‘This female savage’, noted the missionary Jean-Baptiste Labat, in his Nouveau voyage aux îles de l’Amérique, ‘was, I believe, one of the oldest creatures in the world. It is said she was very beautiful at one time. . .’footnote1 He was describing a Carib known as Madame Ouvernard, who, when he met her in Dominica in 1700 , ‘was more than a hundred years old’. She was held in great esteem on account of her age, rather than her past, he writes, though she was also remembered as the wife of the late Sir Thomas Warner, first English governor of St Christopher’s and Nevis, who had been granted the Governorship of those islands by charter of King Charles I in 1625 . ‘She had a lot of children by this Warner’, wrote Père Labat, ‘So that her Carbet, which is very large, was peopled with a marvellous number of sons, grandsons, and great-grandsons.’footnote2 Among them, one son only has left a strong trace in the records: the former Governor of Dominica, known as ‘Indian’ Warner.

His life remains mysterious, though more is known of him than of many like him: in 1664 he was given the commission to settle and govern Dominica, first by Lord Francis Willoughby, the English governor, and then by Lord William, his son who inherited his authority. ‘Indian’ Warner was embroiled thereafter in the complex struggles of the region, between rival indigenous inhabitants and competing colonists, most especially the British and the French, who were then at war. And when it came to alliances, ‘Indian’ Warner may have conducted a flexible policy.

He was taken prisoner by the French, and released, which caused suspicion among the British in Antigua; but his story becomes Biblical in the circumstances of his death, for in 1676 , he met his half-brother Philip, the son of Sir Thomas’s English wife, to discuss the terms of a peace. Philip was governor of Antigua, where the colonists were enraged at the pillage and abductions carried out by the Caribs in raids on the island, and accused ‘Indian’ Warner of colluding in these hostilities with the Dominicans under his control. His maternal ancestry cast his loyalties in doubt in many colonists’ minds. The two brothers met on board ship—Philip’s—under a flag of truce, but ‘Indian’ and all those with him died in the subsequent conflict, some witnesses claiming they had been intoxicated on purpose by Philip and then murdered in cold blood, others defending Philip by saying the ‘Indians’ had turned violent first. The crime, with its Cain and Abel undertones, was reported to London, and Philip Warner was charged with murder, for ‘Indian’ Warner’s diplomacy counted with his English colleagues; even more surprisingly, perhaps, Philip was transported to the Tower for trial; on the pleas and testimonies of various Antiguans, he escaped execution, and returned to the island. But he remained stripped of his Governorship.footnote3

The travelling Père Labat met ‘Indian’ Warner’s mother a quarter of a century after the alleged fratricide. The many other children, besides this mysterious Caribbean hero, whom he mentions among her large progeny are not recorded, as far as I can tell, in official genealogies, documents or gravestones, in contrast to the issue of that branch of the family descending from Sir Thomas Warner’s first two English wives, Sarah and Rebecca.footnote4

Père Labat and his company were on their way to Guadeloupe, but they interrupted their journey for a few days’ visit to ‘Mrs Warner’’s carbet, though the missionary hung up his own hammock rather than lie in one of hers and risk a dusting of roucou powder. He tells us little more about his time there, but he does describe his hostess: ‘This good woman was completely nude, & so naked that she had not two dozen hairs on her head; her skin was parchment, wrinkled and dried in the fire. She was so bent that I could not see her face except when she leant back to drink. However she had plenty of teeth, & still lively eyes.’footnote5

Labat does not connect this Madame Ouvernard with a story a compatriot had told earlier in his history of the conflicts and massacres which led to the establishment of French and English power in the area. Jean-Baptiste du Tertre, in his Histoire générale des Antilles of 1667–71 shows a more full-blooded commitment to the ‘pictured page’ and rather less discretion about the ethics of pioneering empire-builders, when he describes the complex struggles that took place between indigenous peoples and the colonists. Describing the settlement of St Christopher’s by the French (under Pierre Belain, Sieur D’Esnambuc) in collaboration with the English (under Thomas Warner), he relates how the settlers had been welcomed at first and helped ‘libéralement’ by ‘les Sauvages’.footnote6 But relations soon changed—he does not dwell on the causes.

Du Tertre gives his account of a founding act of conquest. He writes how in 1625 or 1626 , a Carib woman named ‘Barbe’ learned that the indigenous inhabitants of several neighbouring islands were planning an ambush on the night of the full moon. She passed on the information to the English, because she held them in affection and esteem—she was Warner’s mistress. On learning the danger they were running and in order to forestall a massacre, the incomers decided to commit one themselves instead, and that night, they fell on the savages in their beds, and stabbed them, leaving a hundred or two hundred dead. But they kept, Du Tertre continues, ‘their most beautiful women.’footnote7