Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Western Design

I have just finished reading June’s History Today. I know that it is still May (or it was at time of writing), but that seems to be part and parcel of the wacky world of magazine publication. Anyway, there are a number of articles which I, at least, find interesting, although mostly they are nothing to do with wargaming or warfare. Two, however, stand out. One article is on the Spanish fiasco at Djerba in 1560. The other is on the English fiasco in the Caribbean in 1654. Perhaps it is only me that noticed the links between the two. At least, they are both related to islands and amphibious warfare.

Anyway, I might come back to Djerba, but for the moment I want to consider Cromwell’s Western Design. This, the author (Carla Gardina Pestana) has been largely forgotten. I suspect, as with the comment of Plataea a few weeks ago, the response might be ‘Not by wargamers it hasn’t.’ Perhaps. I have heard of it, but maybe that is because I have been reading about the English Civil War and its aftermath since I was a teenager, and that is a fair number of years ago now.

I am not wholly convinced that the Western Design is forgotten. Antonia Fraser’s massive ‘Cromwell, Our Chief of Men’ devotes 16 pages to the expedition’s conception, dispatch and outcome for which, in a book covering the great man’s whole life (admittedly over 700 pages long), ‘forgotten’ does not seem to be the correct adjective. S. R. Gardiner’s History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate has a chapter and a bit on it, while even Clarendon devotes a few paragraphs to the expedition.  I have on my shelf 'The Western Design: An Account of Cromwell's Expedition to the Caribbean', by S.A.G. Taylor (1965: Institute of Jamaica and Jamaica Historical Society). A bit old, but it does not suggest the Western Design is totally forgotten. That said, the author does suggest there are many reasons why the Design has been largely ignored. Firstly, it was reckoned a failure. The aim was the seizure of Hispaniola, from where it was beaten off, rather too easily, perhaps, by an outnumbered and ill-equipped Spanish force.

The seizing of Jamaica is usually viewed, therefore, as a consolation prize, and the incarceration of Penn and Venables upon their return to England in the Tower of London is regarded as just punishment from a government which expected much, much more. Further, there is the vexed question of both the guerrilla war with the remnant of the population of Jamaica and the fact that, in the next century, Jamaica turned into the major port of destination for the slave trade. The accomplishment of the Western Design is tainted by this issue, although it certainly was not on anyone’s mind at the time.

Gardiner reckons the expiation to be a significant one, on the basis that it was the first move of the British government (for it was British, even though by conquest rather than agreement) to assert, forcefully, sovereignty of the seas. It was also a double expedition against Spain. At nearly the same time Blake set off with another fleet to attack Spain itself. Given that Charles I’s government could barely sustain a few ships at sea each summer, this in itself is a remarkable achievement.

The major change that Pestana sees in the Western Design is not control of the seas, but that it was the first state sponsored attempt at colonial expansion. Previously, efforts had been carried out by private individuals, perhaps operating as a company and under licence from the government. Some plantations survived and even thrived, some did not. For the Western Design massive state resources were employed. Jamaica, the prize, was a state possession. Clarendon records that Cromwell, after the disappointment of the results, acted quickly to reinforce the island.

Pestana also notes that the seizure of Jamaicia, and the attempt on Hispaniola, marked a change in geo-politics. A wider war with Spain was prosecuted and shifted its focus from the West Indies to Europe. This continued in the Caribbean until 1670 when a peace was signed whereby Spain recognised the English colonies in the Americas. Further, of course, other foreign powers followed, including France. Pestana observes that the Caribbean could be termed the cockpit of Europe as a result of this. European wars were fought out there, as well as in the manoeuvring of armies on the Continent.

Aside from the fact that Pestana ignores Blake’s fleet, she does raise some interesting views about the Western Design and its aftermath. From a wargaming point of view, of course, it presents a wonderful opportunity to employ often under used forces from the ‘New Model Army’ in an unusual and unfamiliar place. It also should focus our interest on logistics and on the often under-valued role of the Navy in early modern warfare.

After 1655 warfare in the Caribbean became much more complex as state fought state. Often, due to communication delays wars were fought there after peace in Europe, or before war officially broke out anywhere. Again, as I think Tony Bath suggests in setting up a Wargame Campaign the possibilities are large in this area. Future governments might have been less interested in foreign escapades and not sent reinforcements. Ships might be deployed to the Caribbean and then sent on elsewhere. The possibilities for an astute wargamer to run an unusual campaign are great.

Finally, of course, there are significant opportunities for a degree of role playing. As with many early modern (and, for that matter, more recent) colonial adventures, the decisions that mattered were the people on the ground. If it was convenient to them, they could claim that there was ‘No Peace beyond the Line’ and carry on raiding. Further there were also significant ‘irregular’ forces around, in the shape of buccaneer (or pirate – it depends on your point of view) forces who lived off prizes and illegal trading with the Spanish (this could be illegal on both sides, of course). While fiction, Dudley Pope’s ‘Corsair’ series sets up some nice small scale actions for us.

So: Forgotten? Not by wargamers or, at least, upon reading this post, hopefully someone will decide that it is interesting. Pestana, incidentally, as a book entitled The English Conquest of Jamaica: Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Belknap) out this year. Mr Amazon says it was published in April.


  1. Its interesting and in someways surprising how much blood and money has been spent over the Caribbean by European (and American) powers in the 16th,17th,18th,19th and even 20th countries not to mention broken dreams, and especially how little of it is noticed by those who don't live there apart from pirate movies and the occasional wargamer who stumbles onto it (I stumbled on a Guadaloupe campaign when reading up on Britain's French Revolutionary wars and 'had' to build forces for a minicampaign). I was even more surprised later to find that there were West Indies campaigns associated with most 18thC North American wars.

    Perhaps these wars would be better known if there'd been fewer sieges, raids and fever and more pitched battles and if any of them had had a really happy ending for anyone??

    1. I suspect that political correctness in recent time, disease and slavery in earlier might have a bearing on why the Caribbean theatre is relatively obscure. I think there were some big sea battles in C 18, but I suppose there wasn't a lot of room for land battles, except on Cuba and Hispaniola.

      That sort of thing doesn't usually stop wargamers, of course. But I do wonder whether the naval aspects put people off. There is also the relative obscurity of the historiography - historians don't seem to find it too interesting either.