Butlers in 17th Century Montserrat
By Brian McGinn  

Although the first recorded Butler presence dates from the 1650s, it would not be unreasonable to assume that Butlers were among Montserrat ’s earliest planters two decades earlier. From its settlement in 1632 through 1687, the tiny Leeward Island in the Caribbean was governed for England by two Anglo-Irish dynasties whose ancestral lands either adjoined, or coincided with, those of the Butlers . So it is not unlikely that the first Butlers on Montserrat were relatives or retainers of the island’s governing families.  

Anthony Bryskett, born in Co. Wexford to an Anglo-Italian family in the English service, was Montserrat ’s founding father and first governor. On his death in 1646, Bryskett was succeeded as governor by his brother-in-law Roger Osborne from Co. Waterford. A graduate of Trinity College , Dublin , Osborne governed Montserrat until 1667, when the French invaded and briefly occupied the English island. With Osborne in captivity, his nephew Anthony Bryskett, son of the first governor, made the strategic error of accepting a position in the administration of the occupying French. When English forces recaptured Montserrat six months later, Bryskett was dispossessed of his estates and fled the island.  

Bryskett’s departure opened the way for the Co. Tipperary family of Stapleton, which from 1668 through 1687 governed first Montserrat and then the entire Leeward Islands . William Stapleton, a soldier of fortune from Thurlesbeg, was appointed governor of Montserrat as a reward for his role in expelling the French from the neighboring island of St. Christopher —popularly known as St. Kitts. His 500-acre Montserrat estate, still known as the Waterwork, was carved out of the confiscated Bryskett family holdings.  

When William moved to Nevis in 1672 as governor of the Leeward Island confederation, he was succeeded as governor of Montserrat by his brothers Redmond and Edmund and his brother-in-law James Cotter from Co. Cork. With such rampant nepotism within the immediate family, it would not be surprising to find favouritism extending to more distant relations. And, as pointed out by Herb Taylor in his superb article, “A Search for Butlers in the West Indies ” (Butler Society Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4), the Stapleton veins carried Butler blood. According to the Stapleton pedigree in Vere Langford Oliver’s History of Antigua, Vol. 3, William’s direct ancestor Richard Stapleton, living in 1566, was married to Eleanor Butler.  

Trade with the Dutch

A get-rich-quick mentality prevailed among the young men-on-the-make that flocked to the 17th Century West Indies . Their ultimate goal, after a rapid accumulation of capital from tobacco, sugar and land speculation, was to retire in luxury to the British Isles .  

Even by the standards of that time, Roger Osborne was by all accounts a rather ruthless and unprincipled character. When his sister Elizabeth, widow of the first governor, decided to remarry in 1650, Osborne was jealous that her new husband, a wealthy English planter named Samuel Waad, lived in greater style than the then governor. When Elizabeth herself died in 1653, Osborne took steps to eliminate the opposition.  

After deliberately provoking Waad, Osborne had his new brother-in-law tried—and promptly shot--on a trumped up charge of mutiny. Among other unpleasantness, the outspoken Waad had accused Osborne of employing an “Irish Murderer” and a “late acquitted fellon” in his service, and of keeping “the barbarous Irish and their Abettors in armes”, actions which to Waad’s dismay caused not terror but admiration in Montserrat .  

Osborne took control of Waad’s houses, land, livestock, slaves and servants. But there were other irritations, such as England ’s burdensome navigation laws, that could hinder the rapid accumulation of wealth. Tobacco and sugar exports had to carried to English ports aboard English ships, which not only charged more for the freight but left the entire cargo subject to customs duties. Resourceful Dutch merchants, who lived by the maxim God is Good, but Trade is Better, offered a way around these inconveniences. They advanced generous credit to planters regardless of nationality, connived with corrupt governors to establish storehouses and shipping facilities on the English islands, and then smuggled plantation products directly to the markets in Amsterdam .

 It is thanks to this Dutch resourcefulness, coupled with Roger Osborne’s dishonesty, that we encounter the first documented Butler on Montserrat . In an account book dated July 12th, 1654 , the Montserrat tobacco planter John Butler is shown to be indebted, in the amount of 40 pounds of tobacco, to the Amsterdam merchants Hubert Van-gagell-dounce and Hance Van-dekenderth.  

The manner in which Butler ’s debt is denominated provides a clue to his nationality. The debts of the larger planters, many of whom bore distinctively English surnames, were typically expressed in pounds of sugar, while the list of tobacco debtors includes such southern Irish surnames as Barry, Collins, Duggan, Hart, Healy and Sullivan.  

The size of John Butler’s 1654 credit—on a list of debts ranging from 3,508 to 30 pounds of tobacco—suggests a fairly small planter. There is, however, some hint of upward mobility when John Butler’s name reappears in the Montserrat records 15 years later. A 1669 legislative Act, passed under the administration of William Stapleton, set in place a series of quality control procedures for tobacco exports. The “viewers” or inspectors appointed to enforce the regulations in Montserrat ’s Middle Division were Lt. Turllo Caffrey, Master William Godfry, Sgt. Thomas Drinkall and John Butler. The Act, which helpfully includes the northern and southern boundaries of the Middle Division, also tells us that John Butler’s plantation lay in St. Anthony’s Parish in southwestern Montserrat, between Old Road Bay—where a new government center called Stapletown was under construction—and Douse’s Gut, an older name for Germans Ghaut near St. Patrick’s.  

Cromwellian Emissary

According to the delightful misstatement of one Montserratian historian, “in 1655 Cromwell, the enfant terrible of the Irish, was entertained at Montserrat with marked civility by Governor Roger Osborne, on his expedition to capture Hispaniola .”

 The Lord Protector in fact never left England . Cromwell entrusted his Western Design—a daring plan to relieve Spain of one of her Caribbean possessions—to Admiral William Penn, father of Pennsylvania’s founder, and General Robert Venables, who had recently commanded English forces in Ulster during the Cromwellian reconquest of Ireland.

 Accompanying the Penn and Venables expedition, as one of a three-man council of Cromwellian Commissioners, was Captain Gregory Butler. Little is known of Captain Butler’s origins or background. But it is likely that previous residence or service in the West Indies was in some way responsible for his appointment to the expedition, and his employment there as a recruiting agent to raise additional troops to augment the 2,500 soldiers brought out aboard Admiral Penn’s warships.

 Among his fellow officers, opinions of Butler ’s abilities were decidedly mixed. “We are like to have very little assistance from Captain Butler”, wrote Edward Winslow, a fellow Commissioner who in 1620 had accompanied the Mayflower Pilgrims to New England , “though we all persuade ourselves he is very honest.” “Truth is,” wrote Major-General Fortesque, “I know not of what use he is, unless to make up a number. If I may without offense speak it, he is the unfittest man for a commissioner I ever knew employed.”

 Fortesque’s judgment, as it turned out, appeared closest to the mark. At St. Kitts, an island at that time jointly held by England and France , Butler disgraced himself and his cause by falling drunk from his horse and vomiting in the presence of French officers, who took special delight in jeering at Cromwell’s embarrassed representatives.

  Butler himself described his subsequent activities in a letter to Cromwell. “The next (island) is Montserrat , where with all civility we were entertained by the Governor, Osborne.” Butler ’s wording amused the late resident historian of Montserrat Delores L. Somerville, especially since Roger Osborne himself had a reputation as a man with a fondness for liquor. “These two birds of a feather,” wrote Somerville in her unpublished manuscript, The Early Years of Montserrat, “must have had a high old time together. In the process, Butler gained 80 recruits from Montserrat for his army. The attempt was ill-starred, however, for they never did capture San Domingo ( Hispaniola ), and had to be satisfied with Jamaica —which in the long run proved to be a much better bargain.”

  Butler ’s troubles were however not over. General Venables, in his report on the failure to capture Hispaniola from the Spanish, laid part of the blame on the Captain’s gullibility. With the English forces desperately short of water, Butler convinced Venables to entrust their fate to an old Irish man who lived on the island. Instead of leading them to water, the Irishman marched Venables’ thirst-stricken men straight into a Spanish ambush.

 Whatever his failures—and there was more than enough incompetence among his fellow officers—Captain Gregory Butler played his own memorable if unintentional part in opening Jamaica to English and Irish colonization. In a 1670 census of Jamaica planters, Christopher Butler worked nine acres in St. Katherine’s Parish; Thomas Butler owned 31 acres in St. Andrews Parish; and a Thomas Butler planted 510 acres in St. John’s Parish. Since Captain Butler returned to England , where he busied himself with a petition to be appointed Governor of the island of Tortuga in the West Indies , it is not known whether any of these Jamaica planters were related.

Irish or English?

Montserrat ’s Tipperary-born governor William Stapleton shared certain traits with Gregory Butler, including a temper that tended to veer dangerously out of control. Stapleton wrote to his financial agent in England threatening to ram his words and teeth down his throat, and once drew his sword on a fellow Leeward Island ’s governor. When Stapleton was recruited, in 1667, to recapture the Leeward Islands from the French, he first had to be sprung from London ’s Newgate Goal, where he and a fellow-soldier were languishing on a charge of murder.

 In the West Indies , where Stapleton remained until his health failed in 1685, this rough-hewn soldier redeemed himself as one of the ablest and most honest governors who ever served the English Crown. Indeed, it is to William Stapleton that modern historians and genealogists owe most of their knowledge of life in the Leeward Islands during the last quarter of the 17th Century. In 1677-78, Stapletom commissioned a census of each of the four largest islands. The results, which were returned and preserved in London , have been printed by Vere Langford Oliver in his genealogical journal Caribbeana and, in the case of Antigua , in his three-volume work The History of Antigua.

 Although not without their drawbacks—women and children are generally enumerated rather than named, a reflection of their primary purpose as military musters—Stapleton’s

Census returns are nevertheless unique in that they list by name and place of residence practically every white male then living in the Leeward Islands . Nothing similar exists for any English colony on mainland North America during the 17th Century. Furthermore, the returns for Antigua , Nevis and St. Kitts also specify the nationality of those listed. In the case of Montserrat , where in 1678 seven of every ten resident whites were Irish, Stapleton’s census takers apparently felt that such ethnic specification was superfluous.

 Although the tobacco planter John Butler has by now disappeared from the Montserrat records—perhaps a victim of the epidemics that regularly devastated the islands, or possibly a migrant to a more promising New World frontier—four new Butler names appear on an alphabetised version of Montserrat ’s 1678 Census. Three surnames are rendered with two letter t’s, the other with one. Given the idiosyncratic nature of spelling at that time, it is not clear whether any significance should be attached to these variants.  

Geographical Clues

Examination of the census return itself provides clues to the men’s ethnic origins and also perhaps to their social standing. This information takes on added significance when used in conjunction with the research of Dr. Lydia M. Pulsipher, an historical geographer at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who has studied Montserrat for more than a quarter century. In her 1986 book, Seventeenth Century Montserrat: an environmental impact statement, Dr. Pulsipher mapped out the geographical boundaries of the census divisions on Stapleton’s 1678 census, and used surname analysis techniques to estimate the ethnic origins of the white population within each census tract.  

Thus, in “Major Gallwaye’s Division”, located in southwestern Montserrat on the upper slopes of the recently-erupted Soufriere Hills Volcano, Tobias Buttler is listed along with Patrick Parlane. Preceding Butler and Parlane are John Newcomb and Dermond Phalney; immediately succeeding them are Daniell and Dennis Fowler. Historians are not agreed on the significance of these census pairings, with some concluding that they indicate two-person households and one suggesting that they represent the smallest components of a military muster organized as a “buddy system.” Whether housemate or trench mate, the adjoining surname and given name strongly suggest that Tobias Buttler and his colleague were Irish. This conclusion is supported by Dr. Pulsipher’s research, which shows that “Major Gallwaye’s Division” fell within an area that was 72 per cent Irish. Which was hardly surprising, as the Major, David Galwey, was a sugar planter from Co. Cork.  

Likewise, James Buttler and Redmond McManus are paired together in Captain Andrew Booth’s Division. This tract was located directly below Major Galwey’s, around the village of St. Patrick’s on Montserrat ’s southwestern coast. The names of their census neighbours, Dermond Donavane with Dermond Ralliffe, and Miles McRegane with Edmund Prock, suggest that Buttler and McManus lived among compatriots.  

The third Butler , also named James, is clearly a different individual, listed under Captain Peter Cove’s Division. Unlike Tobias and James Buttler, whose census tracts fell within the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of St. Patrick’s Parish, James Butler’s home lay within the boundaries of St. George’s Parish, in east central Montserrat . Despite the Anglican name, St. George’s was still predominantly Irish—at least 56 per cent by Dr. Pulsipher’s calculation. A conclusion that James Butler was Irish would appear to be warranted by his listing alongside Morris Clonane, and the adjacent pairing of Daniel Dalley with Owen Martin and Mermush (sic) Tracy with Edmund Tracy.  

By contrast, Montserrat ’s fourth and final Buttler, William, appears in The Northward Division, a census tract in St. Peter’s Parish. Seventy-six per cent of St. Peter’s residents were estimated by Dr. Pulsipher to be English. The likelihood that William Buttler was English appears to be supported by the name of his census mate, John Armstrong. Adjacent pairings include David Greenwell with Simon Taylor, Henry Kennell with Thomas Hopkins, and Christopher Hill with Mathew Wiggins.  

Further Research

Although it falls outside the strict chronological scope of this article, examination of the detailed Montserrat Census of 1729-30 sheds additional light on Governor Stapleton’s pioneering effort of 1677-78. The presence of early 18th Century Butlers in Montserrat has already been noted in Herb Taylor’s previously mentioned study. Their location and occupations now assume added significance in light of the earlier census and what is known of the island’s demographic and economic history in the intervening half century.  

 The transition from tobacco to sugar as Monsterrat’s dominant export crop, already well underway in 1678, was by 1729 complete. Along with this transition came an end to the demand for indentured--or contract--Irish labourers, and the introduction of large-scale

African slave labour. In Montserrat , this sea change was reflected in the decline of the number of bonded or indentured white workers from an estimated 1,600 in 1678 to 90 in 1729. Concurrent with this decline, the number of African slaves rose from 991 to 5,855.  

Along with the drop in demand for new white workers, opportunities also disappeared for former servants who had completed their contracts and were now classified as freemen. Apart from the select few who successfully made the leap from servant to planter, remigration was the only viable option for young and ambitious workers. Montserrat ’s former servants, among them surely some Butlers from St. Patrick’s or St. George’s parishes, scattered to the four winds. Some went west to Jamaica , or south to Guiana on the South American mainland. Others migrated north to Virginia and the Carolinas , and some turned east, back to Ireland or to urban Irish communities in England and Wales .

Colonial governments attempted to control their subjects’ movements, but the effort was futile. No records of out-migration survive from 17th century Montserrat . However, a contemporary list of departures, from English-ruled Barbados in 1679, suggests the relative attractiveness of various destinations to unemployed or “time-out” servants. Among those with Irish or possibly Irish surnames, 45 per cent embarked for ports in England or Wales ; 30 per cent left for other Caribbean islands; and the remaining 25 per cent left for English colonies in North America . Among the latter was Elinor Butler, “a servant belonging to Mr. Wm Bulkley”, who departed in the Ketch Neptune for Virginia .  

By 1729, it was probably not entirely accidental that the Butler surname survived only in Montserrat’s most English census tract, then called St. Peter’s or Northward District. At that time, Robert Butler was a planter heading a household of two adult men, one woman, and three children. He employed no white servants, but planted three acres of sugar, two of cotton and one of indigo with the labour of 13 African slaves.  

Also in St. Peter’s, Joseph Butler headed a household of four, including his wife and two children. Although he cultivated an acre of cotton with the help of one slave, Butler ’s main occupation is listed as Waiter. In the 17th Century, this did not mean that he waited tables at the local tavern, but designated a minor customs official or “tide waiter” who met shipping, perhaps at Carrs Bay on the northwestern shore of St. Peter’s Parish.  

In the absence of additional evidence, the tantalising possibility of family links between Robert or Joseph Butler of 1729 and William Buttler of 1678 must remain open.



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