British Empire

1649-1671: The British make moves to advance their interest in the Caribbean

England, France, and the Netherlands were initially united against the Spanish and Portuguese, but as these countries secured their places in the Caribbean, they began to turn their attention elsewhere. Driven by empire-building, England turned a jingoistic eye to the world.

Reigning Trouble

England was having its own troubles in the mid-1600s. Although King Charles I had led the country to gains in the Caribbean, he was not so well-loved on his home front. Soon, Parliamentary leader Oliver Cromwell and Charles were involved in a bitter civil war, which similarly affected the residents of Barbados.

However, when the war was over, the king's son, Prince Charles, was exiled, and Cromwell took over leadership of England and ordered the king to be executed. However, Barbados and a few other islands of the Caribbean proclaimed their allegiance to the exiled prince in the 1650s. Cromwell's patriotism and the launch of "Western Design," which was the leader's military action against Spain's holdings in the West Indies, led to England's acquisition of Jamaica, its only territory in the Greater Antilles.

Cromwell also created England's first Navigation Act in 1651, effectively prohibiting trade to outside nations by requiring all trade ships to be made in England, to sail for England, and to be captained by an English subject. The following year he went on the offensive, and the First Anglo-Dutch War began as Cromwell attempted to gain some part of the Caribbean trade, which the Dutch controlled almost entirely. This war ended two years later in 1654.

Eye Toward Expansion

Cromwell's plan for the Caribbean was never to take Jamaica. Instead he sent a force to capture the island of Hispaniola. But poor planning, weak leadership, and a lack of potable water left many of the soldiers sick by the time they reached battle.

On Hispaniola, the British retreated to their ships and set sail. However, the Captain, not wishing to return to Cromwell with the news of their loss, set sail for Jamaica in 1655. The Spanish settlers on Jamaica were so used to pirate attacks that instead of a fighting force, the British found the city empty, and they claimed the land for England.

The Spanish returned soon afterward and were forced to sign a treaty. But while they were waiting for the treaty to be signed and finalized, the British troops did not attack any other cities, and the Spanish escaped Jamaica with all of their valuable goods.

The Spanish also freed their slaves, who later became known as Maroons. These Maroons would play an important part in Jamaica's history, and they still exist today on the islands and were Jamaica's first free blacks.

However, in 1684 Spain and France decided to set aside their differences. The Treaty of Ratisbon ended fighting between these two European nations. Spain's island territories only included Cuba, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and two-thirds of Hispaniola - now the Dominican Republic.

Trade Importance

As the outbreak of the First Anglo-Dutch War showed, trade was growing in importance in the colonies. Without a great deal of trade, the settlers, who focused almost entirely on cash crops, would lack food and other necessities.

Although at this time the Dutch West Indies Company was a leader in trade, England had its own designs on becoming dominant in the region as well. In fact, after Cromwell's death and Charles II's rise to power in England, the king passed a second Navigation Act in 1660, further tightening trade restrictions in the British colonies.

When Charles II passed a third Navigation Act in 1663, the British colonies were explicitly restricted to trade only with England. Sugar, tobacco, and other important exports could only go to England. This same year, Barbados accepted a 4.5 percent export tax on its goods, while the other British Leewards accepted the tax the following year.

Spain, however, soon makes moves to loosen trade restrictions. With Jamaica lost, they also lose out on its exports, and though they make attempts to regain the island, it remains firmly British, and is formally declared for England with a treaty in 1670. The Dutch still dominated the region's trade, and Spain acquiesces in 1662, legalizing colonial trade with these merchants.

In 1665, England again makes its move and begins the Second Anglo-Dutch War. This war lasted another two years, ending in 1667.

France, too, begins to fight the Dutch control. Jean-Baptiste Colbert in France began working to expand France's trade in the region and gave the French Company a monopoly on regional trade for 40 years, though trade privileges were revoked in 1674 .

Policies enacted by the French included terms of confiscation of foreign vessels in French colonial ports. However, the Dutch were to be most excluded, and the French call this period "l'exclusif"- the exclusive.

During this time, England has begun to make its move toward becoming the dominant European nation in the Caribbean. The nation's naval forces would help to attain this status and maintain their control in the West Indies.


Back to Caribbean History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading


Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.