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  • English Character and the Fiasco of the Western Design
  • Carla Gardina Pestana

Oliver Cromwell's Western Design—the project to conquer the Spanish West Indies that brought Jamaica into the English colonial orbit—marked a signal moment in the development of an English imperial vision. For the first time the state captured the colony of a rival European power, that of its long-standing nemesis, Hapsburg Spain. Considered an embarrassing failure at the time, the design dramatically increased the acreage controlled by the English in the Caribbean—Jamaica was larger than all the other English islands combined—and eventually allowed Britain to emerge as a leading sugar producer. This article explores the sense of failure wrought by this ambitious imperial program, rather than the long-term success it ultimately brought. In worrying over the performance of the English officers and men sent out on the design, commentators revealed the anxieties and assumptions that animated early English imperial endeavors. Mortification occurred within the dual contexts of burgeoning imperial schemes and tottering English revolution, and both of those contexts intensified the discussion about the failure.

The design fit into Cromwell's elevated ambitions for England and for its revolution. He had been instrumental in the conquest of both Scotland and Ireland, accomplishing in the latter arena "in three years what English monarchs had failed to do in over a hundred."1 Frustrated by the continued inability of parliament to realize the goals that had motivated the revolution, [End Page 1] Cromwell had (rather impulsively on the morning of April 20, 1653) used a military force to dissolve the so-called Rump Parliament. When efforts to create a new governmental system authored by a nominating committee of elected godly men failed, the New Model Army general had accepted the request of his fellow officers that he become lord protector. With his new power, Cromwell had quickly brought the war with the Dutch to a close. In the peace negotiations he articulated a vision of a union of Dutch and English Protestant republics that would control trade and dictate terms to the Catholic monarchies of Europe. Once peace was concluded (though without realizing Cromwell's goal for union), he turned toward the military conquest of the Spanish empire in the Americas. The fleet that would bring England Jamaica was sent out with instructions to conquer multiple Spanish colonies, as a first step toward the complete ouster of Spain from the Western Hemisphere. Cromwell's instructions dictated that the expedition should take the islands of Hispaniola, Porto Rico, and Cuba as well as the major mainland settlement of Cartagena, although they left the exact order of this string of conquests up to the five commissioners appointed to oversee the design.2 The triumph of the revolution at home would bring political reform and godly religion, while abroad it would ensure economic prowess, military dominance, and a vastly increased empire in the Americas.

The English expected easy victory in Spanish America for two interconnected reasons: God was on the side of righteous English Protestantism and the English character was naturally superior to that of "the Spaniard." While the first of these propositions had been amply proven in the many victories of the New Model Army, a segment of the English population had been eager to demonstrate the second for many decades, particularly in a New World setting such as the design offered.3 Failure tested both of these convictions. Was God on the side of the English? Was the English character really superior, as had been posited? Some effort went into exploring the former question, with various participants concluding that, although God generally [End Page 2] endorsed the anti-Spanish agenda of the design, some entity engaged in the project (whether the army itself, the nation as a whole, or Cromwell as the man who had dispatched it) had sinfully called down the wrath of the Lord. English character—both in general and as embodied in specific leading men—garnered more attention, and much of the debate sparked by the design focused on whether the men involved were worthy to be known as English men, with all that designation entailed. Godliness did not play a very...


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