First Impressions

IN THE ENGLISH WEST INDIES, 1624-1713 by Richard S. Dunn.
Published for the
Institute of Early American History and Culture.
Copyright (c) 1972 by the University of North Carolina Press.
All rights reserved.


On the morning of July 1, 1631, Sir Henry Colt sighted the craggy eastern
coast of Barbados (less than a mile away) for the first time.... he was
aboard the Alexander... which had embarked from Weymouth, England forty days

The Alexander stayed two weeks in Barbados and took in some passengers and
a cargo of fustic (a dyewood) and tobacco. The English had occupied the
island for only 4 years, and their plantations were raw and straggling.

"For to confesse truely all the Ilands that I have passed by and seen unto
this day, not any pleaseth me soe well"... many subsequent visitors would
echo similar comments.

The island was full of wild hogs, delicious to eat, which the planters were
slaughtering at a terrific rate. They caught fish in their nets, and some of
Colt's fellow passengers went fishing at midnight. Colt liked the stewed
turtle "The taste is between fish and flesh of veale"

What struck him most forcibly was the exotic tropical vegetation: "The
palmito tree carryes his leaf like a ladyes skreen fann, or peacocks tayle,
the fruit like a cabbidge but better"

Colt had many things to say about the planters on Barbados. He found them a
quarrelsome, drunken, and idle set of young men. Encouraged by the planters,
he increased his mealtime liquor intake from 2 to 30 drams !

He said the Alexander was continually overrun by servants who came on board
hoping to escape the island or at the least to avoid laboring in the fields.
It took a full day to clear all visitors off the ship before they could set

Colt claims that in 10 days, he never saw any man work in Barbados.... they
were clearing the  land as the Indians did, by slashing and burning, and it
shocked Colt to see charred tree trunks, weeds and brush, and desolate stumps
6 feet high standing or lying in the fields.

Richard Ligon, first visited Barbados in 1647, he found the island much
better planted than Colt did, but the fields were only partially cleared,
with provision crops planted between the boughs of the felled trees, and he
still could not travel around much because of poor roads and impassable
thickets and gullies.

"For as we passed along near the shoar the Plantations appear'd to us one
above another: like several stories in stately buildings, which afforded
us a large proportion of delight"

Ligon lived in Barbados for 3 years (until 1650), he drew a map... the
earliest we have of Barbados... his map identifies 285 plantations by name
of owner.. these hug the leeward shore... a few are in the St. George valley
but none on the central plateau... the windward coast (East Coast) and the
interior hills and ridges were inaccessible in his day.

All the early settlers complained about the insect life, the stinging gnats
and the black ants, the woodlice (termites?), the mosquitoes and cockroaches.

They were a little less concerned about the lizards and
land crabs... and were even fond of the whistling frogs, pelicans and turtle

The early colonists slept in hammocks like the Indians, to gain some
protection from the insects.

Initially the Barbadians showed little sign of developing a planter elite.
They operated a subsistence economy and made no great wealth until the
introduction of sugar. The change from tobacco to sugar occurred rapidly in
Barbados between 1640 and 1643. James Holdip and James Drax are credited with
the leading roles in starting the new industry. The Dutch from Pernambuco,
supplied both the canes, knowledge, slaves and equipment to get the industry

Just how crude the early planters lifesyle was before the introduction of
sugar can be seen from their
estates. A Captain Ketteridge had 5 white servants, a Negro slave and 6
hundred acres, yet his total household furniture consisted of an old chest,
6 hammocks, some empty barrels, a broken kettle, an old sieve, some battered
pewter dishes, 3 napkins and 3 books.

Here is a graphic description of the change in Barbadian planters fortunes,
as recorded by Henry Whistler, a visitor to Barbados in 1655.

"This island is one of the richest spots of ground in the world and fully
inhabited. But were the people suitable to the island, it were not to be
compared.... The gentry here doth live far better than ours do in England.
They have most of them 100 or 2 or 3 of slaves apes who they command as they
please. Here they may say what they have is their own. And they have that
liberty of conscience which we so long have in England fought for, but they
do abuse it. This island is inhabited with all sorts: with English, French,
Dutch, Scots, Irish, Spaniards they being Jews, with Indians and miserable
Negroes born to perpetual slavery, they and their seed. These Negroes they
do allow as many wives as they will have; some will have three or four,
according as they find their body able. Our English here doth think a Negro
child the first day it is born to be worth five pounds; they cost them
nothing to bring up, they go always naked. Some planters will have thirty
more or less about four or five years old. They sell them from one to the
other as we do sheep. This island is the dunghill whereon England doth cast
forth its rubbish. Rogues and whores and such like people are those which
are generally brought here. A rogue in England will hardly make a cheater
here. A bawd brought over puts on a demure comportment, a whore if
handsome makes a wife for some rich planter. But if plain, the island of
itself is very delightful and pleasant.... The people have a very generous
fashion that if one come to a house to inquire the way to any place, they
will make him drink, and if the traveller does deny to stay to drink they
take it very unkindly of him."

The premier sport in the island, after sex, was heavy drinking... one
evening a patient of Dr. Sloane's managed to down eight quarts of madeira
before he collapsed into a stupor.

At first there were practically no
women on the island.... the inhabitants were mostly young males.... as the
island "developed" more women were brought over, and since they outlived the
men... the female population soon outnumbered the males.

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