Sir Thomas Modyford


In February 1664 Sir Thomas Modyford was appointed governor of Jamaica and made a baronet. After spending seventeen years in Barbados and playing a major role in shaping the infant settlement Modyford transferred his family to Jamaica, England's frontier colony, persuading about 800 planters to accompany him with promises of free passage, free land, and a bright future in the thinly populated infant settlement. The move was marked by a personal tragedy as Modyford's eldest son, John, was lost at sea when going back to fetch his mother from Barbados.

Modyford acted quickly to secure the material rewards of office. The former champion of planter rights took tight control of government. The council was culled and packed with his own supporters. The assembly, called after five months, was marked by bitter feuding between the governor's party and earlier settlers trying to protect their own interests. The session ended with a squabble in which a member was killed, shaping a lasting factionalism in the island. Apart from a brief meeting in 1665 the assembly was not convened again during Modyford's rule. Meanwhile, patent officers such as Thomas Lynch, the provost marshal, were turned out and the posts were divided between Modyford himself (who took the post of chief justice, 'for want of a better lawyer'), his family, and friends (including a number of fellow west country men). Lynch, who played a prominent part in the early settlement of Jamaica, left the island after complaining to Lord Arlington that Modyford 'would have none to shine in this hemisphere but himself and his son'.

Following the king's instructions to promote better relations with the Spaniards, Modyford issued a proclamation against privateering on 11 June 1664, four days after his arrival in Jamaica, but by the end of the month his usual pragmatism prevailed and he revised his position. Jamaica was thinly settled, with a population of under 5000, and scarcely planted as the English conquerors had inherited little from the Spaniards. About 1500 privateers, of different nationalities, were based at the island, using Port Royal to fit their ships and sell their prize, and providing lucrative business for merchants and craftsmen. A suppression of plunder would have caused economic depression and exposed Jamaica's own infant trade to danger, as many of the marauders would have transferred operations elsewhere rather than abandon their careers. At the end of June Modyford wrote home that he 'thought it more prudent to do that by degrees and moderation which I once resolved to have executed suddenly and severely'.

By August it was clear that Modyford was colluding with the privateers and had used his power as governor to purchase a share in one or more of their ships on very favourable terms. By 1665 the hopes of a peaceful slave trade with the Spaniards faded as the Dutch destroyed the Royal African Company's trading posts. War broke out, allowing Modyford to issue commissions against the Dutch, but the marauders were more interested in Spanish targets and, in February 1666, Modyford drew up a list of reasons for allowing war with Spain and began to issue letters of marque against her ships, putting a legal gloss on what was already happening in practice. Albemarle continued to defend the actions of his kinsman and Kendal, Modyford's brother-in-law and agent, lobbied the home authorities to authorize Modyford's privateering policy. The king did not go so far as to formally condone plunder, but as the promise of accessing Spanish colonial markets receded the arguments for force regained favour. In 1666, when news reached England that Mansfield, the admiral of the Jamaican privateers, had captured Providence Island, the king decided to appoint a governor, and dispatched Modyford's brother Sir James Modyford to fill the post (although the Spaniards recaptured the island before Modyford's arrival and his older brother, always mindful of his family's interests, compensated by making him deputy governor of Jamaica and judge in the admiralty court). In 1668 the duke of York expressed further tacit approval of plunder when he sent the Oxford to take command of the privateers and ensure him a good share of the prize, although he was disappointed as the ship was blown up in an accident soon after arrival in the Caribbean. The royal brothers and various courtiers had investments in other ships although it proved difficult to extract a profit at a distance and most of the large prize money went to those on the spot.

With semi-official sanction Modyford pursued his pro-privateering policy with one short break until the end of his government in 1671, and the period, which witnessed the famous exploits of Henry Morgan at Portobello and Panama, is known as the heyday of the buccaneers. The governor showed skill in exerting firm control, and enforcing strict discipline, over a mob of 'wild, dissolute, tattered fellows' by instituting strict rules and imposing severe penalties for non-adherence ('Mr Worsley's discourse of the privateers of Jamaica'. Modyford was positioned to take a large share of the profits of plunder, charging £20 for commissions, and extracting further dues on condemnation of prize, as well as securing favourable terms for investments in ships and adventures. But privateering provided a much wider circle with much needed cash, and armed protection, for the infant settlement's own commerce. According to the planter John Style, the island trade consisted almost entirely of 'plate, money, jewels and other things brought in [by the privateers] and sold cheap to the merchant'. The prize from Portobello alone amounted to #100,000, substantially more than the total value of Jamaica's annual agricultural output at the time. Port Royal's population grew threefold in the 1660s and trade flourished, and as governor and merchants prospered they invested surplus funds in the agricultural hinterland.

Ultimately the profits of planting Jamaica would far exceed those of plunder, but clearing and planting the land was a long, slow project, especially as the English inherited little from their Spanish predecessors. Many of the planters who went to Jamaica with Modyford took little capital and perished before they could establish themselves. Modyford eagerly patented and bought land, and by 1670 he had over 6000 acres (much in his son Thomas's name). In the early years he experimented with cocoa, grown by the earlier Spanish settlers and a new crop to the English, which promised to be highly profitable until it was destroyed by a mysterious blight in 1670-71. The governor reverted to sugar planting, with which he was thoroughly familiar, and by 1670 he had a fully operational sugar plantation in St Catherine's parish with 300 slaves and a watermill which he used to grind his neighbours' canes as well as his own. He was able to expand his labour supply on favourable terms as he continued to be involved in the slave trade and acted as agent for the African Company. Despite his patronage of plunder, he also managed to sell slaves in Spanish markets, a lucrative business, although in 1678 the Guinea Company complained that he retained most of the profits for himself and owed them almost £20,000.

Modyford's wealth and power allowed him a relatively luxurious lifestyle, although both comfort and entertaining diversions were in limited supply in an infant colony, and Modyford's wife died in 1668, leaving him to a bachelor life. Henry Morgan and other leading privateer commanders were friends as well as business partners, and their notorious drunkenness and debauchery drew disapproval from more puritanical observers. Nevil reported to the earl of Carlisle that apart from Modyford's 'avowed anti-monarchical principles he is the openest atheist and most profest immoral liver in the world as your Lordship will soon discover if ever you have to do with him' ('The present state of Jamaica in a letter from Mr Nevil to the earl of Carlisle'.

In 1670 England and Spain signed the treaty of Madrid promising peace and friendship in the Indies. The Royal African Company, which had collapsed during the Dutch war, was reconstituted and again there were high hopes of securing Spanish custom. Modyford's policy of plunder and the news of Morgan's exploits at Panama in 1671 were an embarrassment. Furthermore, Modyford's kinsman Albemarle had died in 1669, depriving the governor of valuable protection at court. Thomas Lynch was dispatched to take over the government of Jamaica and promote peaceful relations with the Spaniards, and Modyford and Morgan were recalled to England, where they were imprisoned in the Tower of London until 1674. A lingering ambivalence towards the Spaniards was reflected in John Evelyn's reaction to Modyford's description of the exploit at Panama read in the council of trade and plantations: '[it] was very brave ... Such an action had not been done since the famous Drake'. Evelyn also records dining at Lord Berkeley's with the two men after their release and was impressed by their boastful stories. However, whereas Morgan found royal favour and was appointed deputy governor of Jamaica in 1674, Coventry reported that, perhaps on account of Modyford's earlier treachery, the king was very reluctant to receive Modyford in his presence or to allow him to return to Jamaica.

Modyford did return to Jamaica in 1675, although there are reports that he was not well received and failed in an attempt to gain election to the assembly, being widely hated for his earlier authoritarian style of government. However, Vaughan, the new governor, who was connected to Modyford by marriage, restored him to the position of chief justice and put his sons in other major positions of power, earning a reprimand from Coventry:

If you manage not your kindness to that family with great discretion you will be far from doing them or yourself a kindness ... this is a much readier way to offend the king than advance them and possibly treate such a jealousy as may lessen that very good esteem the King hath of you, the king doth not intend the island shall be solely in the power of any one family or party and anyone to oppress the other or pursuing their private animosities to prejudice the publick ... when you consider that by the places aforesaid you place almost all the power civil and military (but what you keep yourself) in one family you cannot think it unnatural for the King and council to make reflections.

Not only was Modyford able to regain much of the power he had in Jamaica but he also acted as agent for the African Company and the Dutch West India Company. It is unsurprising that in the 1670s Modyford continued to be known as the richest man in the island. He died in Jamaica on 1 September 1679 and was buried there the following day, beside his wife, in the church of St Catherine, Spanish Town. His son, Thomas, who had managed the family plantations while his father was in prison, survived his father by five weeks and his younger brother, Charles, succeeded to the baronetcy, which became extinct in the third generation. Modyford's daughter, Elizabeth, married Colonel Samuel Barry on 25 December 1676.


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