from the New York Times Book Review section for Sunday, 13 May 2018 —
Pirates, Runaways, Smugglers and the Occasional Aristocrat
Review By Michael Pye May 11, 2018
THE ISLAND THAT DISAPPEARED
The Lost History of the Mayflower’s Sister Ship and Its Rival Puritan Colony
By Tom Feiling
402 pp. Melville House. $28.99.
Providence lies off the coast of Nicaragua. Credit Simonetta Giori
The island of Providence is still on the map, but you just might not notice. It’s a speck of land in the Caribbean, off the coast of Nicaragua, with lovely blue waters and good lobster, a fueling stop for the speedboats rushing cocaine to the mainland. It was once a holy settlement founded by English Puritans, then it was Spanish for centuries and since 1928, as Providencia, part of far-off Colombia. It’s a place that’s now out of almost everybody’s way.
Naturally, being obscure, Providence has a raucous history that mostly isn’t officially documented. In the early years, its founding preachers could be “angry” and “vile,” but then the settlement was reorganized by rather jollier Puritans, one of whom liked Irish whiskey and Welsh conjurors. Later there were pirates, runaways, smugglers and the occasional aristocrat. Also a man who blamed himself for a crown prince’s suicide, an Englishman who may have been the first in the Americas to raise a quiet voice against slavery and, it was rumored, a fugitive Pablo Escobar.
All this is in Tom Feiling’s lively, baggy “The Island That Disappeared,” which belongs to the higher class of clever scrapbook, bolstered with the best sources and very fluent storytelling. If the narrative can seem ramshackle, that’s the nature of its subject: Why try to hold history together with map references when the really interesting events tend to happen in the margins? Feiling further muddles things by bringing in other islands when it suits him, which doesn’t help. But he has one huge advantage: the rich 17th-century records of the original Providence Island Company, which tried to found a Promised Land South to rival the famous one in Massachusetts. Although its settlers arrived on the sister ship to the Mayflower, relations between the two settlements were rather fraught.
God’s favor wasn’t obvious. Woodworm got into the tobacco, which was the colonists’ lone hope of a cash crop. On one occasion, the outnumbered English defenders were reduced to cutting up organ pipes from a ruined church and throwing them at the Spanish. The island’s settlers quickly realized there was money in being pirates — or, if you prefer, special forces in the godly war against Spain. And so the place began to divide disastrously between the holy and the military. At home, meanwhile, the company’s members were involved in the English Civil War, which interrupts Feiling’s story to no great purpose and helped to wreck Providence.
The island was taken by the Spanish and became Santa Catalina, [? bp] was then lost by them and taken back again; but now Feiling’s story changes. It’s no longer about the Promised Land. Providence has become just one more island where people wash ashore. Feiling tracks some of those extraordinary individuals and makes them live, but now his facts don’t fit his larger aim, to show in microcosm “how the Western world came into being.”
He may want to talk about the big picture, but the story of Providence wasn’t about the making of “a mighty empire.” It was about God, food and money. When the British of that time talked about empire, they meant Ireland and nothing much beyond the British Isles. It was only later that a British citizen would have the opportunity to feel guilty about such things. And the guest appearance by David Cameron at the end of the book seems bizarrely out of place. Providence’s past would be odder, wilder and more intriguing without being seen through such modern spectacles.
Michael Pye’s most recent book is “The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe.”