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From the onset of English settlement until 1670, the Leeward Islands were governed by Barbados – essentially as a colony of a colony – and they achieved their independence as a result of years of lobbying, during which they claimed that the Barbadian colonists were concerned only with their own security and prosperity, to the disadvantage of that of their fellow English settlers in the Leewards. Should the latter be granted the right to govern themselves, the argument ran, Antigua and Montserrat, Nevis and St. Kitts would be bound together in harmony, and the four islands would work together to their mutual benefit. But although Barbadian governor William, Lord Willoughby, pronounced himself pleased to be rid of these additional responsibilities, his pessimistic prediction was that the Leeward colonists would soon find themselves as dissatisfied with each other as they had been with the Barbadians and that before long they would fall to squabbling among themselves rather than look out for one another's best interests. The separation of the Leewards from Barbados, Willoughby claimed, would “put every island upon its particular guard” and thus “enfeeble the strength of the whole,” and therefore the Leewards were “acting the part of him that saws off the bough on which he sits.” Not surprisingly, most Leeward settlers dismissed Willoughby's comment as the “sour grapes” attitude of a royal governor who had begun his administration in charge of five islands and would end it in command of just one, but within a few decades his warning would appear all too prescient regarding the challenges of governing the “wayward Leewards.”
A notable element of the 1678 census is the extent to which the putatively English settlements in the Leeward Islands were populated by people of Irish and, to a lesser degree, Scots birth or descent, and whereas the latter were aggregated within the section of the population described as “English,” the former were counted separately in the returns for all four islands. In the century that followed, people of Irish birth or heritage continued to constitute a large segment of each island's white population, while the number of Scots increased dramatically after the Act of Union in 1707 and continued to rise throughout the eighteenth century.
Of course, the Leewards were not unique among the settlements that constituted late-seventeenth- and eighteenth-century colonial British America in including a substantial number of people of other than English nationality in their white populations. We might think, for example, of the many Dutch-descended settlers in New York, the numerous Germans in Pennsylvania, and the sizable Huguenot contingent in coastal South Carolina. However, the ethnic diversity of the Leewards merits extended analysis for several reasons. First, as this chapter demonstrates, it was a source of frequent comment, and at various times significant public concern, in the period under study.
Perhaps the most prevalent image of the English West Indian colonies in the era of sugar and slavery is of these islands as places of sexual license, in which white settlers enjoyed boundless opportunities for sensual gratification both with one another and with their slaves. In the absence of church courts and other sacred and secular institutions that aimed to regulate sexual behavior in the metropole and in the North American colonies, West Indian colonists supposedly devoted themselves to the pursuit of sexual pleasure, often across racial boundaries, and simultaneously failed to create the sorts of stable families that might have become the foundations of a recognizably English society. As Maaja Stewart has observed, eighteenth-century narratives about the West Indies, fictional and factual alike, are replete with “images that represent the breakdown of the nuclear family,” such as instances of “adultery, bigamy, incest, and illegitimacy.” In the eighteenth-century Anglo-American popular imagination, the morality of the island colonies was undermined by several interrelated factors. The first was environmental, as it was easy to associate a sultry tropical climate with sensual excess; William Pittis, the author of The Jamaica Lady (1720), had his character Pharmaceuticus, a ship's surgeon, assert that the very air of the West Indies “so changes the constitution of its inhabitants that if a woman land there chaste as a vestal, she becomes in forty-eight hours a perfect Messalina.”
Throughout the period under study, metropolitan observers were on the whole highly critical of the state of the Church of England in Britain's American colonies, particularly in relation to the plantation-based settlements of the mainland south and of the islands. The clergyman-philosopher George Berkeley spoke for many of his fellow church members when he wrote in 1725 that “there is at this day, but little sense of religion, and a most notorious corruption of manners, in the English colonies settled on the continent of America, and the islands.” To Bishop Berkeley, this unhappy state of affairs could best be remedied by sending more and better qualified clergy “to reform morals, and soften the behaviour of men,” as in his view the Anglican churches throughout the colonies were nothing more than “a drain for the very dregs and refuse” of British clergy. To Charles Leslie, whose account of his experiences in Jamaica was published in 1740, the fault lay at least as much with the men who constituted the island's elite; although there were “indeed here several Gentlemen that are well acquainted with Learning … these are few; and the Generality … love a Pack of Cards better than the Bible.” The physician and evangelical Christian Robert Poole, who traveled throughout the Leewards in the late 1740s, complained repeatedly that the various churches he encountered were “thinly visited and carelessly attended to,” which he interpreted as a sign of the settlers' irreligious nature, as corroborated by the fact that “many of those who call themselves Christians, [were] keeping open Shop, with their Goods publickly exposed to Sale” on Sunday, and that even those who attended services “by their Behaviour, seem'd pretty great Strangers to the Duty of worshipping God with Decency and Reverence.”
In the summer of 1753, fashionable Londoners were intrigued to read, in the August issue of the popular London Magazine, a vivid account of a murder trial that had taken place the previous winter in St. Kitts, one of the four islands that, along with Antigua, Montserrat, and Nevis, made up the federated British West Indian colony of the Leeward Islands. The magazine's editors explained that they had chosen to devote front-page space to these distant proceedings because the story “has of late been a subject of conversation, and contains some very extraordinary circumstances.” Specifically, “the proof [of the defendant's guilt] was founded entirely upon presumption, without any one witness of the fact, which is a dangerous sort of proof, but more necessary to be admitted in the West-Indies than here at home, because negroes are not admitted as witnesses.” In other words, the defendant, a young attorney named John Barbot, had been found guilty of murder and executed for this crime largely on the basis of testimony of several black slaves, who under both English and colonial law were not legal persons and whose testimony had to be presented in court as hearsay evidence from the lips of white men. A careful reading of the London Magazine article and the transcript of the trial, which appeared in London in pamphlet form that same summer, makes it clear that, although both the victim, Matthew Mills, and his alleged murderer were white, they were very different sorts of men in the eyes of their fellow white Kittitians.