True Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657): A Scholarly Introduction
By: William Bond and David Medina
Richard Ligon (c.1585- 1662) was an English gentleman, legal executor and writer in the first half of the seventeenth century. He was present at the Royalist surrender of Exeter in 1646. Scholars have disagreed over the extent of his allegiance to the Royalist cause (See for example: Kupperman 2008; Sandiford 2000, 26-7); but as Kupperman notes, he is recorded in the Calendar of the Committee for Compounding, petitioning in 1646 for the return of former property in Exeter (Committee for Compounding 1536). In 1647, he travelled to Barbados with a group of royalist exiles as an aid to the planter, Thomas Modyford. He spent three years in Barbados, working as a plantation manager, before returning to England in 1650, because of illness. In England he was arrested and imprisoned for debt. While in prison between 1650 and 1653 he composed the True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados —a survey of the natural, social, and economic phenomena he had observed during his three year stay in Barbados . He included his own map of the island, the first produced by a European, and numerous other pictures, including sketches of plant-life, architecture and machinery used in the production of sugar(Kupperman 2008; Sandiford 2000; Parrish 2010).
The History was first published in 1657 in London by Humphrey Moseley, and was well received in England: writer and gardener, John Evelyn, in a diary entry in 1668, contrasted his first taste of pineapple with the “ravishing varieties of deliciousness described in Captain Ligon's history” (Evelyn, 19 Aug 1668). That a second edition was published in 1673 after Ligon’s death is indicative of its popularity. In 1674 a French translation was published in Paris as part of a collection of travel narratives edited by Henri Justel, entitled Recueil de divers voyages faits en Afrique et en l’Amerique. In his introduction to the collection, Justel comments that Ligon’s The History really deserved its own volume, and praises Ligon’s meticulously detailed descriptions of sugar production on Barbados (“Av. Lecteur.” Justel ix). The History had an important effect on the literary world too and Ligon’s story of “Yarico,” a Native American woman who – after saving the life of a European sailor – was sold by him into slavery in Barbados, would be reworked as a short story in The Spectator (No. 11) and later by George Colman in 1787 in his play Inkle and Yarico (Kupperman 2008 and 2011; Bridenbaugh and Bridenbaugh 1972).
Ligon’s The History was the first extended English account of Barbados, and has been a particularly important source text for historians of the Caribbean and of English colonialism (and related political aspects of the English Civil War). With its detailed account of the changes which sugar production underwent in the three years on Barbados, The History has been especially influential in the study of the “Sugar Revolution.” Some recent scholarship has more critically examined the central role Ligon’s The History has played in accounts of the seventeenth-century Caribbean. Sarah Barber notes, for example, that due to Ligon, “Barbados became modern historians’ model of colonial development against which there was a tendency to measure elsewhere and find it wanting” (254-55). Literary scholars have put Ligon’s text into conversation with early modern travel, scientific, and political writing, and have often read his text as ideological document, articulating an emergent colonial position. Susan Scott Parrish has recently distinguished between the two broad critical stances on Ligon, remarking that The History “signifies either as reliable fact or as imperial apologia, depending on whether historians and critics read its manifest or unconscious content” (216). Parrish reads Ligon as ideologically self-aware and identifies in The History Ligon’s “conscious practice of ciphering his own critique of the emerging Caribbean colonial order” (218). For further information on scholarship, see the secondary bibliography.
Barber, Sarah. The Disputatious Caribbean: The West Indies in the Seventeenth Century. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Bridenbaugh, Carl and Roberta Bridenbaugh. No Peace Beyond the Line: The English in the Caribbean 1624-1690. Oxford University Press, 1972.
Calendar of the Proceedings of the Committee for Compounding, &c, 1643-1660, Cases 1643-1646. Edited by Green, Mary Anne Everett. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode; Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black; Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & Co., 1890.
Evelyn, John. The Diary of John Evelyn, Vol. 2, Edited by William Bray. 12 Feb 2013. Project Gutenberg.
Jestel, Henri. Recueil de divers voyages faits en Afrique et en l’Amerique. Paris: Chez la Veuve Ant. Cellier, rue de la Harpe, á l’Imprimerie des Roziers, 1684.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “Introduction.” A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. Hackett Publishing Company, 2011.
--- “Ligon, Richard (c.1585–1662).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. first published 2004; online edition, Jan 2008.
Parrish, Susan Scott. “Richard Ligon and the Atlantic Science of Commonwealths.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2, April 2010, pp. 209-248.
Sandiford, Keith Albert. Cultural Politics of Sugar: Caribbean Slavery and Narratives of Colonialism . Cambridge University Press, 2000
Campbell, P. F. “Richard Ligon.” Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, vol. 37, no. 3, 1985, pp. 215-38.
Donegan, Kathleen. Seasons of Misery: Catastrophe and Colonial Settlement in Early America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.
Donoghue, John. “Out of the Land of Bondage: The English Revolution and the Atlantic Origins of Abolition.” The American Historical Review, vol. 115, no. 4, 2010, pp. 943-974.
Lindley, Keith. Fenland Riots and the English Revolution. Heinemann Educational Books, 1982.
O’Connell, Sanjida. Sugar: The Grass that Changed the World. Virgin Books, 2004.
Mccusker, John J. and Russell R. Menard. “The Sugar Industry in the Seventeenth Century: A New Perspective on the Barbadian Sugar Revolution.” Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680. University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
How to cite this scholarly introduction:
Bond, William and David Medina. “True Exact History of the Island of Barbados, (1657): A Scholarly Introduction.” The Early Caribbean Digital Archive. Boston: Northeastern University Digital Repository Service, 2016.