English settlers arrived at the eastern Caribbean island of Barbados in the 1620s, as early settlers of the infant British Empire. In 1656, my 9 x great grandmother and grandfather, Elizabeth Baker and Theophilus Patey, were married there. He was about 23, she about 20.
The colonists in Barbados were also virtually “in” England—politically.
In fact, the brief civil war in Barbados, in 1650-51, echoed the English civil war of 1649-60. What was the fighting about? Slavery (in metaphor), freedom, and the rights of Englishmen.
Let’s make a long story short here. A fierce debate about government was playing out in England, with bloody outcomes. Here’s an easy outline:
James I (1603-1625)
Charles I (1625-1649)
Rump Parliament, Oliver then Richard Cromwell as Lord Protector (1649-1659)
Charles II (1660-1685)
James II (1685-1688)
Notice: Two kings, then a no-king period from 1649 to 1660, then two more kings.
Parliament debated extensively, for years, about whether Charles I was acting too much like a tyrant. In 1649 a Rump Parliament led a High Court of Justice to convict Charles I of “treason.” Charles was beheaded on a scaffold in Whitehall, and the office of King was formally abolished.
England had killed its king. A dreaded taboo had been broken (as in Shakespeare plays like Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear). Oliver Cromwell, a staunch Puritan with an Army, now ruled England. He finally dissolved Parliament and set himself up as Lord Protector. When he died in 1658, his son Richard couldn’t sustain the Protectorate.
So Charles II (son of Charles I) restored the office of King in1660 when he returned from exile and took the throne. Oliver Cromwell’s body was exhumed from its place in Westminster Abbey, decapitated, and buried in a common pit.
These events sharply polarized Englishmen. The Royalists (Cavaliers) believed in monarchy. The Parliamentarians (Roundheads) believed in Parliament and Cromwell, more or less. These divisions could have bloody consequences.
And this polarization crossed the Atlantic.
The white planters in Barbados knew their political differences as Royalists vs. Parliamentarians. Yet they agreed to suspend all disputes, because as a group they were busy growing rich by cultivating sugar with slave labor.
This political calm lasted until King Charles I was beheaded in 1649. Then the Royalists in Barbados grew angry. Soon, three more events stoked the flame.
- In 1650 Charles II-to-be, from exile, sent Lord Willoughby, the Earl of Carlisle, overseas to govern Barbados. It was a Royalist “strike.”
- Right away, Parliament struck back. It forbade Barbados to trade with Dutch ships (the ones that supplied African slaves). Royalists in Barbados could now convince their Parliamentarian fellow planters that Cromwell was out to destroy their sugar trade.
- Finally, the Commonwealth of England in 1651, under Cromwell, sent an invasion force to Barbados—a fleet and an army, to force all English planters to knuckle under to the current government.
While waiting for the invasion force, the white planters in Barbados met with their Royalist Governor (sent by the exiled Charles II). They were fired up to “defend themselves against the slavery that is intended to be imposed on them.” [my italics]
Theophilus would have been 18, old enough to bear arms, and Elizabeth a few years younger. They would both have been able to recognize the vast difference between the slavery of Africans on the sugar plantations and the “slavery” their own class feared from Cromwell’s tyranny. I imagine they carried this lesson with them to Charles Town in Carolina in the 1670s.
The planters issued a proclamation to the English Parliament on 18 Feb 1651, embracing to the death their principles of freedom and courage.(1) Its purpose was:
- To announce to the inhabitants of Barbados that they “would be brought into contempt and slavery, if the same (Cromwell’s invasion) be not timely prevented,” and
- To resolve that Barbadians will not “prostitute our freedom and privileges to which we are borne, to the will and opinion of any one; neither do we thinke our number so contemptible, nor our resolution so weake, to be forced or persuaded to so ignoble a submission, and we cannot think that there are those amongst us, who are soe simple, and so unworthily minded, that they would not rather chuse a noble death, then forsake their ould liberties and privileges.”
The rhetorical bedrock here is the language of liberty vs. slavery. In this way, the planters resemble the writers of our Declaration of Independence. Neither group focuses on the enslavement of Africans.
The colonists of Barbados put up a stiff resistance, and a hundred of them died in the first battle. It wasn’t long before the invasion leader turned the allegiance of the island’s Parliamentarians against its Royalists. The 1652 Charter of Barbados set mild conditions of surrender, with all rebellion forgiven and all lands restored.
The Charter allowed “that all trade be free with all nations that do trade and are in amity with England.” This suggests to me that the Triangle Trade was restored to Barbados, despite the Anglo-Dutch war (1652-1654).
Soon, Barbados was stable enough that young Theophilus Patey and Elizabeth Baker could be married at St. Michael’s Parish in 1656 and start a family on the island.
By 1660, the white planters of Barbados were back in business with as much trade, and as many slaves, as they had ever had. Or more.
(1) Dr. Karl Watson writes, “It is interesting to note that in almost every warning or advisory issued by the Barbadians, slavery was used as a metaphor for the political control which England wished to establish over the island. It is more than ironic that the political directorate of an island, whose economy depended on slavery and the majority of whose population were slaves, should have used this institution as a rallying call for freedom for themselves.”