The germs of US institutions, the conventional wisdom goes, were laid in the Puritan colony of Massachusetts Bay, started in 1630 by the Puritans fleeing religious repression in England. Charles I had dissolved Parliament in 1629, and the Puritans were convinced that he had no intention of calling a new one. Worse, this looked to Puritans as part of a plan to increase the King’s and the church’s authority over religion and increasing intolerance towards their beliefs. Many were indeed fleeing this intolerance under John Winthrop’s leadership as they waded on the ship Arbella for the shores of Massachusetts.
Is the conventional wisdom really on target? One may nitpick and point out that the Massachusetts colony was not itself so tolerant to people who disagreed with their brand of Puritanism, which included not only non-Puritans but also radical Puritans such as Roger Williams.
But perhaps a better way of assessing whether it was the germs of Puritan ideas that shaped the broadly inclusive institutions that developed in North America is to turn to another colony set up by the Puritans in the same year: Providence Island off the coast of Nicaragua — today Providencia, belonging to Colombia.
Though Providence Island is less well-known today, it was no sideshow for the Puritans. Quite the opposite. The Providence Island Company was founded and run by the key Puritan grandees, the same men who would play leading roles in the English Civil War in a little more than a decade later.
All the same, as Karen O. Kupperman’s history Providence Island 1613 - 1641: the Other Puritan Colony documents things did not quite work out for Providence Island.
It wasn’t because of lack of funding or lack of talent in the Providence Island Company. In fact, it was the Providence Island Company that attracted both substantial sums of investment and many godly, devout and ambitious Puritans, much more than the Massachusetts Bay colony was able to. The main reason for this was the same one that made all colonists so much more interested in the Caribbean and South America to North America: that’s where they were hoping to grow valuable crops and export to the rest of the world.
Kupperman describes this as (p. 25):
The Providence Island adventurers in London were prepared to invest enormous sums of money in the expectation that their rich tropical island would produce enough wealth to enrich backers and settlers alike. Ultimately, they hoped the colony would serve as a nucleus for settlement of Central America, which would benefit the entire English nation. None would have believed that their enterprise would fold in a decade after absorbing a fortune, whereas its fellow puritan colony on the cold, rocky shores of Massachusetts Bay would go on to become the model for many later expeditions.
Providence Island also had the added advantage of being an easy-to-defend fortress in the middle Spanish colonies. So the investors poured money into the Providence Island Company.
But it quickly became a highly militarized, repressive colony, without private property in land for settlers, and with much of the production based on slave labor. In fact, the colony, though from the beginning faithful to the Puritan objectives, quickly got into military conflict with the Spanish, and towards the end, privateering against Spanish ships became a major activity for its inhabitants. In 1641, the colony fell to the Spanish.
What explains the very different — albeit short — trajectory of Providence Island from the more illustrious history of the Massachusetts Bay colony? The roots of this difference are not to be found in the germs, culture or ideas that colonialists brought with them — after all, it was the same group of people spearheading both colonization efforts.
Instead, it lies with the conditions that the Puritans encountered, and it was these conditions that ultimately shaped the path of the Massachusetts Bay colony towards inclusive institutions, while strengthening the extractive character of those in Providence Island.
The first factor was that Providence Island became from the get-go a militarized colony, partly because the Company was expecting hostilities from the Spanish (and also intended to use the island as a base against the Spanish). It was also partly because, for reasons we next explain, the elite needed the military fist to control the settlers. This militarized atmosphere contributed to the conflict on the island, discouraging investment and economic activity.
But the most important reason related to what was on the ground and what the investors in London expected to reap from the ground. As noted above, the investors viewed Massachusetts as mostly barren, so did not expect huge profits. It is for this reason that they allowed John Winthrop to take the charter of the colony with him, meaning that authority would rest with the settlers, not back in London. It was for this reason that there was not much opposition to giving private property in land to settlers in Massachusetts. In contrast, the Providence Island Company was a major investment for the prospect of substantial profits. So the Company did not let the reins go and did not allow private property for settlers.
In the grand scheme of things, it was probably the Massachusetts Bay colony that was the exception. Leading Puritans, though keen on their own freedom to worship, trade and enrich themselves, were not categorical supporters of freedoms in general. They thought that an orderly colony run, not by settlers or merchants, but by the elites — i.e., themselves — was the best model for development, especially when there were a lot of riches to be had. This, at least, seems to be the lesson they drew from past experiences as Kupperman explains (p. 51):
The adventurers were obsessed with the dismal failure of other colonial ventures, such as Bermuda and Virginia, to forge and sustain orderly, well-governed societies, and they traced such failure to the presence of divided councils in America and shortsighted greed of merchants and lesser gentleman in England. The solution was to keep power in their own hands in London, while restricting company membership to a small group of like-minded grandees.
But this made it much harder to motivate the settlers to experiment with the right crops and increase agricultural productivity on the island, so much so that by the time the Spanish overran the island, the hopes for high-value agriculture had still not been realized.
Kupperman’s description of this is also instructive (p. 42):
And she continues (p. 126):
Thus, even before Providence Island was settled, the essential meaning of the American experience was plain for those capable of reading it: Private property in land, combined with a degree of political devolution, was the key to success.
Kupperman describes why the Massachusetts Bay colony became exceptional as follows (p. 51):
Contemporaneous Massachusetts Bay Company also sought a radical solution to the same problems: The New England puritans, less intimately acquainted with the corridors of power at home, took the opposite tack and cut their colony off from English control by taking the charter with them and converting company meetings into the colony’s government.
But this was not a course that suited Puritan grandees.
All of this is of course a footnote to history, a small colony that lasted just 11 years. Yet it is also central for our understanding of colonial history, and how the trajectories of the colonies depended not so much on the good values and intentions of the elites, Puritan or otherwise, that organized the expeditions, but often on their inability to realize their plans of setting up colonies under their control.