Q&A with Carla Pestana on The English Conquest of Jamaica

Pestana ReviewTo accompany the review by Casey Schmitt that was published yesterday, we are pleased to have this Question & Answer with Carla Pestana today regarding her new book, The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Harvard University Press, 2017). We thank Dr. Pestana for her time.

JUNTO: Your book, The English Conquest of Jamaica, is a story of ambitions and realities. Oliver Cromwell wished nothing less than to take over Spanish America. And while the end result mostly entailed the island of Jamaica, the implications were still immense. In short, what was “The Design,” how did it evolve, and how did it shift the geopolitical landscape?

CARLA GARDINA PESTANA: The Western Design began as a secret plan to take the Spanish empire in the Americas.  The name—the Western Design—came about because contemporaries needed a vague way to refer to the project. At first they simply called it “the Design” or “the present expedition,” but after the fleet sailed and its general destination became known, the term “western” was added. The secrecy allowed Oliver Cromwell, then Lord Protector, to maintain an element of surprise, and it sent many in Europe and the Americas into paroxysms of speculation.

As originally conceived, as you said, it aimed to take all the Spanish Americas. Cromwell and those around him believed that Spain’s hold on the Americas was weak. The Spanish residents had become lazy and corrupt; they continued to mistreat their underlings—both native and African; and their lands were poorly protected and lightly held. Nothing would be easier, with the help of native and African allies, then displacing the Spanish and occupying their lands. Doing so had been an English dream since the dawn of interest in the Americas.

The massive fleet Cromwell dispatched (which was augmented by men and materiels from various Caribbean islands) first attacked the Spanish island of Hispaniola. Repulsed there in a humiliating defeat, they took instead the much smaller and less significant Jamaica. From there they attacked other Spanish locations, but only managed to extend the conquest to then unoccupied Tortuga (and held that only temporarily). Taking Jamaica turned out to be a five-year long process, rather than the quick work of grabbing an initial colony that Cromwell anticipated, while the war the invasion launched carried on in the region until the terms of the 1670 Treaty of Madrid were imposed.

Most obviously, the Design added Jamaica to England’s colonial ledger, increasing its Caribbean acreage dramatically and giving England a place at the heart of the Caribbean Sea. Prior to the English invasion, the geography of the region saw a minor, non-Spanish presence clinging to the outer edges and the Spanish firmly holding the center and its continental periphery. The entrée of the English into that center ended Spanish hegemony; English success also prodded other non-Iberians to enter the area. The French followed quickly, displacing the English from Tortuga (and eventually using that island as a launching point for the move onto Hispaniola itself). After the English took Jamaica, geopolitical conflicts shifted from everyone fighting the Spanish to a melee pitting all against all.  Dutch, English, and French skirmished with one and other rather than concentrating on their usual Spanish foes. Geopolitics in the area turned more fragmented and complex.

The Spanish monarchy was persuaded to allow an English presence, effectively granting them access to the lands in the region they already occupied. Spain abandoned the older view that had defined any English person in the region as an interloper and effectively a pirate.

JUNTO: It seems ironic that Cromwell launched this daring initiative during a revolutionary age at home. How was The Design connected to the English Revolution?

PESTANA: The Design arose out of the context of revolution in England and of the wars of the Three Kingdoms.  Cromwell became Lord Protector in 1653, and within the year he was pursuing plans for the Design. Riding high on a series of military triumphs—among them victory against Charles I, the brutal re-conquest of Ireland, and the successful invasion of Scotland—Cromwell believed that the Lord smiled on the revolutionaries’ project.  He felt strongly that they were called to extend the godly governance that their victory had made possible, and that eliminating the Spanish hold on the Americas followed organically from what had already been achieved. The challenge for scholars—aware that Cromwell’s reach exceeded his grasp in this instance and also that the revolution would collapse within five years of the landing on Jamaica—has been to recapture the optimism and audacity of this moment. Yet I read Cromwell both as optimistic and—on some deep level—as feeling intensely compelled to adopt this course. He saw it as a culmination. He declared that it would be sinful not to pursue this goal, as God had given them the means to do so. So while I agree it looks ironic in hindsight, in the moment it seemed obvious and even necessary.

I first came to my interest in Jamaica’s conquest while working on an earlier book, The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661. I realized writing that book that the Design had produced an unprecedented amount of information about the English Americas (so much so that it threatened to overwhelm that book) and that what I wanted to say about the Western Design exceeded the confines of that project.  So I considered the Design and Jamaica rather more narrowly within the revolutionary decades there, but resolved that another book was needed to do justice to Jamaica both within and beyond that context. I still very much see Jamaica as intensely affected by that revolutionary moment.

JUNTO: The conquest of Jamaica proved a turning point for Britain from being a second-rate empire to eventually a global power. How did England’s activities in the Caribbean transform the broader British Empire?

PestanaPESTANA: Since my days as a graduate student, I remain persuaded Christopher Hill’s observation about how the revolution altered England. Now we think in terms of state formation more than the modernization terms Hill used, but the phenomenon was in many ways the same. The revolutionary governments eliminated some older institution and practices; they added new ones (especially forms of taxation); and they built up an unprecedented army and navy. All this work within England, Ireland, and Scotland made launching this expedition possible. The Design was both a culmination of revolutionary activity and an innovative step in the creation of empire.  As I have argued in a recently published Journal of British Studies piece, Jamaica revealed what England still lacked in terms of an imperial infrastructure, and in this way laid out a road map to later imperial bureaucracy, finance, and other key innovations.

As I point out in the book, Jamaica is the first colony in the Americas taken by the English state. They invaded using the navy and the army. Rather than a project of a corporation or a proprietor, Jamaica marked the moment when England took over what had previously been farmed (to use an early modern term) to others. While in general moving forward on all the new pathways carved by the revolutionary state, the Restoration government eschewed the work of direct action (except to an extent the conquest of New Netherland) and reverted to the use of proprietary grants. Even before Cromwell came into a position to unleash his Design, parliament had already used its new-found latitude to inaugurate the Navigation Act which aimed at regularizing and taxing the trade of the empire. Cromwell’s fleet enforced this earlier legislation, and the Restoration government would repass it and continued that policy.

By 1660, as I have written elsewhere, when the Stuarts came to power, the Restoration government inherited a much-altered American dominion. It denied the origins of these innovations but built on and profited from them.  (Obviously I am in the school that thinks the emphasis on the “Glorious Revolution” as the source of all change is misplaced.)

JUNTO: While you focus your analysis from the view of participants, you also try to factor in women and non-white populations. How can you accomplish that when most of the records have military origins and are thus mostly centered on white men?

PESTANA: Although I take the compliment gratefully, I am actually frustrated by the difficulty I faced in this regard. Given the sources and, quite frankly, given the nature of my questions, men had to be the focus. They were decision makers, soldiers, naval men, and the bulk of the first settlers.  But as you point out, I tried to read with an eye for others. The experiences of women and people of color can be particularly elusive but their presence and role reveals much. The (generally elite male) record keepers who neglected to illuminate the realities of their lives knew a great deal more about them than they saw fit to preserve. Reclaiming their stories is both a necessary and a complicated effort.  Gary Nash was my dissertation advisor in the post-Urban Crucible era when many of my fellow students directly tackled the problem of recovering the experiences of non-elites. Among my peers the focus was especially on class and race. My own first project focused on marginal religious communities, rendering me a bit of an outsider among my cohort. But at the same time, it mattered that I came of age intellectually among those who were immersed in such questions. That training helped to sensitize me to their hidden presence.

In addition, scholars usually skip over Jamaica’s early period, eager to get to sugar and slaves. I’m fascinated by the period prior to the advent of plantation slavery, when other futures seemed possible.  Within that context, I unearthed some surprising history, including that related to the island’s “Spanish Negroes,” as the English called them. Their role actually explains the military outcome.

JUNTO: Most historians who don’t focus on Jamaica mostly know about its ruthless slavery conditions and sugar production. Yet your book argues that British use of the island evolved from serving as a hub of the Atlantic Slave Trade to eventually another port receiving slaves for local use. How did that transition happen?

PESTANA: Working on the early period, I try to fight against reading backward. We know where Jamaica ends up, the result of much excellent scholarship on the 18th and 19th centuries. Yet we need to suppress the tendency to assume, as many do, that everyone both knew and planned for this outcome. If you read the sources without these assumptions, new elements—roads not taken as it were—become more apparent.

In terms of Jamaica’s history, after the English took the island, it came to serve as a transshipment point for slaves going elsewhere. That circumstance partly arose out of the ambitions of the Duke of York and his new slave company, but it also did so as a result of geographical factors. Jamaica was perfectly located to attack the Spanish, as the leaders of the invasion force touted to Cromwell; that also meant that it was well positioned to serve as a hub of trade. One of the two demands Cromwell made of the Spanish before attacking was that they open trade—the other had to do with permitting English settlers in the Americas. Previously the Spanish abused as pirates and heretics the interlopers they caught. Once the regional war finally ended (more or less with Sir Henry Morgan’s assault on Panama), trade became a viable possibility, in spite of continued impediments. The Spanish would eventually agree to it with regard to slaves but trade with willing locals also occurred—as it had in the past throughout the Caribbean—without official sanction. The islanders, however, perceived that serving as a transshipment point mainly benefited merchants—many of them based in England—rather than the island residents generally.

As with most early colonial ventures, English Jamaica initially used a variety of laborers. Jamaica’s experience stands out for the exploitation of soldiers who were first to work the land for their officers and as part of their regimental duties.  Once they were released from service (and in some cases acquired their own small holdings), the island went through a phase with a few large estates—some of them owned by absentee investors—and many small holdings. With time, as English settlement of the island flourished with rising populations and increased trade, more landowners bought slaves for their own use. The work of Nuala Zahedieh has intensively explored the financing of this shift.  In addition, migrants from other English settlements—especially those displaced when the Dutch took Surinam—arrived with slaves, and they infused more enslaved laborers into the population. Others have written or are writing about this late seventeenth-century transformation, but most of them occur after the effective end of my book.

JUNTO: Historians of America have given more attention to the Caribbean, but mostly in terms of the latter half of the eighteenth-century. How can understanding the earlier settlement of the Caribbean shift the general narrative of American history?

PESTANA: As I always tell my undergraduates, look at a contemporary map. The West Indies were more intensively settled, more heavily claimed, and more contested than North America. That cartographical truth demonstrates the relative significance of the southern region. Colonists in North America knew that profits could be made by trading with wealthier, tropical colonies; that wars were more likely to be fought there; and that great fortunes might be made there. They knew theirs was a comparative backward, safer perhaps and more likely to yield to the average person “a decent competency” (as Danny Vickers long ago pointed out), but that the real action lay elsewhere. Much North American trade serviced the West Indian colonies, not only in slaves but in foodstuffs, livestock, and products of northern forests. Lives and economies on the mainland and the islands were knit together from the first, a fact that our nation-based historical narratives has obscured.

I first discovered the West Indies by following Quakers who turned up in Massachusetts. Before the language of Atlantic history was in use among early American scholars, Quaker movement showed me that these worlds were integrated. It was a realization—which seems obvious now but was something of a revelation at the time—that has shaped much of what I have done since.

Another way to answer this question is to remember what Joyce Appleby said long ago at one of her Presidential addresses: colonial history was originally conceived as the pedestal upon which American history stood. Her observation inspired me to resist that conceptualization, which posits a limited and teleological way to grant this history significance. Once we shake off that justification for what we do, we can be free to look for connections and consequences outside the hallowed thirteen colonies. I found that liberating then, and it remains an important insight as our society becomes increasingly present-minded and disinterested in the distant past.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: