History

How the Sweetness of Sugar Cane brought the Order of Malta to the Caribbean

Museum of the Order of St John

My name is Abigail, and I am currently a master’s student in gender and culture in the medieval and early modern worlds at Queen Mary University of London. In February 2024 I was placed at the Museum of the Order of St John to complete a project with the collections.

 

A golden ship model with a silver sail, small figures of soldeirs and oarsmen on the deck.
The Schwarzenberg Nef, silver, parcel-gilt and cold enamel, probably Germany, c.1580. The Schroder Collection. Photo credit: Ken Adlard.

Before I officially began my internship at the Museum of the Order of St John in February, the Curator and I spent time walking around and enjoying the galleries together. Due to my research interest, we spent most of our time discussing and examining the gold and silver Schwarzenberg Nef which is on loan from the Schroder Collection and currently displayed in the Museum. Nefs were recreations of ships made of precious metals and were an extravagant sign of luxury in the Medieval and Early Modern eras. The Schwarzenberg Nef was a gift given to Grand Master Jean De Valette in 1590 for defending against the Ottoman Empire during the Great Siege of Malta in 1565. The Nef caught my eye because of the way enslaved people were depicted rowing the galley ship while simultaneously the Knights of Malta were feasting in the captain’s cabin. After researching the history of Malta in the 16th century, I discovered that under the Order of St John, Malta became one of the largest European ports for trading enslaved Jews, Muslims, and Christians. These facts stuck with me as I explored the library within the Museum of the Order of St John and came across a fascinating book titled Knights, Buccaneers, and Sugar Cane: the Caribbean Colonies of the Order of Malta by Thomas Freller and William Zammit.

As a historian of early encounters between Europeans and Indigenous Americans, I was surprised that I had never heard or read about the Order of Malta’s presence in the America’s during the 1650s. My fascination with the book Knights, Buccaneers, and Sugar Cane ended up shaping my internship at the Museum of the Order of St John because it revealed an intriguing tale of how the Order of Malta became the only organisation, rather than country, to own and further colonise four Caribbean islands: St. Croix, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, and St. Christopher. Throughout my analysis, I will focus on the Order’s influence on St. Christopher, also known as St. Kitts. I will also refer to the Order of St John as the Order of Malta to stay true to their title during the 17th century.

Map of the Caribbean Islands that the Order of Malta bought in 1651

My internship project at the Museum of the Order of St John focused on auditing and cataloguing the Museum’s extensive portrait medal collection. While cataloguing the portrait medals and pondering upon the Order’s time in the Caribbean, I realised that it was more than likely that one of the portrait medals I was physically working with could connect to the Caribbean. I found that the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, who bought the Caribbean Islands, was named Jean Paul Lascaris. I quickly compared the name to our inventory report, and lo and behold, we did have a portrait medal from 1641 with the bust of Lascaris. Although Lascaris was the Grand Master when the Order acquired the Caribbean Islands, Phillippe de Longvilliers de Poincy was the central orchestrator of the purchase of St. Kitts for the Order of Malta.

Portrait medal of Grand Master Lascaris
Image © Museum of the Order of St John, 2017
Portrait medal of Grand Master Lascaris
Image © Museum of the Order of St John, 2017

De Poincy was a part of the French nobility and a member of the Order of Malta. Yet, he was most loyal to himself and whoever would aid his mission to keep power as the governor of St. Kitts. De Poincy was originally sent to the Caribbean in 1638 to be the Lieutenant Governor of St. Kitts. Once De Poincy arrived he disregarded the French Kings wishes and declared himself the absolute ruler and Governor of St. Kitts. In the early 1640s, he went on to build the lavish and famous Chateau de la Montage for himself. The newly crowned and young French king, Louis XIV, was not a fan of De Poincy presenting himself as the “King” of the French Caribbean. King Louis tried to dispose of De Poincy by sending a man named Noel Patrocle de Thoisy to replace him. De Poincy refused to let De Thosiy land and sent him back to France. De Poincy’s disregard for the King’s wishes further damaged his relationship with the French monarchy. Luckily for De Poincy, King Louis’s power in the Caribbean was depleting because the French Company of the American Islands went bankrupt from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). De Poincy saw this as an opportunity to distance himself from the French and look towards the second connection to power he had, the Order of Malta.

Slaves at work in Sandy Point Estate, ca. 1795

De Poincy contacted his fellow Knight and the Grand Master of the Order of Malta, Lascaris, to convince him to buy St. Kitts, St. Croix, St. Martin, and St. Barthelemy from the French in the name of the Order of Malta. Lascaris agreed to pay 120,000 livres for all four islands in 1651, officially establishing the Order of Malta’s place in history as the only organisation to own American colonies. The timing of the Order of Malta buying colonies in the 1650s and the rise of sugarcane plantations, one of the most lucrative investments at the time, is no coincidence. Only ten years previously, Europeans introduced sugarcane plantations to St. Kitts, which led to the rapid rise of importing enslaved people from Africa to St. Kitts, and the other three islands that the Order of Malta owned. From the National Museums of Liverpool’s website, I learned that when the Order of Malta first bought St. Kitts, 20% of the population on the island were enslaved Africans. After the arrival of the Order of Malta, the population of enslaved people grew exponentially. Although the order sold back the colonies to France in 1665, it is essential to note that by 1678, over 50% of the total population of 7,370 on St. Kitts were enslaved Africans.

Still today, the ruins of De Poincy’s Chateau de la Montage survive on St. Kitts. Once the most architecturally elaborate and prominent building in the Caribbean, today it is a reminder of how the Order of Malta reached all four corners of the globe.

17th-century engraving showing a view of the Château de la Montagne (bottom) and a plan of Fort de la Madeleine in Guadeloupe (top)

 

 

 

Bibliography

Anne Brogini, Effective management of public slavery in Hospitallers’ Malta, Bulletin of the Institute  of Classical Studies, Volume 64, Issue 2, December 2021, Pages 51-59.

Freller, Thomas, and Zammit, William. Knights, Buccaneers and Sugar Cane: The Caribbean Colonies of the Order of Malta. Midsea Books, 2015.

Olwig, Fog. “Slavery in the Caribbean.” National Museums Liverpool, 1993, www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/archaeologyofslavery/slavery-caribbean.