Volume 7, Number 4

November 2011

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Natalie A Zacek, Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands 1670-1776 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) 

ISBN978-0-521-19044-2 (hardback, £55:00)

By Nini Rodgers

School of History and Anthropology, Queens University Belfast

In Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands the author’s declared intention is to break a long established, unfavourable stereotype. This stereotype began with seventeenth and eighteenth- century commentators who painted a picture of Caribbean colonists as rich, lazy and sexually depraved. Twentieth-century historians then added political criticism, arguing that these slave and sugar islands, exploited by a heavily absentee planter class, had little in common with the constitutionally developed and independent minded colonies on the North American mainland. Zacek seeks to redress this, pointing to the resilience of settler society in the tropics, facing drought, hurricanes, earthquake, slave rebellion and foreign invasion. She stresses that these colonists, like those on the mainland, possessed a system of representative government which they defended as part of their English heritage.  

Zacek starts in 1670 when, in reaction to settler demand, the four Leeward Islands were released from the control of the governor of Barbados to become ‘a separate federated colony’. Sharing a governor general and commander-in-chief, each island also possessed its own council and assembly.  Zacek’s descriptions set out the islands’ distinct entities. Mountainous St. Christopher (St. Kitts), opened up early as a tobacco producer, proved to have excellent soil for sugar cultivation. But these advantages were reduced by the presence of a French colony on the eastern and western ends of the island, while the Stuart settlers held the territory in the middle. This situation existed from the 1620s until 1713 when victory in the War of the Spanish Succession secured the whole of St. Kitts for Britain. Nearby Nevis, was small, surprisingly prosperous and the seat of the governor general. To the east, Antigua, the largest island, was a drought ridden late developer; to the south lay tiny Montserrat, where the Irish formed some two thirds of the white population.

In the section ‘Montserrat, Ireland’s only colony’, Zacek stresses the importance of Galway merchants (Blakes, Skerrets, Bodkins, Frenchs, Kirwans) as leaders of that island’s shift into sugar production, which substituted slaves for indentured labourers and small holders. Zacek’s work on Montserrat does not replace D.H.Akenson’s detailed, ground breaking and provocative If the Irish Ran the World (1997), but her field of investigation encourages her to draw an interesting contrast between the Irish and Scots in the Leewards. Arriving early, settling as planters, smallholders and indentured labourers, the Irish were more numerous, socially diverse and divided than the Scots. The Scots made their appearance in the British Caribbean in the decades following the Act of Union (1707). Their high literacy rate allowed them to thrive as overseers, shop keepers and doctors. The most successful could rise into plantation owning, the wealthiest among them actually purchasing estates back home.

The problem of religious diversity loomed large in these islands. Though short on clergy and church buildings, the Leewards were part of the established Anglican church, belonging of the see of the Bishop of London. Yet many of the white settlers were Irish Catholics, Huguenots, Quakers and Jews. In the seventeenth century all of these groups were perceived as dangerous and hung about with civic disabilities. In a society menaced by slave revolt and foreign invasion, Quaker refusal to bear arms was bitterly resented and punished by fines. The Irish, eager to bear arms, were seen as untrustworthy because they might defect to a French enemy. The Huguenots (most numerous on St. Kitts, where a significant group had chosen to remain when Britain took over the whole island in 1713) were also suspected of disloyalty. The Jews, centred upon their synagogue in Nevis, were uneasily tolerated for their solvency and mercantile expertise. Zacek suggests that for them the Leewards represented a foothold in a business hub from which they could trade with Dutch, Danish and French Caribbean islands, North America, Latin America, Britain and continental Europe.

In the case of the Irish, the earliest and largest dissident group, their assimilation into English colonial society, is explained by mutual accommodation. Governor William Stapleton, an Irish Catholic and faithful soldier in the Stuart cause, took the first census of the islands, erected Anglican churches, encouraged the import of slaves and prevaricated over the taking of the official oath denying the power of the Pope.  During his governorship other Catholics islanders sought to follow his example. In the eighteenth century, as the deepening of the slave and sugar economy produced greater wealth and upward mobility, some of those families who had arrived from Ireland as Catholics began to marry outside their ethnic grouping, becoming Anglicans and thus acquiring the unquestionable right to hold office. The same trend towards exogamy and assimilation can be seen among Quakers and Huguenots.  The Jews were an exception to this process. Zacek describes them as integrated but not assimilated into Leeward society, seen both by themselves and the Christian whites as too ‘other’ to do so.

The penultimate chapter of this book deals with the Leeward islanders’ dedication to the idea that they enjoyed the rights of ‘free born Englishmen’. Calling on the analogy of ‘king and parliament’ the local assemblies kept a watchful eye out for any assertion of tyrannous power by appointed royal officials. Numerous examples illustrate how personal rivalries and political issues meshed together in such struggles. But one Leeward island constitutional conflict became a cause célèbre in Britain and the Caribbean. Governor Parke, appointed in 1706, arrived with a reputation for being ambitious, autocratic and Queen Anne’s favourite. He proceeded to live up to his reputation, successfully challenging the land title of a number of long established families to their estates. He built a large Governor’s House on Antigua including a room designed to accommodate the General Assembly. When that assembly proved uncooperative, he dissolved it by sending in the grenadiers. The frustrated legislators responded by murdering him in front of Government House.  It was the only time when a governor in Britain’s Atlantic empire suffered such a fate.

The Leewards, though small, are a fruitful area in which to investigate the hazards facing white settlement in the tropics (Chapter 1.) They provide an excellent example of the creation of English colonies out of diverse ethnic and religious groups (Chapters 2 and 3). A minority in the slave society they had created, Zacek convincingly proves that these white colonists were as dedicated, as any in North America, to the defence of their constitutional rights (Chapter 5). Her explanation of why the tropical Leewards did not join the thirteen mainland colonies in revolt is clear and succinct.

Given the remit she has set herself, Zacek faces the necessity of dealing with Sex, sexuality and social control (Ch 4). Here she regrets that the available evidence is thin. The Leewards had no local newspaper nor did they produce a rich reservoir of diaries and personal letters. Scrappy evidence seems to support general conclusions already drawn elsewhere – that large slave numbers and the absence of laws against miscegenation point to the widespread existence and toleration of inter racial sex between white males and African women. However Zacek remains ambivalent as to whether sex in the tropics was really more unlicensed than in Britain itself, or whether those at home only wished to think that this was so. On one issue she is clear - that Leeward society officially endorsed the English norm of male dominance and patriarchal control. Using legal papers she shows how society punished those who indulged in ‘transgressive behaviour’- white men who insulted married women of their own class, a white woman divorced by her husband for sexual licence which appeared to include intimate relations with a slave.

As with other analysis of Leeward cultural standards, Zacek threads her way through complex quarrels which sometimes ended in society failing to stand by its own expressed value system. This takes her to a sibling incest case in one of Montserrat’s leading Irish Catholic families. When James Farrell’s father discovered an incestuous relationship between his son and daughter, he determined to separate the pair by sending his daughter to a European nunnery and his son into a continental army. However the ruling clique on the island decided to defend the youth, urging him to become a Protestant and claim his father’s land. This reflected the spirit of the penal code (anti-Popery laws) in Ireland. In the colonies there were no prohibitions against Catholics buying and owning land. However the Montserrat Assembly declared that their legislature had passed a law which allowed an heir, who converted to Protestantism, to claim the parental estate. The authorities also intervened to stop the father removing his daughter from the island. Zacek believes that a number of factors worked together to produce support for the siblings rather than their horrified father, the most important being political.  Here the timing of the quarrel between Farrell father and son was important. In the decade of the Jacobite rebellion (1745), anti-Catholic feeling among the Anglican islanders ran high, reminding them of past French invasions in which their properties had suffered.

This is a convincing interpretation of the toleration of sexually transgressive behaviour, which would normally have been denounced as illegal and immoral. But the Farrell case could be used to illustrate other aspects of the Irish Catholic experience in the Caribbean. James Farrell’s father had looked to continental Europe to solve his problems, a common reaction of Irish Catholics, at home and in the colonies.  Leeward Catholics used personal links on the nearby French islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique to build up an inter island trade, sometimes legitimately, sometimes by smuggling. The coupling of a British base with Catholic contacts could offer career opportunities; again the Farrells provide an example. In 1713 Britain won the much coveted Asiento, the right to supply the Spanish colonies with slaves. This meant establishing British officials and trading stations (known as factors and factories) in Spanish territories to supervise the arrival of the British slave ships. One of the most important posts was that of factor in Cuba and Richard Farrell from Montserrat succeeded in acquiring this position. His easy access to slaves and his Catholicism meant that his descendants were able to establish themselves as extensive and aristocratic sugar planters on that burgeoning island.

The best known Catholic Irish Montserratian in the mid eighteenth century was Nicholas Tuite whose inter island trading eventually focused on the Danish island of St Croix, which he supplied with slaves, Irish provisions and Dominican clergy. On St Croix he became an absentee plantation owner. In 1760 Frederick V appointed him royal chamberlain, describing him as the founder of the Danish empire.  The Farrells were also multiple plantation owners on St Croix. Matthew Farrell took over the plantation which the Dominican, Thomas Devenish, had sought to develop and use as a base for supplying the financial needs of the Catholic Mission on the island. While fostering opportunities elsewhere, all the Irish from the Leewards, who could afford it, were keen to visit London, the fulcrum of sugar sales and Bath, a social Mecca for white West Indians.

Zacek points to the Jews as regarding the Leewards as a business hub from which they could operate throughout the Atlantic world. But the same could be said of the Irish, and indeed was true generally for all ethnic groups on the islands. In his best selling autobiography, the ex-slave Equiano tells how he was brought by an Irish sea captain, sailing from London, to Montserrat. There Captain James Doran sold him to a Quaker, Robert King, who eventually used him as a sailor. Determined to purchase his freedom Equiano managed to do some trading on his own account. His first West Indian venture was the buying of two glass tumblers on the tiny Dutch island of St Eustatia , which he sold at a fifty per cent profit on Montserrat.

In her conclusion Zacek gives a vivid description of society in the Leewards, a society composed not simply of planters and slaves, but of inn keepers, merchants, lawyers, clergymen. She explains how this recognisable diversity attracted the English reading public to newspapers reports about the islands. Though she does not stress the fact, such social variation was very much based on the Leewards’ position as an international trading centre.

Zacek’s research adds a study of the Leewards to other works depicting white colonists in the Caribbean as builders of dynamic colonial societies. She pays tribute to Larry Gragg’s writings on Barbados and to Trevor Burnard, Sarah Persall and B.W. Higman on Jamaica and presents herself as contributing to an ongoing debate.

But it is also possible for the reader to see Zacek as placing the last piece of the jigsaw into this interpretation of Britain’s Caribbean colonies. New research could now fruitfully be shifted to other areas. Sylvia R.Frey (co- editor with Betty Wood, Coming Shouting to Zion: African American Protestantism in the American South and British Caribbean to 1830, Chapel Hill, 1998) currently suggests that a deeper understanding of this period would be achieved by a study of French and Spanish colonies. Here those with Irish interests are already forging the way. Orla Power (NUI Galway) has just presented a PhD thesis on Nicholas Tuite, revealing how his rise to mercantile success in the Caribbean was very much based on his contacts with the French islands. Kristen Block and Jenny Shaw ‘ Subjects without Empire: The Irish in the Early Modern Caribbean ‘ in Past and Present (Feb. 2011)  pp.33-60, draw a comparison between the Irish experience in English and Spanish colonies during the seventeenth century.

Block and Shaw make use of ‘voluminous but rarely exploited Spanish colonial records presenting the Irish as refugees, migrants and petitioners...’ (p.34) The Irish were distrusted by England because they might support Spain, while Spain distrusted them because they might support England. Spain’s emphasis on limpiez de sangre (purity of blood) led her to ban foreign Catholics settlers from her empire, rerouting them instead into her continental armies. Block and Shaw investigate the careers of two Irishmen ‘Don Juan Morpha’ and Richard Hackett who sought to by-pass these difficulties and build careers for themselves and their followers on Hispaniola (present day Dominican Republic and Haiti). Morpha arrived in the 1630s from the buccaneer settlement on Tortuga and Hackett from Barbados, pleading persecution there in the wake of the 1641 rebellion in Ireland. The authors tentatively suggest that in 1655 the defeat of Cromwell’s expedition to Hispaniola could be explained by the behaviour of Irish soldiers on both sides, the attackers eagerly deserting the Puritan army, their fellow countrymen in the Spanish garrison putting up a vigorous defence of the island. The conclusion of the article is that as ‘subjects without an empire’ the Irish could not expect equality with either Spanish or English settlers. Yet there were times when they managed to exploit the ambiguities of their situation. Overall they were more likely to succeed within the British Empire than the Spanish.

Zacek’s monograph provides material proving this point in an Anglo French context. Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands illustrates in detail how far the metropolitan power could shape a colony in its own image.  

Source: Natalie A Zacek, Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands 1670-1776 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010), p. xiv.


Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2011

Published: 01 November 2011
Edited: 07 Diciembre 2011

Nini Rodgers'Natalie A Zacek, Settler Society in the English Leeward Islands 1670-1776 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010) " 7:4 (November 2011), pp. XXX-XXX. Available online  (www-irlandeses.org/lmsla2011_7_04_10_Nini_Rodgers.htm),, accessed.

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