Historical Note, Whither Thou Goest

The closing decades of the 17th century saw a return of unrest to England. After two decades of relative calm following upon the restoration of Charles II, the ugly head of religious discrimination reared its head again, starting with the obnoxious Titus Oates and his unfounded accusations against a number of prominent Catholics – including the Queen.

Had Charles had an heir of his body – a child raised within the Anglican Church, things would have been different. As it was, Charles’ heir was his brother, the dashing Duke of York who came with the major, major drawback of being a Catholic. Queen Catherine never produced any children, and once she was past child-bearing age, the powers that were in England were forced to accept that their next king would be a papist, no matter that it made them shiver in fear.

Some people believed there were alternatives to the Duke of York. One of these people was King Charles’ eldest bastard son, James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. Brave and handsome, the young duke had a large following among his countrymen, but his reputation was somewhat tarnished by his indirect association with the Rye House plot, a planned attempt to assassinate King Charles and his brother.

James Scott found it wise to flee the country and was never to see his father again. Upon his deathbed, Charles named each and every one of his illegitimate children – all with the exception of his bright, firstborn son. One can only imagine the heart-ache Charles felt at having his own son named as one of the potential conspirators.

Charles died – and a pretty gruesome death it was – and the Duke of York became king as James II. People cheered – sort of. This new king might be a Stuart, but he was first and foremost a Catholic, and the English people (plus large chunks of the Scottish population) had become accustomed to view all Catholics as evil, dangerous types that would gladly stab the English people in the back.

James Scott decided the moment was ripe for him to act. After all, the Duke of Monmouth was staunchly Protestant, and the little matter of his illegitimate birth was waved aside, Monmouth insisting his parents had been married when he was born. Leaving aside the fact that no proof of this matrimony was ever produced, I find it incredibly difficult to believe that Charles would not have recognised James Scott as legitimate had he been so. The boy was charming and personable, brave in battle and a good leader of men – i.e. a perfect future king.

In the summer of 1685, the Duke of Monmouth landed in the south of England. Some mere weeks later, his rebellion lay in dust, and all those who had followed him were either dead or imprisoned, facing the bleak certainty of execution for treason. Monmouth himself was beheaded in London – a horribly bungled affair where the more than inept executioner hacked at the poor man’s neck repeatedly before finally succeeding in killing him. His companions in arms were tried at the Bloody Assizes by Judge Jeffries, most of them condemned to be hanged and left to adorn gibbets throughout the countryside.

Some, however, were instead condemned to a life in servitude. James II had an economical streak, and he saw an opportunity to send off boatloads of these relatively fit young men to end up as slaves in the West Indies. This was not the first time islands like Barbados had served as the final depository of unwanted individuals. It started with Cromwell. Now, I happen to have a lot of respect for Oliver Cromwell, but I cannot quite get my head round his fanatic anti-papist views – and it is impossible to condone what he did to the Irish, when close to thirty thousand Irish men were abducted and transported as indentured labour to Barbados, just because they were Catholic.

Things changed. A restored Charles II had less of a beef with his Catholic subjects. Charles was broad-minded when it came to religion, but he was suspicious of the Scottish Presbyterians, holding them to some extent responsible for his father’s execution. His counsellors agreed, and laws were put in place requiring all the king’s subjects to swear an oath of loyalty to him as head of the church. Did not go down well in Scotland, let me tell you. The Scottish Kirk was as fiercely independent in the 1660’s as in the 1630’s, and as a consequence a number of ministers and die-hard Presbyterians were transported to Barbados.

And then, in the 1686, came the men convicted of treason for participating in Monmouth’s rebellion, sentenced to work until they dropped on the Barbadian sugar plantations. I dare say they died like flies – as Charlie Graham would had done, had not Matthew and Alex come looking for him.  (In actual fact, the transported Monmouth rebels who managed to survive their first four years were pardoned in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. This led to them being freed, but as they had no money most of them never made it back home)

In their travels through the Caribbean, Matthew and Alex are fortunate enough to come upon Port Royal in its heyday. Port Royal… the name conjures up buccaneers in high boots, women with cutlasses between their teeth. The reality was somewhat different; a thriving centre of commerce with exceedingly rich men mingling with the women of the night that frequented the port and the loud, dangerous sailors; a town that never slept, where alcohol flowed in the multitude of taverns that lined the water front. It is said there was one tavern per ten Port Royal residents, which indicates just how many visitors the town attracted. It was also a haven for those that had nowhere else to go, a place to reinvent yourself and start anew – as did, to some extent, Henry Morgan, pirate of fame who through his daring attack on the Spanish Main forever has earned himself in the Hall of Fame of privateers.

Port Royal was a town built on shifting sands, with the famous Palisadoes to one side. When the English wrested Jamaica off the Spanish in 1655, Port Royal was a collection of whitewashed houses, no more, but very quickly it developed into the commercial centre in the Caribbean. To protect the city, the powers that were invited the Brethren of the Coast – not a collection of seafaring monks, but rather a loose coalition of privateers, buccaneers, pirates and everything else in between – to make Port Royal their home base. In return, these cutthroats assumed responsibility for keeping the port safe from the Spanish.

Port Royal’s heyday came to an abrupt end in 1692. In June 1692, the town was struck by a major earthquake. More than half of the town disappeared into the sea, and close to 2 000 people lost their lives in the quake, almost as many dying of disease in the coming months. The population had thereby dropped by two thirds, and the reconstruction of the town proved more or less impossible, the sandy foundations of Port Royal having been more or less liquefied as a consequence of the earthquake.

Things moved on. Jamaica moved its capital to Kingston and these days Port Royal is a sad little remnant of what it once was. But the seas around it are a treasure trove to archaeologists, offering up an endless supply of artefacts from the 17 th century.  

As my more faithful readers have already noticed, I stubbornly stick to the name Providence for present day Annapolis. The correct name at the time would have been Anne Arundel’s Towne (abbreviated to Arundlton before becoming Annapolis in 1694) but those feisty Puritan settlers who built the town – and named it - back in the 1650’s would not, I believe, have taken kindly to having their little settlement named after a Catholic lady, wife to Lord Cecil Calvert, no less.