The French adventurer Victor Hughes, featured in Alejo Carpentier’s novel The Century of Lights, recounts in a passage some of the wonders he has seen in his travels, including “in Barbados, the tomb of a nephew of Constantine XI, the last emperor of Byzantium, whose ghost appears on stormy nights to solitary wanderers…“. He refers to Ferdinand (or Fernando) Palaeologus, whose mortal remains were discovered in 1819.

This discovery occurred after a hurricane devastated the church on the Caribbean island where the body was buried. When the lead coffin containing the remains was opened, onlookers witnessed a perfectly preserved skeleton, mixed with quicklime, a customary practice to disintegrate the flesh and prevent epidemics. Two things particularly caught their attention: his tall stature and the fact that he rested with his feet pointing east, which was then believed to be a Greek – erroneously, as it is English – custom.

The tomb was closed, but it was reopened in 1844 to verify the truth of the account, and then the bones were moved to the parish cemetery. A funerary monument was erected to promote the site for tourism. So, not everything in Barbados is about Rihanna, and those who visit Barbados now know another character from its history, even if he wasn’t originally from there. Because, although Fernando Palaeologus was born in the English city of Plymouth, he spent almost half of his life on the island.

As mentioned, he was born in England in 1619. He was the youngest son of Theodore Palaeologus, a soldier from Pesaro who had arrived in London in 1597, hired by the authorities of the Republic of Lucca (a state created in the Middle Ages in the Tuscan city of the same name) to kill the merchant and diplomat Alessandro Antelminelli, whose family was executed on charges of treason. Antelminelli, being warned, managed to escape, preventing the hired assassin from fulfilling the assigned mission.

Theodore decided to stay in the British capital. He served the Earl of Lincoln and met John Smith, that of Pocahontas, whom he helped settle upon his return from Virginia. Later, he also worked for the Duke of Buckingham and other nobles until he settled in Landulph, Cornwall, where he died in 1636. Before that, he had married Mary Balls and had seven children (four boys and three girls), several of whom participated in the Civil War on both sides, including Ferdinand.

Theodore was a direct descendant through the male line of the Palaeologus dynasty, the last to rule in the Byzantine Empire. Its final representative on the throne, Constantine XI, had died defending the walls of Constantinople against the assault of Mehmed II in 1453. The chaos and uncertainty during those dramatic moments gave rise to many legends about a surviving son who escaped and a posthumous son born to the empress. This added to the confusion in the claims to a throne that, in reality, fell under Ottoman control forever.

The three successive despots of Morea, Demetrius, Thomas, and Andrew, all members of the dynasty, considered themselves legitimate heirs to the empire. Finally, the third chose to sell his rights to the Catholic Monarchs in 1502. Another branch of the family ruled the Marquisate of Monferrat, in northwest Italy, from 1306 and continued to do so until 1533 when Spanish Tercios occupied it, and the last marquis, Juan Jorge, had to hand over the government to Federico II of Gonzaga, a Mantuan vassal of Spain, dying later without offspring.

Returning to Theodore, the inscription on his tombstone says he was “the son of Camillus, the son of Prosper, the son of Theodore, the son of John, the son of Thomas, the second brother of Constantine Palaeologus, the eighth of that name and the last of the line that resided in Constantinople.” Except for the reference to John, which is uncertain, the authenticity of the lineage is confirmed, extending into his own descendants. The eldest, also named Theodore, died at only two months old, so the responsibility fell on Dorothy, the second daughter, who lived the longest, dying in 1681. However, as the male transmission was crucial, the responsibility fell on Ferdinand, the youngest of all.

Nothing is known about Ferdinand’s childhood except that he was baptized in 1619. To find the next information about him, we must jump nineteen years to 1639 when his name appears on a military list due to the turbulent situation in England during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, whose most famous episode was the English Civil War. As is often the case, as mentioned earlier, the Palaeologus brothers took different sides in it.

Thus, Theodore, the fourth son – named after the ill-fated firstborn – fought on the side of the Roundheads (parliamentarians), while the fifth, John Theodore – the father was insistent on the name, as seen – fought on the side of the Cavaliers (royalists). It is believed that Ferdinand also sided with the Parliament, but unlike the others, he fought as a simple soldier, without holding any command. However, things are far from clear.

As he was not an officer, he did not appear in subsequent lists made in 1642 when the two armies took stock of their troops at the start of the conflict. Therefore, it is not known what happened to him in those early years of the war. Since his next documentary appearance is in 1644, not in England but in Barbados, a hypothesis suggests that he may have remained loyal to King Charles I and was forced to flee the country to avoid political reprisals when Parliament supporters won. This is reinforced by the fact that John Theodore left with him.

Whatever the explanation, Ferdinand and his brother crossed the Atlantic and settled on the Caribbean island, where their mother’s family owned at least three large sugar cane plantations, one of them the largest on the island. Barbados, the easternmost of the Lesser Antilles, had been discovered by the Spanish, who nevertheless included it in the category, along with the Lucayas (Bahamas and Turks and Caicos), of “useless islands” and only used it for sporadic grape harvests. These incursions aimed to capture Carib slaves (permitted because they were cannibals) to fill the ship’s holds and ensure the profitability of their pearl expeditions.

Therefore, Barbados remained free of European presence for a long time. It is likely that the Portuguese used it as a base on their trips to Brazil (it was one of them, Pedro Campos, who gave it its peculiar name without exactly knowing the reason), but there was no stable white population until the arrival of the Englishman John Powell in 1625 and the founding two years later of the colony of Jamestown (now Holetown) by his brother Henry. The Balls settled with the first waves of settlers, taking advantage of the sparse Caribbean population (which had replaced the previous Arawak and, in turn, the Taino) and obtained vast tracts of land.

Ferdinand himself prospered to become the owner of a cotton and sugar plantation he named Clifton Hall in memory of his birthplace. The house is still standing, although it was renovated in the 19th century, retaining from the 17th century only the kitchen, the servants’ quarters, and a couple of rooms that now serve as changing rooms for a swimming pool. It is near the parish of St. John, which he always supported – he was a sacristan and a syndic caretaker – and whose church would be the one mentioned earlier that housed his burial.

Before 1649, he married the daughter of a local landowner, Rebecca Pomfrett, and this allowed him to expand his properties, as demonstrated by real estate deeds from 1662. One of them was called Paleologus and Beal and is marked on the documents with a pineapple, meaning that he added that crop to the existing ones. All of them were worked with slave labor, as was customary in the Caribbean. Besides, from 1654, he served as a lieutenant in the militia, and four years later, he added the position of road surveyor.

Nicknamed the Greek Prince of Cornwall, he fell ill in early 1670 and deteriorated over the following months. In September, he drafted his will, bequeathing half of his property to Rebecca and the other half to the son he had with her (you can guess his name was Theodore, as it was a Greek tradition to name the firstborn after the grandfather). He also left money to his sisters and other relatives. He died at an undetermined date, around October 2, 1670. However, the Palaeologus dynasty did not end with him.

Rebecca remarried the landowner Alexander Beale, with whom she had more children. Theodore III, as he is generally referred to distinguish him from his grandfather and uncle, was ten years old when he was orphaned. Although he initially associated with his stepfather – hence the name of the plantation mentioned earlier – in 1684, he married Martha Bradbury, and both moved to London. There he boarded the Carlos II, a frigate hired by Spain – the name refers to the Spanish monarch, not the English one – to recover treasures from galleons sunk in the Caribbean and commanded by Captain Gibson.

It was the same ship that, a decade later, suffered a mutiny in La Coruña led by the first officer, Henry Every, who renamed it Fancy and used it for a very different purpose, piracy, in which he earned a notorious reputation. We dedicated an article to him, explaining how he achieved the largest loot in the history of piracy. Theodore was not part of that outlaw crew because he died at sea the previous year, just before reaching Spain, and was buried in some undisclosed location in the Corunna city cemetery (probably in the English Cemetery).

Theodore had a son who died as a child before him, about whom nothing is known. Also, a posthumous daughter, born in 1694. He gave her the strange name of Godscall, whose meaning is unknown. Speculation suggests that it could be an adaptation of the Greek Theocletiane, a derivation of a lost surname from her mother, or an eccentric religious name like those often used by the Puritans. In that sense, Godscall could be translated as “God calls her,” alluding to the fact that she was born so frail that a fatal outcome was foreseen.

Except for the date of birth, indicated in the baptismal record, absolutely no biographical data of her is preserved. It has been suggested that perhaps she died shortly afterward, emphasizing the idea of her poor health.

In any case, it is said that, during the Greek War of Independence, the provisional government sent a delegation to Cornwall and Barbados in search of living descendants of the imperial dynasty. Since they found no one, it is considered that Godscall was indeed the last of the Palaeologus family.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on November 13, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Los últimos descendientes de los emperadores bizantinos se asentaron en la isla caribeña de Barbados

Sources

Alejo Carpentier, El siglo de las luces | James C. Brandow (ed.), Genealogies of Barbados Families. From Caribbeana and the Journal of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society | Patrick Leigh Fermor, The Traveller’s Tree. A journey through the Caribbean Islands | Eric Cullhed, From Byzantium to the Andes (en Wanted: Byzantium. The desire for a lost empire) | D. M. Nicol, Byzantium and England | Wikipedia


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