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By Tim Hickman

The complex history of San Andres and Old Providence Islands, Western Caribbean

Where are the islands of San Andres and Old Providence? Well, not part of the Bahamas, for sure (with their cold winter ‘northers’ and summer hurricanes!). But look southwest 250/300miles or so from Jamaica and check out this little archipelago lying in the Western Caribbean and safely off the normal path of hurricanes.

Discovered by Columbus during his forth journey to America, he called it San Andres because he saw it a 30th of November.

The archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia y Santa Catalina, identified by UNESCO as a World Biosphere Reserve, is located 480 miles (720 km) northwest from the Colombian Caribbean Coast. DEB
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Aerial View of San Andres
It is made up of the islands of San Andres, Old Providence and St. Catherine, Bolivar and Albuqueque islets, Cotton, Haynes, Johnny, Serrana, Serranilla, Quitasueno, Rocky, and Crab cays and Alicia and Bajo Nuevo sand banks. Closer to Nicaragua and Jamaica, how the archipelago came to be a Colombian territory is the result of piracy, wars of independence, slavery, immigration, sugar, cotton and religion.

Kathleen Island (now Old Providence or Providencia) and Henrietta Island (now Saint Andrew or San Andres) were the first names given to these islands, probably by the Dutch seafarers, prior to being colonized by the Puritans.
The current St Catalina island was not originally separated from Old Providence – this came about from the cutting of mangroves for firewood and the soft silt left behind was washed away by the ocean currents over a period of many years, eventually separating the islands.

The islands were part of the Spanish Central American territory known as the Provincia de Providencia (which included the off lying islands of Nicaragua) prior to the forming of The Nueva Granada in 1810. But it is on this early liaison that Nicaragua is basing their territorial claim to these islands, plus the Banks to the north (one hears talk of oil in this region) – a claim serious enough to bring the case before the Court of Justice at The Hague.

The Esguera-Barcenas Treaty of 1928 states that the Republic of Nicaragua recognizes the sovereignty of Colombia over the islands of San Andres and Old Providence and that Nicaragua accepts jurisdiction over the Misquito and Corn islands, but it also states that the cays and banks of Roncador, Queena and Serrana are not included in the treaty, as they were in controversy with the United States of America at the time.

It will be interesting to see how The Hague will rule on this important issue.

San Andres Views

Significantly for the Islanders, this Esguera-Barcenas treaty adversely affected their lives as it separated them from the close relationship with their kinsmen of the Misquito islands and the Corn islands (also British populated and loosely administered by Britain) and, without any consultation with the Islanders concerned, they were arbitrarily handed over to Nicaragua by this treaty.

These islands (and the immediate coastal region) were considered one and the same with San Andres and Providence and there was much interaction between these places with families inter-marrying. This heritage goes back to pre- colonist’s times, to the days of the Dutch sea captains who inhabited San Andres and Old Providence, one of whom founded Bluefields, naming it after himself.

It is interesting to note that in the early 1800’s the leadership of these two islands was firmly in the hands of the descendants of the early Puritan colonists from Britain and North America
It was also during this period that Spain was loosing its grip on this part of her empire (partly due to the efforts of Antonio Narino). However, the newly formed Nueva Granada (Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and Colombia, plus the coastal region of Central America) would soon fall apart and, for some reason, Britain did not take advantage of these events by attempting to bring this archipelago within the orbit of their Caribbean colonies.

Perhaps it was thought that San Andres and Old Providence were too insignificant to bother about, although it would seem that their proximity to the Central American coast would have been important from a strategical perspective.

In 1633, the first slaves arrived to the Archipelago, brought to exploit coloring wood. Consequently, the Old Providence, due to its location, was converted in an important center of slave traffic, with lots of piracy and contraband activities growing as well. In this period, the English contraband and pirates had a refuge in the mountains of Providence, which served as a point from which to permanently attack the Spanish ships that passed by this area of the Caribbean.


The history of San Andres and Providence is marked by pirate tales and conquest. The islands attracted the attention of Dutch and English privateers, and reputedly Welsh pirate Henry Morgan hid his stolen treasure looted from Panama City, after he raided that city in 1671. This legend is so strongly believed, that one of the island’s caves is known as Morgan’s Cave. San Andres and Old Providence, under Morgan’s leadership, would become important outposts in his, and the pirates, raids on Spanish America.

But Morgan wasn’t the first person to arrive on the islands of San Andres and Old Providence; as the Puritans were there first. Morgan was certainly no Puritan and he used the islands as an outpost from which to intimidate the Spanish. Morgan raided Gran Grenada, Nicaragua in 1663; Portobello, Panama in 1666; and conducted his most daring raid in Panama City in 1671. San Andres and Old Providence were the islands he fell back to after his raids, and from where he planned and commenced many of his operations.

Maps of San Andres and Providencia

The British, through Morgan, were slowly intimidating the Spanish and the Spanish population on the Caribbean coast started to pull back to their Pacific strongholds. Eventually, the Caribbean coast would become a British sphere of influence.

Some historians, notably the British historian Niall Ferguson, consider Morgan and men like him to be the real founders of the British Empire because they stayed in the region and invested after their conquests. Morgan would become deputy governor of Jamaica and a large landowner in the colony.

Men like Morgan disappeared from the Caribbean after the signing of the Treaty of Ryswick which ended the War of the Grand Alliance, and committed the British to a policy of stopping piracy in the Caribbean.



Modern day San Andres is very dense, with a population of about 100.000 persons in 27 square kilometres. Until some years ago, the population was principally black, but today most inhabitants are from Colombia mainland. The population of Old Providence is around 5000 people, and 80 % of them speak a Caribbean English.

Now a department of Colombia, San Andres and Old Providence are poised to impact on the international tourist scene.

History aside, there is much to be said for a Caribbean island which has a ‘mother’ country, such as Martinique in the French West Indies, or these islands as a department of Colombia - a large, country wealthy in resources and with a fast growing economy. No personal fiefdom of some dubiously elected Premier of a tiny independent island nation surviving on hand-outs are San Andres and Old Providence islands! The islands have the same amenities and infrastructure (plus, importantly, law enforcement) as other states within Colombia.

Although the island’s have remained off the beaten track, they have much to offer. For the yachtsman or sports-fisherman looking for new cruising areas, especially during the summer months when hurricanes are a threat in the Caribbean, these islands could be an interesting proposition.

There are various off-lying Cays and Banks that are perfect for the sailor as well. For instance, the horse-shoe shaped Albuquerque Cay lies some 30 miles to the South West of San Andres and here a small vessel can lie comfortably in all wind conditions with excellent fishing right off the beach. A small military garrison is based here.

San Andres Cays

Then there are Cays (Bolivar) to the ESE 15 miles or so from San Andres, and close enough for the San Andres recreational fisherman to visit on weekends. Its only drawback is that it lacks the prolific marine life of Albuquerque.

Additionally, there is the extensive reef system to the north of Old Providence which can be explored; it has a marine park which has certain restrictions on diving and fishing activities.

Then, further to the North of Old Providence , there are other Cays (Roncador, Queena) and the large Serrana Bank with small sandy islets which is located about half way between San Andres and Jamaica and this large body of water falls under the jurisdiction of Colombia. This area is patrolled by both the Colombian Navy and the US Coastguard.

For the boating enthusiast, the facilities in San Andres are mixed – a couple of small marinas and a private Club Nautico (with dockage, restaurant, tennis courts etc), good reef anchorages etc. Comprehensive engineering and electrical repairs are available and there are hardware stores similar to what one would find in Florida.

Climate/wise, the temperatures remain quite constant throughout the year with the NE Trades predominating during January thru April and rainy blustery weather on and off during September, October and November.

Due to the efforts of the slaves who remained in San Andres, the island was converted in a paradise, with natural fountains of fresh and crystalline water, which the habitants managed to keep as a secret for many years!

Thanks to a vivid and multi-ethnic history, San Andres offers a varied cultural experience, from the cuisine of the islands to the languages spoken. Spanish is the official language, but people also speak English to the background of salsa and reggae. And, as well, the islands offer its residents and visitors lots of sea based activity.

And, certainly on the plus side is the fact that San Andres and Old Providence have not yet been exploited by organized tourism, nor invaded by hordes of tourists on luxurious cruises - fortunately, for all, the islands have remained a quiet, low profile, unspoilt Caribbean destination.

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Author : Tim Hickman, ex yachting industry and now semi retired in San Andres/Providencia islands, where he runs his real estate business - Tortuga Properties

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