The establishment of the Protectorate did nothing to solve the underlying dilemma of the military regime. Cromwell had 160 ships, eighteen foot and twelve horse regiments to maintain: too many to pay for by any politically acceptable means, but too few to sustain him in power by naked force. His first, carefully hand-picked, Parliament of August 1654 had to be dissolved when it demanded a reduction in the military establishment. The conquest of Scotland and Ireland called for more troops in garrison than it yielded extra tax revenue, making the overall situation worse. As before, the Navy remained politically suspect to the army, but militarily vital to its survival. By the spring of 1654 the three Generals at Sea (the plural form was first used officially in December 1653) were Colonel Robert Blake (only survivor of the original three), Cromwell’s brother-in-law Major-General John Desborough, and the former vice-admiral William Penn, the first and only sea officer ever to be trusted with naval command by the army. George Monck went to command the army in Scotland in January 1654, Desborough (like Popham before him) concentrated on administration ashore, leaving Blake and Penn as active commanders-in-chief afloat. The new vice-admiral was John Lawson, a sea officer of long experience, but more or less an Anabaptist in religion, and suspected of Leveller sympathies. In October 1654 Lawson and his captains in the Channel squadron received a petition from their ships’ companies complaining of impressment and long-overdue pay. Resolving at a formal council of war that the petition was justified, they forwarded it to Cromwell. Undoubtedly they sympathized with their men’s grievances (as well they might), but in the circumstances this was a political act not much short of a veiled threat. Cromwell dared not dismiss so popular an officer as Lawson (that was how half the fleet had been lost to the Royalists in 1648), but it was all the more urgent to find some employment for the Navy which would keep it out of politics.
‘God has not brought us hither where we are,’ Cromwell informed his Parliament, ‘but to consider the work that we may do in the world.’ For obvious political reasons, he wanted disaffected senior officers and unpaid soldiers and sailors to be found work in parts of the world well away from Whitehall. Once again, war seemed to be the only way out of the regime’s political difficulties. The choice lay between France and Spain, and for much of 1654 Cromwell kept his options open. The unofficial war with France continued. Blake was sent to the Mediterranean with a squadron whose threatening presence forced the from any possibility of effective English help, and required only words.
Once in the Mediterranean, Blake was drawn into war with Tunis. The three North African Regencies of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli – the ‘Barbary States’ as they were known in Christian Europe – were nominally dependencies of the Ottoman Empire, but in practice semi-independent states which kept up a permanent state of war for motives very similar to Cromwell’s. They too had soldiers (their Turkish garrisons) all too apt to intervene in politics if not distracted by a foreign war. The resulting system of warfare, the corso, was not piracy (though the term is still often used by Western writers) but public, declared war waged largely by private interests. Their political situation obliged the Regencies to be always at war against some of the Christian powers, but never against all, for the corso was primarily a system of slave-raiding, in which the profits came chiefly from ransoms and sales, and which therefore depended on commercial relations across the Mediterranean. In practice the Regencies made and observed treaties of peace with some scrupulousness, and were frequently enraged by breaches of faith on the Christian side. Christian naval powers, obsessed with the misleading idea of ‘Barbary piracy’, had been mounting naval expeditions against the Regencies for centuries, but it was extremely difficult to make an impression on populous and strongly fortified cities on a dangerous lee shore. The English had already had some experience of this in the 1630s, but they still understood very little of the strategic, or indeed the moral, situation. In this case Tunis had gone to war because an English merchant ship had sold Tunisian passengers into slavery at Malta. This eminently justified retaliation, described by Blake as ‘the barbarous carriage of these pirates’, was his excuse for attacking them.
Tunis itself was invulnerable, but in the bay of Porto Farina (El Bahira) Blake found nine small warships sheltering under shore batteries, and on 4 April 1655 destroyed them all. The affair was, and usually still is, represented as a triumph against long odds, but a careful reading of the sources suggests that the defence was not formidable. The strategic profit of the victory was less than nothing, as the Dey of Tunis afterwards explained to Blake with sardonic amusement. The ships belonged not to him but to his overlord the Sultan, whose local power he was not sorry to diminish, and on whose goodwill the lucrative trade of the English Levant Company in Ottoman ports entirely depended. Having seriously damaged English interests, Blake was obliged to retreat with no concessions whatever. Visiting Algiers, the only port in the Western Mediterranean where he could buy victuals, he kept the peace and ransomed some English captives, paying well above the market price. Tunis and Tripoli continued to attack English merchant ships until in 1658 Captain John Stoakes, an officer of sense and moderation, was able to negotiate a peace.
While Blake was in the Mediterranean, Cromwell and his Council of State had decided to go to war against Spain rather than France. On his way home he received orders for hostilities, and actually met a Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent on 15 August 1655, but his cautious interpretation of ambiguous instructions deterred him from attacking, and he returned empty-handed at the beginning of October. By the army especially, Spain was seen as a more Catholic country than France, therefore a more natural target for Englishmen, God’s chosen instruments for chastising the Anti-Christ. It was also held indirectly responsible for the persecution of the Waldensians. ‘What peace can we rejoice in,’ General Fleetwood and his officers demanded, ‘when the whoredom, murthers and witchcrafts of Jezebel are so many?’ Better still, as the renegade former Dominican friar Thomas Gage advised, ‘the Spaniards cannot oppose much, being a lazy, sinful people, feeding like beasts upon their lusts, and upon the fat of the land, and never trained up to wars’. Spain was well known to be fabulously wealthy, and to derive that wealth from silver and gold mined in the Americas. Nothing would be easier than to cut off that flow, and solve England’s financial crisis at a stroke. The centrepiece of the plan was the ‘Western Design’, a major amphibious expedition to the Spanish Caribbean. With 3,600 regular troops, plus the support of the English colonists of Barbados and New England who, Cromwell believed, would flock to so agreeable a climate, this would suffice to take and hold Santo Domingo, or Puerto Rico, or Havana, or Cartagena, or perhaps all four of them.
This delightful strategic prospect did not distract Cromwell from the political requirements of the operation. Though the army officers seem to have been good, the troops were made up by drafting from the regiments of the New Model Army those who would least be missed, on military or political grounds. The naval command was given to Penn, but he was subordinated to General Robert Venables, and both of them were limited by the authority of two ‘civil commissioners’, who secretly reported to Cromwell on their activities and loyalty. None of this made for mutual trust, or simplified the command structure of the expedition, and experience was to prove that in moments of crisis Venables was very willing to defer to other authorities – not least his wife, who accompanied him. The administrative preparations were entrusted to a committee led by General Desborough, which left both services scantily equipped and victualled.
The expedition approached the coast of Hispaniola in April 1655, alarmed to discover it ‘rocky, and a great surf of the sea against it in so much that in many places we saw the beatings of the water appear afar off like the smoke of ordnance, the wind being but indifferent’. On the 14th they got ashore at a place thirty miles from their target, the city of Santo Domingo. The country was almost waterless, and the soldiers had no waterbottles. Approaching the city four days later through thick bush, they were routed in an ambush by a few hundred local cowboys (vaqueros). Some of the officers died gallantly, and the ‘sea regiment’ of sailors preserved their discipline, but otherwise the affair was a disgraceful fiasco. Penn’s ships had meanwhile bombarded the city, but its seaward defences were strong, and the ships kept a respectful distance. Having re-embarked the survivors of the army, Penn urged another attempt, but the army officers, Venables in particular, were too dejected to try.
In one afternoon the invincible reputation of the New Model Army had been thrown away. The commanders dared not return to Cromwell without something to show for their labours, so they resolved to attack Jamaica. The island was apparently valueless, but for that reason the Spaniards had hardly settled or fortified it. On 11 May the English landed, and this time Penn personally took charge of the operation, ‘for after the miscarriage at Hispaniola,’ one of the civil commissioners reported to Cromwell, ‘I have privately heard him say, “he would not trust the army with the attempt, if he could come near with his ships;” and indeed did, in the Martin galley, run in till she was aground before their breast-work in the bottom of the harbour…’ The Spaniards surrendered in six days, but this was only the beginning of the English difficulties. Jamaica was ideal for guerilla warfare and easily accessible from Cuba. It was almost uncultivated, and the troops were soon sickly and starving. To relieve the shortage of victuals Penn (and Venables) took the bulk of the fleet home, arriving on 31 August 1655, when Cromwell put both commanders in the Tower.
For some time it was doubtful if the English would be able to hold on to their new possession in the face of disease, starvation and Spanish attack. In the late 1650s, however, the infant colony discovered a means of livelihood and defence: buccaneering. The Spanish government still held to its original colonial policy, according to which all seas and lands west of the Azores and south of the Tropic of Cancer were Spanish property in which the very presence of any foreigner (indeed, strictly any non-Castilian) was punishable by death. All Spain’s treaties with foreign powers explicitly excepted this area, so that there was literally ‘no peace beyond the line’, even with countries with which Spain was at peace in Europe. Though there were now permanent French, Dutch and English settlements in the Caribbean, no trading vessel, however peaceful her intentions, could safely enter these waters without being prepared to defend herself. Yet there was much trade to be done, particularly with Spanish colonies which were very poorly served by the official shipping system. This situation generated a mixture of trade, smuggling and low-level hostilities, and gave ample opportunities to pirates and others who hoped to make their fortunes without the necessity of hard work. The buccaneers were originally a mixed collection of non-Spaniards who inhabited unsettled parts of the islands, living by hunting wild cattle. By the 1640s many had settled on the island of Tortuga, off the north coast of Hispaniola, and taken up a more active and lucrative life of raiding Spanish towns. Some buccaneers were also pirates, but the two trades were distinct, for most buccaneers were not seamen, and used ships chiefly as transport in their essentially amphibious warfare. Both groups depended on access to ports where they could sell booty and buy supplies, and the new English settlement of Port Royal, Jamaica, rapidly developed as their leading base in the Caribbean. Successive governors of Jamaica were very willing to legitimize their activities by granting privateering commissions against Spain. Their attacks were the island’s best form of defence, and almost its only livelihood. The few warships of the State’s Navy which remained on the station after Penn went home took a leading part in the same business. Its most notable exponent was Captain Christopher Myngs of the Marston Moor, who in the spring of 1659 returned from a raid along the ‘Spanish Main’ (the north coast of South America; modern Venezuela and Colombia) with booty worth £2–300,000, most of which was never declared to Governor D’Oyley’s improvised prize court, but disappeared into the pockets of Myngs and his men.
In England, meanwhile, Cromwell was faced with a war with Spain which had yielded nothing but shame and expense. Some of his illusions were gone, but he needed money more than ever, and still believed that ‘six nimble frigates’ would suffice to blockade the coast of Spain and cut off the flow of bullion. Blake, the expert on that coast, and the only senior commander left in the Navy whom Cromwell could trust, was seriously ill. Lawson was appointed as his second-in-command, but however much Cromwell wanted him out of home waters, he was clearly alarmed that he might succeed to the command. Blake was therefore provided with a colleague, Colonel Edward Mountague, a reliable young Cromwellian who had never been to sea. His job was to remind Lawson and the sea officers (perhaps Blake too) who was master. Some of the captains expressed moral scruples about a war of unprovoked aggression, and about taking their unpaid men to sea again, leaving their families to starve. For Cromwell and Mountague, this was plain evidence of subversion, no doubt linked to a Leveller conspiracy which they had just suppressed in the army. ‘It is not for us to mind state affairs,’ Mountague warned the seamen bluntly, ‘but to stop the foreigner from fooling us,’ Lawson and three captains, however, persisted in thinking for themselves, and resigned rather than serve in such circumstances.
Blake and Mountague sailed without them, arriving off Cadiz on 20 April 1656. Briefly considering the possibility of taking Gibraltar (impracticable for want of troops), they were able to establish a base at Lisbon. Blake now settled to the exhausting and dispiriting business of blockade which he knew so well. ‘The Spaniard uses his buckler more than his sword,’ commented Philip Meadowe, English agent in Portugal, in July 1656. ‘In the Dutch war we were sure of an enemy that would fight, besides good prizes to help to pay charges; but the Spaniard will neither fight nor trade.’ Occasionally the monotony was varied by Spanish galleys which looked out of Cadiz, ‘but do no damage,’ Captain Thomas Pointer wrote,
unless it be in rousing us to expend a great deal of powder to no purpose, they always keeping without the range of our guns and English gunners are so unskillful – that they have spent in two days time above 3 or 400 shot – there has been no damage done on either side, but only expense of powder and shot.
Then in September, while Blake and Mountague were at Lisbon, the news arrived that Captain Richard Stayner of the Speaker, left on watch off Cadiz with eight ships, had intercepted an inward-bound Spanish silver convoy. Two ships were taken, and three burned or sunk. Much of the treasure went down with them and the richest ship escaped, but an estimated £200,000 in silver was taken. When it heard the news, a euphoric Parliament believed the prizes might be worth £600,000 or even a million, sufficient to pay for the war. In fact only £45,000 ever reached England. The rest stuck to the fingers of Stayner’s unpaid officers and men (not excepting Stayner’s own). After this triumph Mountague came home with the bulk of the ships, leaving Blake at Lisbon. The ships needed a refit, and a Leveller-Fifth Monarchist rising (followed by the imprisonment of Lawson among others) persuaded Cromwell that he needed a strong force in the Channel. Mountague was also able to get essential supplies sent to Blake, who had repeatedly requested them in vain.