Richard Ligon

A True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657)

 First published in 1657, Ligon’s account details the experiences of a royalist who escaped to the Caribbean island of Barbados during the English Civil War. 


Having lost much of his wealth during the English civil wars, Richard Ligon (c. 1585-1662) left England in the summer of 1647 to regain his fortune on the small Caribbean island of Barbados, one of the most valuable colonies in the Empire. Ligon, a patron to the Royalist exile Thomas Modyford, spent three years on the island working as a plantation manager before returning in 1650 following a severe bout with yellow fever. By then, the white European population on the island had increased to about 30,000, compared with 12,800 black Africans, as many planters had begun to switch from cultivating cotton and tobacco to sugarcane for export, substantially increasing labor demands. Between 1640 and 1660, English Caribbean planters had purchased about 55,000 African captives whom they claimed as slaves, and the trend only accelerated. Although most of the True & Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) is devoted to the development of the island’s booming sugar economy, Ligon demonstrates a keen interest in the material and religious lives of the local enslaved population as well.

Despite the relatively large and growing number of African slaves on Barbados, questions about the legality of slavery under English law and the connection between slavery and religious status remained tenuous and, increasingly, contested. In the excerpt below, Ligon advances several arguments to refute Barbadian slaveowners’ concerns about slave revolts, which they considered a serious threat to the racial hierarchy and political stability of the sugar colony. But he also comments on enslaved people’s interest in Protestant Christianity and his interaction with men such as Sambo.. How does Ligon explain Sambo’s desire to become Christian? On what grounds does his master oppose his request? And what, if anything, can his response tell us about the relationship between slavery, law, and Christianity—in Barbados and in the early English empire more broadly?

First published in 1657 in London by Humphrey Mosley, Ligon’s narrative included a new foldout map of Barbados (pictured on the right) that might have been based on an earlier drawing by John Swan from 1638. The map identifies the name and location of each of the nearly three hundred plantations, most of which were located along the leeward coast of the island. Also depicted on the map are wild hogs, hunters, and runaway slaves, as well as four churches and military fortifications near Bridgetown, the main town in Barbados. The dense forests and unfinished roads leading into the interior suggest that settlement of the island was yet to be fully completed.

Matt Fischer

Further Reading
  • Amussen, Susan D. Caribbean Exchanges: Slavery and the Transformation of English Society, 1640-1700. The University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
  • Beckles, Hilary McD. White Servitude and Black Slavery in Barbados, 1627–1715. University of Tennessee Press, 1989.
  • Dunn, Richard S. Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713. University of North Carolina Press, 1973.
  • Kupperman, Karen Ordahl. “Introduction.” A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. Hackett Publishing Company, 2011.
  • Menard, Russell. Sweet Negotiations: Sugar, Slavery, and Plantation Agriculture in Early Barbados. University of Virginia Press, 2006.
  • Parrish, Susan Scott. “Richard Ligon and the Atlantic Science of Commonwealths.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 67, no. 2 (April 2010): 209-248.
  • Sharples, Jason T. The World That Fear Made: Slave Revolts and Conspiracy Scares in Early America. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020.
  • Richard Ligon, A True and Exact History of the Island of Barbados. Illustrated with a Mapp of the island, as also the Principall Trees and Plants there, set forth in their due Proportions and Shapes, drawne out by their severall and respective scales. Together with the Ingenio that makes the Sugar, with the Plots of the severall Houses, Roomes, and other places, that are used in the whole processe of Sugar-making, [1st. ed.] (London: Humphrey Moseley, 1657), 46, 49-50.
  • Transcription credit: Matt Fischer, Madeline Rihn
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Ligon’s Map of Barbados in the True & Exact History, 1657
Original at The John Carter Brown Library, Brown University

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Please be aware that many of the works in this project contain racist and offensive language and descriptions of punishment and enslavement that may be difficult to read. However, this language and these descriptions reveal the horrors of slavery. Please take care when transcribing these materials, and see our Ethics Statement and About page.

pp. 46, 49-50 

It has been accounted a strange thing, that the Negres, being more than double the numbers of the Christians that are there, and they accounted a bloody people, where they think they have power or advantages; and the more bloody by how much they are more fearfull than others: that these should not commit some horrid massacre upon the Christians, thereby to enfranchise [1] themselves and become Masters of the Island. But there are three reasons that take away this wonder; the one is, They are not suffered [2] to touch or handle any weapons: The other, That they are held in such awe and slavery, as they are fearfull to appear in any daring act; and seeing the mustering of our men, and hearing their Gun-shot (than which nothing is more terrible to them) their spirits are subjugated to so low a condition, as they dare not look up to any bold attempt. Besides these, there is a third reason, which stops all designs [3] of that kind, and that is, They are fetch’d from severall parts of Africa, who speake severall languages, and by that means, one of them understands not another: For, some of them are fetch’d [4] from Guinny and Binny, some from Cutchew, some from Angola, and some from the River of Gambia. And in some of these places where petty Kingdomes are, they sell their Subjects, and such as they take in Battle, whom they make slaves; and some mean men sell their Servants, their Children, and sometimes their Wives; and think all good traffick, [5] for such commodities as our Merchants sends them.

When they are brought to us, the Planters buy them out of the Ship, where they find them stark naked, and therefore cannot be deceived in any outward infirmity. They choose them as they do Horses in a Market; the strongest, youthfullest, and most beautiful, yield the greatest prices. Thirty pound sterling is a price for the best man Negre; and twenty five, twenty six, or twenty seven pound for a Woman; the Children are at easier rates. […]

Another of another kinde of speculation I found; but more ingenious then he and this man with three or foure more, were to attend mee into the woods, to cut Church wayes, for I was imployed sometimes upon publique works [6]; and those men were excellent Axe-men, and because there were many gullies [7] in the way, which were impassable, and by that means I was compell’d to make traverses, up and down in the wood; and was by that in danger to misse of the poynt to which I was to make my passage to the Church, and therefore was saine to take a compasse with me, which was a Circumferenter, to make my traverses the more exact, and indeed without which, it could not be done, setting up the Circumferenter, and observing the Needle: This Negre Sambo comes to me, and seeing the needle wag, desired to know the reason of its stirring, and whether it were alive: I told him no, but it stood upon a poynt, and for a while it would stir, but by and by stand still, which he observ’d and found it to be true.

The next question was, why it stood one way, and would not remove to any other point, I told him that it would stand no way but North and South, and upon that shew’d him the four Cardinal poynts of the compass, East, West, North, South, which he presently learnt by heart, and promis’d me never to forget it. His last question was, why it would stand North, I gave this reason, because of the huge Rocks of Loadstone that were in the North part of the world, which had a quality to draw Iron to it; and this Needle being of Iron, and touch’d with a Loadstone, it would alwais stand that way.

This point of Philosophy was a little too hard for him, and so he stood in a strange muse; which to put him out of, I had him reach his axe, and put it neer [near] to the Compasse, and remove it about; and as he did so, the Needle turned with it, which put him in the greatest admiration that ever I saw a man, and so quite gave over his questions, and desired me, that he might be made a Christian; for, he thought to be a Christian, was to be endued with all those knowledges he wanted.

I promised to do my best endeavor; and when I came home, spoke to the Master of the Plantation, and told him, that poor Sambo desired much to be a Christian. But his answer was, That the people of that Island were governed by the Lawes of England, and by those Lawes, we could not make a Christian a Slave. I told him, my request was far different from that, for I desired him to make a Slave a Christian. His answer was, That it was true, there was a great difference in that: But, being once a Christian, he could no more account him a Slave, and so lose the hold they had of them as Slaves, by making them Christians; and by that means should open such a gap, as all the Planters in the Island would curse him. So I was struck mute, and poor Sambo kept out of the Church; as ingenious, as honest, and as good natur’d poor soul, as ever wore black, or eat green.

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