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Pirates, puritans and treasure: The turbulent past of Providence

With its white sandy beaches, turquoise seas and lush, verdant interior, it looks like most people’s idea of a Caribbean paradise.

But behind the tropical beauty of Providence, an island off Nicaragua so small it does not feature on many maps, lies a troubled and turbulent history of puritan settlers, Spanish invaders, slavery, pirates and cursed treasure.

Providence, or Providencia, as it is known in Colombia which owns the island, is largely overlooked in Britain but was one of England’s first colonies before it became the victim of an international tug of war involving religious groups, tobacco traders, ruthless buccaneers and slave traders. 

But while its violent past may have been consigned to the history books, today the island of 5,000 – a few hundred miles from Colombia – is blighted by drug trafficking and many young islanders have abandoned the fishing and traditional trades of their forebears to seek wealth elsewhere.

With its white sandy beaches, turquoise sea and lush, verdant interior, the island of Providence (pictured) off Nicaragua looks like most people’s idea of a Caribbean paradise

Behind the tropical beauty of Providence (pictured) lies a troubled and turbulent history of puritan settlers, Spanish invaders, slavery, pirates and haunted buried treasure

Behind the tropical beauty of Providence (pictured) lies a troubled and turbulent history of puritan settlers, Spanish invaders, slavery, pirates and haunted buried treasure

Providence, or Providencia, as it is known in Colombia which owns the island, is largely overlooked in Britain but was one of England's first colonies. It became the victim of an international tug of war involving religious groups, tobacco traders, ruthless buccaneers and slave traders. Pictured is an abandoned church at Smoothwater Bay from an era when religion and education were key to overcoming the island's poverty and isolation

Providence, or Providencia, as it is known in Colombia which owns the island, is largely overlooked in Britain but was one of England’s first colonies. It became the victim of an international tug of war involving religious groups, tobacco traders, ruthless buccaneers and slave traders. Pictured is an abandoned church at Smoothwater Bay from an era when religion and education were key to overcoming the island’s poverty and isolation

Providence is a tiny island more than 100 miles off Nicaragua and 500 miles from Colombia. It is so small it does not feature on many maps

Providence is a tiny island more than 100 miles off Nicaragua and 500 miles from Colombia. It is so small it does not feature on many maps

Its fascinating past has been examined in detail in a book ‘The Island that Disappeared’ by British author Tom Feiling, who found some aspects of life there still mirror the incredible complexities of its past.

In 1630, a group of English puritans began an island experiment to build a peaceful and orderly Christian community after arriving aboard the Seaflower – the sister ship to the Mayflower that famously transported the first Pilgrims from Plymouth to the New World in 1620.

They landed with hopes of establishing a refuge from persecution but before long bitter divisions broke out between the puritans, soldiers and slave owners creating turmoil on the five-mile-long island.

Life was tough, said Mr Feiling, with blasphemy punishable by death and rules outlawing gambling and drink.

By 1641, just 11 years later, the experiment was over when the Spanish invaded the island and drove the English out.

The island's fascinating past has been examined in detail in a new book, 'The Island that Disappeared' by author Tom Feiling. The highest point on Providence, which began as an underwater volcano, is known as the Peak (pictured)

The island’s fascinating past has been examined in detail in a new book, ‘The Island that Disappeared’ by author Tom Feiling. The highest point on Providence, which began as an underwater volcano, is known as the Peak (pictured)

Though completely forgotten by the British, Providence was one of England's first colonies. The Providence Island Company's experiment began in 1630, when puritans aboard the Seaflower landed with hopes of establishing a refuge from persecution. But rows between puritans and soldiers kept the colony in uproar

Though completely forgotten by the British, Providence was one of England's first colonies. The Providence Island Company's experiment began in 1630, when puritans aboard the Seaflower landed with hopes of establishing a refuge from persecution. But rows between puritans and soldiers kept the colony in uproar. Pictured: The Providence Island Company's journal

Though completely forgotten by the British, Providence was one of England’s first colonies. The Providence Island Company’s experiment began in 1630, when puritans aboard the Seaflower landed with hopes of establishing a refuge from persecution. But rows between puritans and soldiers kept the colony in uproar. Pictured right: The Providence Island Company’s journal

Even today, the flag of Providence makes reference to the treasure said to have been buried on the island by pirates and privateers

Even today, the flag of Providence makes reference to the treasure said to have been buried on the island by pirates and privateers

The Spaniards stationed what turned out to be an ineffective garrison and over the decades that followed it was occupied by pirates, including Henry Morgan.

Mr Feiling, 49, said: ‘Sir Henry Morgan had this idea that this may be a pirate republic where all the pirate brethren could meet and raid Spanish ships whenever they wanted.’ 

The author said it was ‘perfectly possible’ hidden treasure remained buried on the island or in shipwrecks off the coast with ‘unimaginable amounts’ stolen from Spanish ships in the area.

Henry Morgan himself was rumoured to have buried some of his spoils in the hills of Providence after one particularly large haul from a raid in Panama.

But some superstitious islanders believe anything hidden there is now guarded by the supernatural – legend has it that pirates cursed their treasure by slaughtering people at their secret burial spots. 

Even today, the flag of Providence makes reference to the treasure said to have been buried on the island while parts of the island are still named after Morgan.

As farming went into decline over the years, many islanders left Providence to work abroad and not all of them came back. Pictured is an abandoned wooden house in the hills

As farming went into decline over the years, many islanders left Providence to work abroad and not all of them came back. Pictured is an abandoned wooden house in the hills

Pictured is an old Texaco station at Bailey on the island. These days, there is just one petrol station to service the island, which also has a landing strip, electricity generating plant, two cash points and a number of hotels

Pictured is an old Texaco station at Bailey on the island. These days, there is just one petrol station to service the island, which also has a landing strip, electricity generating plant, two cash points and a number of hotels

Many young islanders have abandoned the fishing and traditional trades of their forebears to seek wealth elsewhere but lemon, orange, fig and tamarind trees still grow wild in the hills

Many young islanders have abandoned the fishing and traditional trades of their forebears to seek wealth elsewhere but lemon, orange, fig and tamarind trees still grow wild in the hills

The Buccaneer King: Who was Sir Henry Morgan?

Sir Henry Morgan (pictured) became known for his swashbuckling raids in the Caribbean

Sir Henry Morgan (pictured) became known for his swashbuckling raids in the Caribbean

Henry Morgan was born in the small village of Llanrumney in south Wales in 1635 and went on to become legendary buccaneer who battled the Spanish for control of the Caribbean.

It is not known how he made his way to the West Indies, or how he began his career as a privateer.

But while he is often described as a pirate, he was actually working for the English Commonwealth to secure trade routes to the New World.

After diplomatic relations between England and Spain worsened in 1667, he was given a licence to attack and seize Spanish vessels.

He became known for his daring raids, plundering cities, destroying Spanish squadrons and making lucrative seizures.

But after one raid on Panama City, and after Spain and England had signed a peace treaty, he was arrested and sent back to London.

There, he was treated like a returning hero by the public, the government and King Charles II. By 1674, he had been appointed a Knight Bachelor and returned to Jamaica to serve as the territory’s Lieutenant Governor. 

In Jamaica he became a planter and respected member of the ruling class before he fell ill and died in 1688.

His life was romanticised after his death and he became the inspiration for pirate-themed works of fiction across a range of genres. 

In Panama, the legend of the swashbuckling buccaneer has lived on and he has become one of the best known pirates in the region.

The island was abandoned altogether in around 1685. It was deserted for the next 100 years until, in 1789, a handful of white settlers and their slaves arrived from Jamaica and resettled the island.

At first, Mr Feiling said, it was a ‘completely lawless place’ before American Philip Livingston brought Baptism to the island in the 1840s. With him came peace and stability and, eventually, a successful trade in coconuts, fish, fruit, coffee and sugar.

‘(Livingston) realised the vision that the puritans had failed to realise,’ Mr Feiling said, adding that this era set the foundations for peaceful, law-abiding island life for years to come. 

‘I spoke to a lot of people who remember that it was still like that in to the 1980s – electricity did not arrive until the 1960s and 1970s, people were going around with lanterns and there were no bank accounts. But the young people now are not interested in fishing and farming.’

In more recent times, the looming menace of Colombia’s drugs trade has had an inevitable influence on island life – even if people live peacefully together.

Mr Feiling said he had been told that on one occasion, a drug-running ‘fast boat’ dropped its cargo near the island resulting in black bales of cocaine bobbing around off the coast.

A church service was rudely interrupted when word got out and, before long, members of the congregation were wading out to sea to bring in the parcels, he said.

‘Providence is 500 miles from Colombia and that is a tank of fuel for a fast boat – so they stop off at Providence and refuel the boat,’ Mr Feiling explained.

The island was abandoned altogether in around 1685. It was deserted for the next 100 years until in 1789 a handful of white settlers and their slaves arrived from Jamaica and resettled the island

The island was abandoned altogether in around 1685. It was deserted for the next 100 years until in 1789 a handful of white settlers and their slaves arrived from Jamaica and resettled the island

In more recent times, the looming menace of Colombia's drugs trade has had an inevitable influence on island life - even if people live peacefully together

In more recent times, the looming menace of Colombia's drugs trade has had an inevitable influence on island life - even if people live peacefully together

In more recent times, the looming menace of Colombia’s drugs trade has had an inevitable influence on island life – even if people live peacefully together

The famous Welsh pirate Sir Henry Morgan was rumoured to have buried some of his spoils in the hills of Providence after one particularly large haul from a raid in Panama

The famous Welsh pirate Sir Henry Morgan was rumoured to have buried some of his spoils in the hills of Providence after one particularly large haul from a raid in Panama

Inevitably, some younger islanders have found themselves lured away by the promise of quick cash from drug-running – and some have ended up in jail as a result.

But usually, if people do make money from the passing traffickers, Mr Feiling said, they might spend the money on modest improvements to their lives rather than splashing it on a life of luxury. 

Was he disheartened by what he found while visiting the island to research his book?

‘It’s not a depressing place to be, it’s a great place to be. But the backdrop is that that it’s not a fishing and farming place any more. Young people want to leave and go to cities and everyone has iPhones – it’s like their eyes have been opened.

‘There are a lot of people who miss how it used to be. There is a real generation gap between the young and old.’

Some superstitious islanders believe anything hidden in the hills is now guarded by the supernatural - legend has it that pirates cursed their buried treasure by slaughtering people at the same spot

Some superstitious islanders believe anything hidden in the hills is now guarded by the supernatural – legend has it that pirates cursed their buried treasure by slaughtering people at the same spot

Mr Feiling said that while most people there were aware of the area's English heritage, Britain underplays its links to the island

Mr Feiling said that while most people there were aware of the area’s English heritage, Britain underplays its links to the island

The English returned to the island in 1789, long after the original colony fell in 1641.  Pictured: One of the few remaining ironwood trees on the island.

The English returned to the island in 1789, long after the original colony fell in 1641.  Pictured: One of the few remaining ironwood trees on the island.

He said that while most people there were aware of the area’s English heritage, Britain underplays its links to the island. But insists there can be a bright future for the island.

‘I don’t think people will abandon it but the old Baptist English culture is getting weaker,’ he said.

‘The place needs tourism and for people to go there and spend money and learn its history because it is a completely overlooked part of British history.’

Tom Feiling’s book is available in two editions. One for the UK – The Island that Disappeared: Old Providence and the Making of the Western World (Explore Books) 2017 – and one for the US – The Island that Disappeared: The Lost History of the Mayflower’s Sister Ship and Its Rival Puritan Colony (Melville House) 2018. 



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