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
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

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.


Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester


Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester




Travel the Unknown


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...
    The true cost of meat
    As one of the world’s biggest methane emitters, the meat industry has a lot more to concern itself with than merely dietary issues ...
    Hung out to dry
    Wetlands are vital storehouses of biodiversity and important bulwarks against the effects of climate change, while also providing livelihoods for mill...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...


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...


by John Foot • Bloomsbury • £25 (hardback)


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


By Lucy Seigle • Trapexe • £12.99/£6.99 (hardback/eBook)


by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin • Pelican • £8.99 (paperback)


by Christoph Baumer • IB Tauris • £30 (hardback)


by Charles Lane • River Books • £40 (hardback)


by Graham Hoyland• William Collins • £20 (hardback)


by Dr Lucy Jones• Doubleday Books • £19.99 (hardback)


by Daniel Pinchbeck• Watkins • £9.99 (paperback)


by Jasper Winn • Profile Books • £16.99 (hardback)


by Nathan H Lents • Weidenfeld & Nicolson • £16.99…


This hard-hitting marine conservation film – part of the Ocean…


Here are the newest non-fiction offerings to satisfy that craving…


The Society’s Earth Photo exhibition captures the planet’s natural riches…


by Alanna Mitchell • Oneworld • £16.99 (hardback)


by Christopher J Preston • The MIT Press • £20.95…


by Jamal Mahjoub • Bloomsbury • £25 (hardback)


by Joanna Kafarowski • Dundurn Press • 15.99 (hardback)


by Peter Dauvergne • Polity Books • £9.99 (paperback)


by Mary Beard and David Olusoga • Profile Books •…