Old Providence: the Perfect Caribbean Island cliche

Below us, the island came into view encircled by a brittle and protective ring of coral reefs made distinguishable by the white water ripping at the edges and creating a turquoise iris effect skirting the white sandy edges of the Caribbean island of Providencia. Our Russian-built aircraft bobbled in the turbulence kicked up by thermals and updrafts resulting from the gnarled volcanic peaks to our left. Behind our seats two fighting cocks, transported with us on the 20 minute flight from San Andres for the weekend’s entertainment, clucked in panic at sudden jolts.

Without incident we touched down on Providencia or Old Providence, one of a pair of Colombian Caribbean islands 300 miles from the country’s mainland coast. Located a mere 140 miles from the Nicaraguan coast – a fact not lost on Nicaraguan authorities and an international squabble constantly under review at the International Court of Justice – Providencia has played its part in an intriguing history. Providencia’s geopolitical importance has unwittingly involved the Miskito Indians of Central America, New England Puritans, English Parliamentarians, Pirates and Dutch freebooters, Spanish Imperial claims and now a sovereignty dispute between Colombia and Nicaragua.

Had everything gone according to original 17th century English colonial plans and Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design”, today’s Providencia would not have revealed the customs and effortless slumbering charm that comes easily with contemporary Caribbean island life but a hardworking god-fearing Puritan community prospering today in tobacco, cotton and dyes and celebrating history with their kin in Jamestown.

What we have instead is not a Puritan led enterprise run out of London by aristocrats of the Providence Island Company but an island that makes up part of a Colombian anomalous territory in the Caribbean.

Of the two islands, San Andres is the larger and more populous and possibly claims the unlikely title of being the package holiday destination capital for Colombians. Topographically underwhelming and blighted by massive chain hotels capitalizing on the Colombian Government’s process of aggressive colombianization in the form of a tax free zone, San Andres is the extreme opposite of Providencia.

The first European to discover the 14 square miles of Providencia could have been Christopher Columbus but facts to prove this are erroneous at best. So, the first confirmed discovery and settlement of the island took place at around the same time as that of Massachusetts Bay by English puritans. These hardy settlers strongly believed that an island off the coast of Nicaragua would be far more enticing to likeminded souls than the cold and foreboding climes of New England.

Making the short ride from the brightly coloured wooden airport shack that takes me past tropical fertile valleys, I too agree wholeheartedly with the beliefs of ancestors the Newballs, Bents, Whitakers and Turners. I would settle here, no questions asked.

Journeying in the open backed collectivo truck, it hardly comes as a surprise that the Providence Island Company that spearheaded the investments, under such notable characters as the ebullient Parliamentarian John Pym and Robert Rich 2nd Earl of Warwick back in 1630, believed they could make this venture work. To the trained eye one can see that the island is easy to defend, is fertile and more importantly – for these businessmen intent on financial gain – lay at the strategic heart of Spanish controlled seas. In short Providencia occupied an unrivalled position from which to harry the trade routes of Spanish galleons laden with wealth from the New World.

All of this makes for the absorbing story of Providence Island, off the coast of Central America and in the midst of then-powerful Spanish colonies. Looking at the investment objectively and trying to see beyond the obvious attractions of climate, location and containment that the Puritans would have wanted, one cannot help but feel that this project was always doomed to failure even though the PIC’s struggle in enticing the right godly people did lure a group of several hundred New Englanders in addition to colonists from Bermuda and on the Seaflower, people directly from England, to this alternative puritan venture. In 1635 it is estimated that more than 500 people had settled Old Providence.

Financially the venture became a complete disappointment to its backers, the very isolation of the island from other English settlements in the region made communication difficult and therefore the illicit trade that sprung up between settlers and Dutch vessels often led to cargo ships returning to England only partly full.

The Puritans expected theirs to become a model godly society but the settlement never succeeded in building the kind of united and orderly community that the New Englanders created. They were beset with labour shortages and so began the large-scale use of slaves and then plunged into the irresistible temptation of privateering that ultimately resulted in the Spanish conquest of the island in 1641.

What remains today of these times are not architectural relics nor profitable tobacco plantations but solid British surnames and fading legends that herald a time past.

My efforts to find a local historian to add colour drew blanks. Several mainland Colombians on holiday here in Providencia told me to find Virginia Archbold, yet a simple enquiry at the front desk of my guesthouse revealed that Providencia’s most learned and able local historian passed away in 2006. This was a major disappointment; the very name Archbold can only mean a descendant of Francis Archbold, the Captain of an 18th Century English slave ship who received a grant from the Spanish Government in 1788 to settle the island. And it appears that another Archbold, according to all those I ask, Janet, will win November’s elections for Mayor. Another name is proffered, I am told, albeit unhelpfully, that I could have talked to old Mr Huffington but he too died some months ago. My luck has run out and the guardians of the island’s history are taking are few in number. Finally, Lucy at the front desk, perhaps exasperated at my continual questioning, puts me in contact with her father Francisco Bent. “He knows things,” she says.

Lucy’s statement rings true. Francisco Bent’s knowledge and enthusiasm to share it is hardly quelled as his two grandchildren aged 1 and 2 clamber over him and stomp through the two storey house. I want to talk about the notorious pirate Henry Morgan and say so. Lifelong fisherman and islander, Bent smiles:

“My father was contracted to look for the corsair Henry Morgan’s treasure around Fort Warwick on Santa Catalina in the 1950’s, but they found nothing, or maybe, they just weren’t looking in the right place.”

Bent starts to speak fondly of Morgan as if he were a long time family friend. “We were taught in school that Henry Morgan was a pirate, robber, filibuster. But now we know he wasn’t such a bad guy.”

I don’t want to be sidetracked into revisionist theories surrounding the notorious privateer but we continue to discuss him since his influence is enormous in Providencia. After all it was from here that Henry Morgan planned and launched the infamous and astounding sacking of Panama in 1671.

The importance of Providencia in the Caribbean was not lost on Morgan. Later as the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica he is said to have listed the tiny island along with Havana, Portobelo, Maracaibo, Cartagena and Veracruz, as holding the key to the control of the Caribbean.

With all of the power struggles that Providencia has experienced, I put it to Bent that the islanders must have a bizarre sense of identity. I note that that in my readings and investigation that there are more people leaving the island than arriving each year and many islanders now make their home and money labouring in the Cayman islands or on neighbouring San Andres. Very few head to mainland Colombia. Does he think of himself as Colombian or Caribbean or would he prefer to be Nicaraguan? Bent thinks for a moment and says:

“Here we have a mixed feeling. The Colombian Government does not treat us as a people. We are almost 6000 people here on the island, 99 per cent of us are unemployed. We are promoting more of a separation from Colombia although we do not want to be Nicaraguan. We want to be an autonomous region recognised together with places like Limon in Costa Rica, the Bay Islands in Honduras, Colon in Panama and the Corn Islands in Nicaragua.

“We are not a violent people, and now we are becoming accustomed to armed men everywhere. The Colombian Government put their police and army here and we don’t need them. This is the reason why Colombia has problems.”

Strong words from the fisherman from Casa Baja, Providencia.

There is no doubt that there are no Guerrilla maritima as Providencia sits apart from the conflict by virtue of the 300 miles separating it from the South American main.

What remains now is a Caribbean backwater that is the roots of English civilisation in the Americas, a Colombian national park that is the antithesis to San Andres, in short a cliché. Long stretches of unspoilt palm-lined white sandy beaches aurally polluted with lilted reggae beats are complimented by rugged volcanic mountains and mangroves. Standing on the pristine Playa Manzanillo with my back to Roland’s Bar it is hard to imagine that in its infancy, Providencia was an attempt to elucidate the motives of the Puritan founding fathers. Here, 48 miles away from the duty free perfumeries of downtown San Andres, the islanders of Providencia spend their days fishing and catering to an idly growing tourism industry.

Colombian on paper and claimed by Nicaragua, Providencia is in keeping with tradition and remains at the heart of the tangle of geopolitical fallout of colonial ambitions in the Caribbean.

(This article originally appeared in CNN Traveller way back in 2007. I am happy to say that very little has changed regarding Providencia since then. There have been further, similar disputes with Nicaragua about the islands and their sovereignty. A non political version of this article was also used for my blog for Colombia.travel)

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