Webb on Pestana, 'The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire'

Carla Gardina Pestana
Jack Daniel Webb

Carla Gardina Pestana. The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017. 376 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-73731-0.

Reviewed by Jack Daniel Webb (University of London)
Published on H-Empire (March, 2018)
Commissioned by Charles V. Reed (Elizabeth City State University)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=50679

In 1850, a Baptist reverend from Liverpool, England, reflected on his recent travels around the Caribbean. “It can never cease to be an occasion of deep regret, or rather positive personal humiliation,” wrote Charles Morton Birrell, “that the entrance of civilized men into those countries should have brought with it, to so frightful an extent, devastation, and vice, and bloodshed” (p. 27).[1] Birrell was, of course, referring to the Spanish colonization of the Caribbean throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Spanish practice of Catholicism, for Birrell, resulted in cruel colonial government; morally depraved, it facilitated the genocide of indigenous populations, and the malevolent treatment of the trafficked, enslaved, population. In this version of history, the Caribbean would only be liberated with the entrance of the British Empire and its enlightened Protestant principles. In Birrell’s view of the Caribbean past, Britain had entered the region seamlessly, and with God’s blessing, emphasizing the ordained origins of an empire that was in full swing by the time Birrell wrote his doctrine in the mid-nineteenth century. To some extent the recent historiography on the colonization of the Caribbean has been guilty of repeating this tendency of representing the region as a space that was vied over by European and North American powers.[2] The Caribbean has too often been represented as without agency, as a set of territories and peoples that were colonized, enslaved, emancipated, or (in Birrell’s account) enlightened.

It was thus with some trepidation that I began to read Julia Gardina Pestana’s The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire. The title is, however, somewhat misleading. This is not another book that simply documents the seemingly inevitable colonization of the region. Pestana tells a powerful story of the difficulties and failures of British colonization as much as its problematic advance into Jamaica. Rather than a region that is acted upon, The English Conquest emphasizes the Caribbean as, to use Pestana’s term, a “hub” that facilitated interaction between the people of the Atlantic world. Central to this story of colonization are the roles of “local” populations in the Caribbean—not only the resident Spanish and English, but also the African population, who proved key in shaping the process of conquest. Pestana’s work thus offers a welcome addition to the historiography of Caribbean colonization as it highlights the entwined pasts of people of African and European descent that have served to shape Jamaican society and, in turn, the broader Atlantic.

The significance of this colonization for the broader Atlantic is keenly emphasized by Pestana. At times, the language becomes quite emphatic and indeed dramatic—the opening paragraphs include the terms “colossal undertaking,” “audacity,” “bated breath,” and “surprise” in reference to Cromwell’s expedition (p. 2). This language is, perhaps, justified to some extent considering the eventual ramifications of the expedition to Jamaica in shaping the futures of the Atlantic. The event resulted in the Britain wresting formal control from the Spanish of what would become its largest producer of sugar, and consumer of African labor. (Some two hundred years later, the Abbé Raynal would describe the area as “the lever of the world”, such was its significance to the Atlantic). This was also the first act of the British state in organizing the colonization of another territory. This type of colonization would, of course, go on to characterize the British Empire in future centuries. The emphatic language is further justified as Pestana is careful in refusing to attribute any notion of “success” to the English. This is an important nuance that allows for a narrative of colonization that is enmeshed in interaction, with multiple perspectives. Moreover, this is a work that is based on extensive and meticulous archival work. The narrative presented is incredibly rich in detail concerning the various events and characters. Married together, the writing style and excellent research make for a work that is admirably accessible to students and the general public while retaining its academic rigor.

Pestana is an adept storyteller who deploys her source material to shape an intricate narrative that concerns much more than the colonization of Jamaica. Indeed, the conquest acts as a lens through which to discuss an array of transatlantic relations in the early modern Atlantic. The book contains nine chapters, beginning with the English preparations for the assault. Noticeable amongst these chapters is chapter 3, “Hispaniola,” as very little work has been carried out on the history of this island before its formal colonization by the French. Despite the grand ambitions of the English “Western Design” to capture all of the Spanish-controlled West Indies, this chapter relates the defeat of Cromwell’s forces in Hispaniola (before the army advanced to Jamaica) and its ideological ramifications. Processes of colonization, it is clear, are imbued with colonial defeats. Imperative in inflicting defeat on the English was a group of cattle herders who used spears, many of whom were of African descent. This reminds the reader of the importance of African people in the history of Caribbean conflicts, and not only in fighting against enslavement.[3] It also throws up interesting questions concerning the later use of these weapons on the island. The piquets (so named due to their use of pikes in combat) would prove strategically fundamental in certain conflicts in nineteenth-century Haiti.

The ensuing chapter (“Failure”) details the ways in which this defeat was rationalized in the minds of the English would-be colonizers. Here Pestana focuses on the ideological ramifications of the failure of an army that was supposedly ordained, as it represented Protestantism in the face of Catholic oppression. The defeat could suggest that God indeed favored the Catholic faith. Here the English attempt at the colonization of the Caribbean has ramifications for the entire Atlantic world and in particular, two of its guiding religious doctrines. Protestants were now forced to explain the failure. Pestana highlights the importance of “politicized prayer” as one form of reaction to the defeat. Whereas the significance of Christianity to the high imperialism of the nineteenth century has received ample attention from scholars, Pestana reminds us that “imperial expansion contained a providential component from the first” (p. 110).

The English force did manage to formally colonize Jamaica, but the emphasis on this as a process that was negotiated and undermined by people resident on the island is maintained throughout the book. In chapter 8, “Conquering,” the focus turns to the challenges that the English faced once settled in Jamaica. Namely, this involved fighting, and negotiating with, the remaining Spanish and communities of people of African descent. Indeed, the story of this chapter is as much that of the resistance of people of African descent to these new colonizers as it is that of “conquering.” Many of these communities would go on to facilitate maroonage and the resistance to enslavement by future enslaved people. This chapter, as Pestana makes clear, provides a much-needed history of early African communities on the island, prior to the ascent of plantation agriculture. Right from their initial arrival, these communities shaped processes of colonization as well as enslavement.

Pestana perhaps misses a trick in this especially important chapter. The actions of the enclaves of Africans and Spanish served to limit the colonial control of the English settlers. Yet, unlike the analysis of the English defeat on Hispaniola, Pestana does not here consider the intellectual ramifications of the resistance of people of African descent in the minds of the English settlers. Such an examination would be all the more fruitful considering Pestana’s observations that the English had assumed that people of African descent were servile and would relish the opportunity to leave their Spanish oppressors for the enlightened, and benevolent, English. Surely the inability of the English to win over the African population, or to suppress them, should equally be considered a “failure.” Critiquing further the intellectual reaction of English settlers to this clear miscalculation may better our understanding of notions of “race” and justifications for colonization at a key moment in the history of imperialism.

Indeed, the book meticulously sets out the strategic planning and expectations for the expedition by both the leaders and their subalterns. Little attention is given, though, to the broader ideological impulses behind the Western Design. It is not clear to what extent this was an attempt to dismantle the Spanish Empire due to economic, religious, or strategic motivations. Of course, these were not mutually exclusive but more could have been done in the work to lay out the ways in which these factors interacted. Tied into this line of questioning is that of the relationship between colonization and imperialism. The term “imperialism,” which is used throughout the work, differs from colonialism in that it suggests a broader culture that works to justify acts of colonialism. Such a culture cannot be assumed, even when acts of colonization take place. What, exactly, did this hugely significant moment of colonization mean for the development of imperialism? Despite these remaining questions, The English Conquest of Jamaica is an excellent piece of scholarship. It is brilliantly written and addresses several large gaps in our understanding of this period. It provides a nuanced and complicated narrative of an immensely important episode in the history of both the Caribbean and the Atlantic world and should be considered essential reading for any student of the early modern Atlantic, Caribbean colonization, or Cromwell’s foreign policy.


[1]. Charles Morton Birrell, A Glimpse at Hayti and Her Negro Chief (Liverpool: [no pub.], 1850).

[2]. Both Christer Petley and Catherine Hall have emphasized the agency of Caribbean territories in affecting histories of imperialism. See Petley, “New Perspectives on Slavery and Emancipation in the British Caribbean,” The Historical Journal 54, 3 (2011): 855–80; and Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830–1867 (Oxford: Polity, 2002).

[3]. Professor David Lambert, University of Warwick, is currently working on an AHRC-funded project entitled “Africa’s Sons under Arms” that examines this phenomenon further.

Citation: Jack Daniel Webb. Review of Pestana, Carla Gardina, The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell's Bid for Empire. H-Empire, H-Net Reviews. March, 2018.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=50679

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.