Governor. Nothing is known of the birth and parentage of Joseph West, who commanded the fleet that brought the first permanent European settlers to South Carolina and whose service as governor was crucial to the survival of the settlement. The first definite reference to West is a 1667 commission as a lieutenant on His Majesty’s ship Jersey during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. West served in the West Indies in 1667 and 1668 under Captain James Carteret, a son of Sir George Carteret, who was one of the eight original Lords Proprietors of Carolina. After participation in victories over Dutch and allied French naval forces off Martinique, Guyana, and Surinam, West returned to England. By the time of his departure for Carolina, he was styled “Capt. Joseph West, of the sd Citty of London, Merchant.”
In 1669 Anthony Ashley Cooper, who later became the first Earl of Shaftesbury, convinced the other Carolina proprietors to send settlers from England to their floundering colonial enterprise. Joseph West was commissioned to command the proprietors’ three-ship fleet. Sir Peter Colleton and Sir George Carteret were the other proprietors most actively supporting Ashley Cooper in the settlement venture, and the three men projected a joint private plantation there. When the fleet left England in August 1669, West was also charged with managing that private plantation and serving as storekeeper for the colony’s vital foodstuffs and other supplies.
A large proportion of the initial settlers were indentured servants. West’s orders emphasized prevention of their running away. Violent storms during and after a planned stop in Barbados destroyed the fleet’s two smaller ships. When the largest ship, the Carolina, was forced to spend time on repairs in Bermuda, it took two proclamations from the governor there threatening lengthened terms of service to round up the settlers.
West was not South Carolina’s first governor, but he held that office for ten of the colony’s first fifteen years and took a leading role in managing the colony from the beginning. The proprietors had originally authorized the Barbadian Sir John Yeamans either to serve as governor or to name another in his stead. Yeamans named the Bermudan William Sayle, who was nearly eighty and survived less than a year as the settlers built a fortified town. As a proprietor’s deputy, Joseph West took a leading role on the governing Grand Council. As early as September 1670 West warned Ashley Cooper that Sayle was “very aged, and hath much lost himselfe in his Governmt.” Sayle recognized West’s leadership in the colony and on his deathbed on March 4, 1671, named West as his interim successor, as did the Grand Council.
Before the harvest in 1673, the colonists barely survived on imported food supplies. At the beginning, West emphasized subsistence crops while experimenting with more tropical products to provide future wealth for both the colonists and the colony’s proprietary owners. A practical man, West was both worldly and religious. In urging a replacement for the dying Governor Sayle, West asked Ashley Cooper for a man who would “feare God above all worldly Interest” and “root out evill and wickedness.” Yet West owned a diamond watch and had already by 1673 laid out a formal garden at the private proprietary plantation where he then resided. When his wife Joanna (about whom nothing else is known) joined him from England in August 1671, she brought additional indentured servant to further his colonial ventures as merchant and planter. While successful, West was not rapacious, but it was his fate to govern a colony that had attracted some rapacious men.
The proprietors’ Fundamental Constitutions provided for a hereditary aristocracy of landgraves and cassiques. In the absence of a commissioned governor, the senior resident landgrave was to take office. When Sir John Yeamans arrived in South Carolina in the summer of 1671, he claimed the office of governor by virtue of his patent as a landgrave. West and the Grand Council initially refused Yeamans the office but acquiesced when orders arrived from England in April 1672. When Yeamans died in August 1674, West was elevated to landgrave and served as governor for the next eight years, the period in which the colony became firmly established. Proprietary dissatisfaction with lack of profits prompted major initiatives to encourage immigration and reform the colony in 1682. West was replaced as governor by Joseph Morton in 1682 but resumed the office in August 1684 on the death of Sir Richard Kyrle, who died of malaria after serving only one month in office.
West became gravely ill with malaria and dry gripes (a form of lead poisoning caused by drinking rum) and resigned in early summer 1685. He went to Boston to recoup his health, leaving powers of attorney over 1,630 acres, a town house, ten African and two Indian slaves, and two indentured servants. West returned to South Carolina in 1686 but stayed only about a year and sold his property there. Governor Joseph West died in New York City at the home of the Quaker merchant Miles Forster between May 6, 1691, when he made out his will, and July 1 of the same year, when it was probated. After bequests to the Forsters, three kinsmen in England, and others, West left the remainder of his sizable estate to the Quaker poor of London. His slave Will received his freedom and “such cloathing and Apparell of mine as my Executor shall think fitt.”
Cheves, Langdon, ed. The Shaftesbury Papers. 1897. Reprint, Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2000.
Childs, St. Julien R. “The Naval Career of Joseph West.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 71 (April 1970): 109–16.
Lesser, Charles H. South Carolina Begins: The Records of a Proprietary Colony, 1663–1721. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995.
Sirmans, M. Eugene. Colonial South Carolina: A Political History, 1663– 1763. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1966.