Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

THE ISLAND THAT DISAPPEARED: Old Providence and the Making of the Western World by Tom Felling

THE ISLAND THAT DISAPPEARED: Old Providence and the Making of the Western World by Tom Felling
01 Jun
2017
As is to be expected from such a cryptic title, few of us are likely to have ever heard of the tiny Caribbean island of Providence, which was settled by English explorers aboard the Seaflower in 1630, as they desperately tried to get a foothold in the New World

Yet, in Feiling’s eyes, this remote outpost and its capital, New Westminster, serves as a symbolic microcosm for Britain’s place in the world. ‘The more I read about it, and what followed it,’ he writes, ‘the more convinced I became that I had hit upon a neat précis of the story of how Britain became a world power.’

It’s a bold and indeed questionable claim, but there can be no doubt that what unfolds is a quite remarkable story. Far from England’s shores, Feiling paints a vivid and entertaining picture of Caribbean and Central American exploration, including the immense depths to which piracy played a role in the battle between European nations to stake their claim on the treasures they were finding across the Atlantic. Details of first encounters with indigenous communities – such as the natives of the Miskito coast – reveal a wild, natural environment, and a diversity of customs that simply no longer exist. The Miskitos in particular became firm allies of the English settlers, quickly and willingly adopting their beliefs and lifestyles; one young man even travelling to England for education and to entertain the court of King Charles. For this community, at least, it appears to have been a genuine alliance and trading of knowledge, as opposed to the barbaric practices more commonly associated with the colonial period.


‘It was strange to think that the hopes of a generation of British empire-builders had once rested on Providence,’ Feiling ponders

The key narrative he repeatedly underlines is the paralleling of Providence with the settlements in New England, where the passengers of the Mayflower had landed a decade earlier. It becomes strikingly unbelievable that of these two bases – one blessed with good weather and fertile soils, the other inflicted with harsh winters and rampant diseases - somehow it was the Pilgrims of Massachusetts who ended up thriving and eventually forming the most powerful nation in the world, while their rivals in Providence were snuffed out after barely more than a decade. ‘Cold, barren New England had trumped balmy, verdant Providence,’ he writes.

The juxtaposition of these respective fortunes is perhaps best outlined in the case of Henry Halhead, once Mayor of Banbury, who opted to head for the New World with his family in 1631 after fire destroyed much of the town. ‘Had he gone to Massachusetts, his name might today be known to every American schoolchild,’ writes Feiling. ‘Instead, he sailed for a tiny island in the Caribbean, vowing to stay there “until the isle of Great Britain, being about to be born again into a new and free state, might deservedly be christened the isle of Providence”’.

Over the years, Providence experienced a tumultuous existence, growing from minor experiment to place of national significance – a prime location for piracy upon passing Spanish ships – before the rot eventually set in. The ignorance of those who called the shots when it came to growing economically viable crops and making the island profitable certainly didn’t help. Experience counted for little, while money, privilege and a good, Puritan upbringing enabled the most inexperienced Englishman to become a key figure in the island’s fortunes

Two hundred or so pages in, the story shifts, and becomes a first-person account of Feiling’s personal trip to Providence, a behind-the-scenes of how he uncovered these in-depth stories about the island’s history. His experience is engaging, and how Providence’s dramatic birth has manifested itself in the multicultural modern Colombian archipelago of ‘San Andrés and Providencia’ is fascinating.

It is remarkable how much importance was once attributed to a patch of land which was later ignored by the competing European powers entirely, ultimately mostly taken advantage of by stateless pirates stalking merchant vessels across the Caribbean. For all the blood spilt over the sovereignty of the island, it’s now barely a footnote in the popular history of these vast empires – as if it really had ‘disappeared’.

Click here to purchase The Island that Disappeared: Old Providence and the Making of the Western World by Tom Felling

Subscribe to Geographical!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    London: a walk in the park
    In the 2016 London Mayoral election, the city’s natural environment was high on the agenda. Geographical asks: does the capital have a green future,...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Films

Powerful expedition film, screened at the 2018 Adventure Uncovered Film…

Books

by Laura Locker and Julia Scheele • Icon Books • £12.99 (paperback)

Books

by Patrick Nunn • Bloomsbury • £16.99 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Oliver Bullough • Profile Books • £20 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Thomas Reinertsen Berg • Hodder & Stoughton • £25 (hardback)

Books

by Adam Rutherford • Weidenfeld & Nicolson • £18.99 (hardback) • £9.99 (eBook)

Films

Ever since 1984, when the first TED conference took place,…

Exhibitions

Annual photography competition at the Natural History Museum celebrates the…

Exhibitions

We all have to live with buildings, but getting the…

Books

by Bruno Latour • Polity Books • £12.99 (hardback)

Books

edited by Fearghal O’Nuallain • Summersdale • £9.99 (paperback)

Books

by Francis Fukuyama • Profile Books • £16.99 (hardback) • £14.99 (eBook)

Books

by Pascal Bruckner • Polity Books • £16.99 (hardback)

Books

by Kevin Begos • Algonquin Books • £20.99 (hardback)

Books

by Karl Schlögel (translated by Gerrit Jackson) • Reaktion Books • £18 (hardback)

Films

Space race biopic tries to uncover the real Neil Armstrong,…

Exhibitions

Four new galleries at Royal Museums Greenwich explore Britain’s maritime…

Books

by John Foot • Bloomsbury • £25 (hardback)

Books

by Deborah Baker • Chatto & Windus • £25 (hardback)