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Old Providence: the Perfect Caribbean Island cliche

Below us, the island came into view encircled by a brittle and protective ring of coral reefs made distinguishable by the white water ripping at the edges and creating a turquoise iris effect skirting the white sandy edges of the Caribbean island of Providencia. Our Russian-built aircraft bobbled in the turbulence kicked up by thermals and updrafts resulting from the gnarled volcanic peaks to our left.

Without incident we touched down on Providencia or Old Providence, one of a pair of Colombian Caribbean islands 300 miles from the country’s mainland coast.– Providencia has played its part in an intriguing history. Out here in the Caribbean, Providencia’s importance has unwittingly involved the Miskito Indians of Central America, New England Puritans, English Parliamentarians, Pirates and Dutch freebooters and Spanish Imperial claims.

Had everything gone according to original 17th century English colonial plans and Oliver Cromwell’s “Western Design”, today’s Providencia would not have revealed the customs and effortless slumbering charm that comes easily with contemporary Caribbean island life but a hardworking god-fearing Puritan community prospering today in tobacco, cotton and dyes and celebrating history with their kin in Jamestown USA.

What we have instead is not a Puritan led enterprise run out of London by aristocrats of the Providence Island Company but an island that makes up part of a Colombian Caribbean territory.

Of the two islands, San Andres is the larger and more populous and possibly claims the unlikely title of being the package holiday destination capital for Colombians. San Andres is the extreme opposite of Providencia.

The first European to discover the 14 square miles of Providencia could have been Christopher Columbus but facts to prove this are erroneous at best. So, the first confirmed discovery and settlement of the island took place at around the same time as that of Massachusetts Bay by English puritans. These hardy settlers strongly believed that an island off the coast of Nicaragua would be far more enticing to likeminded souls than the cold and foreboding climes of New England.

Making the short ride from the brightly coloured wooden airport shack that takes me past tropical fertile valleys, I too agree wholeheartedly with the beliefs of ancestors the Newballs, Bents, Whitakers and Turners. I would settle here, no questions asked.

Journeying in the open backed collectivo truck, it hardly comes as a surprise that the Providence Island Company that spearheaded the investments, under such notable characters as the ebullient Parliamentarian John Pym and Robert Rich 2nd Earl of Warwick back in 1630, believed they could make this venture work. To the trained eye one can see that the island is easy to defend, is fertile and more importantly - for these businessmen intent on financial gain – lay at the strategic heart of Spanish controlled seas. In short Providencia occupied an unrivalled position from which to harry the trade routes of Spanish galleons laden with wealth from the New World.

All of this makes for the absorbing story of Providence Island, off the coast of Central America and in the midst of then-powerful Spanish colonies and in 1635 it is estimated that more than 500 people had settled Old Providence.

What remains today of these times are not architectural relics nor profitable tobacco plantations but solid British surnames and fading legends that herald a time past.

Needing more information on piracy and history, I stop to talk with Francisco Bent. Lifelong fisherman and islander, Bent smiles:

“My father was contracted to look for the corsair Henry Morgan’s treasure around Fort Warwick on Santa Catalina in the 1950’s, but they found nothing, or maybe, they just weren’t looking in the right place.”

Bent starts to speak fondly of Morgan as if he were a long time family friend. “We were taught in school that Henry Morgan was a pirate, robber, filibuster. But now we know he wasn’t such a bad guy.”

I don’t want to be sidetracked into revisionist theories surrounding the notorious privateer but we continue to discuss him since his influence is enormous in Providencia. After all it was from here that Henry Morgan planned and launched the infamous and astounding sacking of Panama in 1671.

The importance of Providencia in the Caribbean was not lost on Morgan. Later as the Lieutenant Governor of Jamaica he is said to have listed the tiny island along with Havana, Portobelo, Maracaibo, Cartagena and Veracruz, as holding the key to the control of the Caribbean.

What remains now is a Caribbean backwater that is the roots of English civilisation in the Americas, a Colombian national park that is the antithesis to San Andres, in short a perfect tropical island cliché.

Long stretches of unspoilt palm-lined white sandy beaches aurally polluted with lilted reggae beats are complimented by rugged volcanic mountains and mangroves. Standing on the pristine Playa Manzanillo with my back to Roland’s Bar it is hard to imagine that in its infancy, Providencia was an attempt to elucidate the motives of the Puritan founding fathers. Here, 48 miles away from the duty free perfumeries of downtown San Andres, the islanders of Providencia spend their days fishing and catering to an idly growing tourism industry.

Contented, I decide to do nothing more than enjoy "island time".

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