God has brought us where we are, to consider the
work we may do in the world, as well as at home.
Cromwell in 1654 to the Army Council
In October 1654 a certain Alexander Rowley was paid £50 for ‘setting up a Sphere in Whitehall for the use of his Highness’. It was a prudent acquisition. For ever since the end of the Dutch War in May, the Protector’s thoughts had been set free to ramble across the world in search of a new role, perchance colonial, perchance in Europe itself. The presence of a real-life map could only enhance the practical efficacy of such thoughts; indeed as England’s foreign policy flowered, watered by Cromwell’s enthusiasm, the Council of State also found it necessary to acquire new maps, new spheres, even a book called The New Atlas in order to keep up with the Protector’s expanding dreams, at times clearly beyond their own geographical knowledge.1 The mainsprings of Cromwell’s policy have been the subject of much dispute,* and he has been accused at best of inconsistency by the editor of his letters and speeches. Yet at the time of its inception, what was most noticeable was how consistent his actions were with those attitudes he had so long displayed. The inconsistency, such as it was, came later with the inevitable complications of diplomatic negotiation in a particularly tightly knit Europe where each move was inclined to bring about a chain reaction. In 1654 however, it would have needed no major prophet to predict that the man who had so long interested himself in Protestant expansion, Protestant settlement, Protestant alliance and helping distressed Protestants would implement these feelings when the opportunity occurred.
Nor was it surprising that Cromwell should find support for his foreign and colonial policy from the first in his providentialist philosophy. For God’s purposes, which were tending to become somewhat murky and difficult to discern within England, might shine forth with their old refreshing clarity in actions abroad; as once they had shone forth in Ireland at the end of another time of stress. Cromwell’s Western Design was the first direct manifestation of this new spirit. In essence, it was a project to attack the Spanish possessions in the West Indies, harry them, and hopefully transform them into English (Protestant) colonies. The plan, which had been rumoured for some time, was first discussed in Council at the beginning of June 1654. There was no attempt at this point to envisage the possible consequences in Europe: whether Spain would thus peaceably see her dominions attacked, without retaliating with a war much closer to England. It was not so much that Cromwell shrank from war with Spain as that the two spheres were not felt at this time to be inseparably linked. As Hyde put it, ‘Oliver himself was for a war with Spain, at least in the West Indies.’ This view was not so naïve as later generations might suppose, for, as has been recently pointed out,* Blake’s attack on the French fleet in 1652 had not been followed by war with France in Europe; nor had the English depredations on the French colonies of North America.
In August, proceeding boldly on this course, Cromwell summoned the Spanish Ambassador and told him that England could only remain on friendly terms with Spain on certain conditions: all Englishmen within the Spanish-held territories were to be granted freedom of conscience in the practice of their religion, and what was more, the free right to trade in the West Indies. In view of the fact that the Western Design had already been projected, these extremely wide demands must be interpreted more as pieces of deliberate provocation than as serious suggestions. They were certainly quite outside the context of anything the Spanish King could have reasonably been expected to concede. The reply of the Ambassador – ‘to ask for these concessions was to demand of his Master his two eyes’ – may have been histrionic, but it contained some truth.
So the preparations for the Western Design continued, but generally speaking in secret; as one Scottish soldier involved wrote, if he suspected his shirt knew of the plans, he would be compelled to burn it.2 Undoubtedly English merchants did suffer in the Spanish Main elsewhere, English shipping was sometimes attacked, and freedom of conscience was not granted within the Catholic dominions. These were perennial complaints but they were to receive new force. It was significant that part of the preparations for the Western Design was to gather together propaganda material of previous Spanish iniquities, including the Spanish raid from Cartagena in 1641, and Captain Jackson’s voyage of reprisal in 1642, well known to Cromwell, who had sat on committees of Colonial Affairs. The list of grievances eventually assembled stretched back in the end as far as 1603.
So far there might be some substance in the accusation that the Western Design was a purely anachronistic Elizabethan-style expedition, based on ancient anti-Spanish feelings to produce commercial profits. There was however a peculiarly seventeenth-century flavour given to it first by the personality of Cromwell himself, who however much he tried to draw on the helpful memory of Queen Elizabeth, ‘the great Deborah’, was as far away in himself from echoing the character of this remarkable sovereign as ever a mortal could be. Of course Cromwell was much influenced by the notion of a Protestant Empire as handed down by a previous age – had not his favourite Raleigh’s History of the World, which he had much commended to Dick, advocated an English empire not only to rob but to replace that of the Spaniards? But Oliver’s high-handed attitude to such colonies was peculiarly of his own time; and the belief that the inhabitants could be marched about in accordance with God’s dictates, interpreted from England by remote control as it were, with a little application to the sphere in Whitehall, was one very much his own. To come about, the whole Western Design needed the backing of a theology in which a triumphant military expedition signified God’s favour and conversely, such a triumph could be reliably expected, if God’s favour was already assured.
As preparations for the expedition proceeded, a debate in the Army Council provided further proof of Oliver’s own inspirational zest for it all. Lambert put forward a number of arguments against the Design, including the telling suggestion that affairs at home, such as the much-needed legal reforms, or for that matter affairs in Ireland, should be settled first. To this Oliver replied by affirming the exact contrary: God had brought them to their present position, he said, ‘to consider the work we may do in the world as well as at home’. He added rather magnificently (an argument which does as well as any other to defend his right to an expensive foreign policy): ‘To stay away from attempting until you have superfluity is to put it off for ever, our expenses being such as will in probability never admit that.’3
Many contemporaries bore witness to the sincerity of Oliver’s zeal for it all: his physician Dr Bate from a hostile point of view wrote later of his ‘boastful enthusiasm’. They also, interestingly enough, agreed in designating as one of the prime animators of this enthusiasm a former Dominican priest named Thomas Gage. Of his influence, Whitelocke, Ludlow and later Burnet all gave testimony, Ludlow calling him ‘a principal adviser of this undertaking’.4 Once again, the presence of Gage points to the strong element of a religious crusade which existed in the expedition, since Gage was one of that most vicious category of propagandists, the renegade who attacks the faith he has deserted with the benefit of much inside information with which to back his cause. A member of an old English Catholic family, one of whose members had been implicated in the Babington Plot, and with three brothers as priests, Gage had spent some years as a Dominican in the West Indies and Central America. Here he had had ample opportunity of observing first hand the behaviour of the Spanish missionaries. Some time before 1640, however, when he returned to England for good, he had apostatized; he also subsequently married. It was as a Protestant then that in 1648 Gage published his famous book The English-American: a New Survey of the West Indies, which became a best-seller and impressed Cromwell sufficiently to have him cause a new edition to be brought out in 1653.
Gage’s mission was simple: it was to ‘strengthen the perusers of this small volume against Popish superstition whether in England, or in parts of Europe, Asia or America’.5 With this aim in view, he further described himself as a Joseph appointed by God to discover the treasures of Egypt, only in this case the treasures were the iniquities of the Spanish friars in New Spain and Central Mexico. There were such stock objects of Protestant attack as the issue of indulgences from the Pope ‘wherewith we began to blind that simple people with ignorant, erroneous and Popish principles’. The corruption and wealth of the Mexican priests were generally indicted, the Franciscans being described as ‘wretched imps’ not only for ignoring their vows of poverty but for wearing such unsuitable pieces of finery as orange silk stockings, and lace-trimmed drawers, while they diced, gamed generally, and swore oaths. As for the Franciscan boast to have taught the local children to dance to the guitar Spanish fashion, ‘capering … with their castanets or knockers on their fingers’, surely the friars would have been better employed singing in the choir.
Vivid journalist as he might be and ardent campaigner for his newly acquired Protestant cause, Thomas Gage was unfortunately also guilty of seriously misleading the Protector in his analysis of the Spanish situation in the West Indies and Central America. For it was Gage to whom Cromwell applied in 1654 for a report on conditions there, and it was Gage who assured Cromwell that the Spaniards were weak enough as to collapse with the minimum assault. Gage believed that once Hispaniola and Cuba were taken (for which he did not anticipate much difficulty) the conquest of the whole of Central America would follow within two years. Cromwell’s other adviser, on whom he relied for local analyses, was a lawyer from Barbados, Thomas Modyford; with much greater appreciation of the difficulties involved, Modyford advocated the capture of Trinidad, lying so close to the coast of Central America, and then moving on to the mouth of the Orinoco. Because Trinidad lay to the windward of the other Spanish territories there, Modyford calculated that it would have needed an expedition from Europe on the part of the Spaniards to recapture it.
But this – on the face of it – sensible plan was ignored. In fact the Council of State, in its instructions to the commanders, left the precise location of the first attack undecided: not only Hispaniola (the island today occupied jointly by Haiti and the Dominican Republic) but Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Spanish Main were named as possible areas of attack. It was the general aim which was underlined: to ‘gain an interest in that part of the West Indies in [belonging to] the Spaniard’.6
Thus in August 1654 arrangements for the expedition were put in charge of a committee, to include merchants and sea captains, who were expected to provide knowledge of West Indian conditions, and with Desborough in overall control. So far the tenor of the expedition had much resembled that mounted for Ireland five years earlier. But it was at this point that the two projects sharply parted company: for it was exactly the laborious care over the details of the Irish campaign, occupying so much of Cromwell’s time in the months leading up to it, which was now to be so signally missing from the preparations for the Western Design. Now this relentless scrutiny was absent (Cromwell was too busy acting the Prince, explained one of his more favourable biographers) and the success too would be curtailed as a result. Perhaps the single most important failure was over the sheer quality of the men garnered; what a contrast was now seen to the high standards by which the men of the New Model Army had been picked. The majority of the soldiers, wrote one of their own number graphically, were a gang of ‘common cheats, thieves, cutpurses and such like persons’ who had been busy making ‘a fair progress unto Newgate from whence they were to proceed towards Tyburn’ until rerouted unexpectedly to the West Indies.7 The truth was that commanders in England had responded to the call for men by weeding out all the dregs of their outfits, grateful for the chance to get rid of them. In the context, the fresh influx of troops expected at the staging-post of Barbados and St Christopher’s assumed additional importance.
It was left to Mrs Venables, wife of the General in command of the expedition, in her bitter autobiography, to point the contrast between these scoundrels and Cromwell’s russet-coated captains. ‘The success was ill,’ she wrote, ‘for the work of God was not like to be done by the devil’s instruments.’ Not only was it a wicked army, added Mrs Venables, but it was also sent over without arms or provisions. She might have added that the arrangements for paying the men, which had so obsessed Cromwell before Ireland, were on this occasion inefficient. The earliest Colonial Entry Book for the new acquisition of Jamaica was filled with petitions for arrears, including those of the widows and other dependants of the dead (and unpaid).8
The situation with regard to provisions was particularly badly handled, for which Desborough must bear some responsibility. In the absence of proper supplies shipped from England, once again the stop-over at Barbados, where it was hoped that more food could be taken on, became critical. And then in the actual embarkation itself, such matters were compounded by the inefficiency of the process. Haste led to little or no mustering and drilling of the men. Officers and men became separated, as a result of which the ordinary soldiers became prey to fears that far from arriving in the West Indies as conquerors, they were to be sold treacherously to foreign princes as slaves. The camp-followers proved a further problem. It is true they acted as nurses, as Mrs Venables pointed out, and if colonization was intended it could hardly take place without women. But at the time, although it is possible to sympathize with the pathetic petition of Mary Hope, wife of a Major in Colonel Holdip’s regiment, which had sailed to the West Indies without her, leaving her parted from all her clothes (‘she is like to perish through want’),9 such gallant females did add further to the confusion.
Even so, it is possible that these manifold disadvantages might not have emerged quite so hideously into the open, had not the Council of State chosen to crown it all with the most glaring weakness that any expedition could have, a divided and equal command. Robert Venables as General and William Penn as Admiral were neither of them to be subject to each other, and such care was taken to express this balance that of the two documents giving the command, Penn was named first in one, Venables in the other. The main result of this parity was of course to be a history of recriminations and counter-recriminations of unexampled unpleasantness in the military annals of the Commonwealth. Both men were at least on paper suitable for the task. Venables had been with Cromwell in Ireland, joining Coote in the north after the storming of Drogheda; he had not returned to England until May 1654. William Penn, father of the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, was at thirty-three about ten years younger than Venables, an experienced sailor in the service of the Commonwealth, who had become Blake’s Vice-Admiral in 1652, and had acted with courage and quickness at the battle of the Downs. However he had recently made overtures to King Charles offering his own services and those of his ships. This move was clearly unknown to the Council when it appointed him Admiral in charge of the fleet for the Americas in October, and since the King merely bade him await a more propitious moment, it was not strictly relevant to the expedition.
Nevertheless the contrast between Penn, the professional sailor who did not regard himself as committed to any particular regime, and Venables, the more emotional supporter of the new order, was not likely to lead to accord between them in a situation already exacerbated by the rival claims of naval and military arms. A letter of Oliver’s in advance of the expedition indicates that all was not well between the two commanders even before they sailed. Referring to Penn’s ‘little dissatisfaction’, he was already attempting to soothe him: ‘You have your own command full and entire to yourself, nothing interfering with it, nor in the least lessening you.’10
There were also to be two civilian commissioners, Edward Winslow and Gregory Butler. Winslow was an interesting man, now approaching sixty, who had sailed in the Mayflower over thirty years before, had become Governor of New Plymouth, and after returning to England had acted as a commissioner for the compounding of delinquents. Cromwell, with his acute interest in New England and the southern colonies, chose Winslow deliberately as his agent: he was to make him ‘understand all things as fully as if he [the Protector] had been here’. Butler from Barbados proved a less happy choice. Although he had originally served as a soldier under Essex before emigrating, he was subsequently described as ‘the unfittest man for a commissioner I ever knew employed’, a charge to which his irresponsible behaviour in deserting his post gave some substance.11
So the ill-fated expedition set off in December 1654. In a felicitous phrase, Cromwell had wished Penn ‘happy gales and prosperous success to the great enterprise you have in hand’.12 In the event, only the first piece of good fortune was enjoyed by the Admiral. For the first stage of the journey, the two thousand five hundred mile trip to Barbados was accomplished without mishap, even Venables and Penn, as Winslow testified afterwards, being ‘sweet and hopeful’. The enthusiasm of Mercurius Politicus for the future of the fleet and army as it sailed happily towards Barbados, ‘this Island, the richest spot of Earth in the Universe’, merely reflected the general satisfaction of Protector and Council at a great project well initiated.13 Unfortunately the contact of the English newcomers with Barbados provided in itself a microcosm of that English inability, so marked at this period, to understand or estimate any of the probable reactions of its settlers or colonists.
It has been seen that Barbadan participation, both with troops and supplies, was a central plank of the expedition. Searle, the Governor of the island, had been named jointly with Venables, Penn, Winslow and Butler in the Council’s commission of 9 December. But by the end of February, a letter back to England from Venables expressed vividly his disillusionment: ‘All the promises made us in England of men, provisions and arms, we find to be but promises,’ he wrote. It turned out that the Barbadan settlers had absolutely no wish either to upstake themselves and sally towards another unknown island, nor for that matter to part with their own employees, whether valuable slaves or indentured men. Recruiting was extremely difficult, a few employers reluctantly allowing those men to go who had only a few months to serve. Governor Searle did not himself sail along with the expedition. Somehow men were levied, and their command given to a planter Colonel Harris, but at the last moment he refused to go unless his debts were paid (and they were not paid). The truth was that Barbados was simply not the placid and compliant island envisaged by the Council of State in its orders to make it a convenient staging-post.
But nor was it on the other hand ‘the dunghill whereon England doth cast forth its rubbish’ as one member of the expedition, Henry Whistler, rudely termed it in his journal. There was always a total lack of understanding in England as to how circumstances had inevitably created a new kind of society in this faraway and fertile place. During the Civil Wars, Barbados, termed by another contemporary historian in contrast to Whistler’s insult ‘this happy island’, had enjoyed a particularly salubrious period of virtual autonomy, with the attention of the mother country so far distracted. Trade with the Netherlands and New England had flourished. In such an atmosphere of affluence, neutrality towards England’s internal dissensions seemed the best policy to the inhabitants, and there was even said to be a local by-law: ‘whoever named the word Roundhead or Cavalier should give to all those that heard him a shot and a Turkey, to be eaten at his house that made the forfeit’. The population of Barbados, about twenty thousand in 1645, had reached thirty thousand in 1650.14
An influx of Royalists after the collapse of their cause in England put an end to this prosperous merriment. In its place there unfolded what Nicholas Foster called ‘a doleful and intestine story’ of ‘Horrid Rebellion’.15 In short in 1650 the island proclaimed for King Charles ii, under the recently arrived Lord Willoughby of Parham as Royalist Governor. Parliament was furious, both at the unlooked-for insurrection and at the news of the colony’s trading with the Dutch. It was left to Sir George Ayscough to quell the rebels with two men of war and a small force of under one thousand men. Ayscough found Lord Willoughby quite erroneously celebrating a Royalist victory at Worcester. Like the insistence of the London merchants that Barbados should not trade direct with New England – for all their earnest petitions to be permitted to do so – it all demonstrated what a plangent distance stretched between the two countries, and what strange notions each could entertain of the other.
For all the liberal treatment of Barbados accorded by Ayscough after his victory, to the extent that he even feared Parliament would not ratify the treaty, the claims of London merchants, Barbadan settlers and Commonwealth Government continued to pull in very different directions. The new Governor Daniel Searle, although able, was hampered by not being able to choose his own Council. Whereas by January 1654 London traders with Barbados were complaining to the Protector that they had suffered greatly from ‘distractions in the Caribees’ and would appreciate the government of Barbados being handed over to a commission who would choose a President well disposed to their interests, the inhabitants themselves wanted nothing so much as to be allowed to plant, trade and flourish with the minimum of interference from home. It was obvious that the arrival of a punitive expedition, intended to reduce the local population drastically in order to pursue some new idea of conquest, would scarcely be welcomed with open arms by the Barbadans. Venables’s men suffered from the flux as they devoured the delicious fruits of the tropics, the limes, oranges and lemons for which their stomachs were ill-prepared. Venables continued to bombard England with requests for more supplies, for bread and meat, lest they have to rely on cassavy which could only be planted in June for the following year, sounding a note which was all too percipient when he wrote: ‘Pray let not the old proverb be verified in us, out of sight, out of mind; if so, you will quickly hear we are out of this world.’16
Nevertheless somehow an additional five thousand men were levied, some of them from the Leeward Islands taken on at St Kitts. But since no more additional supplies were shipped – a real failure on the part of Venables – and since the English provisions ships had been so much disturbed by the weather that many of them only arrived at Barbados after the fleet proper had sailed, the conditions of the English soldiers were only worsened by the arrival of the newcomers. They had left Ligon’s happy island at the end of March. Soon they were down to half rations. As Winslow had predicted, this failure of planning also led to troubles between the two commanders. Already Venables was wailing back to England that the sailors were holding on to all the invaluable supplies of staple biscuit.
The crux of the controversy was saved for the fatal attack on Hispaniola in mid-April. Neither the exact date on which the choice was made, nor the precise reason for it is known, but at least it seems to have been agreed on as a target. On the correct landing-place for the attack there was less agreement: and the eventual choice of desolate Point Nizao, dictated by Penn, was disastrous. For all that Venables had at least eight thousand men with him, not counting those who remained on board, the English were repulsed twice by the Spaniards in a preliminary encounter on 17 April and ‘shamefully’ on 25 April. Over a thousand English soldiers were lost, either killed or wasted by disease. The humiliated army had to regain their ships and abandon Hispaniola to its previous Spanish occupants. In the general holocaust of blame, the unpleasant but inevitable concomitant perhaps of any such defeat, Venables blamed the cowardice of his troops with something less than the generosity Cromwell always showed to his men. He also complained that the official order against plunder led to sulky lack-lustre soldiers. Penn, angrily rebutting the blame put upon him by Venables for the choice of landing-place, accused Venables in his turn of obstinately refusing his offers of assistance to besiege San Domingo.
In truth both men were to blame for their lack of mutual cooperation; while both were ill-served by the inadequate preparations for which neither was originally responsible. But if the history of the attack on Hispaniola was a shambles from which little good could emerge, the effect of the news on England was electrifying. Indeed, the first rumours to arrive were of a success: it was not until July that the newsletters were sounding a more cautious note. It must be remembered that no such thing as a military defeat had been encountered before by the forces of the new order, nor officially by those men in power: such petty rebuffs as Clonmel or Newbury counted for but little compared to the serried ranks of famous victories, those names that rang out from the pulpits, Marston Moor, Naseby and Dunbar, those countries brought to heel by the power of the sword in the hands of the godly, Ireland, Scotland and to a lesser extent the Netherlands. To such men there is no doubt that the fiasco of Hispaniola dealt a grievous blow.
It was not only the hostile Fifth Monarchists who were quick to ‘cry up’ the unsuccessful outcome as a judgement from God. As in Scotland when the Presbyterians reluctantly admitted that their defeat at the hands of the English might have to be attributed to their own failings, so Cromwell himself wrote in a letter to Admiral Goodson that ‘it is not to be denied but the Lord hath greatly humbled us in that sad loss sustained at Hispaniola’. The Royalists spread news of a more tempestuous reaction from the Lord Protector: he was supposed to have fallen into such convulsions of anger that he actually fell dead. In this, the wish was no doubt father to the thought. But Hyde heard from his London agents of some ‘violent distempers’ or rages on the part of the Protector. From London too Sir William Dugdale reported that the Government was not best pleased by open discussion of the subject, and were trying to restrain the publication of all pamphlets save Mercurius Politicus. On the actual details of the Protector’s reaction, Cromwell’s own circle were discreetly silent, but that it represented much grief at the time can be seen by his oblique but still pained reference to Parliament in the year following: ‘It may be we have not (as the world terms it) been so fortunate in all our successes. Truly, if we have that mind, that God may not determine us in these things, I think we shall quarrel at that which God will answer …’17 Such sentiments might be admirably philosophic, but they certainly represented a considerable and necessary change from the exultant reflections with which Oliver had been wont to follow the news of his own previous military victories.
In the faraway West Indies the mood of the expedition was scarcely less melancholy. But in view of the fact that Venables, for all his losses, still had a substantial force of seven thousand men under his command, the most obvious course was to try and offset these depressions with the prospect of an immediate gain. In this mood, the island of Jamaica, some hundred miles to the west of Hispaniola, became the next target of the Western Design. Large, beautiful and fertile as it was, Jamaica was nevertheless held only by a comparatively small force of Spaniards, its total population, including the remnants of the Arawak Indians, some Portuguese and the imported African slaves, not amounting to more than two thousand five hundred. Both for capture and for colonization, it might be supposed that Jamaica presented an easily assimilable prey. It was true that the assault was successful: the English landed on 10 May and by 17 May the Governor had capitulated, the chief town of Villa la Vega being in the hands of the invaders. But the condition of the English army, decimated by disease, weakened by something close to starvation, led to such appalling sufferings thereafter that any humanitarians might have regarded the acquisition of Jamaica as a Pyrrhic victory indeed.
Edward Winslow had already died of fever before they arrived, to be buried within sight of Jamaica. Of the dignitaries, Thomas Gage died early the following year, paying with his own life for the inadequate and over-optimistic intelligence with which he had fed the Council of State (for their part they took care of the debts of his widow). It was the soldiers who died in their thousands; as the Spaniards retreated to the mountains to practise for some months the art of guerrilla warfare, other cruel foes such as dysentery joined their cause. Food was not only short, but scarcity was exacerbated by inefficient distribution, so that some unfortunates complained of ‘starving in a cook’s shop’.
Sheer ignorance of tropical conditions was responsible for one of the worst privations: there were no water-bottles, a catastrophe to be compared in magnitude with the lack of tents in the Scottish expedition of 1650. A correspondent spoke feelingly of their absence in a letter of 13 June back to the merchant, Martin Noell: ‘without the last not one man can march in these torrid Regions, where Water is precious and scant … Our wants [are] great’ went on this pathetic epistle, ‘our difficulties are many; unruly raw Soldiers, the major part ignorant; lazy dull officers that have a large portion of Pride, but not of Wit, Valour or Authority’. Henry Whistler described vividly the terrors that a tropical island could hold for English soldiers: at night the giant crabs would crawl out of the woods to feed, the noise of their claws rattling together in the darkness bringing a chill of terror to even the stoutest heart. All in all, it has been estimated that between May and November, nearly half the original force of seven thousand men perished in Jamaica.18
It was hardly to be expected that such perils would unite the warring commanders, and their disputes ranged from the conviction of the Army that the Navy was hugging all the brandy to itself, to the matter of the lances. Altogether the English had insufficient arms, but the Spanish were particularly agile with their long lances, twelve foot long. Venables however accused Penn of refusing to let him have lances to supplement his shortage of pikes; so Venables had to make do with half-pikes, a mere eight foot long, made by the smiths, and his men were correspondingly gored. By 25 June Penn had sailed for home with part of the fleet, under the impression that his own mission had been completed. The commissioner Butler had also abandoned Jamaica. Now Venables in his turn embarked, in the ship Marston Moor, giving as an excuse illness – he had not had one day’s health, he said, since he left Barbados. Although in the absence of Butler, the appointment was of dubious validity, he left in control an honest soldier in the shape of Fortescue. So like Tweedledum and Tweedledee Penn and Venables bore down on the London administration, each with their own woeful tale of mismanagement.
At home the news of the successful outcome of the Jamaican expedition had naturally been hailed with much relieved rejoicing: Mercurius Politicus waxed enthusiastic on the subject of Jamaica, ‘our men’ were reported to be planting apace and resolved to continue; in September ‘our men’ were further if inaccurately said to be settling down well, ‘their Bodies seasoned to the climate’.19 But Cromwell showed scant appreciation of the rival claims of General and Admiral to his sympathy. Both were clapped into the Tower. It is possible that Penn owed his arrest to some inkling of his earlier Royalist overtures. But when Venables presented a long and querulous petition for his own release, the Protector was seen to hurl it aside in a rage, saying that Venables was trying to blame him, Cromwell, for everything that had happened. Since both Penn and Venables were subsequently released, retiring in each case from active public life, it seems more probable that their short-lived incarcerations were a tribute to the humiliation and annoyance caused by the whole affair of Hispaniola. Yet it was the Protector who should have counted himself lucky indeed to have acquired a new lush property for his Empire, excellently placed too in the Caribbean for defensive purposes, despite the drawbacks of an ill-prepared and inadequately mounted expedition. If Flecknoe’s estimate of Hispaniola as Cromwell’s one great mistake is accepted, then he was doubly fortunate to have emerged from it the richer by one colony, for all the dreadful loss of human life.
In the colonization of Jamaica by the English which now proceeded apace, however, Cromwell continued to manifest his sincere belief that Providence had guided them thither. He maintained this earnestly in spite of massive reports of continuing disease and suffering which came flooding back from the island. One can criticize the immediate results of his policy in purely humanitarian terms, but one cannot deride the genuine faith that inspired it, the conviction that good would ultimately come of it all. In the summer of 1656 he did get as far as writing ‘I do acknowledge these things have very great discouragements in them’, but it was only to follow this admission with the news that those at home after ‘a solemn seeking of the Lord’ had decided that they could never square it with their consciences to desert the cause ‘wherein we are engaged against the Spaniard in the West Indies’.
To encourage all comers of the right quality, a proclamation had been quickly issued after the first capture of the island giving what were believed to be tempting terms of emigration to those who transplanted themselves to Jamaica. Every male over twelve was to have twenty acres of land, every female ten; there were to be no customs or excise for three years, and all the benefits enjoyed by English citizens should be enjoyed by the new Jamaicans. It was confidently expected that the settlers of North America in particular would wish to avail themselves of these privileges. Surprisingly few people however seemed to understand the richness of the opportunity. Soon Cromwell was forced to suggest that one thousand Irish boys and girls should be rounded up to fill the empty island, Lord Broghill having thought it doubtful that you could find any such emigrants in Edinburgh; another of Cromwell’s schemes for sending the Highlanders had to be abandoned when he was warned that they might well incite the whole colony to rebellion.20
The strange dichotomy at the heart of the principles of colonization was once more apparent. On the one hand Cromwell sought to fill Jamaica with the godly, while on the other there were plans to export the sinners of various types from areas where they were generally felt to be less welcome. This balancing act was much on the level of the soldiers’ attitude to the native inhabitants of Jamaica: Major Sedgewick, a commissioner, wrote back to Thurloe regretting that they could not converse with the blacks, so that they were hindered in their intentions of ‘dispersing any thing of the knowledge of the true God in Jesus Christ to the inhabitants’. A month later Colonel D’Oyley, later to be first Governor of the island, reported that ‘it hath pleased God to give us some success against the Negroes. A plantation of theirs being found out, we fell on them, slew some and totally spoiled one of their chief quarters.’ Now Thurloe greeted the Irish plan with some excitement, as he wrote: ‘Concerning the young women, although we must use force in taking them up, yet it being so much for their own good, and likely to be of so great advantage to the public, this must be done.’ It was left to the more sensitive and kind-hearted Henry Cromwell to worry over the clothing and transportation of these unfortunate girls. In the event however the scheme seems to have fallen through, and there is no evidence that this piece of enforced emigration was ever completed.21
The subsequent handling of the colony from the English angle was not much better thought out than the Western Design itself. From 1654 until 1660, colonial matters were chiefly dealt with by the Council of State, but in July 1656, after many complaints from merchants such as Martin Noell and Thomas Povey, a standing committee was set up consisting of soldiers and merchants, for the affairs of ‘his Highness in Jamaica and West Indies’. Both Noell and Povey were included. But confusions, delays and muddles continued, and the stream of petitions from merchants to the Protector showed how jerkily the system worked, with many a stoppage and hindrance. Nevertheless both Noell and Povey were men of substance and influence in the society of the Protectorate, and Noell in particular could exert much influence on Cromwell when he chose. This ‘exotic and mysterious figure’ from humble origins in Stafford rose to become a great capitalist. An Alderman of London by 1651, and a member of the East India Company, his West Indian connexions were many; also he was first heard of trading with Montserrat and Nevis in 1650. He acted as contractor for the Jamaican expedition, an agent for the army out there, and received a large grant of land in the island; he was also a member of the Trade Committee of 1655. His brother Thomas Noell was prominent in both Surinam and Barbados. Colonial contacts were at least equalled by his position at home where Noell had the fortunate chance of being Thurloe’s brother-in-law; he was MP for Stafford from 1656 to 1658, and described as a ‘kinglet’ in Parliament. Generally he flourished in the concerns of the Interregnum whether as shipowner, importer, landowner (from the West Indies to Wexford), merchant, contractor or just moneylender.22
Povey, who had been a member of the Long Parliament in 1647, was himself an intimate friend of Noell and another West Indian magnate. It is to his Letter Book, a series of accounts of affairs at home relevant to the colonies for the benefit of Governor Searle of Barbados, that we owe a picture of the knighting of a prominent Barbadan dignitary, Colonel James Draxe, at the Protector’s hands.23 It was clearly done at the direct instigation of Noell, and to signify general Protectoral cordiality to the island, for, wrote Povey: ‘Mr Noell this morning with Colonel Draxe waited upon his Highness who heard him, and by his mediation, all your Affairs very patiently and favourably … and upon the reasons handsomely given and enforced, he ordered, that which you most desire, and as a respect to your Island (testified by an honour done to the Person employed by you) his Highness was pleased to give the honour of Knighthood to Sir James Draxe; … although Mr Noell escaped the title, it was evident that upon his intimations the dignity was conferred.’*
Yet for all Cromwell’s intimacy with and reliance upon such men, West Indian affairs continued to present a spectacle of much confusion in which personal applications to him always stood the best chance of securing success. There was no proper practical West Indian policy. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that his own romantic temperament where settlement was concerned only aggravated the possibilities of anarchy. In his sincere adjurations to New England, for example, that they should fulfil the will of the Lord by passing on to Jamaica, Cromwell certainly demonstrated this capacity for optimistic unreality to a high degree. He had always displayed much interested kindness towards the New Englanders, whose number he might even in the remote past have once swelled; it was an interest reciprocated, or as Samuel Desborough reported to him in 1651, ‘your highness, in particular hath a great share in New England’s prayers’. In an audience with Captain John Leverett however, the agent for New England, in December 1656, Cromwell went much further in explaining his inspirational view of all colonizations. Cromwell began by asking Leverett how affairs stood in New England itself, before going on to emphasize his pet project for the removal of New Englanders to Jamaica. While admitting that the first colonists had been sickly, the Protector explained that this was said to be ‘a climacterical year’ (i.e. a year of special significance) and in the meantime other colonists were coming round to the project.24
Leverett in reply raised a number of sensible points: ‘I objecting the contrariety of spirits, principles, manners, and customs of the People of New England to them that were at the island or in any other plantations that could remove thither, so as not to cement.’ Cromwell swept all this aside with sublime confidence. It was time for them to leave their ‘barren country’ (New England) and go into a land of plenty (Jamaica): ‘He did apprehend the people of New England had as clear a call to transport themselves from thence to Jamaica as they had from England to New England.’ Evidently it seemed to Cromwell only yesterday that the Mayflower had sailed. But it was in fact thirty-five years. The Pilgrim Fathers were not inclined to get back into their ships. Their economical successors were far more interested in the possibilities of supplying Jamaica with wheat, beef and pork to the tune of £10,000–12,000 a year. Although Daniel Gookin was further entrusted by Cromwell with the task of inspiring this fresh emigration, few ever made the removal south from New England, and those who did were so horrified by the diseases that their accounts home were the reverse of encouraging.
Although by the Restoration, the population of Jamaica was only just over two thousand, counting those soldiers who remained, Cromwell did at least have more success with the inhabitants of Bermuda. Some hundred and fifty men, women and children did transport thence to Jamaica early in 1658, despite the efforts of one William Phillips who tried to warn them of the fearful conditions prevalent on the island, and ‘none but the scum of the Indies was there’. For this insult however he was duly imprisoned for obstructing the Lord Protector’s designs over Jamaica and briefly put in irons. Barbados and St Kitts both turned a deaf ear to Oliver’s appeals: far too many of their citizens had found their graves in Jamaica already. But some colonists did come from the tiny Leeward Island of Nevis.
Here the gallant and elderly Governor Luke Stokes set an example by emigrating with his family. Although getting on in years, he answered to the fiery call, speaking of ‘his Highness’ undeserved and unexpected favours, he hath been pleased to throw some of them upon myself, wherein he hath in some particulars declared his Highness’s design concerning Jamaica, and made me an instrument to declare it to the people of the colony’. Obediently in their turn, the people of Nevis answered their Governor’s call. Fifteen hundred men and women sailed off undaunted on the journey, to land at Port Morant, at the east end of Jamaica, a fertile area cut off by the Blue Mountains. Two-thirds of their number died of sickness, including Stokes himself. Yet the remainder, by occupying this remote but important corner, did much to help the young colony survive.25 At least one small but stalwart body of men and women had shared the Protector’s vision of how they should go to work not only at home but also in the wider world.
Cromwell’s policies in Europe were subject to the same mixed pressures of Protestant evangelism on the one hand and national or commercial interest on the other. Naturally there would be clashes between the two courses, the one dictated by religious sympathy, the other by more worldly preferences of power and trade. But Cromwell never started from the viewpoint that such clashes were insoluble. On the contrary he was supported by a strong inner belief that they must be reconcilable somehow if only by his old Parliamentary methods of waiting and juggling. In this manner, not only was he original, but he also managed to tread an uncommonly successful course through the maze of European politics in the last four years of his life.
The high summer of 1655 was complicated by the furious reaction of the Spanish King to the rape of Jamaica. The Spanish Ambassador Cardenas was instructed to return, having lodged the strongest protest at this unprovoked attack. But Cromwell was by now sufficiently engaged in his own mind in the anti-Spanish struggle to reply in kind. A manifesto was issued describing the recent raid as a piece of pure self-defence for all the injuries England had received in recent years; and other Spanish injuries were refreshed in the memory, once more going back as far as the Armada. Cardenas told his King that many members of the Council were hostile to the idea of the Anglo-Spanish struggle that must soon follow. Nevertheless the Protector, even if he had not anticipated this outcome of his Western Design, was not reluctant to see it come about. And he was borne up not only by Protestant enthusiasm, but by the favourable changes in England’s European position brought about during the last twelve months.
Cromwell had always taken the question of his Navy extremely seriously: his personal predilection could be seen from the fact that in 1657 he had a picture of the English fleet off Mardyck painted by Isaac Sailmaker, a pupil of Gildrop. Throughout the Interregnum ship-building reached heights unknown in the age of King Charles I – five warships a year were planned,* compared with less than one a year in the previous reign. While for recruitment, the method of impressment was for the first time put to serious use. The launching of the one-thousand-ton Naseby in 1655 was an impressive occasion, witnessed by John Evelyn, who allowed himself to be worked into a fury at the sight of Oliver on horseback as a figurehead on its prow, trampling six nations beneath his feet – a Scot, Irishman, Dutchman, Frenchman, Spaniard and Englishman – with ‘a laurel over his insulting head’.26
An effective fleet was intended not only as a striking force but also as a menacing escort to merchant shipping. And the prolonged tour on which Cromwell despatched his great Admiral Robert Blake early in 1654 was intended literally to show the British flag – that was to protect the merchants where they wished to trade, harry those who had harried them and generally make it clear in the Mediterranean and its environs that the power of England was now not to be disregarded with impunity.
Blake, who was by now fifty-five – a year older than the Protector – was capable of being described by the Grand Duke of Tuscany as a very touchy and sensitive old man (Un vechio assai sensitive et delicato); his health was failing and he was to die a year earlier than his great employer. Nevertheless Blake was not only a brilliant Admiral, the hero in English eyes of many Commonwealth engagements, including the Dutch War, but he was also a great patriot. England’s reputation was felt to be safe in the hands of this man who in the tradition of a professional sailor interested himself in service rather than politics. When asked to declare himself against Cromwell, he is said to have replied sturdily: ‘It is not for us to mind state affairs, but to keep foreigners from fooling us.’
For the next twelve months Blake did indeed prevent many a foreigner from fooling England: he attacked the French, attacked African pirates, and in the course of seeing to reparations for British ships which had suffered, visited Cadiz, Gibraltar, Alicante, Naples and Leghorn. It was at Leghorn that he was said to have made the glorious if apocryphal reply to one who would have punished an English seaman for insulting a Catholic procession: ‘I would have you know, and the whole world know, that none but an Englishman shall chastise an Englishman.’ While his chance anchorage at Gibraltar was in itself of sufficiently momentous consequence to English naval history to have justified the whole expedition:27 by this separating of the two French squadrons at Brest and Toulon respectively, he demonstrated the enormous strategic importance which could belong to the fortress of Gibraltar in the future.
In 1653 negotiations had been begun for an Anglo-Portuguese commercial alliance: the fact that Portugal was a Catholic power meant that the English merchants had a particular desire to be free from the possible encroachments of the Inquisition. In 1654 certain preliminary rights were granted, although Anglo-Portuguese relations remained strained, especially in view of a highly upsetting incident in which the brother of the Portuguese Ambassador was executed for a murder performed in a London brawl. Finally in 1656, helped on by the threat of Blake’s guns, the Portuguese ratified the commercial treaty. In one spirited attack however, against some Tunisian pirates in April 1655, Blake did wonder if he had exceeded his brief, despite the fact that he had forced the Bey to release all his English prisoners. But Cromwell’s reply of June was affability itself, showing that the two men were made in much the same mould.28 ‘We have great cause to acknowledge the good hand of God towards us in this action,’ he wrote, ‘who, in all the circumstances thereof (as they have been represented by you) was pleased to appear very signally with you.’ In the same letter Cromwell urged Blake to proceed off Cadiz: there he might intercept the famous Plate ships on their great golden lumbering journey back to Europe. However the health of his men and the strain on his ships necessitated in Blake’s view a return to England in October. It was not until the following spring of 1656 that Blake, this time accompanied by Montagu as General-at-sea, returned to the same stamping-grounds for a more concerted effort against the Spanish.
Such prudent employment of the Navy was matched at roughly the same period by the most famous instance of Cromwell’s inspirational Protestantism, his appeals on behalf of the suffering Waldensians of Piedmont. It was an incident, perhaps small in itself, which illuminated the attitudes of a whole age.* The crisis came about in this manner: the Roman Catholic Duke of Savoy had a number of Protestant subjects who were supposed by an original treaty to confine themselves to the mountainous areas of the Vaudois (or Waldenses). In the spring of 1655 the Duke began a policy of persecution towards these dissidents, driving them with much brutality exercised by troops, back to their former limits on the excuse that they had transgressed them. Some died as a result of these actions, and added to which the suffering of women and children was immense. Religious feeling inflamed reports still further. By May Mercurius Politicus was reporting from Lyons that it was ‘that Devilish Crew of Priests and Jesuits’ who had thus incited the Duke, adding that ‘all the true Protestants’ were ‘bound by charity to have a fellow feeling of their miseries’. A fortnight later it was making reference to ‘such cruelties and inhumanities as was never heard heretofore’.29
The news did indeed shock Europe to the core, and nowhere more than in Protestant England. Whitelocke’s account for example spoke of children abducted and forcibly converted to Catholicism, churches and houses fired while their wretched inhabitants, ‘these poor quiet People and loyal Subjects’, fled in terror and distress. John Milton gave these feelings of horrified outrage their finest fulfilment, when he called on the Lord not only to avenge his ‘slaughtered Saints’ but also
In thy book record their groans
Who were thy Sheep and in their Ancient Fold
Slain by the bloody Piedmontese that roll’d
Mother with Infant down the Rocks …
Cromwell himself was determined to give practical outlet to his indignation. Although he had two agents in Switzerland already, he sent out a special commissioner Samuel Morland, and Morland responded to the challenge by invoking the names of Nero and his kind: were they alive again ‘they would be ashamed at finding that they had contrived nothing that was not even mild and humane in comparison’.
Cromwell also initiated a public collection on behalf of these unfortunates, heading the subscription list with a personal gift of £2000. Half a million pounds was said to have been raised as a result, perhaps because the names of subscribers were listed: even if the figure was exaggerated, the Venetian Ambassador bore witness to the immense public concern – and the fact that even the Catholic Ambassadors of foreign powers were expected to contribute. Some of the interiors of English churches were actually painted red to hammer home the message of massacre to the congregations. Collections were held on board the ships at sea. The correspondence of the Council of State shows them obsessed with this subject from late May onwards, many of the most stirring letters probably concocted by Milton himself. Thurloe, writing to one agent already in Switzerland, John Pell, to enquire about all the hideous details, told him in early May: ‘I do assure you it is a matter which his highness lays very much to heart’; a fortnight later it was described as very much afflicting him. When it was pointed out that the finances of the Protectorate made it difficult to spare quite so much money, the answer came that Oliver on the contrary desired to ‘strain himself ’ in this cause; in November he was worrying over the details of the distribution, lest it should not reach those most deserving.30
Money for relief apart, the solutions that Cromwell proposed to the Waldensian problem had two elements. On the one hand he saw a genuine opportunity for some kind of concerted Protestant action, of the sort that had long represented a favourite dream, in an eminently righteous cause. Thus the Swedish envoy, visiting the Protector for the quite different purpose of obtaining English soldiers for Swedish service, was unable to drag his attention away from the problems of religious action and received a long lecture on the subject (of much vagueness, he said later). Cromwell further suggested that the Prince of Transylvania, whose envoy had visited him in November 1654, might find in this episode an opportunity for mutual cooperation. Transylvania occupied a perilous position in Central Europe, menaced by Poland, Austria or the Ottoman Empire by turns; many of its inhabitants were Protestant. The Piedmontese business, wrote the Protector, although ‘first begun upon those poor and helpless People, however threatens all that Profess the same Religion, and therefore imposes upon all a greater necessity for providing themselves in general and consulting the common safety’.31 Cromwell also suggested that the Protestant cantons of Switzerland might attack Savoy, and himself contemplated the use of Blake’s fleet to capture Nice or Villefranche.
Secondly, and as it turned out, more successfully from the point of view of the Piedmontese, Cromwell entered into much closer relations with Catholic France on the subject. And in fact it was due to the efforts of Cardinal Mazarin that the Duke of Savoy was eventually persuaded that some more lenient treatment of his Protestant subjects might be politic. The ‘pacification’ of Pignerol of October 1655, to which Savoy agreed, although the result of no grand Protestant drive, did at least ameliorate the lot of the Waldensians. Even more to the point of Cromwell’s own policies, it hastened on the tentative processes by which England and France had already been drawing into an alliance with each other. One obvious difficulty was the close family relationship of the Stuarts to the French King. Yet it was this very problem that, if overcome, could make an Anglo-French alliance of such enormous potential advantage to the Protectoral regime.
It was a point much appreciated at the time. Even before the initiation of the Western Design, when the question of attacking either France or Spain was debated in the Army Council, it was felt that Spain should be preferred as a target, because France might so easily retaliate by launching the Stuart King back at England. Now collaboration over the Piedmontese had made the Huguenot problem seem newly soluble to both sides. Previously Cromwell had not wished to engage himself formally against helping on their cause, but in the Anglo-French commercial treaty of October 1655, a formula was found by which each side agreed not to help those rebels ‘now declared’ in the other’s country. This of course in turn precluded the French from giving further assistance to the Stuarts, and some secret clauses of the treaty provided for Charles ii and some other prominent Royalists to be expelled from France. In return for this certain Condéan insurgents in England would also be compelled to leave.
Fireworks celebrated the signing of the treaty. Amid the gathering clouds of an Anglo-Spanish action, a French alliance which temporarily nullified the dangers of Charles ii made good sound sense. Of course it was only to be expected that such an alliance should also have the converse effect of throwing the exiled English King into the arms of Spain. Robbed of French support, in April 1656 the young King signed a treaty by which a Spanish army was to support his restoration, in return for which he would agree to the return of Jamaica, and the exclusion of his subjects from the Spanish domains in the West Indies. And in turn, Charles ii’s dependence on Spain, inevitable as it was under the circumstances, gave a further cogency to Cromwell’s friendship with France.
It was in the spring of 1656 also that Sir William Lockhart of Lee, described by the Protector as ‘a Scot by nation, of an honourable house, beloved by us, known for his very great fidelity, valour and integrity of character’, was made Ambassador to the Court of Louis xiv. Like so many of the men in whom Cromwell put his trust, he was related by marriage to the Protectoral family circle, having taken as his second wife Oliver’s orphaned niece Robina Sewster. Earlier he had acted the part of a Scottish Royalist, being knighted by Charles i, and had fought for him at Preston; later a fracas with Argyll and the Commissioners had brought him on to the Commonwealth side. As Cromwell’s description had indicated, Lockhart in France showed himself to be a man of exceptional qualities, whose gift for friendship enabled him to secure the intimacy of Cardinal Mazarin himself, despite the fact that he did not dare write to him direct because of what he called modestly ‘mon mauvais Français’. The second of his five sons by Robina was diplomatically christened Jules or Julius after his great French patron, their eldest son with equal tact being named Cromwell. The role of the envoy of a Protestant republican power in Catholic monarchical France was not always socially enviable – in January 1658 the English union was said to be so unpopular in France that Lockhart could not leave his embassy in the hours of daylight, and had to transmit all his business with the Cardinal secretly and ‘without ceremony’ by night. But Lockhart’s presence was a contributing factor to the growth of Anglo-French warmth at least on the level of leadership.32
It was in the spring of 1657 that their preliminary agreement deepened into a proper political treaty between the two powers; France would contribute twenty thousand men and England six thousand and her fleet. Together they would carry on France’s enduring war against Spain in Spanish Flanders. Furthermore, it was agreed that jointly they would attack three crucial coastal fortresses there, with the aim of capturing Gravelines for France, Dunkirk and Mardyck for England. As a result before Cromwell’s death he was to see not only Mardyck won, but Dunkirk also turned into a British foothold on the Continent. Lockhart struck the right note in the spring of 1657 when in a speech to Louis xiv he declared that ‘Providence has submitted to two powerful Princes, and has so leagued their interests’.33 The French alliance, the Flemish involvement, with its twin possibilities of hampering Spain and helping on Flemish trade, had the appearance of an excellent practical scheme at the time.
In the meantime the Spanish War was certainly an easier aspect of his policy to explain to his fellow Englishmen. The manifesto of October 1655 had recounted Spain’s numerous villainies: by September 1656 in a speech to his Parliament from which he was beginning to need money urgently to carry on his war Cromwell sounded a further anti-Spanish note of increasing frenzy, expressed as it was with his usual mixture of repetition, hesitation and ultimate emphasis:34 ‘Why truly, your great enemy is the Spaniard. He is. He is natural enemy, he is naturally so. He is naturally so, throughout, as I said before, throughout all your enemies, through that enmity that is in him against all that is of God that is in you, or that which may be in you, contrary to that his blindness and darkness, led on by superstition, and the implicitness of his faith in submitting to the See of Rome, acts him unto.’ And he went on to quote the Scriptures, referring all to history to show that this ‘providential and accidental enmity’ was somehow part of the English heritage.
It was in fact in the September of 1656 that the first great triumph of the war, from the English point of view, was destined to occur. On 8 September the Spanish treasure-fleet was destroyed by Captain Richard Stayner, with a loss to Spain of some 600,000 pieces of eight, let alone the ships and cargoes demolished, saluted by Blake and Montagu in a letter to Cromwell as a most remarkable display of God’s Providence. But the most resounding victory was that of Blake in the year following. In April 1657 the ageing Admiral heard that a vast Spanish fleet which had arrived from the Americas was lying at the port of Santa Cruz, in the island of Tenerife. Three days later, in an attack of extraordinary rapidity and daring, Blake fell upon the Spaniards and demolished them utterly, in a manner greeted with ecstasy by the English; Cromwell’s method of conveying it was sober, but his words concerning the evident approbation of the Lord must have fallen sweetly on the ears of the man who had been careful to ‘seek God’ by prayer on the eve of the battle. The Protector sent the Admiral his own portrait set in diamonds and gold, and worth over £500, as a token of his esteem. By August however the worn-out Blake was dead, to be buried like so many other leaders of the Commonwealth with much pomp in the Henry vii chapel (and like them to be dug up at the Restoration). Worthier than such treatment was the epitaph of Captain Hatsell, who in reporting his passing reflected: ‘As he lived, so he continued to his death faithful.’
Blake’s victory represented however the apogee of enthusiasm for Cromwell’s foreign policy so far as his compatriots were concerned. Edmund Waller expressed it all, the joyous crowing over the Spanish enemy, when he wrote of:
… Our Protector looking with disdain
Upon this gilded Majesty of Spain …
Our Nations solid virtue did oppose
To the rich Troublers of the Worlds repose …
The seaworthy Englishmen (‘We tread on billows with a steady foot’) were contrasted with the clumsy yet wealthy Spaniards in their ‘Huge capricious Galleons stuff ’d with Plate’. In such sentiments the old picture of the Armada, a contest between tiny heroic English ships and mighty Spanish vessels, was indeed repainted in all its glory. And for all the unpopularity of the war with many merchants, and the growing financial troubles which it provoked inexorably at home for the Protector who had to pay for it, Oliver’s foreign policy did represent to his people as a whole something with which they could identify, and identify with nationalistic pleasure.* Even the idea that the capture of the Spanish fleet would of itself pay for the war was a sound one from the point of view of Oliver’s contemporaries. Although for various reasons the expected bonanza never quite materialized there were many like Oliver himself who could remember the capture of the silver fleet in 1628 by Piet Hein; even the principle would seem a viable one at the time.36
In every way Oliver Protector as a European figure came to restore to Britain that international prestige which had long been lacking. For one thing, he became extremely famous not only in their councils and their correspondences, but also in the caricatures of their countries. One highly offensive cartoon which showed the two Kings of Spain and France acting in a humiliating menial capacity to the Protector, did at least make the point of his towering reputation. No one in Europe could ignore him. By September 1655 there were said to be no less than thirty-two foreign representatives in London, a vast change from the isolation of the first months of the Commonwealth, when the chief concern of foreign powers had been to buy up the late King’s belongings cheap.
Not only missions but presents from abroad flowed in the Protector’s direction, fortunately not all as wilful as the mares despatched by the Duke of Oldenbourg – some Barbary horses sent by the republic of Genoa proved more acceptable. There was a lion and a leopard from the Sultan of Morocco. The state which Oliver maintained towards his Ambassadors was consonant with his picture of England’s greatness: the early teething-troubles in which the envoys had cavilled at the details of their reception by this uncrowned head gradually gave way to ritualized state, as Cromwell’s reign progressed. Ambassadors approaching would bow three times, once at the entrance to the Protector’s chamber, once mid-way through the hall, and once more on the lower steps of Cromwell’s throne of state. The Protector was wont to acknowledge each bow with a slight nod of his head. At formal dinners, the Protector sat alone on one side of the table while Ambassadors and members of the Council of State sat on the other.
To a certain extent Cromwell, like any other statesman, was capable of using the appurtenances of his grandeur to confuse when necessary, as well as to impress. Nieupoort, the Dutch envoy (who was in fact one of the two most favoured Ambassadors in London, the other being Bonde the Swede), complained on one occasion of Cromwell’s tenor of conversation: ‘I cannot interrupt him when he talks,’ he wrote, ‘and he would be annoyed if I asked every time interpretations to the point of his general remarks … I found that he just does not answer questions which he does not wish to.’ The Swedish Ambassador too had some harsh words to say about the Protector’s professions of sincerity, which in contrast to such avowals in his own country, did not always mean what they said.
There were other complaints concerning the diplomatic arrangements of the Protectorate, which it has been suggested sprang more from amateurishness than from deliberate interference with the processes.37 Replies to letters were often heavily delayed, hence the angry remark of King Charles x of Sweden to Bonde on the subject of Milton which sounds so ironic to latterday ears – surely in all England it was strange that there was only one man capable of writing a Latin letter, and he a blind man! Again Cromwell had a singularly irritating habit of giving audiences on Thursday afternoon, too late for the Ambassadors to send their reports abroad in the packet for Europe. His prolonged Hampton Court ‘weekends’ were also a source of some annoyance to those Ambassadors who found themselves thus kicking their heels idly in London as a result, particularly as they were not allowed to receive the English with any freedom, and thus lived as virtual prisoners in their own houses. It was only Nieupoort and Bonde who were honoured to visit Hampton Court. Bonde enjoyed a particularly traditional visit, in which he played bowls, killed a stag in the park, and listened to some music.
But these pricks, these little annoyances, could not take away from the fact that Oliver in his foreign relationships displayed an amazing range, and was in turn called upon in European disputes or causes as only a naturally imperial figure could be invoked. To the Evangelical cities of Switzerland he wrote early in 1656 over the expulsion of some Protestants in the perennial disputes there between Catholic and Protestant: he was no less anxious for their welfare than if the conflagration had broken out in England itself. That in turn fitted well enough with his anti-Spanish speech to Parliament when he exclaimed: ‘Yea, all the interests of the Protestants in Germany, Denmark, Helvetia, the Cantons and all the interests in Christendom [are] the same as yours.’
To an even greater extent it was the more distant approaches which expressed the growth of his reputation. He interested himself in the cause of the Bohemians, calling them Fratres Unitatis, and urging the persecuted Comenius and his colleagues to settle in Ireland in order to abate their sufferings. There was an idea that he should personally help to end the war between the Republic of Venice and the Turks. There was even a mission sent to distant and exotic Russia in February 1655. The original reaction of Russia, which was after all under a monarchical rule in the person of the Tsar, had been to condemn the republican regime. But the Protectoral envoy Prideaux did make his way into the Tsar’s presence, after a traumatic journey with horses and sledges, and although he did not succeed in getting the restoration of commercial privileges for English merchants, the Tsar did neatly solve the problem of address which had so taxed the ingenuity of Cardinal Mazarin and Louis xiv. ‘How is the good health of Oliver Utaditela?’ he enquired, in Russian meaning sole commander or director.38
An interesting incident linked the Protector’s name to the internecine affairs of mid-seventeenth-century Poland. Oliver’s early interest in the model of the Polish Diet for Parliament and an elective monarchy has been noted; Mercurius Politicus throughout this period shows much interest in Polish affairs. Indeed many felt both then and afterwards that there was a valid comparison to be made between Cromwell and Chmielnicki, the Cossack Hetman of Ukraine who had led an uprising against the Catholic Polish King in 1648. Sometimes Chmielnicki was even named as the ‘Protector’ of the Cossacks; Pierre Chevalier, a French agent in the Ukraine who knew Chmielnicki personally, described him as ‘a Cromwell, not less daring, not less experienced in politics than the English Cossacks’. Chmielnicki had a Scottish lieutenant Maxim Krovonos (translated: Wrynose) who was even rumoured to be an agent of the Commonwealth.39 By 1655 however, King John Casimir of Poland hoped for Cromwell’s help against a possible invasion by the Tsar, seeing the Protector in his new world role. Nicholas de Bije, the Polish envoy, arrived with credentials correctly, even flatteringly, addressed ‘To Lord Oliver Cromwell, Protector of England, and our dear friend’. His mission was to suggest that Oliver should invade Archangel himself, in order to divert the Tsar from Poland – an extension indeed of Cromwell’s foreign policy.40
But as the Venetian Ambassador predicted, the earlier efforts of the Polish King on behalf of the Stuarts were not so easily forgotten. De Bije had to wait some time for an audience, and when he did achieve it, was met with some formidable reproaches from the Protector on precisely that subject, in addition to which the Poles were said to have despoiled Englishmen and Scots living in Poland. When Sweden subsequently attacked Poland, Cromwell was supposed to have gone further and actively kept in touch with the rebel Chmielnicki, urging him on in his efforts to subvert the Polish Crown. An encouraging letter was said to have been written by the Protector to the Cossack, offering an alliance, and saluting Chmielnicki by a series of honorific if emotive titles including ‘The Destroyer of Papist errors’ and ‘The Scourge of the Popes’. Such a letter in Cromwell’s hand has never been found. It may be that it never existed at all. It may be that it was forged, possibly by Chmielnicki’s energetic head of Chancery Danilo Wyhowski, as a propaganda weapon. It may even be that Cromwell did write such a letter (although there is no record of it on his side) and that it vanished with the general obliteration of Chmielnicki’s archives after his death. But from Cromwell’s point of view the episode certainly illustrates what a part his name was now playing in European affairs. Even if the letter was merely forged by Chmielnicki’s party, it was significant that the effort was thought well worth the making.*
Such fringe activities all helped to embroider the legend of the Protector’s greatness abroad. In the case of the Scandinavian powers however, those nations abutting the Baltic Sound so crucial to English trade and shipping, Oliver had a more complicated row to hoe. In his relations with Sweden, for example, Protestant (Lutheran) country as it might be, he must not forget the interests of the English Eastland Company, founded seventy years earlier specifically to trade with that Baltic area.41 In turn the importance of the Eastland Company went beyond the mere priorities of a commercial organization: for the supplies from the Baltic were vital to England’s Navy; including Baltic hemp (the best came from Riga), slow-growing fir poles from the hinterland, long planks for ships, Swedish iron for guns. But this commitment plunged him into a highly complicated Baltic world.
In 1654 the unpredictable Queen Christina, whom Mrs Cromwell had once destined for his bride en deuxième noces, gave way of her own choice to her cousin King Charles x Gustavus. Whether he understood him correctly or not – for it is possible that being of an older generation, the Protector read into this King too much of the attitudes of his great predecessor who had terrorized all Europe, Gustavus Adolphus – Oliver certainly found in Charles x the type of man he could admire. When he referred to Sweden and England as twin columns upon which European Protestantism could safely rest, he was venting this comforting feeling of being in touch with one who must surely share his own Protestant aims.42 The intimacy of Charles’s ambassador Bonde, the enviable visits to Hampton Court, were paralleled by the terms of friendship which came to exist on paper between Protector and monarch. A nice footnote to history was provided when Charles x even refused to let his brother marry Prince Rupert’s sister, Sophia of the Palatine, first cousin to the exiled English King, because the Stuart connexion might annoy Cromwell. Since this Princess ultimately married the Elector of Hanover to found the new Protestant dynasty on the English throne, it can be argued that the King of Sweden inadvertently debarred a Swedish royal house from England. And before Bonde left England in the summer of 1656, their acquaintanceship was celebrated by the gift of Oliver’s portrait, the size of a crown, in a gold case surrounded by diamonds, as well as four horses and a hundred pieces of white cloth (worth it was said £4000).
Unfortunately this Protestant idol did not reign in a vacuum. Charles’s avid militaristic eyes were from the first fixed on the two hereditary enemies of Sweden, Catholic Poland (whose royal family claimed the throne of the Vasas) and Denmark, who then still held Norway joined to it. Then there was the Protestant Electorate of Brandenburg, the nucleus of future Prussia, whose position on the northern coast of Germany might be endangered by a Swedish invasion. Two further powers could be expected to line up against Sweden’s projects – the Dutch, the traditional allies of Denmark, who with their own commercial interests in the Sound would scarcely permit the Danes to be attacked, let alone swallowed up by Sweden without a struggle, while Catholic Austria would presumably back Catholic Poland against Protestant Sweden.
Cromwell’s attitude to these roundabouts of alliance and counter-alliance was essentially cautious, where something as serious as England’s commercial interests was concerned. In an interview with Johann Friedrich Schlezer, the envoy from the Elector of Brandenburg, in December 1655, for example, Cromwell was begged to mediate between vulnerable Brandenburg and greedy Sweden. But although Oliver was quick to dwell on his desire that all ‘Evangelical potentates, princes and republics’ should live in Christian unity, and suggested that Sweden and Brandenburg should be able to live peaceably together since ‘all separation, bloodshed and quarrel’ should be prevented among fellow Evangelicals, he did not in fact embark on the promised mediation.43
Throughout his official relationship with King Charles x, his friendly protestations contrasted with the inertia which marked his more positive actions. A flowery letter congratulating Charles on the birth of his heir, which came perhaps from the pen of Milton, compared him to Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander: as Philip had learned of the birth of his son at the same moment as he had defeated the Illyrians, so Charles had just inflicted a noted defeat on the Poles, and carved away some of their territories, as ‘a horn dismembered from the head of the beast’.44 Yet such compliments were no substitute for the proper alliance which Charles x came to seek, as his military interests extended, and involved him by degrees in a full-scale war in the Sound, not only with Poland but also with Denmark. As has been seen, an Anglo-Swedish treaty of 1654 had been negotiated by Whitelocke; in 1656 there was a further expansion of it; but for all the efforts and approaches of Charles, for all Oliver’s pipedreams of a Protestant league, no closer connexion was formed between the two countries under the Protector’s guidance. Such a league was indeed debated at length in the spring of 1658 but without result: and the League of the Rhine signed on the eve of Oliver’s death in August 1658 contained sufficient variety of powers including the King of France for it to present a very different identity.
The real problem of Oliver’s relations with Sweden, as he himself presumably realized in his endless delays in granting King Charles x either an alliance proper or a loan, was the involvement of the Dutch. Like the Swedes, the Dutch were Protestants and Oliver had had his earlier hankerings after that union between the two countries. Alliance with France also tended to bring England closer to the Netherlands, because of Cardinal Mazarin’s favour towards the Dutch. At the same time the commercial interests of the Dutch and English continued to conflict – as the merchants of the Protectorate loudly complained – just as they had done before the Dutch War. Under the circumstances the Protector’s insistence that a clause in the Anglo-Dutch Peace of Westminster prevented him joining totally with Sweden, because it would range him against the Netherlands’ ally of Denmark, was probably the best action in the circumstances.
Essentially he drew back from committing himself to either side. So English trade in the Sound was subject to no more pressures than the general turbulence of that area imposed. Even a loan granted to Charles x in early 1657 was only offered with the Duchy of Bremen as a security – a handy depot for English exports. When Charles x offered Oldenbourg or East Friesland in lieu of Bremen (neither of which he currently possessed) the negotiations hung fire. By August 1657 Charles was offering the personal acquisition of Oldenbourg for Oliver, if only he would ally formally against Denmark. But still Oliver wrote friendly words, and still he did not make an outward decision.
It was tactics that some of his political admirers or opponents from the vital years of the King’s death might have recognized. Whether unconsciously or not, the Protector was avoiding a decision which was bound to range one power against him. When in September 1657 he sent another envoy to Copenhagen to mediate with the Danes, it should have become clear to Charles x that the Protector’s real intention was to keep the balance in the Baltic. There was a tentative suggestion from Oliver to Charles at the end of the year that Charles should fight Austria while Oliver continued to fight the Spanish at sea at Sweden’s expense – the money to be refunded in three instalments when Parliament met. But that would clearly have done more to solve the Protector’s growing financial difficulties than the strategic problems of the Swedish King. The Peace of Roskilde in February 1658 brought to the Baltic Sound that peace which had long been Cromwell’s hope because it ended the tiresome blockades and tolls of wartime. It arrived without his intervention taking a more active form than an absolute plethora of diplomatic exchanges and manoeuvres. These were inexpensive and uncommitting substitutes for troops.
It was inevitable that the merchants should complain that commercial interests were not the prime objective of the Protector, since in his prolonged and often tortuous Baltic balancing-act, he was often obliged to give precedence to other considerations.* Yet after all the Baltic was one area where an over-exalted view of the necessity of a Protestant League might have led Cromwell to exactly that type of idealistic involvement for which he is often criticized. But it never happened. The Protector niggled, he played for time, he took an acute interest in it all, he made speeches, he interviewed Ambassadors and sent back envoys of his own. But as has been pointed out recently he never allowed the idea of a Protestant League to overcome his native prudence.45
At the Dissolution, John Milton had seen Cromwell as one destined to bring about ‘the blessed alteration of all Europe’. That, at his death, he had certainly not achieved, if Milton like Cromwell seriously entertained notions of a Protestant League. Stouppe told Bishop Burnet that Cromwell had intended to follow his assumption of the kingship with a grand Protestant design, with a council for the Protestant religion, counsellors and secretaries for the provinces, including France, Switzerland and the Protestant valleys, the Palatinate and the Calvinists, Germany, Scandinavia, even Turkey, England and the West Indies. These secretaries were to receive £500 a year to report on the state of religion worldwide, and £10,000 a year was to be held for emergencies – presumably of the Piedmontese nature.46
Such a design was characteristic of the ideas Cromwell had long mulled over, but it was not altogether ironic that what Cromwell actually achieved by his foreign and colonial policy was something quite different – the newly shining greatness of Britain in the estimation of her neighbours, friends and foes. For he had demonstrated equally in the development of his policies a grasp of the considerations which would make Britain powerful, even if it formed the subject of fewer apocalyptic speeches and utterances. Not only that, but in his pursuit of Britain’s greatness, the Protector achieved for himself popularity and in doing so helped to ensure the stability of his own narrowly-based regime.
That this rise in British prestige and authority was popular cannot be doubted from contemporary estimates. A man like Thurloe would be lyrical on the subject: at his death, wrote the Secretary to the Council of State, referring to the successful acquisition of Mardyck and Dunkirk, Oliver ‘carried the keys of the continent at his girdle, and was able to make invasions thereupon and let in arms and forces upon it at his pleasure’. To Marvell, he was the man ‘who once more joyn’d us to the Continent’. Mercurius Politicusin its official obituary took care to mention him as one whose spirit knew no bounds – ‘his affection would not be confined at home, but brake forth into foreign parts, where he was good men universally admired as an extraordinary person raised up by God …’ It was an image also appreciated abroad: the Duke of Tuscany used to discourse with Sir John Reresby, then in exile, on his home affairs ‘which were then the miracle, as Cromwell the terror of the whole world’. And as for the English in general, Bishop Burnet undoubtedly judged the temper of them well, albeit from the vantage point of a Scotsman, when he wrote that Cromwell’s ‘maintaining the honour of the nation in all foreign countries gratified the vanity which is very natural to Englishmen’. If, as Burnet believed, Cromwell declaimed in Council that he would make the name of an Englishman as great as ever that of a Roman had been, then this was an endeavour of which his compatriots would only have approved.47
Indeed the bogey of Cromwell’s foreign greatness was later to haunt the unfortunate King Charles ii. In 1672 he complained that the French were harbouring some of his rebels, which had not been done in the time of the Protectorate. To this the French Ambassador retorted with more truth than flattery, ‘Ha, Sire, that was another matter: Cromwell was a great man and made himself feared by land and by sea.’ In vain Charles responded valiantly that he too would make himself feared in his turn – as it was pointed out: ‘He was scarce as good as his word.’ About the same time a ridiculous rhyme by Marvell expressed the same awkward truth. It purported to represent a dialogue between the horses bearing the equestrian statues of King Charles i and Charles ii at Charing Cross and Wool-church respectively, complaining at the new age of royal favourites:
De Witt and Cromwell had each a brave soul.
I freely declare it, I am for Old Noll
Though his government did a tyrant resemble
He made England great and his enemies tremble.48
It was scarcely likely that Oliver, who escaped censure in nothing, would endure an unscathed reputation in later ages in this respect. It was Edmund Ludlow who gave voice to the stock criticism of the French alliance: ‘this confederacy was dearly purchased on our part; for by it the balance of the two crowns of Spain and France was destroyed, and a foundation laid for the future greatness of the French, to the unspeakable prejudice of all Europe in general, and of this nation in particular, whose interest it had been to that time accounted to maintain equality as near as might be’. Slingsby Bethel in his notorious The World’s Mistake in Oliver Cromwell of 1689 gave the most effective denunciatory picture of his policies, much quoted since. He listed the Spanish War, the French alliance, Oliver’s general ignorance of foreign affairs (‘he was not guilty of too much knowledge of them’ he wrote sarcastically), the depopulating of England to the colonies, the impoverishment of the nation by continual wars, the lack of firmness in dealing with the Dutch to the disadvantage of English trade, and so forth and so on.
Both of these views are not only the obvious products of hindsight, but were also written to combat the nostalgia for Oliver’s foreign greatness in the reign of Charles ii. Bordeaux, the French Ambassador and an acute observer, wrote a more perceptive analysis of the Protector’s foreign policy in the summer of 1657 because it was written from the standpoint of his own time, and showed therefore what pressures he was then subject to. He designated as the Protector’s perpetual aim the desire to isolate the former English Royal Family, in order to leave them destitute of foreign alliances. He would even have liked the new Holy Roman Emperor to have been something other than an Austrian, to complete this isolation. ‘His policy is to engage as many states as possible in his preservation,’ wrote Bordeaux, ‘so that there can be no peace which does not include him’.49In this highly practical aim – for after all it must never be forgotten that Oliver headed a revolutionary regime of no other status than its own strength – he succeeded indeed sufficiently for there to be no immediate Restoration on his death.
In one respect of course the Protector was highly unsuccessful and Slingsby Bethel spoke no more than the truth. His foreign policy cost money as ambitious policies always do – although he did have Jamaica and Dunkirk to show for it, in contrast to both Charles i and Charles ii whose foreign policies were similarly expensive. It might be that his military expeditions abroad solved the problem of his soldiery who might otherwise have exhibited their ‘peccant humours’ at home, as one commentator suggested.50 But these same soldiers still had to be paid. Nor did Oliver ever solve his financial problems, which in consequence still further bedevilled the intricate difficulties of his handling of his Parliaments. The same people who basked in the reflection of his greatness did not enjoy paying the bill for it. But this in itself shows up the perennial difficulty of judging such a protean subject as a foreign policy.
By what standards should it be judged? If financial, then certainly as Oliver himself pointed out to the Army Council, defending his desire to go to work ‘in the world’, few such policies would be embarked upon – either then or at many other ages in history. To later ages his notions of being a Protestant champion or deliberately promoting Protestant settlement will always ring oddly in the ears of those not reared in the Age of Faith; on the other hand his moves towards European unity will sound sweetly to those today newly leaning in this direction. Both latterday judgements ignore opinions rife in his own age. If the standards of Oliver’s time are taken, it was Edward Hyde himself who wrote that Cromwell’s greatness at home was but a shadow of the glory he had abroad.51 And there is no doubt that to Hyde this was a peerless achievement, in line with the expected aspirations of his people.