The present prospect of the famous and fertile island of Tobago

by Nick

Back in the summer a very distant relative of mine died; my dad went to the funeral and spoke to the surviving son, who said that his father had some family artefacts that he’d like us to have a look at. Fast forward to this weekend just gone, when I spoke to my mum on the phone. She’d been having a look at some of the things he’d passed on.

Mum: “One of the things he lent us was a copy of a pamphlet by an ancestor. It’s a sales catalogue for people interested in buying land in Tobago. It’s dated 16-something or other.”

Me: “I’ll look it up on Early English Books Online and see what I can find out about it”.

If you’ve ever used EEBO you probably know how much of a timesink it can be – an hour later I was thoroughly immersed in finding out the background to the pamphlet, and well on the way to wasting most of the afternoon. Here’s what I found out.

The pamphlet is called The present prospect of the famous and fertile island of Tobago with a description of the situation, growth, fertility and manufacture of the said island, to which is added proposals for the encouragement of all those that are minded to settle there [EEBO]. It’s by Captain John Poyntz and it dates from 1683.

The present prospect of the famous and fertile island of Tobago with a description of the situation, growth, fertility and manufacture of the said island, to which is added proposals for the encouragement of all those that are minded to settle there

Poyntz was born in 1629/1630, and as a third son of minor gentry was probably a classic candidate for the navy. By the time of the Restoration, he was commanding a ship. In 1666, he led four ships to capture a Dutch settlement on Tobago. They left behind a small garrison, but this was later wiped out by a French expedition from Grenada.1

In 1681, Poyntz was commissioned by the Duke of Courland – who had acquired a title to the island in 1640 from the Earl of Warwick – to reestablish the colony. Poyntz was granted 120,000 acres in return for recruiting settlers, and in 1683 issued his pamphlet by way of a glossy sales catalogue.2 The island, according to Poyntz, was immensely fertile; it was full of many varieties of grain; the range of fruit was amazing. Here’s Poyntz on some of the many varieties:

Here is also the Figg-Tree… which fruit may be eaten while as yet its ripe; or exposed to better husbandry, it serves for good drink.

Then there’s the Prickle-Apple, of a sharp brisk taste; (and an Indian expedient against the Bloody-Flux) it makes a brave Marmalade: and helps for staining and colouring any thing. But the Prickle-Pear, to speak its due praise, is one of the most sovereign fruits in the Indies.

The Pome-granate, is a fruit of that singular eminency, as hardly to be expressed, without a scriptural phrase: they are plentiful here, a restringent and cooler.

The Pine-Apple, I must confess is a fruit of that excellency, that I want rhetoric and oratory to express it. Some bears a Crown, and is the king of fruits; but to them with three crowns, the idolatrous pay their superstitions. The fruit of it self is of fruit most delicious, and the liquor bottled up, makes an admirable drink.

Here are also Pum-Citrons, that make an excellent preserve.

What a wonderful description – my mouth was watering while I read this!

The pamphlet was also bundled with a map, to fully show off the wonders of the island. At the end of the text, Poyntz adds that a map of the island was available from John Seller, at the Royal Exchange. Unfortunately I can’t find a copy of this online, but you can have a look at it in the article referenced in the footnote below.3

But then there are bits that are just too good to be true, like Poyntz’s assertion that £100 investment would yield £5,000 within only seven years… oh really?

However, for all of the sales pitch, it wasn’t to work to Poyntz’s favour. The duke of Courland’s claim was questioned by the crown, who worried that it would attract Dutch trade and would have a negative impact on the colony at Barbados. Poyntz’s ship was blocked for a time in 1684 from sailing to Barbados from England, and early settlers of the island were cleared from it. Still, he kept trying, petitioning the crown a number of times. His final attempt was in 1702, but the crown had it thrown out.4 He died in 1712, only a few weeks after his wife was buried.

If this was a novel, I would have written “he died in 1712, a broken man, only a few weeks after his wife was buried”. Of course there’s no evidence for that… but funnily enough there is a novel that was inspired by Poyntz’s account of Tobago. You’ve probably heard of it – Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. It is thought that Defoe was inspired by Poyntz’s account of Tobago to write his account of his own island Eden in 1719.5 Poor old Poyntz was long gone to his grave by this point, but had he lived that long I doubt inspiring a literary classic would have been much consolation for the fortune he lost out on through the crown not supporting his claim…

1. Basil Morgan, ‘Poyntz, John (1629/30–1712)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [DNB, requires subscription or Athens access]
2. Jeannette Black, ‘The Blathwayt Atlas: Maps Used by British Colonial Administrators in the Time of Charles II’, Imago Mundi, Vol. 22. (1968), pp.20-29. [JSTOR, requires subscription or Athens access]
3. ibid.
4. Morgan, op. cit.
5. Richard Grove, Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1800. Cambridge University, 1995.