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Around 1647, an English Puritan named William Sayle led a group of prospective colonists from Bermuda to the Bahamas, the islands they would name Eleutheria, from the Greek word for “liberty.” England was in turmoil as the civil war raged under Charles I. As the war’s impact reverberated, religious fault lines were also shattering communities in England’s colonies in the Americas. Sayle, twice governor of Bermuda, had another vision: a permanent settlement that could be enjoyed without the religious “embitterment” shaping other colonies.

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On July 9, 1647, the would-be colony’s Articles and Orders were written and agreed to by “a Company of Adventurers for the Plantation of the Islands of Eleutheria, formerly called Buhamal in America, and the Adjacent Island,” writes W. Hubert Miller, quoting the company charter in his mid-twentieth-century account of the colony’s origins. This declaration, which provided the governing framework for the colony, predated the United Kingdom’s 1688 Bill of Rights by twenty years and was influenced by the debates on individual freedoms that marked Europe’s wars of religion.

The Articles and Orders make striking reading. The goal was a society free of religious conflict, conferring equal rights to all, though as Miller points out, Sayle was very much a supporter of the “Bermuda Independents,” a religious and political party composed of individuals who had broken from the Anglican Church.

As literature and culture scholar Jonathan Sawday describes, the Articles and Orders were likely recorded in a House of Commons Journal entry on July 16, 1647, and a broadsheet printed soon after shared the plan to found Eleutheria as “a Bahamanian Republic” with London readers. Anyone who picked up the sheet could consider the invitation offered by Sayle and Co.:

It is therefore ordered, that all such person and persons, who are…qualified, shall be received and accepted as members of the said Company of Adventurers, and into the said Plantation, notwithstanding any other difference of judgement, under whatsoever other names conveyed, walking with justice and sobriety, in their particular conversations, and living peaceably and quietly as Members of the Re-publick.

Unlike in England, religious disputes would be forbidden in Eleutheria. The Articles and Orders were specific about the prohibition, noting that only the authority of “Scripture Language” would be allowed. That the language would be interpreted in favor of Independents was clear. There would be

no names of distinction or reproach, as Independent, Antinomian, Anabaptist, or any other cast upon any such for their difference in judgement, neither yet shall any person or persons, assume or acknowledge any such distinguishing names, under the penalty of being accompted (in both cases, either of imposing or accepting or assuming any such name or names) as enemies of the publick peace: nor shall any man speak reproachfully of any person for his opinion, or of the opinion it self, otherwise then in the Scripture Language.

That no Magistracie or Officers of the Republike, nor any power derived from them, shall take notice of any man for his difference in judgement in matter of Religion, or have cognizance of any cause whatsoever of that nature: But that their jurisdiction shall reach onely to men as men, and shall take care that justice, peace, and sobriety, may be maintained among them. And that the flourishing state of the republick may be by all just meanes promoted.

As Sawday writes, “it is as if Shakespeare’s Gonzago [sic] in The Tempest had translated his idealistic view of a utopian commonwealth into the constitutional language of mid-seventeenth-century England.”

Though ostensibly a founding document, the Articles and Orders were “much more than a colonial charter,” he argues. “[I]ssued as a deliberate political provocation aimed at those Presbyterians who, in England, were arguing for religious uniformity, the…Articles and Orders forced Bermudian (and Bahamian) affairs into the very center of political debate in London…”

Miller also notes the good (hardly coincidental) timing of Sayle’s venture. News of Eleutheria “could not have arrived in England at a more propitious time for promoting a settlement of Independents in the Bahamas,” he writes. Things were heating up, and just weeks before the Articles and Orders were composed,

Charles I had been confined by the army which dominated the political scene, and the Independents…had a majority in the army. Religious freedom had become an absorbing preoccupation of the people: free religion and free land were the inducements offered in the Articles of the Eleutherian Adventurers.

Sadly, the small Eleutherian party would struggle to make it work in the Bahamas, despite the promising zeitgeist. They limped on with material aid from fellow Puritans elsewhere. Later what remained of the community would be subsumed into Bahamian society, and the Bahamas would ultimately became a site of resistance to slavery and the plantation economy of the Caribbean and American South. Sayle himself would leave and finish his career as the first governor of South Carolina—having apparently reconciled his puritanism with taking a Royal appointment—once again leading a “small band of Englishmen,” this time to the South Carolina Low Country.

Today, the world of the Eleutherian Adventurers—and their bold ideals—has been largely forgotten. Even the precise date of their arrival is cloaked in haze. But the group demonstrated an attempt to find a new way forward, and, had it lasted, it would have been the first egalitarian democracy in the Americas.


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The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 1 (January 1945), pp. 33–46
Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture
English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Winter 2018), pp. 60–97
The University of Chicago Press
The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 45, No. 2, The Tasks of Economic History (June 1985), pp. 251–259
Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Economic History Association