ERIC WIBERG: The Eleutheran Adventurers and William Sayle’s early days

THE story of the Eleutheran Adventurers is woven deeply into the fabric of national identity. The general themes are of escaping religious prosecution to take great risks by sailing to unknown shores – so far that is like the Puritan’s voyage in the Mayflower from England to New England’s Plymouth Rock. Then the stories diverge and become a bit more difficult to parse; they wreck, apparently due to their arriving at the most dangerous place in the Bahamas to sail to at night – Devil’s Backbone, and Governor’s Bay, North Eleuthera.

Then when they land, rather than embracing pragmatism and working their way out of their dire predicament, they attempted to pray their way out of it. When one visits Preacher’s Cave where the zealots remained while the mariners and farmers went off to Governor’s Harbour to make a go of it with their hands and brains, the overweening impression given is that they seem to have made almost no impact at all on the landscape, almost as though they came, they saw, they failed.


SANDRA Riley chart of Eleutheran Adventurers’ possible landing spots.

Since this would not be an uplifting origin story, there has to have been more, and there was. A catchy Greek name for an island – Eleftheria, for freedom. Discovery of wonderful soils, products to grow, wood to cut and ships and ports to export them with. Help from a fledgling university in Boston founded by John Harvard, and then extraordinary gratitude by the colonists, whose gift of Brazilletto and other hard ship-building woods would remain the most significant gift to Havard College behind his for decades.

And these settlers were different - they sailed from another small colony, Bermuda, not England as the Mayflower’s religious folks had. And unlike New England, where indigenous persons still ruled their land, in the Bahamas Chistopher and Bartholemew Columbus and their descendants decimated – nay exterminated – from the Bahamas all Lucayan, Taino, Arawak or other indigenes long before Adventurers arrived. And they did obtain before leaving Bermuda and bring with them a proclamation saying they were the new rulers of colony.

Since the wreck was really the lynchpin, or pivot of the expedition, we would do well to understand what happened, because that, more than any other incident, cobbled the colonists’ efforts and set them up to fail. Peter Barratt in his fictionalized version of history has Sayle load the shallop with the tubers, plants, chickens and goats for the new colony.



Manned by some of the better sailors who are less inclined to sit around debating theology, this smaller boat darts ahead of William, which after careful plotting sights Abaco around Schooner Bay and coasts within half a mile of the coast, heading south towards Eleuthera. The settlers are excited and they proceed further south past Whale Point and Harbour Island to the area of Surfer’s Beach before tacking back towards Man Island and anchoring near Preacher’s Cave and a bay they call Governor’s Bay.

Then, without moving, things go suddenly and violently south. Imagine the Puritan faction requiring everyone to give thanks with prayer, and some of them including a libertarian Captain Butler possibly a wrecker and shipowner from Cornwall who has found his freedom in an island called Freedom and no longer is willing to suffer fools telling him what and how to believe. Sayle seems not to have anticipated this schism – after all they were fleeing religious zealotry to find a place to be zealous and pure, and he decided to take the livestock and foodstuffs into William and head for Spanish Wells (St George’s Island) where he had been before in 1646. Sayle had his family – wife and three sons, Thomas, Nathaniel, and James, also mariners.

The next day Sayle takes William and splits with Butler and some mariners, however within hours they find themselves locked inside the treacherous Devil’s Backbone reef, entrapped, snared, snarled. The boat is smashed out of use, the remaining people – probably about 50 – struggle into the little shallop or into the water, barring one who drowned, and wade ashore. There ends the shipwreck component of the drama. The tendency is for everyone to focus so much on what kind of documents Sayle and his investors drew up (they were countermanded several decades later to give all the Bahamas to six Lords Proprietors after five of the Sayle signors also signed a death decree on the King, who was murdered).

We don’t focus on the ships and navigation aspects, so distracting are arguments over who was trying not to argue or allow arguments, that like them we lose sight of the core facts: In 1646 a powerful man in Bermuda seeking religious freedom he didn’t yet find there joined with about 70 other like-minded folks to prepare for a new utopia in the Bahamas. Equipped with a 50-ton wooden ship which was probably 80 feet or longer on deck and had one or more masts, these persons added a shallower coastwise shallop, stored foreseeable supplies to colonize depopulated islands to which they were granted access. They set off and at first seemed to have achieved their goal.

For a glorious night, William and the Little William anchored at their new home. The storm began within, erupting over personal freedom which was advertised to participants, but not delivered – several in fact were indentured servants. A fight or fights broke out, and in fleeing same to establish a new place where all pigs might be more equal than others, the larger vessel filled with all the important stuff for colonizing, like rakes, hoes, seeds and livestock, was wrecked forever and not even salvaged.

Then, showing little ingenuity at fishing, farming, or doing much of anything practical, except praying, these pathetic persons who apparently included some women, remained hiding in a cave, not digging, altering, designing or building anything lasting over the ensuring three months or so. Their leader left in the small boat and with 8 men in 9 days made Virginia, there, he obtained a 25-ton boat, about 750 British pounds worth of support funds, and tried earnestly to convince Virginians to become Eleutherans. But they inquired with Governor Winthrop, who accepted 10 pounds of their Braziletto wood, converting it to 150 pounds or more, and he suggested they stay in Virginia. Sayle thus returned to Eleuthera with the new boat and supplies, the people spread all over the main island and smaller ones.

Soon, Bermuda dumped 59 dissenters then seven adulterers and slaves on Eleuthera, the British took back their exclusive rights, Sayle took his family back to Bermuda, became governor of South Carolina in old age just long enough to sail there. His sons sailed from Eleuthera to Bermuda a great deal: Bermudian port records documents numerous voyages by the Sayles between Eleuthera and Bermuda aboard boats with the name William; on 16 June 1656, a boat named Little William of Segatoo (Eleuthera), arrived in Bermuda, and on 15 August 1658, William, under Thomas Sayle, arrived in Bermuda “bringing 4 passengers.”

On 5 March 1659, the pinnace William arrived, then on 5 October, and again on 24 February, 1660, and laden with salt on 3 June, and “sailed for Eleutheria 23 June.” A frigate William connected Bermuda with Jamaica that year, and Eleuthera on 11 February, 1661. In Bermuda the Sea Venture, in 1609, which also wrecked on arrival, and the Deliverance, created to voyage to Virginia for help, are commemorated with replicas and monuments.


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