Old Providence Island Oral History Project

This page contains several oral histories relating to the Island of Old Providence, Colombia in the Caribbean. All interviews were conducted by Lincoln High School teacher Leon Sultan in the summer of 2011.

This trip to Old Providence and the corresponding oral history project was undertaken by Mr. Sultan with the help of a grant from the Fund For Teachers organization.

The purpose of the project as well as this webpage is two-fold. Firstly, it was created in order to record and preserve the stories, history and culture of the Raizal people of Old Providence and San Andrés. Secondly, the project served as a learning experience and guide for Mr. Sultan in teaching his students how to conduct oral history interviews, analyze and publish them. The page serves as a template for students to follow when doing their own research and creating their own webpages.

For more information on the history of Old Providence, see the tabs at the bottom of this page.

The Interviews

Each picture links to a page with the individual interview.  For information and a history of the island, see the information below.

Felipe Cabeza is the owner of “Felipe Diving” the most popular dive-shop on Old Providence. He has been part of recreational diving on Old Providence since its inception. In this interview, Felipe tells the definitive history of sport diving on Old Providence and recounts his own path from being a poor fisherman to becoming a successful business owner. He also discusses his changing attitudes towards CORALINA and conservation in the sea surrounding Old Providence. 


Josefina Huffington is well known on Old Providence for being an outspoken activist for the rights of the native islanders. Her work has led to confrontations with government and business leaders; from local officials all the way to former Colombian President Uribe. Josefina is the embodiment of an activist, and a leader. In this interview she discusses some of the movements that she has been a part of, as well as her philosophy and influences.

Espedito Watler

Espedito “Mr. Dito” Watler is from the Lazy Hill section of Old Providence. He raises cows, builds boats, races horses and owns one of the loudest sound systems on the island. In his interview he recounts how he has maintained many of the traditional practices on Old Providence-such as the Cat Boat races and the Horse Races- as well as how he has embraced modernity; being one of the first people on the island to own a television.

Luz Marina Livingston is a unique individual; a home-grown journalist and former host of Old Providence’s only locally produced radio news program. After studying and working in Bogota for several years, she returned to her beloved “rock” of Old Providence. Living on mainland Colombia and being exposed the vast amounts of media available there, she decided to start her own radio show with the help of her friend Annie Chapman.  In this interview Luz Marina discusses what it was like to run the radio show, her experiences growing up on Old Providence and how she continues to remain active in her community. 

All of these interviews were conducted by Lincoln teacher Leon Sultan during the summer of 2011 as part of a Fund For Teachers fellowship.http://fundforteachers.org/

More Information about Old Providence

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Brief History of Old Providence

By: Leon Sultan

The tiny island of Old Providence (or Isla de Providencia), which lies in the western Caribbean about 140 miles off the coast of Nicaragua, has fascinated travelers for centuries.  In the 1700s legendary pirate Henry Morgan used it as a base for attacks on the Spanish Empire and (legend has it) as a treasure burial site.  It has been claimed that it served as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Treasure Island.  Upon arrival in Old Providence visitors cannot help feeling as if they are both stepping back in time and entering into an earthly paradise.  Steep volcanic mountains covered in dense jungle provide the backdrop for white sand beaches dotted with coconut palms.  The sea surrounding the island–nicknamed the “the sea of seven colors” for its unique mix of blue, green and turquoise shades– abounds with tropical fish, sea turtle, and coral reefs.  The native community in large part still survives through artisanal fishing, subsistence agriculture, and a small but locally controlled eco-tourism industry.  The connection to the land and the sea is as evident today as it was hundreds of years ago when the island was first settled.

Old Providence Island is part of an archipelago that includes the smaller sister island of Santa Catalina, the larger island of San Andres as well as a number of uninhabited cays and reefs.  Politically the archipelago is a part of Colombia, although geographically it is closer to Nicaragua.  Culturally the people of the islands share more in common with Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, Corn Island and the coastal Nicaraguan community of Bluefields, than they do with mainland Colombia, with Creole English being the native language.  Despite Colombian claims to authority over the archipelago, Old Providence’s native residents have their own deep-seated sense of sovereignty over the ancestral “rock” that has provided a home to their families for generations.

Used only for turtle hunting by the Miskito Indians of Central America, Old Providence remained uninhabited until1631 when it was settled by a community of English Puritans who sought to create a plantation economy.  This settlement lasted only a decade before the Spanish took over the island, banishing nearly all of its inhabitants.  While small, Old Providence is a natural fortress; due to its 32-mile barrier reef (one of the largest in the Americas) it is only approachable by ships from the West.  The volcanic topography provides excellent vantage points and is easily defensible.

Morgan’s Head Rock; site of buried treasure?

The Spanish never colonized the island and largely neglected it; consequently it soon fell into the hands of pirates, including Captain Morgan.  Whether or not it was used to bury the copious amounts of treasure that these buccaneers looted from the Spanish is a matter of debate even today, but many a local will tell stories of both where the treasure is buried and of the many people who have come to Old Providence in search of it.

The remoteness of Old Providence has been a beacon to the people who have lived there throughout history.  Starting with the pirates, through much of the 18th century there was little to no government presence on the island.  While it remained nominally a Spanish possession it became populated by British settlers from around the Caribbean, Moskito Indians, as well as slaves from West Africa.

The archipelago’s link to Colombia dates back to 1822, after Simon Bolivar defeated the Spanish and there was a power vacuum in the region.  According to some historians the occupants of the islands voluntarily submitted to rule by Gran Colombia, while others claim that the islands were occupied to secure their allegiance.  A third interpretation is that Gran Colombia simply mapped its borders to include the islands.  Regardless, no official government presence was ever established on the islands, and the people remained isolated and continued to govern themselves until the 20th century.  The United Provinces of Central America (which would later become the Central American nations of Nicaragua, Guatemala, etc.) made a claim to the archipelago around this time as well.

After becoming a part of Gran Colombia in 1822, the island of Old Providence took a very different course through history than did the mainland.  In the 1830s Baptist missionaries came to the island and in nearly sixty years had converted 90% of its population.  The spread of the Baptist faith accompanied the voluntary emancipation of the slaves on both Old Providence and San Andres.  By the time Colombia officially abolished slavery in 1853, most of the slaves had already been set free.  In addition to freedom, the former slaves were also given title to land, which would form the communities of Bottom House on Providence and Sound Bay on San Andres.  This land has passed through the generations and for the most part is still being occupied and farmed by the descendants of the freed slaves.  This connection to the past is not forgotten and is at the forefront of the islanders’ history of resistance to plans for development proposed by outsiders. As local activist Josefina Huffington states, “We already paid a very terrible price just to be here, so I’m not going to permit no one to let me be scared to continue to be here.” The people of the islands have used laws to help defend their homeland, on more than one occasion.

The Colombian Constitution of 1991 recognizes the native people of the archipelago as a distinct ethnic group and refers to them as the Raizales, secifically protecting their right to the preservation of their indigenous culture, and natural resources. Owing to the importance of the region’s biodiversity and unique marine ecosystems, the entire San Andres Archipelago was declared an international biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2000 and it is now on UNESCO’s tentative list of natural World Heritage Sites.  In 2005 Colombia established Seaflower marine protected area (MPA), the largest such protected area in the Caribbean.

Being far from the mainland has helped Old Providence maintain pristine tropical coral reef ecosystems and a remarkably intact native culture.  While Old Providence has seen much change in the past 30 years many local cultures and customs dating back hundred of years, live on.

 

This webpage was built to celebrate and preserve aspects of this unique culture for the people of the island and for future generations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments to Old Providence Island Oral History Project

  1. Trudy Baylis
    November 28, 2013 8:13 pm

    Any history about the Island from 1642- 1788?

    • steve bowes
      October 27, 2016 9:42 am

      I’ve spent years tracking down every island history I can. There are 3 books.

      The genealogical history of Providencia island
      J Cordell Robinson

      Providencia Island Its history and its people
      J Cordell Robinson

      Providence Island, 1630-1641: The Other Puritan Colony
      Karen Ordahl Kupperman

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