Thomas Warner and the Caribbean’s First British Colony

St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla - Scott #208 (1970)
St. Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla – Scott #208 (1970)

On January 28, 1623,  Sir Thomas Warner established the first British colony in the Caribbean on the island of Saint Kitts, also known more formally as Saint Christopher Island. Two years later, in 1625, French captain Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc, commanding a 14-gun brigantine with a crew of 40, arrived on the island following a run-in with the Spanish Armada and were allowed to settle on the island. Thus, Saint Kitts was also the site of the first French settlement in the Caribbean. I have featured the island four times on ‘A Stamp A Day’ with articles about International Talk Like A Pirate Day, the various (and evolving) observances of Columbus Day, and accounts of the of the stamp-issuing entities of St. Kitts-Nevis (stamps were inscribed thusly between 1903 and 1952) and  Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla (inscriptions from 1952 until 1980). For more information on each of the islands as well as their geo-political and postal histories, please have a look at the latter two articles.

The west side of Saint Christopher borders the Caribbean Sea, and the eastern coast faces the Atlantic Ocean. Today, Saint Kitts and the neighboring island of Nevis constitute one country: the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. Saint Kitts and Nevis are separated by a shallow 2-mile (3-kilometer) channel known as “The Narrows”. The island is one of the Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles. It is situated about 1,300 miles (2,100 km) southeast of Miami, Florida. The land area of St. Kitts is about 65 square miles (168 km²), being approximately 18 miles (29 km) long and on average about 5 miles (8 km) across.

Saint Kitts has a population of around 40,000, the majority of whom are mainly of African descent. The primary language is English, with a literacy rate of approximately 98%. Residents call themselves Kittitians.

Saint Kitts became home to the first Caribbean British and French colonies in the mid-1620s. Along with the island nation of Nevis, Saint Kitts was a member of the British West Indies until gaining independence on September 19, 1983.

Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the largest fortress ever built in the Eastern Caribbean. The island of Saint Kitts is home to the Warner Park Cricket Stadium, which was used to host 2007 Cricket World Cup matches. This made St. Kitts and Nevis the smallest nation to ever host a World Cup event. Saint Kitts is also home to several institutions of higher education, including Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, Windsor University School of Medicine, and the University of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Map of the Caribbean Sea, 1732
Map of the Caribbean Sea, 1732
Map of Saint Christopher, 1736
Map of Saint Christopher, 1736

Sir Thomas Warner was born in Suffolk, England in 1580. He entered the army at an early age, which provided him with his main training. He later married and started a family with his wife, which included their son, Philip. He became a captain in the guards of James I of England. In 1620, Warner accepted assignment to the colonies and took his family with him when he served at the brief-lived English settlement of Oyapoc in present-day Guyana of South America. He served as a captain under the command of Roger North. Tomas Painton, another captain in the colony, suggested that Warner should try to colonize one of the islands in the Lesser Antilles, which Painton thought had more favorable conditions.

Later in 1620, Ralph Merrifield and Sir Thomas Warner received a Royal Patent from King James I to colonize the Leeward Islands, but with overall authority through James Hay, 1st Earl of Carlisle. Warner abandoned his Guiana post and set sail north through the archipelago. Oyapoc was soon abandoned by the English. The Dutch then controlled most of the territory.

After checking each island, Warner arrived at Saint Kits on January 24, 1623, and decided that the island would be the best-suited site for a British colony. He noted its strategic central position ideal for expansion, friendly native population, fertile soil, abundant fresh water, and large salt deposits. He and his family landed on the island and made peace with the local Kalinago people, whose leader was Ouboutou Tegremante. They were part of the indigenous Carib people of the islands. Three Frenchmen were already on the island, either Huguenot refugees, pirates, or castaways.

The Hurricane of September 29, 1623, wiped out the settler’s tobacco and vegetable crop, yet the colony survived and grew. Warner left his family on the island and returned to England to gather more men to officially establish a colony. He was supported by Ralph Merrifield, a merchant, who provided the capital, and the brothers John and Samuel Jeaffreson (the latter was the 3xgreat-grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States). Merrifield and Warner formed the company Merwars Hope, which was renamed Society of Adventurers, which merged into the Royal African Company in 1664. The Jeaffresons agreed to bring a second vessel with settlers and supplies.

Warner returned to Saint Kitts on the Hopewell in 1624 with Col. John Jaeffreson, who built Wingfield Manor. Warner established a port town at Old Road — downhill from Tegremante’s capital village — with 15 settlers and came to terms with the Carib chief. Saint Christopher was established as the first British colony in the Caribbean.

French brigantine of the 18th century.
French brigantine of the 18th century.

In 1625, Pierre Belain, Sieur d’Esnambuc (1585–1636) — a French trader and adventurer in the Caribbean — arrived on the island. He had organized a fleet of colonists hoping to establish an island colony, after hearing about the success of the English on Saint Kitts, but his fleet was destroyed in a three-hour battle with a 35-gun Spanish warship near the Cayman Islands.  Only his flagship — a 14-gun brigantine with a crew of 40 — survived to reach Saint Kitts. Feeling sorry for the French colonists, Thomas Warner allowed them to settle on the island, becoming the site of the first French settlement in the Caribbean. They took the ruins of the town of Dieppe, which they rebuilt. Warner accepted the French to gain more Europeans on the island as he thought the local Kalinago were becoming less enthusiastic about the newcomers.

Warner’s concerns proved accurate. As the European population on Saint Kitts continued to increase, Tegremante grew suspicious of the foreigners. In 1626, after a secret meeting with Kalinago heads from neighboring Waitikubuli (Dominica) and Oualie, the natives decided to ambush the European settlements on the night of the next full moon. The plan was revealed to the Europeans by an Igneri woman named Barbe  She had recently been brought to Saint Kitts as a slave-wife after the Kalianago raided an Arawak island. According to the French historian Jean Baptiste Du Tertre, she despised the Kalinago and had fallen in love with Warner.

The English and French joined forces and attacked the Carib at night. The colonists killed between 100 and 120 Caribs in their beds that night, with only the most beautiful Carib women spared to serve as slaves. The French and English set about fortifying the island against the expected invasion of Carib from other islands.

According to Du Tertre, in the ensuing battle, three to four thousand Caribs took up arms against the Europeans. He did not estimate the number of Caribs killed, but said the fallen Amerindians on the beach were piled high into a mound. The English and French suffered at least 100 casualties. Others report that at Bloody Point, which then was the site of the island’s main Kalinago settlement, over 2,000 Kalinago men were massacred. Many had come from Waitikubuli, planning to attack the Europeans the next day. The Europeans dumped the dead into the river, at the site of the Kalinago place of worship. For weeks, blood flowed down the river, for which it was named Bloody River. The Europeans deported the remaining Kalinago to Waitikubuli.

The early accounts were by Europeans and told from their point of view. Modern scientists and historians estimate that many of their claims were fraudulent or exaggerated in order to justify the killings. Ethnologists have put the events into a different context. The killings occurred in late January, near the middle of the dry season. The Kalinago called this the season of “Bat man”, due to the abundance of the species then. Usually, they made raids on the Taino and other Amerindians at this time to take sacrifices to appease “Bat man,” to ensure the dry season ended and the wet season began (which was called the season of “Frog woman”.) Kalinago had gathered from various islands at St. Christopher at the time, because of its location: on the border between the islands controlled by different groups, it was used as a base for Kalinago raids against the Taino. Evidence of atrocity was that the Europeans killed so many and defiled the Kalinago place of worship, a means of frightening the Kalinago of neighbouring islands.

After the Kalinago Genocide of 1626, the Europeans partitioned the island, with the French gaining the ends, Capisterre in the North and Basseterre in the south; and the British gaining the center. Both groups colonized neighboring islands from their bases. In 1628, Warner allowed Anthony Hilton to settle Nevis, along with 80 others from Saint Kitts. Hilton had recently escaped murder by his indentured servant, and decided to sell his Saint Kitts’ plantation. Hilton’s 80 were joined by 100 other settlers, originally bound for Barbuda.

The 1629 English colonization was led by George Donne. Both powers then proceeded to colonize other nearby islands. The English settled Nevis (1628), Antigua (1632), Montserrat (1632) and later Anguilla (1650) and Tortola (1672). Warner was appointed as Governor of St. Kitts, Nevis, Barbados and Montserrat in 1625.

Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc returned to France in 1626, where he won the support of Cardinal Richelieu to establish French colonies in the region. Richelieu became a shareholder in the Compagnie de Saint-Christophe, created to accomplish this with d’Esnambuc at its head. The company was not particularly successful and Richelieu had it reorganized as the Compagnie des Îles de l’Amérique.

The Spanish capture of Saint Kitts by Don Fadrique de Toledo in 1629.
The Spanish capture of Saint Kitts by Don Fadrique de Toledo in 1629.

Saint Kitts and Nevis suffered heavily from a Spanish raid in 1629, led by Fadrique de Toledo, 1st Marquis of Villanueva de Valdueza. All settlements were destroyed, nine hostages taken back to Spain, and 600 men taken to work the mines in Spanish America. Four ships were supposed to carry the rest back to England, but they returned to the islands soon after the Spanish departed. This was the only Spanish attempt to keep the English and French out of the Leeward Islands.

During the Battle of the Fig Tree in 1635, the French forcefully removed English settlers who had encroached into the French portion of St. Kitts. The French used 250 armed slaves in the conflict.

In 1635, D’Esnambuc sailed to Martinique with one hundred French settlers to clear land for sugarcane plantations. The French colonized Martinique (1635), the Guadeloupe archipelago (1635), St. Martin (1648), St. Barths (1648), and Saint Croix (1650). This led to tensions with the indigenous Carib population on Martinique. Open warfare led to the French expelling surviving Carib from the island in 1660.

After six months on Martinique, d’Esnambuc returned to Saint Christopher, where he died in 1636. His nephew, Jacques Dyel du Parquet, inherited d’Esnambuc’s authority over the French settlements in the Caribbean. He remained in Martinique and did not concern himself with the other islands. Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy became Lt. Gen. of the Isles of America and Captain-General of Saint Christopher on February 20, 1639. The King of France had sold the French portion of the island to the Order of Saint John. Dissatisfied with the independence of de Poincy, the King of France sent Noel de Patrocles de Thoisy to replace him. However, De Thoisy was repulsed, captured and sent back to France, along with his allies the Capuchin monks. De Poincy started construction of his Château de la Montagne in 1642, where he resided until his death in 1650. He was succeeded by Governor de Sales.

Brimstone Hill Fortress on Saint Kitts. Photo taken on February 17, 2012.
Brimstone Hill Fortress on Saint Kitts. Photo taken on February 17, 2012.

After the Kalinago Genocide of 1626 and the subsequent partitioning of the island, Thomas Warner imported many thousands of African slaves for labor. They were forced to develop and work on large sugar and tobacco plantations to raise commodity crops for export. The islands’ earliest cash crop was tobacco, along with ginger and indigo dye. However, production from the Caribbean and North American colonies deflated the price resulting in an 18-month moratorium on St. Kitts tobacco farming in 1639. This prompted the production of sugar from sugar cane on St. Kitts in 1643, and on Nevis in 1648. Windmills were built to crush the canes and extract the juice. The planters grew prosperous and even rich, where Nevis became the richest British colony in the western hemisphere by 1652. By 1776, St. Kitts was the richest British colony per capita.

Though indentured servants were common amongst the islands, fewer than half survived their servitude, and field work required African slaves. There were twice the number of slaves to Europeans on St. Kitts by the end of the 17th century. In 1675, the population on Nevis was about 8,000, half black. By 1780, the Nevis population had grown to 10,000, 90% black. The slaves had very harsh living and working conditions, only lasting eight to twelve years in the fields, and by the 18th century, two-fifths died within a year of arrival. About 22% died on the Middle Passage.

In 1643, Warner was appointed as Parliamentary Governor of the Caribee Islands. After his first wife died, he was said to have taken a Kalinago woman in a ‘common-law marriage’ and they had a lasting relationship. Their son was called “Indian Warner”; he was killed in the Dominica Massacre of 1674. As the years passed, Sir Thomas Warner amassed a wealth that would amount to over £100 million in today’s terms. Warner died on March 10, 1649, in Saint Kitts and was buried in a tomb in Middle Island. The Carib woman was reported to have given birth to many other children after Warner’s death.

Tombstone of Sir Thomas Warner on Saint Kitts. Photo taken on February 17, 2012.
Tombstone of Sir Thomas Warner on Saint Kitts. Photo taken on February 17, 2012.

Scott #208 was released on February 1, 1970, as part of a set of 17 stamps celebrating the maritime beginnings of the islands of Saint Christopher, Nevis and Anguilla, with a focus on privateers and outright pirates. The 2-cent stamp, printed by lithography on watermarked paper and perforated 14, portrays the flags of those nations looking to colonize islands of the Caribbean during the 17th century. From top to bottom, left to right, these are the English red ensign in use from 1620 and 1707, La Senyera of Catalonia which is based on the arms of Aragon and one of the oldest flags of Europe still in use (representing Spain on this stamp), the white banner covered with fleurs de lis which served as the flag of the royal family of France between 1365 and 1792, and flags representing the Netherlands (wrong for the period) and, supposedly, Portugal (I couldn’t find any details on this particular banner). Oddly, the only online images I could find of either Sir Thomas Warner or his ship, the Hopewell, were copies of stamps issued by Antigua which I don’t (yet) have in my collection.

English red ensign, 1620-1707
English red ensign, 1620-1707
St. Kitts-Nevis national flag, 1983-date
St. Kitts-Nevis national flag, 1983-date
St. Kitts-Nevis coat of arms
St. Kitts-Nevis coat of arms


One thought on “Thomas Warner and the Caribbean’s First British Colony

  1. Thank you so much for this! I am from STX (now residing in the US mainland) and am forever fascinated with these pre-colonial/colonial accounts. Please keep me posted with any new publishings.

    Kind regards,


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