Tempting Providence  in the Caribbean Sea

by dr. edward cecil harris, mbe, jp, phd, fsa

After the establishment of Jamestown, Virginia (1607) and Bermuda (1612), the London entrepreneurs who settled those places turned their attention to other sites for their corporate colonies. One of those locations was Providence Island, later “Old Providence”, so distinguished by the naming of an island of the Bahamas chain, “New Providence”. Isla de Providencia is a possession of Columbia, following the ousting of English settlers in the mid-1600s. One connection Old Providence has with Bermuda lies in the fact that that our third governor Captain Nathaniel Butler (1619–22), became its last governor.

Old Providence rose to prominence in the 1830s, at least in the literary field, as it was assumed to be the shipwrecked spot of an English knight and his female companion encompassed in a work ‘edited by Miss Jane Porter’, with the lengthy title of Sir Edw. Seaward’s Narrative of his Shipwreck and consequent discovery of certain islands in the Caribbean Sea; with a detail of many extraordinary and highly interesting events in his life, from the year 1733 to 1749, as written in his own diary.  It was a bestseller in the 1830s: Seaward’s original diary never surfaced, nor Sir Edward.

In the 1841 edition of Miss Porter’s epic, however, a actual shipwreck is mentioned as having taken place, being that of HMS Jackdaw on the morning of 11 March 1835. Later that year, a court-martial was ‘assembled on board HMS Victory, in Portsmouth Harbour [where that ship yet resides], on Monday the 17th of August, to inquire into the particulars of the loss of his Majesty’s late surveying schooner Jackdaw, off Old Providence’. Lieut. Edward Barnett, commander, was ‘admonished to be more cautious in future’, for the ‘Admiralty charts were shown not to reflect the full distance covered by the reef’.

In the Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection at the Bermuda Archives, there is a remarkable series of pencil drawings by George Bernard Lawrence, RN. He drew the scene of the wrecking of HMS Jackdaw at Old Providence and captioned it “All Saved”. While the sea was relentless on its attack of the schooner, but ‘being a new vessel, she resisted the violence of the surf long enough to permit a larger raft to be built to preserve the provisions, and astronomical instruments’. The day after the wrecking, HMS Gannet (18-gun Cruizer-class brig-sloop) arrived on the scene and conveyed Barnett and all the complement of the Jackdaw to Jamaica.

Commander Barnett went on to survey New Providence Island in 1839, by which time he had become the commander of HMS Thunder. He was probably involved in the 1843-45 survey of the Royal Naval Dockyard at Bermuda.

The Bermuda Dockyard is now a major heritage site, whereas, according to a 2010 report by the BBC: ‘The Colombian island of Providencia in the Caribbean, which seems the epitome of a tropical paradise, lies on a key drug trafficking route out of Colombia. It is also home to the Black Land Crab whose remarkable annual migration attracts military protection.’

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