logo: Matthew Parker: Panama Fever

Excerpt: Introduction

‘Hot as Hell, and as Wicked as the Devil’

On a voyage to Jamaica, but held at anchor for three freezing days off Deal
because of unfavourable winds, Grub Street writer Ned Ward looked around
him at his travelling companions. Seeking new opportunities in the West
Indies was a decidedly mixed collection of his fellow British countrymen
and women. It was January 1697, but it could have been any time between
1630 and 200 years later: the ship’s company was a timeless array of the
hopeful, disappointed and desperate. There was a salesman, recently fired;
‘three Broken Tradesmen, who had lost their Credit’; ‘two Parsons, who
had lost their Livings; and several, like me’, wrote Ward, ‘who had lost
their Wits’. The three women on board consisted of a widow, another
woman in pursuit of an errant husband and a ‘maid’ who, ‘I fear, had Lost
her self ’. The small party of passengers also included a decrepit ship’s
captain, an agricultural labourer deported for being caught up in a recent
rebellion, and a young Irishman who had been got drunk and then been
tricked into servitude on the plantations. All were going, wrote Ward, ‘with
one Design, to patch up their Decay’d Fortune’.

At last the vessel, the 400-ton Andalucia, weighed anchor and, enjoying
a ‘prosperous Gale’, headed steadily westwards down the Channel. Past
Land’s End, she steered more southerly. After two weeks, the cold of
January in England gave way to a ‘pleasant warmth’. The route to the West
Indies followed that taken by Columbus 200 years earlier: south past
Portugal and modern-day Morocco, then across the open ocean to Madeira
and the Canary Islands, where the vessel could pick up the trade winds
blowing towards the Caribbean.

Like the others on board, and the tens of thousands of people who had
already travelled to the West Indies colonies before the end of the seventeenth
century, Ward, too, wished to patch up his ‘decay’d Fortune’; in
short, to make money and to reinvent himself as a success, rather than a
failure. He was 30, and as a writer, his chosen profession, had made little
mark on the world. He was wildly in debt and drinking far too much.
What little money he originally possessed had been frittered away in a
‘Wilderness of Pleasure and Enjoyment’, chatting up women, consuming
‘oceans of wine’ and gambling with fellow Grub Street hacks. With his
creditors closing in, he was now, he resolved, going to shun ‘the Company
of those who had nothing to do but Spend Money, for the Conversation
of such whose practice was to Get it’.

He was heading for the right place, to a society whose guiding principle,
perhaps its only principle, was to make money. It was well known
in London that Barbados was currently England’s richest colony, and
Jamaica was on the way to taking over the title. Already, in a short space
of time, families such as the Draxes, Codringtons and Beckfords had, from
humble beginnings, become immensely, obscenely wealthy, selling the sugar
from their plantations manned by enslaved Africans. In consequence, the
West Indian islands had become for more than one state the foundation
of their commercial and political greatness, and a test bed of national
virility. The islands, in the most part minute specks in the sea, had therefore
become bitterly contested between the rival great powers of the time,
and were already dictating imperial policy.

Sugar itself would shortly become the most important commodity in the
world – enjoying a position in the eighteenth century akin to steel in the
nineteenth and oil in the twentieth. As a result, the tiny tropical islands
became the strategic centre of the Western world, the hinge on which global
history turned. Less than a hundred years later, the importance of Jamaica,
the size of Yorkshire and smaller than modern-day Connecticut, would
contribute directly to the loss by Britain of the North American colonies.

In Ward’s time, emigrants from England to the Americas had a choice.
But any with ambition for great wealth – or indeed hopelessly in debt –
dreamed not of the prosaic settlements on the North American mainland,
but of the West Indies. This was the place to get rich quick. As planters,
eager for new recruits to the colonies, had been writing from the islands,
even the most incorrigible jailbird from England could soon build up a
great fortune.

Ned Ward, a professional cynic and wit, considered himself too savvy
to believe all of this. He had heard, he wrote, ‘extravagant Encomiums of
that Blessed Paradise Jamaica, where Gold is more plentiful than Ice, Silver
than Snow, Pearls than Hailstones’.

His disbelieving tone indicates that current in London were other stories
of the West Indies: the appalling attrition from a host of unfamiliar diseases;
the barbarously sticky heat; the natural disasters; the frightening Carib
natives and vengeful slaves; the incessant warfare; the privateers and pirates
infesting the sea lanes. In all, the risk, the strangeness, the extreme insecurity.

Ward does not seem to have minded the claustrophobic conditions on
board the sailing vessel, his tiny, cramped cabin and the boredom of long
weeks at sea. He passed the time playing his flute on deck, to the consternation
of the ship’s dog, and gambling at backgammon with one of the
parsons. But before the coast of the Old World was out of sight, a fierce
storm descended. It was late at night, and it struck a ship’s company that
was already unsteady, having been ‘well Moisten’d’ with ‘an Exhilerating
Dose of Right Honourable Punch’. A ferocious wind made standing on
deck impossibly perilous, and thunder and lightning was followed by ‘such
an excessive Rain, that as we had one Sea under us, we feard another had
been tumbling upon our heads’.

The storm raged almost all night, but the next day at first light an even
greater danger presented itself. From high aloft, the lookout had spotted
a sail bearing down on the Andalucia. They were off the coast of Morocco,
near a port notorious for its Barbary pirates. The gravity of the situation
was made clear to Ward by the speed with which the ship’s crew cleared
the decks, readied the 28 guns, distributed firearms and prepared to repel

As the other vessel neared, they could see that it flew English colours,
but this was not trusted, and the Andalucia’s captain, by raising and lowering
sails, did all he could to give the impression that his ship was better manned
than it actually was. Only when the other vessel came into hailing distance
was there relief: it was indeed an English ship, on the way to Africa to
collect slaves. Ward and his fellow passengers celebrated with more punch.

Soon afterwards, they picked up the trade winds and started across the
Atlantic. Around them the sea was empty and the sky enormous, its changing
occasional clouds often the only diversion. They were now in the tropics
and it was hotter than anything Ward had ever known. Had modesty not
forbidden it, he wrote, he would have gone naked on deck. New to him
too, were the sharks, turtles, dolphins and flying fish that could be seen
from the ship.

The greatest fear now was of being caught in a calm, a situation that
had seen many ships’ crews starve to death. But luck was with the Andalucia,
and after some six weeks at sea, they came in sight of the Leeward Islands
gently curving in a chain to the north-west. Passing first Montserrat, then
Antigua, Nevis and St Kitts, ‘in a few days’ they reached Hispaniola. From
there, ‘with a fresh Gail’, it took only 24 hours before they were in sight
of Jamaica.

Ward’s pithy description of the island has become famous. He was not
impressed. To be fair, he arrived in 1697 at a particularly bad time. Jamaica
had recently suffered a catastrophic earthquake, and a hugely destructive
invasion by a French army, which had laid waste to much of the western
half of the island. In addition, it should be remembered that Ward’s profession
as a Grub Street hack demanded he write with impact, a clever turn
of phrase and as much vulgarity as possible.

Jamaica, he wrote, was ‘Sweating Chaos’. The climate was deadly: ‘As
Sickly as a Hospital, as Dangerous as the Plague.’ Nature itself was also
ill, producing wild disorders such as hurricanes and earthquakes. The
food was bizarre and disgusting: the planters’ favourite, the spicy Africaoriginated
pepperpot, was like consuming brandy mixed with gunpowder,
‘an excellent Breakfast for a Salamander’; the local ‘Cussue’ apple was ‘so
great an Acid . . . that by Eating of one, it drew up my mouth like a Hens
Fundament’. The pork was ‘luscious’, but, Ward warned, caused scurvy
and leprosy.

Most disgusting of all, though, were the people. The men looked as if
‘they had just knock’d off their Fetters’. The women, with nicknames such
as ‘Salt Beef Peg’ and ‘Buttock-de-Clink Jenny’, were ‘such who have been
Scandalous in England to the utmost degree, either Transported by the
State, or led by their Vicious Inclinations; where they may be Wicked
without Shame, and Whore on without Punishment’. Neither sex went in
for religion; instead ‘they regard nothing but Money, and value not how
they get it’. There was no ‘felicity to be enjoy’d but purely Riches’. When
not trying to get rich, ‘They have this Pleasure in Drinking, That what
they put into their Bellies, they may soon stroak out of their Finger Ends;
for instead of Exonerating, they Fart; and Sweat instead of Pissing.’

This is perhaps a bit rich coming from Ned Ward, a man who had drunk
away his twenties and was now himself in Jamaica purely to mend his
fortune. Moreover, his lifelong Tory beliefs inform his disgust at the society
he encountered on the island. Jamaica, he wrote, had been somehow
‘neglected by the Omnipotence when he form’d the World into its admirable
Order’. Proper rank and degree, the bedrock of English society, appeared
to be absent. Instead, arrivals of whatever hue could be transformed by
the island: ‘A Broken Apothecary will make there a Topping Physician; a
Barbers Prentice, a good Surgeon; a Balliffs Follower, a passable Lawyer;
and an English Knave, a very Honest Fellow.’

The chance for such transformations, or new starts, was, of course, a
primary motive for undergoing the dangerous adventure of emigration. The
West Indies held out the promise of freedom, of opportunities for social
mobility unknown in Europe. The apparent lack of ‘order’ was exactly what
made it so appealing to those on the wrong side of the ancient hierarchy at
home. Petty thieves or pirates could indeed become pillars of the colonial
establishment. Second or third sons who might otherwise be destined for
the priesthood or army could and did find themselves instead at the head
of a newly dominant branch of the family. Women who were disgraced or
‘lost’, by their own fault or that of others, might indeed welcome Ward’s
snide assertion that ‘A little Reputation among the Women goes a great way.’

Ward soon left Jamaica. Although, ironically, his career was transformed
by the commercial success of his pamphlet, ‘A Trip to the West Indies’,
published the following year, for him the island was a giant cesspit, inhabited
by those beyond redemption: ‘The Dunghill of the Universe, the
Refuse of the whole Creation . . . The Nursery of Heavens Judgments . . .
The Receptacle of Vagabonds, the Sanctuary of Bankrupts, the Close-stool
for the Purges of our Prisons, as Hot as Hell, and as wicked as the Devil.'


© Matthew Parker 2011 spacerback to top