1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies – Snippet 39

“I am more informed than I would have been had I hurried to be on time,” retorted van Walbeeck with his trademark impish grin. He pulled up a chair and sat, heavy hands folded and cherubic smile sending creases across his expansive cheeks. Full-faced for a man of thirty-five, his jowls were apparently not subject to privations in the same way the rest of his now-lean body was. He, along with the other three thousand refugees from Recife, had narrowly avoided the specter of starvation over the past year. But somehow, van Walbeeck still had his large, florid jowls.

Tromp waited and then sighed. “Very well, I will ask: and what additional information did your tardiness vouchsafe?”

“I tarried on deck to exchange a few pleasantries with your first mate, Kees Evertsen. While there, a Bermuda sloop made port. Down from Bahamas, freighting our neighbors’ sugar for relay to Bermuda. And as chance would have it, one of our most notable neighbors was on board.”

Tromp frowned. By ‘neighbors,’ van Walbeeck meant the English on St. Christopher’s island, which was already visible as a dawn-lit land mass out the admiral’s south-facing stern windows. A ‘notable visitor,’ meant the person was not of the very first order of importance, so it was not the governor, Sir Thomas Warner himself. Indeed, the “Sir” part of Warner’s title was somewhat in doubt. Technically, shortly before the League of Ostend arose, Charles Stuart of England had ceded all his New World possessions to Richelieu. Or so the French maintained. And it was probably close to, or the very, fact. The English crown’s protest over that interpretation was, to put it lightly, muted. However, the popular English outcry over losing its New World possessions had grown intense enough to propel the already paranoid Charles into a dubious course of instituting loyalty oaths and a standing, special court for the investigation and hearing of purported cases of sedition.

So was Thomas Warner’s patent of nobility still effective, his governorship still legal? Not under the aegis of English law, but until someone took the island from him, the dispute was pointless. And given how these uncertain times required his full attention and involvement in the well-being of his now isolated colony, Tromp would have been surprised had he been the visitor to St. Eustatia. But there was another likely candidate. “Lt. Governor Jeafferson?”

“Bravo, Martin! Your powers of deduction are undiminished. It was Jeafferson himself on the sloop, which must have left St. Christopher’s in the dark of the night to be here so early. And you know what that means –“

Tromp sighed. Jan van Walbeeck was arguably the single smartest, most capable man he had ever met, and he had met plenty of them. But his irrepressible ebullience — even at this hour of the morning — was sometimes a bit wearing for, well, normal people like himself. “Yes, Jan, I think I do. He’s here to finalize and sign our five-year lease of the lands around Sandy Point.”

“Exactly. And thereby kill two birds with one stone: we get the arable land we need, and Thomas Warner gets the guards he wants. And frankly, we need to reduce the number of soldiers we have here on St. Eustatia.”

Tromp laid aside his protractor and looked up from his charts. “And you feel certain this will not bring us into conflict with the French colony on the island?”

Van Walbeeck blew out his cheeks. “Who is certain of anything, Martin? Indeed, who can say who will hold power over us, or these islands, when the lease is up in five years? But this much is true. The French had only one ship arrive last year, and that was before we arrived. As best we can tell, Warner’s colony has grown to almost nine thousand, maybe more. The French have barely a tenth of that. So I think that it is unlikely there will be any trouble.”

Tromp frowned. “So then, if that is true, I ask — as I have before — why is Warner so concerned with having our guards? What are we not seeing — and he not saying?”

Van Walbeeck nodded. “I think I have a little more perspective on that, now that our farmers and his farmers are talking with each other on a regular basis. Firstly, Warner has all his people gainfully employed, and most in food production of one sort or another. Would that we could say the same. So the same people who man his militia are also the only ones available to oversee the workers and the plantations.”

“You mean, guard and drive his slaves.”

“Martin, I know how you feel about slavery, and I share those feelings, but these are the conditions as we found them, and the best we can do is work to change them. And it won’t be easy, given the tales our planters are telling his.”

Tromp stared at his charts, at the outline of St. Christopher’s. “I can only imagine. Our decision to prohibit slaveholding has not made me a popular man.”

“You? You?” Jan leaned forward. “Martin, you are not the president of the Politieke Raad. You don’t have our planters screaming for your blood. Well, not so loudly as for mine, at any rate.”

“And Corselles is still no help?”

“How can he be? I frankly feel sorry for the poor fellow. He arrived here with maybe two hundred and fifty souls, all of whom were assured that they will grow rich like the English planters. Which meant, in short hand, that they will own plantations and the slaves that allow the land to be worked at such a fabulous profit.

“And then, just a year after they arrive, we descend upon them like a horde of locusts, almost three thousand strong, ninety percent young or young-ish males, short on rations, and with our military leadership determined to eliminate slavery. Which was what pushed almost half of our farmers into league with their farmers.”

Tromp nodded. “And this connects to Warner’s want for our guards — how?”

Jan sighed. “Let us presume that he does indeed see that our survival may be the key to his, and vice versa. We are both without support from our homelands, albeit for very different reasons. But if we hang on to Saint Eustatia long enough, we’ll start seeing flags from our home ports. At that point, the advantage is ours. For Warner is a man without a country. So, while he still enjoys the advantage of being our breadbasket, he will naturally wish to enter into accords with us which will stand him in good stead when that balance of power shifts. And his power is in the food he makes, so he is not eager to have his overseers as his full-time militiamen. Food production will drop and with it, his fortunes.”

Tromp looked up from the map. “That seems to track true, yes.”

“Ah, but there’s more, Martin. He doesn’t just want guards; he wants our guards. Dutch guards.”

“Why? Are we Dutch especially good at guarding things? Even things that do not belong to us?”

“No, but our guards operate under the aegis of our flag. So if the French try cases with them –“

“Yes, of course. Then there is an international incident. And since Warner is no longer in charge of an ‘English’ colony, he has no such protection of his own.”

“Precisely. The only thing that give the French pause about running Warner off the island is the question of whether or not they can physically achieve it. But if his colony’s guards are our men, with the flag of Orange flying above, the French risk a war. And if there is anything we have an over-abundance of in this area, it is soldiers.”

“Yes, but Warner seems to be acquiring their services far earlier than he needs to. He has little to worry about from such a small French colony.”

Van Walbeeck shook his head. “Except that the French colonists are not the direct threat. It is the dissent they have been successful at breeding among the English slaves, and some of the indentured workers from Ireland. And there is rumor that the French commander d’Esnambuc has been parleying with the natives as well. The Kalinago still want St. Christopher’s back, you know.”

Tromp stood. “Very well. So Warner wants our guards. When will the lease go into effect?”

“It will still be a few months, at least. Our people are eager to put the tracts around Sandy Point under cultivation, but it will take time to get them ready, to gather the equipment, to settle affairs here. And the same goes for determining which troops shall go.”

Tromp shook his head. “Since we are so close — a morning’s sail — there is no reason to make our forces on St. Christopher a fixed garrison. We shall rotate troops through the station, as we shall their commanders. I want our people to both know that island and to get a break from this one.”