The English Commonwealth and the World

Four principal aims guided Cromwell’s foreign policy as Protector: to maintain and spread the Protestant religion; to preserve and expand English trade; to prevent the restoration of the Stuarts to the English throne by foreign aid; and to enhance the prestige of the Commonwealth.

The first thing he did was to make peace with the Dutch. Cromwell had always disliked this war against a sister Protestant Republic, and had no wish to pursue it to unconditional surrender. Indeed, what he had in mind was to follow up the idea originally mooted by the envoys of the Rump Parliament – that of promoting an intimate political alliance between the two countries. One suggestion he put forward was that both sides should admit in their governments two or three lords”, that is to say, two or three Dutchmen were to join the English Council of State and two or three Englishmen allowed into the Dutch government. The Dutch were not prepared for any such revolutionary political federation, but their ambassadors soon realized that Cromwell was eager for peace. Still, for the Dutch the terms they accepted were pretty onerous; they amounted to a full confession of defeat. Not only did the Dutch admit the supremacy of the English flag in English seas, but they promised to pay reparations. In addition to abandoning the Royalist cause and expelling the Royalist exiles from their country, a secret promise was given to exclude the Prince of Orange, son of an English princess, from all commands. That treaty, concluded in April 1654, was buttressed by another treaty with Denmark, whereby the Baltic Sound was reopened to English ships and the same dues exacted from them as from the Dutch merchantmen. Later in the year a commercial treaty was arranged with Sweden and another with Portugal, by which her King promised to pay reparations for losses suffered by English merchants(when earlier help had been given to Prince Rupert’s Royalist fleet), to guarantee freedom to English merchants and sailors from the Inquisition, and to afford full liberty for trade with the Portugese colonies. All these treaties, therefore, won advantages for English commerce, upheld the Protestant interest, and provided guarantees against Royalist invasions. France hasted to offer recognition of the Protectorate Government, and King Charles II was obliged to seek refuge in Cologne.

Thus in addressing his first parliament, Cromwell was able to speak of “an honourable peace”, of improved prospects for trade, of promising negotiations with France; and he could declare: “There is not a nation in Europe but they are very willing to ask a good understanding of you.”

The main problem that now confronted Cromwell and his Council of State, whose advice he was required by the “Instrument of Government” to take upon questions of foreign policy, was whether he should conclude an offensive alliance with either of his Catholic neighbours, France and Spain . These two kingdoms were at war, and the position was complicated by the fact that one of the best French generals, the Prince de Conde, was in rebellion against the French Regency effectively directed by Cardinal Mazarin, the astute Italian who was the lover of the Queen Mother – and was allied with Spain. The ambassadors of Mazarin, Conde, and the Spanish King Philip IV, all sought to hire Cromwell’s famous soldiers. Even before Cromwell became Protector, suggestions had come from France that the port of Dunkirk, which had belonged to the Spanish empire but had been temporarily captured by the French, might be surrendered to the English in return for their military assistance. The Spaniards offered the port of Calais, if it could be won from the French, and Conde offered La Rochelle. All these were big temptations.

Other factors influenced the important decision that now had to be taken. One of these was what was called “the Protestant interest”. Some of the French Protestants or Huguenots were fighting for Conde, and he appealled  strongly for help on their behalf. It was even said that he had been ready to declare himself a Protestant. Equally it would have been a splendid feather in the Lord Protector’s cap if he could have exacted from the Spanish grandees freedom of worship for English Protestant traders throughout the Spanish dominions. Or, again, he might have obliged Cardinal Mazarin to give public guarantees of liberty of conscience for the French Protestants as the price of a military alliance. Another consideration was finance. The Dutch war had been costly and the capital resources of the Commonwealth were exhausted. The army was still largely occupied in security duties, and it was the navy that needed employment. It was also argued that peace was necessary in order to restore commercial and industrial prosperity, that it was wiser to allow English merchants to benefit from the commercial treaties just concluded and to trade freely with both France and Spain than to run the risk of reprisals from one side or the other.

So the negotiations of 1654 and 1655 were prolonged and complicated, and the English Council of State was torn in mind over what was the best policy. Some of its members advocated war with France, others war with Spain, and a few neutral. The anti-French party argued that revenge must be taken upon the French pirates operating from ports like St. Malo, that the Huguenots must not be allowed to “barter themselves away”, and that it was a mistake to sacrifice a profitable trade with Spain, particularly in the export of cloth, for the mirage of captured treasure. The anti-Spanish party looked back to the precedents of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, and thought it would be much easier to acquire a port in the Spanish Netherlands with French assistance than to conquer a French port with Spanish aid; it was also thought more feasible to give help to the French Huguenots by diplomatic pressure than by war. Moreover, Cromwell’s government had sent spies into the Protestant areas of France, who reported that they showed little enthusiasm  for rising against the Bourbon monarchy. In the end, the Spanish ambassador was asked outright if English merchants could be given freedom to trade in the West Indies and to practice their religion without danger from the Inquisition, and the blunt reply came that this was to ask for the King his master’s “two eyes”.

So it was in reality the middle or neutral party that won the decision in the argument over foreign policy in the Council State. It may be doubted if Cromwell himself ever nursed any serious intentions of concluding a Spanish alliance, but by flirting with Spain he wanted to induce Cardinal Mazarin to make open concessions and especially to give pledges to the Huguenots. If that was the aim, he was disappointed. And in the autumn of 1654, it was decided to find work for the navy. Two expeditions were planned: one was to set sail for the West Indies to revenge itself upon the Spaniards for the exclusion of English trade there by seizing and fortifying one of the biggest Spanish islands and using it as a stepping-stone towards the coveted gold-mines of South America or as a base from which Spanish treasure ships might be attacked. The commanders of the expedition were expected to regard themselves  Protestant missionaries as well as commercial travellers and pupils of Ralegh and Drake. The other expedition, under the command of General Robert Blake, was destined for the Mediterranean, to redeem English captives and enforce respect for the English flag in North Africa (action against Barbery corsairs later Ottoman corsairs who raided the coasts of the Western Mediterranean up to the British Isles and as far as Iceland for slaves from the eight century onwards). Both commanders were instructed to continue reprisals against French privateers, Thus, in effect, undeclared naval war was to be intensified against both France and Spain. Such a provocative and dangerous policy was more likely to lead to a European struggle than to peace.

When the news of these expeditions leaked out, the French under the wily Mazarin turned the other cheek; but the Spaniards did not. Negotiations for a French treaty still continued. King Loius XIV reaffirmed the ready settled by private companies of adventurers, were expected to yield rich returns in cotton and tobacco. Barbados in fact was to produce a wealthy planter aristocracy, made fabulously rich by the sugar plantations. Earlier an abortive scheme for colonizing Providence Island had received the backing of many eminent Puritans, including John Pym. This, like some of the settlements in New England, was a forerunner of the English Puritan colonial impulse. In a sense, Cromwell was the heir to these schemes of his Puritan friends. To begin with, as was originally expected, buccaneering was the most paying industry in Jamaica; later it was to become famous for sugar and rum. Cromwell tried to persuade some of the settlers in New England to transfer themselves to Jamaica; he saw to it that it was adequately victualled and garrisoned, and he appointed experienced men as governors. A West Indian committee was set up in London to look after it and the other British possessions in the Caribbean.

But in those times of slow and uncertain communications, English settlers across the Atlantic were largely their own masters. When the civil wars were in progress a number of Royalists went to Virginia (first colonized in 1607) and to Barbados (colonized in 1625). An Act of Parliament of 1650 forbade all commercial intercourse with these two colonies, as well as with Royalist sympathies. In the following year, Sir George Ayscue was dispatched with a fleet to enforce obedience to the Commonwealth and captured several Dutch ships trading there. In the same year the Navigation Act had been passed, which confined all trade with the plantations to English vessels. The New England colonies, on the other hand, were not Royalist, and while in 1643 some of them formed themselves into a federation for self-protection, they acknowledged the authority of the English Commonwealth and indeed became the outposts of the new Puritanism.

Thus, by the time that Cromwell became Lord Protector, the colonies all acknowledged the new English government, some of them more reluctantly than others. But none of them cared for the protectionist policy of the Navigation Acts, and Dutch ships still managed to trade with them in spite of such restrictions. Soon the Council of State realized that these distant territories could not be provisioned without Dutch aid, and a piecemeal system of licensing grew up, especially towards the end of the Protectorate. The rest of the colonies were largely left alone, including Guiana and Surinam, acquired in 1650. The colonial tobacco industry received definite support from the state. An Act passed in 1652 prohibited tobacco planting in England (there were sizable plantations in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire), and efforts were made to enforce it. Privateering and sugar-growing were actively encouraged, and indeed the experts upon whom the Protectorate Government most relied for advice upon the economic affairs of the nations were West Indie merchants. Several committees were established to deal with aspects of the colonial trade and a Board of trade and Navigation was said by Whitelocke to have been “a business of much concern to the Commonwealth, upon which the Protector was earnestly set”.

Apart from that, the governments of the colonies were virtually left alone. A known Royalist was allowed to continue as governor of Surinam throughout the Protectorate, and the colonists had little difficulty in evading commercial and fiscal regulations which they disliked. Cromwell tried to arbitrate in boundary disputes between Maryland and Virginia and between Rhode Island and other colonies, and on the whole his methods were conciliatory. In 1654 he sent a small expedition to New England to try to help capture Dutch settlements from a base in Massachusetts, but nothing came of this, as the force arrived in England just as peace was concluded. However, the expedition sailed on to the coast of Acadia and occupied territory in French hands, now known as Nova Scotia, a province of Canada. Cromwell approved of the acquisition which had been lost in the reign of Charles I, and also put forward other claims to Canadian territory during the Anglo-French negotiations of 1654 and 1655. Settlements in India and Africa were left in the hands of joint stock companies for the purpose of increasing trade.

It would be wrong and anachronistic to say that Cromwell and his advisors had any clear “colonial policy” as such. The fact was, to use a modern word that is often abused, he and his officials were imperialists. Theirs was an age of restless expansion. All the colonies in America and the West Indies had been established in Cromwell’s own lifetime. But whether he was proposing to obtain Dunkirk or Calais or Bremen by war, whether he was urging Blake to take Gibraltar from the Spaniards or Admiral Penn to occupy San Domingo or make for Cuba whether he was settling his former soldiers in colonies in Ireland, as the Romans had once done in England, or dispatching prisoners to populate the West Indies or come indentured servants in Massachusetts, it was all part of the same impulse to expand England’s power and influence throughout the world, to propogate the true reformed religion, to widen the markets for English goods and to build up a source of supplies for the home market, and to insure against the return of the Stuarts. He was not, though we may be inclined to forget it, an Eminent Victorian, nor did he live in our own contracting globe. The Navigation Acts were aimed at the increase of British shipping and the strengthening of the British Navy. The great trading companies, like the West India Company and the Levent Company, were also regarded as national instruments, being expected to provide ambassadors, to build forts, and to hire soldiers to protect and widen English trade in Asia and other distant parts. In a famous phrase he told his last parliament: “You have accounted yourselves happy in being environed with a great ditch from all the world beside. truly you will not be able to keep your ditch, nor your shipping – unless you turn your ships and shipping into troops of horse and companies of foot; and fight to defend yourselves in terra firma!”

This robust outlook guided his conduct in the last years of his Protectorate. The war with Spain was relentlessly pursued at sea. In September 1656, a Spanish treasure fleet was destroyed or captured off Cadiz. (It is said that the Cromwellian coins made from some of the captured silver and designed by Thomas Simon are among the most beautiful known to British collectors.) In April 1657, Blake won a big victory off Santa Cruz, causing a loss which meant that the Spanish soldiers were starved of their pay, and about the same time an offensive treaty was signed with France, whereby the English government undertook to provide an expeditionary force to fight alongside the French against the Spaniards in Flanders, and to receive the ports of Mardyke and Dunkirk in return as soon as they were captured.

Cromwell’s “redcoats” served with distinction in the campaigns of 1657 and 1658. Marshall Turenne, the famous French general, commended their gallant conduct at the battles of the Dunes in June 1658. The French monarchy was naturally not anxious to fulfil its promises made in the treaty, for it did not relish the idea of having a British Republican fortress so near to its frontier. But Cromwell insisted that Mardyke and Dunkirk must be handed over, condemning French excuses as “parcels of words for children”, and so, before he died, he had won his door into the Continent.

Cromwell also contemplated sending an expeditionary force to the help of King Charles X of Sweden. He demanded Bremen in return for his services in the same way that he had obtained Dunkirk from King Louis XIV. When in 1657, Charles X was confronted by a coalition which included the Habsburg emperor, Cromwell was conscious of the danger that the Habsburgs might overwhelm the Protestants of northern Europe and reverse the results of the Thirty Years War. In fact, the Protestants were divided amongst themselves, since the Danes and Brandenburgers were also engaged against Sweden, while in the south the French Catholics were fighting beside the English Puritans against the Spanish Habsburgs. The days of religious wars was ending. Cromwell himself was aware that a victorious Sweden might again exclude British shipping from the Baltic, and that it was safer that the sound should remain under Danish control. however, he made promises of paying Charles X a subsidy; he allowed him to recruit soldiers in Scotland, and, to give him countenance, he prepared to dispatch an English fleet to the Baltic; above all, he exerted diplomatic pressure to induce the Swedes and Danes to conclude peace, as they did temporarily in February 1658, after English mediation. In any case, the Protectorate Government had not the resources to fight in northern and southern Europe simultaneously, while the northern war was a death-blow to the ambitious scheme for a Protestant alliance against the Hapsburgs.

Thus, when Oliver Cromwell died, England was an acknowledged Great Power in the world, with her prestige higher upon the Continent of Europe even than in Queen Elizabeth’s golden days. John Dryden wrote in his poem upon Cromwell’s death:

“He made us free men of the Continent

Whom nations did like captives treat before;

To nobler prizes the English lion sent

And taught him first in Belgian walks to roar.”

“Cromwell’s greatness at home,” admitted his Royalist enemy, the first Earl of Clarendon, “was but a shadow of the glory he had abroad.”He had given his country a position of impressive strength, broad-based upon an experienced army and a magnificent navy, which had made the British name respected in the Mediterranean. Cromwell himself appreciated the importance of sea-power, as most great British generals have done. Edmund Waller could write:

“Others may use the ocean as their road,

Only the English make it their abode.”

The military occupation of Dunkirk, which “once more joined us to the Continent”, bridled both the Dutch and the Spaniards, while the French, who had let it fall into British hands, had most reason to regret it. Farther abroad, the foundations had been laid for British expansion in the West Indies, in Canada, and in what was to become in the next century the United States of America. Daring projects filled Oliver Cromwells’ mind – for the annexation of Cuba, for example, or a settlement in Brazil. The Protestant interest, the central theme of his speeches on foreign policy, was allied to a patriotism that he took for granted, and to an unblushing imperialism sanctified by Christianity. We may suspect that the abuse of Republicans at home and of the Royalists abroad meant little to this inspired statesman, as compared with the exhilarating dreams he dreamed of the future magnificence of his country. He was dreaming them still as his life reached its close.