By Carla Gardina Pestana
Belknap/Harvard University Press, $35, 362 pages, iIllustrated
An unfortunate side-effect of the otherwise admirable success of Hilary Mantel’s novel “Wolf Hall” and its subsequent blockbuster television and stage adaptations has been a tendency to make its protagonist, the relatively minor figure Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell, eclipse his hitherto far more famous collateral descendant Oliver Cromwell.
As John Lydgate, Miguel de Cervantes, John Donne and Christopher Marlowe have all famously remarked, comparisons are generally odious — or odorous, as Shakespeare termed it. But at a recent academic symposium organized around “Wolf Hall” some participants seemingly felt obliged gratuitously to elevate Thomas as the more important Cromwell, a gross distortion of history as well as an unnecessary denigration of a great Englishman.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the only nonroyal ruler of the British Isles (apart from, briefly, his son), is certainly a contradictory figure, reviled by many and venerated by others. Although he was a regicide and by definition enough of a revolutionary to earn the dubious distinction of Leon Trotsky’s admiration, his admirers and detractors do not divide neatly across ideological lines.
Winston Churchill deplored him as a military dictator, but another right-wing figure Thomas Carlyle admired him. Left-wing Britons by and large regard him as too authoritarian a figure: a king in everything but name, a fact reinforced by his son succeeding him as “Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. To the Irish, he was a harsh foreign invader, but to the Jews, he was the ruler who allowed them back legally to the land from which they had been expelled 375 years before in 1290 by King Edward I of England.
Cromwell’s oversea activities in Ireland are famous — or notorious depending on your viewpoint — but few realize he was one of the earliest British rulers to be an imperialist. We all associate the Tudors with sponsoring exploration of the New World which led to what would eventually become the Dominion of Canada and then further afield under Sir Walter Raleigh, while the Stuarts’ association with colonization is commemorated in Virginia’s Jamestown.
But I’d bet that few people are familiar that it was not a king or queen, but Oliver Cromwell who surprisingly challenged Spain’s domination of the Caribbean (not to mention much of the rest of the Western Hemisphere) by sending an expedition to claim the island of Jamaica — and much more — for Great Britain. This historical gap has been authoritatively remedied by UCLA professor Carla Gardina Pestana in her deeply researched, well-written account of Oliver Cromwell’s bid for empire, which would have significant consequences long after his death.
As Ms. Pestana writes in her introduction:
“In a breathtakingly bold plan, Oliver Cromwell aimed to conquer all of Spanish America. England’s Lord Protector sent a massive fleet manned by thousands of soldiers and sailors to the Caribbean. His audacious move took the European world by surprise: before this expedition sailed in 1654, England had been a minor player in the wider Atlantic world After a decade and a half of internal upheaval — war, regicide, and revolution — England pivoted to confront the mighty Spanish monarchy..
“Cromwell’s scheme had far-reaching consequences. The English succeeded in conquering Jamaica, an island far larger than any they held in the West Indies and one seated at its heart. Cromwell’s government, the first in English history to mount a large-scale invasion in the Americas, deployed the state’s newly-expanded capabilities . The use of the navy and new modes of state finance anticipated Britain’s role as a major naval power with a global empire.”
With much colorful detail and intelligent analysis, reinforced by informative footnotes, this book illuminates a significant event too often overlooked in historiographical studies of Britain and its empire.
At the end of the book, Ms. Pestana sums up the far-reaching importance of Cromwell’s endeavor, trenchantly and wisely:
“England’s empire of commerce depended equally on building a settler society and fighting imperial wars, both fundamental components of the emerging imperial landscape. The Western Design [the attack on the Spanish West Indies] and the invasion of Jamaica pointed the way toward both elements of England’s imperial future, even as they demonstrated the challenges involved in realizing the Cromwellian vision. Jamaica, because its seizure was deemed a consolation prize, has not been appreciated as the innovation it in fact represented. Long before it was the most important colony in the British Empire, however, Jamaica pointed the way toward that future.”
Even now, when the sun has finally set on the British Empire, an independent Jamaica is one of the relatively few members of the Commonwealth of Nations which still recognize Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state.
Oliver Cromwell may have failed in his master plan to drive the Spanish from the Americas, but his audaciousness enabled Britain to establish a toehold in the Caribbean that would spread far beyond the island of Jamaica and make British possessions in the Caribbean an important adjunct to its North American colonies as well as a vital part of its transatlantic commerce, including alas the deplorable slave trade — much to the benefit of the “mother country.” Who would have thought that a revolutionary who was the closest Britain ever had to a republican president would have turned out to be one of the prime movers in the creation of the British Empire? Now, thanks to Ms. Pestana and her highly informative book, we know.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.
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