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Providence Island Company (act. 1630–1641) was formed by a group of puritans, predominantly of landed status, who were responsible for the close management of the West Indian colony of Providence Island from 1630 until its capture by the Spanish in 1641. The Providence Island Company was one of many companies set up during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to trade overseas, and one of several that aimed to establish a colony in the New World. Such companies enjoyed mixed fortunes, but often raised the political profiles and enhanced the administrative experience of their members. In the context of Charles I's personal rule (1629–40), and the absence of a sitting parliament in which to seek influence over royal policy or to express dissent from it, the Providence Island Company was peculiarly significant in bringing together men identified as leading critics of Caroline government. Although the company and the colony it founded were short-lived, an association was nurtured that was to strengthen opposition to the crown once parliament returned in 1640. In addition, lessons were learned from the project's failure that were applied in the more grandiose schemes of the republican regime during the 1650s.

An inaugural meeting of shareholders was held during the summer of 1630 at Brooke House, Holborn, the London residence of Robert Greville, second Baron Brooke, though it was not until 4 December that a formal patent for the incorporation of the Providence Island Company was sealed. The company's subscribers were all leading lay puritans who had long sought a greater international role for England as the leader of the protestant nations. They also shared experience of other colonizing projects and a variety of ventures that aimed to open trading and diplomatic relations in the East and in Africa. The company's members also belonged to the East India, Levant, Africa, Guinea, French, Virginia, Somers Islands (Bermuda), Guiana, New England, Massachusetts Bay, and Piscataqua companies. In addition to Lord Brooke the Providence Island Company's core members were its treasurer, John Pym, Robert Rich, second earl of Warwick, his brother Henry Rich, first earl of Holland, their cousin Sir Nathaniel Rich, William Fiennes, first Viscount Saye and Sele, Edward Montagu, Viscount Mandeville (later second earl of Manchester), Sir Benjamin Rudyerd, Oliver St John, the MP Sir Gilbert Gerard (1587–1670), Sir Thomas Barrington, Richard Knightley, Henry Darley, Sir William Waller, John Robartes, second Baron Robartes (later first earl of Radnor), John Gurdon, and Christopher Sherland. The earl of Holland, valuable for his connections at court, was the company's governor but took almost no interest in the project. Other members included Sir Edward Harwood and John Upton of Brixham, Devon, MP for Dartmouth, who acted as the company's agent in Devon. The London merchant Maurice Thomson was licensed both for trade and for privateering by the company and William Jessop was the company's secretary. Although the politician John Hampden was closely associated with this group, he was not a member. Less influential members of the company included the politicians Godfrey Bosvile (1596–1658), Sir Thomas Cheeke (d. 1659), James Fiennes (d. 1679), and Sir Edmond Moundeford (1595–1643). A full list of company members was published in 1993 (Kupperman, Providence Island, 357–60).

The Providence Island Company's foundation was occasioned in part by the discovery of an uninhabited island—Santa Catalina, in the western Caribbean off the Nicaraguan coast—by ships belonging to the earl of Warwick under the command of Daniel Elfrith and Sussex Camock. Warwick had been looking for such a location, and it was on his direction that his client Philip Bell, until then governor of Bermuda, occupied the island with a contingent of settlers from Bermuda on 24 December 1629, renaming it Providence Island. Elfrith, who was Bell's father-in-law, became the island's admiral.

England's transatlantic projects, unlike ventures in the East and in Africa, could not rely on trade in commodities produced by indigenous people. American commodities were necessarily grown by Old World labour; thus these ventures required mass transplantation and were extremely expensive to found and maintain, especially from Britain, where all expenses were borne by investors. Whereas Elizabethan projects, such as Sir Walter Ralegh's Roanoke colony, had been set out by small groups of highly placed men, the difficulties experienced by the founders of the Virginia Company following the settlement of Jamestown (May 1607) made it clear that only through opening company membership to large numbers of people nationwide could the funds and continuity necessary to support a colony be sustained. Ultimately the Virginia Company included more than 600 investors and 50 London companies, including 11 Providence Island Company members: Gabriel Barbor (d. 1633), Barrington, Cheeke, John Dyke, Gerard, Harwood, Knightley, Henry, Robert and Nathaniel Rich, and Thomas Symons.

Although the Virginia model was well known by 1630, the founders of the Providence Island Company decided to limit their company to twenty shares and not to allow merchants to become members. As some shares were subdivided and some investors died or left during the company's lifetime, a total of thirty-two men were company members during the 1630s, although no one was allowed to acquire a share without the existing members' consent. Whereas many analysts, led by the historian and theorist of colonization Captain John Smith, argued that only ventures run by merchants could be successful, the prominent puritans who made up the Providence Island Company believed that merchants would work towards short-term, commercial outcomes and that such attitudes would undermine the entire venture. Only two merchants, John Dyke—who left the company in 1632—and William Woodcock, became members; both served as company husband. In limiting membership, the company's leaders committed substantial portions of their own wealth to creating a godly community in the West Indies. This, they hoped, would become the beachhead for an English takeover of central America and the first step towards a protestant overthrow of the Spanish American empire.

Company members were drawn together by their commitment to the advance of protestantism and by their shared personal religiosity. They supported puritan preachers with their own resources and three of them (Barbor, Harwood, and Sherland) were members of the feoffees for impropriations, an association that bought up the rights of patronage of rectories and vicarages. Members of the company were also linked by family connections: John Upton was John Pym's brother-in-law, Lord Robartes was married to Warwick's second daughter, John Cheeke was brother-in-law to Warwick and also Lord Mandeville's father-in-law, and Lord Brooke was the brother-in-law of Sir Arthur Hesilrige, the half-brother of Godfrey Bosvile. Other ties were formed through professional and patronage interests. Eight of the company's core group had sat as MPs in parliaments during the 1620s (Barrington, Darley, Knightley, Montagu, Nathaniel Rich, Pym, Rudyerd, and Sherland). Oliver St John served as the lawyer for the Russell family (earls of Bedford) and it was through this connection that he came into association with John Pym, of whom Bedford was the parliamentary patron. Records show that the company's business meetings continued to be held at Brooke House, as well as at Knightley's home at Fawsley, Northamptonshire, but do not support local tradition that another rendezvous was Lord Saye and Sele's seat at Broughton Castle, Oxfordshire. Initial ties were strengthened through adversity: as the company struggled financially, and was forced to borrow again and again to finance voyages and continuing commitments, members also shared financial risks.

The Providence Island investors rejected much of the emerging consensus about how to construct and govern English colonies in America. Their design, and the mistakes they made, hold considerable interest for historians of domestic politics, as the company's leaders enunciated the principles on which parliament challenged royal authority in the period of personal rule and played leading roles in the English government during the civil war and interregnum. In a speech against the forced loan in 1628, for example, Sir Nathaniel Rich had advanced the logic of a responsible landowning class: ‘No propriety [property], no industry; no industry, all beggars; no propriety, no valor; no valor, all in confusion’ (BL, Stowe MS 366, fols. 20v–21). It is therefore surprising that the company's members opted to micro-manage Providence Island. In doing so they denied to the godly colonists they recruited a degree of control over their own property and lives that had become widely accepted in other colonies by the 1630s, and which in the following decade company members would demand for English subjects at home. All seventeenth-century investors studied the problems of the earliest colonies, especially the inability of leaders to get colonists to work effectively to create settlements and produce commodities. The consensus, achieved by the early 1620s, held that devolution was the only policy that could lead to success. The Virginia Company came to this realization and redesigned its plantations in 1618, offering land ownership for colonists, creating an assembly to control taxation for public works, and removing professional military men from the colony's government. The puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, founded contemporaneously with Providence Island and one in which many Providence Island Company members also had an interest, promised not only land and self-government, but actually allowed the colonists to take the charter with them in order to limit interference from home.

The Providence Island Company swam against the current. The island's government was appointed from London, and its governors and many of the council were drawn from the military. The company hand-picked substantial godly people as colonists, including Henry Halhead (b. c.1577), a leading merchant and former mayor of Banbury, whose family had long been associated with the Fiennes family. Halhead, who sailed for Providence Island in 1632 with his wife and youngest children, led a group of families from Oxfordshire. They, along with other Providence Island planters, held their land as tenants; initially they were tenants ‘at halves’, which meant that their profits were divided between themselves and the colony's investors. Ministers of the church were also appointed from London and the attempt by some colonists to create a gathered congregation was greeted with hostility by the company's members. Every dispute, regardless of how small, was referred to London for settlement.

Providence Island was never a successful colony. As in all such ventures, the difficulties of getting established were considerable, and were here magnified by the island's unfamiliar environment and the colonists' lack of knowledge about how to plant, grow, and process its crops. Experience showed that only by selecting one or a small number of crops and experimenting with them until techniques were perfected could a workable commodity be developed. But the company's investors, misled by contemporary assumptions about the easy fruitfulness of semi-tropical lands, insisted that settlers attempt many crops at once and then see which worked best. Lack of focus, combined with the colonists' insecure status as tenants, meant that no commodity was developed on Providence Island.

The adequate supply of labour posed a further problem. It was expensive and difficult to acquire servants in this remote location, especially as other, more established, colonies appeared to offer superior opportunities for freedmen. So the colonists increasingly turned to buying enslaved Africans, who could be acquired more cheaply in the Caribbean. The company's investors railed against this practice because they believed it endangered the colony, which lay ‘in the heart of the Indies & the mouth of the Spaniards’ (Captain Philip Bell to Sir Nathaniel Rich, March 1629, Ives, 319–21). Although they did not reject the institution of slavery, and chastised one colonist, Samuel Rishworth, when he talked to slaves about winning their freedom, the company's leaders ordered planters to pay for English servants who could be armed to aid in the island's defence in case of Spanish attack. Within five years, however, puritan Providence Island became the first English colony in which more than half the population was enslaved, a level not reached in Barbados for several decades.

Fears of the Spanish were realistic, and the island was attacked three times, with the final assault, in May 1641, ending the colony's existence. The first attack, in July 1635, gave the investors an opening to request letters of marque, which were granted after an investigation by the secretary of state, Sir John Coke. Once Providence Island became a base for privateering, life there changed. In 1637 Captain Nathaniel Butler, a former privateer and governor of Bermuda, became the island's governor, and he was supported by a new council of war, an innovation that pushed the civilian members on the council further away from power. The company licensed such privateers as William Jackson and Edward Thompson, whose ships were financed by Maurice Thompson.

Several company members, including the earl of Warwick and lords Saye and Brooke, considered going to Providence Island, while Saye and Brooke increasingly took on the burden of financing the project. At the same time, both men, along with several other members (Knightley, Pym, Holland, and Nathaniel Rich), maintained their interest in New England. They rejected Massachusetts Bay as a destination because of its policy of limiting the franchise and office-holding to colonists who were recognized as visible saints by the congregations. Instead Saye and Brooke, in company with Brooke's brother-in-law Sir Arthur Hesilrige, founded in 1635 the Saybrook plantation in Connecticut with John Winthrop the younger as its first governor, George Fenwick as company agent, and William Jessop as secretary. Henry Vane the younger and Hugh Peter both spent time in Saybrook and worked as agents for the project. Clients of Providence Island Company members founded other ventures along the Connecticut River, in Rhode Island, and in New Hampshire. However, it was the expectation of the company's members that, once thriving settlements had been established in the West Indies, New England's puritan colonists would leave their unproductive places of refuge and move south, where they could challenge Spain's control of the region's rich resources. Spain's empire was, members argued, overextended and ripe for collapse. Some colonists did leave Massachusetts for Providence Island and it was they who in 1641 saw the Spanish flag flying over the capital of New Westminster as they neared the island.

By the time news of the island's fall reached England, Charles I's personal rule had come to an end; parliament was sitting and members of the Providence Island Company were fully engaged in leading the attack on the king's religious and fiscal policies. John Pym and Lord Saye took the lead in the Commons and Lords respectively, with Barrington, Darley, Rudyerd, and St John among former company members who sat in the Commons. With the outbreak of war in the summer of 1642 Gilbert Gerard became treasurer of the parliamentarian army, while Brooke, Manchester, Waller, and Warwick took military commands. Other members and returning colonists accepted commissions. William Jessop and Maurice Thompson filled key government offices, Jessop becoming secretary to the admiralty commissioners while Thompson held a number of lucrative posts as a commissioner for contributions (1642) and customs (1643–7), along with appointments to trade committees, the high court of justice, and the excise. Lord Saye and others largely withdrew from public life after the execution of Charles I.

Though a brief colonial venture, Providence Island taught lessons that lived on. Henry Halhead, for example, reflected on his experience of tenancy in his posthumously published Inclosure Thrown Open (1650). Moreover, the project to establish an English presence in the western Caribbean continued, as the promise and fall of Providence Island formed the centrepiece of Oliver Cromwell's call for the so-called ‘western design’ in 1654.

Karen Ordahl Kupperman

Sources  

Providence Island Company records, TNA: PRO, CO 124/1, 2 · N. Butler, ‘A diary, from February 10th 1639, of my personal employments’, BL, Sloane MS 758 · H. Halhead, Inclosure thrown open, or, Depopulation depopulated, not by spades and mattocks, but by the word of God, the laws of the land, and solid arguments (1650) · W. Jessop, letterbook, BL, Add. MS 10615 · V. A. Ives, ed., The Rich papers: letters from Bermuda, 1615–1646 (1984) · A. Games, Migration and the origins of the English Atlantic world (1999) · K. O. Kupperman, Providence Island, 1630–1641: the other puritan colony (1993) · K. O. Kupperman, ‘The Connecticut River: a magnet for settlement’, Connecticut History, 35 (1994), 50–67 · K. O. Kupperman, ‘Definitions of liberty on the eve of civil war: Lord Saye and Sele, Lord Brooke, and the American puritan colonies’, HJ, 32 (1989), 17–33 · K. O. Kupperman, ‘Errand to the Indies: puritan colonization from Providence Island through the western design’, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 45 (1988), 70–99 · A. P. Newton, The colonising activities of the English puritans (1914) · C. Thompson, ‘The origins of the politics of the parliamentary middle group, 1625–1629’, TRHS, 5th ser., 22 (1972), 71–86 · N. J. Allen, ‘Business and treason: the Broughton plotters’, Cake and Cockhorse, 16/5 (2005), 166–75