Download pdf

Table of Contents


Contact Information

The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837
An Overview

By Nini Rodgers




The arrival of Europeans in the Caribbean brought about irreversible demographic change. Decimated by defeat and disease, ‘peaceful’ Arawaks and ‘warlike’ Caribs alike ceased to exist as an identifiable ethnic group, their gene pool dissolving into that of the newcomers, where it died away or remained un-investigated. The replacement of native peoples by European settlers was desultory. After their arrival in 1492 the Spanish explored and settled the Caribbean islands with some enthusiasm. The extension of activities into Mexico and Peru, however, rich in precious metals and with a structured agricultural work force, swiftly eclipsed the islands as a destination for settlers. More northerly Europeans (French, English, Irish, and Dutch) arriving later, slipped into the more neglected Spanish possessions in the Leeward Islands (today’s eastern Caribbean) or Surinam, on the periphery of Portuguese Brazil. These seventeenth-century colonists initiated the process which turned the Caribbean into the world’s sugar bowl. To do so, they imported enslaved Africans who soon became the most numerous group on the islands. In the nineteenth century, as sugar receded in economic importance, so too did the remaining whites, and the Caribbean assumed its present Afro-Caribbean aspect.

Tobacco plantations in Cuba
(Harper's Weekly, 12 April 1869)

Changing the islands’ flora, fauna and demography, the newcomers also imported their religious and political systems and ‘great power’ rivalries. Those who founded the colonies were eager for royal support and recognition, thinking very much in terms of subsequently returning home to enjoy wealth and importance. As their tropical possessions proved themselves valuable, kings and governments became more and more determined to retain and expand them. The sugar boom made the Caribbean a cockpit for warfare among the European powers. This presented difficulties and opportunities for the Irish. Divided at home into colonists and colonised, when seeking their fortunes in Europe’s overseas empire, they had to choose which king to serve, which colony to plant.

Pioneer Settlers: The Case of Peter Sweetman

This situation in the Caribbean was first clearly articulated by Peter Sweetman in 1641. Sweetman had left Ireland with the intention of becoming a substantial planter. His chosen destination was Saint Christopher (Saint Kitts), the first island where Europeans made a serious attempt to develop tobacco plantations. Arriving simultaneously in the mid-1620s, the English and French, fearful both of native Caribs and Spanish claims to possession, partitioned the island amongst themselves. Sweetman, a subject of the British King Charles I and building upon connections with English traders and adventurers who used Cork and Kinsale as the last landfall on the Atlantic crossing, led his entourage (male and female, soldiers and servants) to the English sector of the island.

The outbreak of the 1641 rebellion by Catholics in Ireland against English rule caused Sweetman to rethink his position. Tensions ran high between the English and Irish colonists and the governor sought to defuse the situation by deporting the Irish to the nearby island of Montserrat. Uneasy about this move, Sweetman wrote to King John of Portugal citing religious harassment and requesting to be allowed to lead four hundred Irish from Saint Christopher to an island site at the mouth of the Amazon. There, Sweetman hoped to establish a distinct Irish colony, promising King John that his group of soldiers and servants, which included fifty or sixty married men, would be a guarantee of security, stability and future development.

The idea of establishing an Irish tobacco colony along the Amazon under an Iberian monarch had been put before the King of Spain some years earlier. Church and King were well disposed to such a proposal having already welcomed the Irish as persecuted Catholics and useful soldiers. Hispanic colonists in the Americas reacted differently, seeing the Irish as northern intruders, pointing out that not all of them were Catholics, complaining that wherever they came they brought the English with them. The Portuguese authorities now reflected a similar split. King John therefore designed a compromise solution. He refused Sweetman’s request for a distinct Irish colony, based on the strategically placed island the Irishman had chosen. Instead King John offered a mainland site where Sweetman could establish a town. There he could be governor but the head magistrate would be Portuguese. The Irish must become naturalised Portuguese, admit other Portuguese subjects to settle among them and accept the Portuguese judicial system. They would also have to observe Portuguese trading rules, which meant that they had to rely on merchants in Lisbon (Lorimer 1989: 446-559).

Sweetman’s hopes were dashed. He had hoped to set up a distinct Irish colony in an island location where he could maintain valuable trading connections with the English and the Dutch, currently the best suppliers of capital, cheap freight charges, manufactured goods, and African slaves. So Sweetman’s attempt failed and the Irish were moved to Montserrat. By 1667 a visiting British governor described it as ‘almost an Irish colony’.

A decade later a census of the island proved this description correct, showing some sixty-nine percent of the white male population and some seventy percent of the white females to be Irish. On Nevis and Antigua, the Irish totalled around a quarter of the white population; on Saint Christopher they hovered around ten percent.

Neither the Spanish Habsburgs nor the British Stuarts were prepared to sanction an official Irish colony in the Caribbean. The Irish therefore were left in the position of trying to secure their advantage by playing off the rival powers against one another. As France replaced Spain as the leading Catholic power in Europe, Caribbean colonies moved from tobacco to more valuable and capital-intensive sugar cultivation. The division of Saint Christopher into French and British sectors thus became more politically volatile.

The Irish could prove politically influential. In 1666, when Britain and France declared war, it was the Irish who ensured the triumph of the French on Saint Christopher and Montserrat. An English colonist commented that ‘the Irish in the rear, always a bloody and perfidious people in the English Protestant interest, fired volleys into the front and killed more than the enemy of our own forces’. Montserrat, as well as the entirety of Saint Christopher, passed into French control, a situation reversed a year later. The English took over, demoting Montserrat’s Irish Protestant governor for helping the French, and installing William Stapleton, an Irish Catholic, in his place, as he understood ‘the better to govern his countrymen’ (Akenson 1997:55-58).

It was the needy nobles of Portugal and Spain who established Europe’s first overseas empires. Landless younger sons, fidalgos and hidalgos, bred to avoid manual labour and give orders to their social inferiors, took to soldiering, eager to conquer and discover new lands. In doing so they frequently encouraged the family’s peasantry to leave the fields, take up arms and stagger on shipboard. Peter Sweetman, setting off for Saint Christopher with his armed retinue and bond servants, was an Irish version of this European phenomenon.

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2007

Online published: 11 November 2007
Edited: 07 May 2009

Rodgers, Nini, 'The Irish in the Caribbean 1641-1837: An Overview' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 5:3 (November 2007), pp. 145-156. Available online (, accessed .


The Society for Irish Latin American Studies

 Copyright Information