a lot since you were young,” I remarked. “Yes,’ she said, “in our days, we didn’t know what was tomatoes. We didn’t know what was cabbage or carrots. Up till now, nobody plant those things. From Monday to Saturday, we used to eat fish. We used to roast the fish. We used to steam the fish. And we used to corn the fish.”

Miss Amparo’s home had been one of the few that didn’t have a fisherman, as her late husband had been the island’s mayor—or ‘major,’ as she phrased it. ‘But who didn’t have a fisherman in their home, they used to say, “You give me fish and I will give you yucca.”’ With so many vegetables, and so much fruit and fish to eat, it never occurred to them to eat anything else.

The only day they did not eat fish was Sunday, when the woman of the house would kill one of the chickens in her yard. “But now nobody kill a chicken,” Miss Amparo said in wonderment. “They buy the chicken in the store.” Until recently, the islanders had been among the healthiest people on the planet, and she seemed bewildered by her memories of how they used to live.

Over the next four months, I would speak to a lot of old islanders and hear endless nostalgia, not just for the diet they had once enjoyed, but for the collective effort required to bring it to the dining table. The island economy had effectively been cashless, for they shared what they had with those that needed it. This bounteous cooperation stemmed from their shared interest in fishing and farming, which they did together.

We were interrupted again, this time by a schoolboy wanting to buy a can of fizzy drink. Our conversation was proving surprisingly difficult; in the short time we had been talking, Miss Amparo had had to attend to customers, deliverymen, a census taker, and a woman looking for the cemetery. Even when we’d been free to talk, our words were drowned out by the reggaeton ringtones of mobile phones and the incessant buzz of passing scooters. Half a mile in either direction were spots of utmost tranquility, but the island’s main settlement was noisier than Oxford Street.

“In our days everything was coconut,” Miss Amparo said in a lull in trade. “If you want to fry the fish, you need coconut oil. If you want to cook the rice, you had to cook it with coconut oil. So every day we had to grate coconut. And practically every home had one or two cows, so they could always get the natural cow milk. But now nobody milk a cow.”

I would speak to a lot of old islanders and hear endless nostalgia, not just for the diet they had once enjoyed, but for the collective effort required to bring it to the dining table.

I had noticed that her younger customers tended to be on the large side — had people got bigger since she was young? “Yes, because they eat too much tinned goods and fried things. In the past, they was big because they was descended from tall and stout people, not because of fatness. But now,” she said, gesturing at the cardboard boxes around her, “the food is very different from those days.”

* * *

Miss Amparo told me that if I wanted to know more about how, why, and by whom the island was resettled, I should talk to Antonio Archbold on the smaller, adjoining island of Ketleena. I found him peeling an apple in a rocking chair on the porch of his clapboard bungalow. The steps that led onto his porch were worn and crowded with old tubs of vegetable oil that he had converted into flowerpots for his bougainvillea and hibiscus. Like most of the older islanders, Tony Archbold looked to be in good health. I had him down as being about sixty, though he later told me that he was 76. He put it down to all the fish he ate. “I start learn how to eat the fish before I could even talk, because my parents would always put a piece of the fish meat in my mouth.”

Mr. Archbold spoke in a measured, unhurried way and had a slow and easy laugh. He had found an idyllic spot that gave him an excellent vantage point from which to survey the length of the wooden bridge that led back to the main island. “I does not come out of my house to cross that bridge if I don’t have to,” he told me. “It’s just me and my wife is here now and we’re trying to enjoy our old age.”

Through the unglazed window behind his head, I could see an old map of the island on the back wall. It was the first and last time I would see such an artifact on Providence, and a token of his keen interest in the island’s past. In places with so little written history, the title of historian goes to the oldest or wisest member of the community. Tony Archbold had earned his title over the course of a life at sea, for on Providence, there was no profession more worthy of respect than that of ship’s captain. “At the age of eighteen, I worked on a motor sailor that used to go from San Andres to Cartagena, and then come back to Providence and then Colón. I started at second cook, and when I quit the sea, I was the navigator of a five-hundred-ton ship that used to take all the electro-domestics from the free zone in Panama to San Andres.”

I asked him about the first Archbold to come to Providence. “I really don’t know where Francis Archbold came from. According to history, he migrate from Scotland to the Caymans as a net builder, and then he migrate to this island. He taught his son-in-law how to build his nets, he taught my grandfather, my father taught me and I taught my children. But that’s all we know. If I were younger, if I had that privilege, I would really go and do some investigation because there are so many things . . .”

Mr. Archbold’s voice trailed away, and his gaze dried to the patch of lush seagrass growing in his little front garden. Beyond the grass, the soil was black and smooth, for the tide had only just receded into the mangroves, whose black fingers probed the sunlit water.

“I was very curious as a young man. When this island was destroyed by a hurricane in 1940, I was three years old, so there wasn’t any school. What I have learned, I learn it by traveling. At the age of ten, I thought every white man could read and write. But I begin to do some investigation on my traveling. I read every book on the colored race, and I begin to learn, not only about the negro race, but also about the white race. My great-grandfather was Scottish, and he didn’t know how to read and write. My great-grandmother was an African, with a Spanish title, but she knew to read and write.”

But that was all Tony Archbold knew about the black members of his family. Even after poring over the few books he’d been able to lay his hands on, he knew next to nothing about their original language, religion, or even which part of Africa they came from. Listening to his voice, I thought I detected a West Country burr. As subtly as I could, I scrutinized his light brown eyes and, through them, pictured Francis Archbold sitting quietly inside his descendant’s body. If I’d known more about the Africans in his family tree, I might have made them out too, but The Genealogical History of Providencia Island makes no mention of the first Africans to come to Providence.

Providence’s story is telling for two reasons: not only does it show how slippery the truth becomes in the hands of men determined to spin a good yarn, it also inadvertently lays bare the organized criminality on which England’s wealthiest Caribbean colony was built.

While Mr. Archbold had little to tell me about how the island came to be resettled, he was all too aware of how history can be spun for gain, whether personal, political, or commercial. “To sell San Andres, they begin to sell Henry Morgan. But Morgan was never in San Andres!” he told me. “They get it from the Internet, and from what Alexander Esquemelin wrote, but they don’t mention that Morgan took him to court and Esquemelin had to retract what he said about him!”

As the surgeon on several of Morgan’s voyages, Alexander Esquemelin was well placed to turn the events he had witnessed into riveting tales. In 1684, Thomas Malthus published an English translation of his History of the Buccaneers of America. It was an immediate success, and no book of the seventeenth century in any language was the parent of so many imitations, or the source of so much fabulous fiction. Sir Henry Morgan has exercised a fascination over the reading public unlike any other pirate ever since. He is the embodiment of adventure and cruelty, a servant of the crown who was licensed to rob; and a pirate who was celebrated, condemned, and then celebrated again by both Charles II and the country at large.

After several years of regaling the leading lights of Restoration London with his tales of singeing the Don’s beard, Morgan realized that respectable society was beginning to lose interest in him. But respectability mattered little to him, for he had something of far greater value to protect. He had a reputation, and in the closing years of his life, he spent his sober hours vociferously defending it. Morgan took issue with Esquemelin’s account of his life, which he considered full of slights against his character and career. He was neither a buccaneer nor a pirate, he asserted. At his height, he had been both admiral and lieutenant governor of Jamaica, and the suggestion that the crown might appoint a pirate to such eminent posts was no less libelous. Morgan sued Thomas Malthus for libel, won the case, and was awarded £200 in damages. In subsequent editions of the History of the Buccaneers of America, Malthus made it clear that Morgan “never was a servant to anybody in his life, unless unto his Majesty. Neither did he ever sail but by commission from the governor of those parts.”

The story is telling for two reasons: not only does it show how slippery the truth becomes in the hands of men determined to spin a good yarn, it inadvertently lays bare the organized criminality on which England’s wealthiest Caribbean colony was built. But no holidaymaker can resist the lure of a good pirate story, however tenuously anchored it may be to the truth. If Morgan were ever to return to the Caribbean, he would make his fortune not by licensed piracy, but by suing all the hotel proprietors, restaurant owners, and owners of shoreline caves who have appropriated his name to advertise places that he never even visited.

* * *

From The Island that Disappeared: The Lost History of the Mayflower’s Sister Ship and Its Rival Puritan Colony by Tom Feiling. Published by Melville House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Tom Feiling. All rights reserved.