The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire By Carla Gardina Pestana


A review by Adrian Tinniswood for The Literary Review.

The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire

By Carla Gardina Pestana

Harvard University Press 362pp £27.95

Historians have a bad habit of glossing over the Protectorate. It just isn’t interesting: no drama, no battles, all those drab Puritans cancelling Christmas. Traditionalists tend to lump the four and a half years of Oliver Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector in with the rest of the Interregnum, just another stage in that embarrassing aberrant gap between one Charles and another. Radicals dismiss it as a betrayal of the revolution and prefer to focus with longing on the Diggers, the Ranters and the Fifth Monarchy Men.

These attitudes have been challenged over the past decade. One thinks of Little and Smith’s Parliaments and Politics during the Cromwellian Protectorate (2007), or Blair Worden’s important essay ‘Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate’ (2010). Now, in The English Conquest of Jamaica, Carla Gardina Pestana has taken a single event in the life of the Protectorate and produced a gripping study that sheds light not only on governmental thinking in the 1650s but also on the birth of the British Empire itself.

Pestana’s previous book The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution (2004) was a landmark in the relatively new field of Atlantic studies. Here she takes as her starting point the ‘Western Design’, Cromwell’s ambitious plan, hatched early in 1654, to send an invasion force to the West Indies with the aim of conquering Spanish colonies in the region and establishing a permanent English presence there. Assembled in so much secrecy ‘that the chief Commanders both by Land and Sea, who were to put it in practice, knew not at first what they were about’, the massive expeditionary force, described in contemporary news-sheets as the ‘English invincible Armada’, set sail in December 1654. After putting in at Barbados to take on supplies and reinforcements, the fleet – comprised of thirty-odd ships carrying more than seven thousand men – set a course for the Spanish island of Hispaniola, with the intention of launching a daring amphibious assault on the poorly defended town of Santo Domingo. With a superior fighting force and a Protestant God on their side, victory was assured, while the natives, cruelly abused by the barbarous Catholic Spaniards, were certain to rise up and welcome their liberators.

It didn’t quite work out like that. The English troops landed in the wrong place. Within days they began to succumb to hunger and thirst. They were ambushed by Spanish forces led by Don Juan Morfa (actually a longtime Irish resident of Hispaniola called Murphy) and they were eventually routed by bands of Spanish lancers, at least one of them a woman. In panic, the survivors turned tail and fled back to the shore, where they slaughtered their own horses and ate them.

It was an ignominious defeat. The native Indians and African slaves who had been expected to rally to the English colours did indeed fight bravely – but for the Spanish. Now they were swiftly redefined by the English as ‘despicable Mongrel-Spaniards, Shepherds and Blacks’.

The consequences for the English of the disaster at Hispaniola were profound. Their vastly superior force had failed miserably in its objective and their losses in the three weeks they spent on the island amounted to hundreds, perhaps thousands. Back in England, Cromwell and his comrades were convinced that their past victories were God’s victories and that they were His instruments, acting out His will. How could He possibly side with Catholics? A period of prayer and reflection was called for, as England struggled to understand why God had deserted them and what needed to be done to appease Him.

In the meantime, the demoralised and not-at-all invincible armada went in search of an easier target, which is how England came to conquer Jamaica – more by accident than by design. Wanting neither to return home empty-handed nor to throw themselves onto the mercy of one of the smaller English colonies in the region, they chose, as Pestana points out, ‘to recoup their loss by snatching a lesser prize’. At 4,200 square miles Jamaica was only a seventh of the size of Hispaniola, with a mixed population of fewer than 2,500 Spanish, Portuguese, Indians and Africans. The English stormed ashore on 10 May 1655, some of the soldiers even jumping into the sea to gain the beach. At the sight of them, the handful of defenders who had gathered to repulse them fled back to the only town of any size on the island, Santiago de la Vega. The next day the English marched into Santiago to find it deserted.

That was only the beginning. The islanders had taken refuge in the hills and Pestana steers us with authority and flair through the dramatic story of the colony’s early years, as Spaniards and Hispanicised Africans fought a long guerrilla war against the English, while disease and hunger killed the invaders in droves. Half the army died in the first six months. Robert Sedgwick, a veteran of the Massachusetts militia who arrived to take up a post as one of the new colony’s civil commissioners in 1655, found ‘the soldiery many dead, their carcasses lying unburied in the high-ways, and among bushes to and again; many of them that were alive, walked like ghosts or dead men’. Before the year was out, he was dead too.

The English Conquest of Jamaica is a remarkable book. In the course of telling the story, Pestana questions the received view of the Western Design as an attempt by the Protectorate to get rid of dissident Royalists and explodes the myth that Jamaica was largely a base for swashbuckling pirates. She shows that the Protectorate brought lasting changes to the management of England’s overseas territories, not least by beginning ‘to create an imperial apparatus by systematizing the status of and policies governing colonies’. The Western Design was a first and very deliberate step towards England’s imperial future.

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