On his arrival in South Carolina in November 1686, Colleton strictly enforced the antipiracy policy, apparently with some success. It soon became forgotten, though, as Colleton became embroiled in a furor generated by a pair of devastating Spanish raids on South Carolina in August and December of the same year.
Governor. Colleton was born in England, the son of the Carolina proprietor Sir John Colleton and Katherine Amy. He was also the younger brother of the proprietor Sir Peter Colleton. In the 1670s James moved to Barbados, where he became a leading landholder. Alarmed by the reputation that South Carolina had earned as a haven for pirates, the Lords Proprietors appointed Colleton governor on August 31, 1686, with instructions to investigate the character of relations between the colony’s leaders and the pirates who plagued shipping around the Caribbean.
On his arrival in South Carolina in November 1686, Colleton strictly enforced the antipiracy policy, apparently with some success. It soon became forgotten, though, as Colleton became embroiled in a furor generated by a pair of devastating Spanish raids on South Carolina in August and December of the same year. Outraged at these attacks, in which the invaders destroyed the Scottish settlement at Stuart’s Town and pillaged some coastal plantations, the Carolinians decided to attempt a military reprisal against the Spanish in Florida. England and Spain, however, were officially at peace, and Colleton declared martial law in order to prevent the ill-advised adventure against Florida.
Once the clamor for revenge had subsided, the governor convened a parliament in February 1689. Unfortunately for Colleton, this gathering enabled the colony’s most powerful faction, the Goose Creek Men, to regain their political advantage. Their agenda also had a personal edge. Its leader, Maurice Mathews, a former client of Sir Peter Colleton, had broken with the Colleton family over the persistent involvement of Mathews and his associates in the Indian slave trade, which formed the foundation of their wealth and political status in the colony. When the parliament convened, the Goose Creek Men suggested to the naive Colleton that he deserved an increase in pay and that he should introduce legislation establishing an excise on imported liquors and use the revenue to augment the governor’s salary. When Colleton unwittingly agreed, Mathews and his allies turned on him by voting against the bill “and then cried out against the Governor, who would enslave and ruin the people.” In the subsequent political uproar, Colleton was forced to dissolve the parliament. A new one convened in February 1690, but the governor had no better success.
With England now at war with France, the legislative failure to create a military establishment in South Carolina left the colony desperately exposed, particularly after the English colony of St. Christopher’s in the Caribbean fell to the French. Faced with this new emergency, Colleton accepted the arguments of Carolina’s proprietary allies and declared martial law a second time, a move which his opponents quickly denounced as contemptible.
For a time, though, the dangers posed by the French kept the Goose Creek Men at bay. John Stewart, a supporter of Colleton, defended the governor to the approval of many in the colony. Just as Colleton seemed to have finally secured an upper hand, however, the proprietor Seth Sothell arrived in 1690. Ignoring their previous objections to the Fundamental Constitutions, the Goose Creek Men supported Sothell’s successful claim to the governorship as a resident proprietor. This provided a pretext for not only removing Colleton as governor but also permanently barring him from office and banishing him from the colony. Although the proprietors retroactively approved his declaration of martial law, Colleton never returned to South Carolina. He died in Barbados around 1706.
Buchanan, J. E. “The Colleton Family and the Early History of South Carolina and Barbados.” Ph.D. diss., University of Edinburgh, 1989.
Sirmans, M. Eugene. Colonial South Carolina: A Political History, 1663–1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.
Smith, Henry A. M. “The Colleton Family in South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 1 (October 1900): 325–41.