Barbados, 1651-2

The Caribbean island of Barbados was discovered by the Portuguese and taken over by Spain in 1492. The Spaniards enslaved and wiped out the native Carib indians but then abandoned Barbados in favour of the larger Caribbean islands. The island was claimed for King James I of England in May 1625 by Captain John Powell. On 17 February 1627, a party of eighty English settlers and ten slaves founded a colony at Holetown (formerly known as Jamestown). The colonists established the Barbadian House of Assembly in 1639. Land was allocated to speculators and within a few years, much of the island had been deforested to make way for tobacco and cotton plantations. During the 1630s, sugar cane was introduced. Sugar became the island's principal industry and Barbados dominated sugar production in the Caribbean until the 18th Century.

At first, labour on the plantations relied upon the indenture of servants, where civilians who wanted to emigrate could do so by signing an agreement to serve a planter in Barbados for a period of five or seven years. To meet further labour demands, convicted criminals and some prisoners from the civil wars were shipped to Barbados as slaves. The white slaves and indentured labourers were known as "redlegs". Their descendants still live on the island. During the 1640s and '50s, planters came to rely increasingly on slave labour from West Africa.

During the civil wars, the colony remained neutral and quietly continued trading with the Netherlands and New England. With the collapse of the King's cause in the British Isles, however, Royalist refugees fled to Barbados. In 1650, Charles II confirmed the appointment of Lord Willoughby of Parham as governor of the island. When Willoughby's appointment was eventually accepted by the Barbadian House of Assembly, the Westminster Parliament passed an act to stop all trade between Barbados and England. Furthermore, the Navigation Act of 1651 attempted to prevent the Dutch from trading with the island.

In 1651, a Commonwealth expeditionary force under the command of General-at-Sea Sir George Ayscue was sent to take control of the island. The squadron comprised seven ships: Ayscue's flagship the Rainbow, the frigate Amity and five armed merchant vessels carrying about 860 men in all. After a diversion to assist Robert Blake in recapturing the Scilly Isles and a fruitless search for Prince Rupert's squadron off the coast of Portugal, Ayscue's expedition arrived off Carlisle Bay in Barbados on 15 October 1651.

Map of Barbados
Barbados, 1651-2

On the day after his arrival, Ayscue sent Captain Park in the Amity with three of the armed merchantmen into Carlisle Bay to seize a number of Dutch vessels that were trading with the colony in contravention of the Commonwealth embargo. On 17 October, Ayscue summoned Lord Willoughby to surrender the island. Having mustered a force of 1,000 foot and 400 horse from the island militia, however, Willoughby rejected the summons. Ayscue's forces were too small to attempt an armed landing so he set up a blockade in the hope that the loss of trade would eventually bring the Royalists to terms. The islanders believed a report that Charles II had won the battle of Worcester and held a day of thanksgiving on 7 November for the King's victory. However, Willoughby remained defiant even after Ayscue had sent him a printed account from London of the true outcome of the battle and a letter from Lady Willoughby urging him to surrender.

Ayscue mounted raids on Royalist positions in an attempt to increase the pressure on Willoughby. During the night of 22 November, 200 seamen under the command of Captain Morris, who had led the assault on Tresco during Blake's campaign against the Scilly Isles, came ashore in a surprise attack on the Royalist fort at Holetown. The fort was overrun, its guns spiked and thirty prisoners taken. The Commonwealth landing party got away with no loss to themselves. Ayscue was temporarily reinforced on 1 December when the annual Virginia fleet arrived at Barbados on its way from England. The fleet carried a number of Scottish prisoners taken at the battle of Worcester who were being transported to Virginia as indentured labourers. Ayscue hired 150 Scots to reinforce a party of 400 seamen under Captain Morris for an attack on the fort at Speight's Town. On 7 December, Morris's force landed under cover of darkness but the Royalists were aware of their approach. A force of 1,200 foot and four troops of horse under the command of Colonel Gibbs advanced to meet them. After a brief struggle on the beach, the Royalists fled, apparently believing the Commonwealth force to be stronger than it was. The abandoned fort was plundered of its arms, ammunition and gunpowder. Ayscue reported that 100 Royalists were killed and eighty prisoners taken, for the loss of seven or eight of Morris's men.

Despite the success of the raids, Ayscue lacked the resources for a full-scale invasion of the island, which was defended by around 6,000 militiamen. Ayscue tried to undermine Lord Willoughby's position by treating his Royalist prisoners well then releasing them after giving them an account of the true situation in England. Two were hanged on Willoughby's orders for spreading subversive opinions on the island. Ayscue also established contact with Colonel Thomas Modyford, a moderate among the Barbadian leaders, who realised that the Royalist cause was hopeless. In secret communications with Ayscue, Modyford agreed to contact other moderates and to attempt to put pressure on Willoughby to surrender. However, Modyford's negotiations were discovered. Willoughby and Modyford mobilised militia units loyal to them in preparation for an armed confrontation. Ayscue landed Commonwealth forces near Oistin on the south coast of the island to support Modyford but after some initial skirmishing, a week of heavy rain put a stop to military operations. During the hiatus, Lord Willoughby realised that he had no hope of winning against the Commonwealth in the long run. He surrendered to Ayscue on 11 January 1652 under generous terms. In exchange for surrendering Barbados and acknowledging the sovereignty of the Commonwealth, Willoughby's estates in England were restored to him and he was allowed to keep his property on Barbados. He returned to England in August 1652.

The surrender of Barbados was quickly followed by the submission of the remaining Royalist-held colonies in the Americas. Virginia submitted on 12 March 1652, Maryland and the Bermudas around the end of March.

When Cromwell launched the Western Design against Spanish possessions in the West Indies in 1654, Barbados was regarded as an important staging post for the expedition. It was expected that fresh supplies could be taken on and additional troops levied for the attack on Hispaniola. In the event, Barbadian employers were reluctant to allow their men to join the expedition. Although some 4,000 additional troops were levied, the planter Colonel Harris who was appointed their commander, refused to leave Barbados and the governor Daniel Searle, whom the Council of State had nominated as one of the leaders of the expedition, also refused to go.

After the Restoration, Lord WIlloughby was reappointed to the governorship of Barbados.


History of Barbados

John Barratt, Cromwell's Wars at Sea (Barnsley 2006)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vols. i & iii (London 1903)