English Settlers

1653-1670: England Makes History with Western Design and Piracy

The history of the British colonization of Jamaica begins when England's King Charles I established colonies in the Caribbean in the 1620s and 1630s, just before his reign ended.

England was wracked by civil war in 1642. The Parliament and the crown fought, and parliamentary leader Oliver Cromwell had King Charles executed. In 1653, Cromwell became the British Lord Protector until his death five years later.

During Cromwell's reign, he created a plan called "Western Design" in which he plotted to take over many of Spain's colonies in the Americas. This plan was put in place in part to avenge the wrongdoings Spain had perpetrated against the British and their traders and colonies in the Caribbean.

Western Design in Action

The plan of Western Design did not, at first, include Jamaica. Instead it focused on the island of Hispaniola. A motley crew of many unsavory types was thrown together under the control of Admiral Penn and left Portsmouth at the end of 1654, reaching Barbados early the next year.

In Barbados, Penn seized 11 Dutch ships, arms, and 4,000 men whom he recruited for the mission. These men, however, did not impress Admiral Penn, though later troops were picked up in the Leeward Islands that fared slightly better. Ultimately, the attack force's fatal flaw was simply poor planning.

The force landed on Hispaniola with plans for an overland attack to the city of Santo Domingo. However, the ships landed 50 kilometers from the city, without enough food and water. Polluted water caused sickness among the men, and the group became mutinous before reaching the Spanish forces.

Many men ran, a few fought, and only a landing party of sailors covering their retreat to the ships saved the rout from being a massacre. At the end of the battle, a third of the group was dead or missing. However, the British crew feared Cromwell's response to their failure at Santo Domingo, and they decided to attack another Spanish holding, this time one with much weaker defenses: Jamaica.

Jamaica Under Attack

Approximately 8,000 men on 38 ships arrived in Kingston Harbour on May 10, 1654, and anchored near Passage Fort. The British leaders gave strict orders to avoid the cowardice that they'd seen in Santo Domingo, but this force only met 1,500 Spanish settlers, only about a third of whom could bear arms.

The taking of the fort was easy, since the residents were so accustomed to pirate attacks and believed this invasion to be nothing more. Jamaica's Governor, Juan Ramirez, was old and sick, and the treaty negotiations fell to Christoval Arnaldo de Ysasi and Duarte de Acosta.

While the treaty was being negotiated, the British did not move to take any more of the island. In fact, by the time they reached Spanish Town, all of the settlers, and their valuables, had escaped to Cuba from the northern coast of Jamaica. However, the Spanish had left behind one very important thing: their slaves.

The slaves were loosed and left on the island, and they fought the British while the Spanish tried to regroup. These slaves later became the famous Maroons. In fact, Spanish leader Ysasi organized them into a fighting group before leaving the island.

Colonization Troubles

The British colonists were not doing well on the island. Food was scarce because many of the cattle, left to run wild by the Spanish, were killed for their hide, and meat was wasted. Medicines were also in short supply, and diseases and fevers worked their way through the troops. It was then that Admiral Penn and Captain Venables decided to return to England.

Both Penn and Venables were imprisoned by Cromwell for their failure in Santo Domingo. However, Cromwell decided to make the best of his formerly Spanish holding. Military leaders encouraged the soldiers to plant crops, but with the combination of the ex-slave activity and the soldiers' unwillingness to cultivate crops, famine set in.

Troops had refused to plant crops, believing that they would be returned to England if they had no food. Instead, many men died. Although ships went on expeditions to raid Spanish ships and other colonies, the supplies were not enough to feed the dwindling colony.

Cromwell did his best to encourage settlers to move to the island of Jamaica, offering trade and land incentives to any who would live there. He sent supplies and immigrants, and tried to send Irish girls and boys as wives and servants for the soldiers and officers. However, whites transplanted to Jamaica for labor did not stand up well to the island's heat.

However, Jamaica's ever-evident charms drew in 300 planters from New England, while others came in from other British-occupied Caribbean isles. The governor of Nevis, Luke Stokes, even brought his family and about 1,600 colonists to Port Morant in 1656. Unfortunately, their chosen area for settlement was swampy, and within three months 1,200 people had died - including Stokes and his wife.

Power Changes Hands

Jamaica's last Commissioner, Brayne, died from a fever, and Edward D'Oyley was left in charge. Though he'd been in control of the island twice before, Cromwell had had him replaced each time. Fortunately, D'Oyley, a colonel during the invasion and strong military leader, was leading the island when the Spanish, led by Ysasi, decided to strike for control once again.

The British were lucky - a dispatch from the Governor of Cuba came into the hands of D'Oyley, and he easily took on the force by sailing down the White River, near Ocho Rios. They stormed the Spanish stockade built near Dunn's River and even captured the Spanish supplies.

Ysasi hadn't given up, though. Spain had granted him governorship of the island, and he had the protection of the strong, Spanish-built fort with a canon atop a cliff. D'Oyley himself went to Rio Nuevo to meet the Spanish. Ysasi knew that he had numbers, as well as structure on his side, but D'Oyley persevered and took the fort along with the Spanish Royal Standard flag and valuable supplies.

The crippling blow to Spain's attempts to recapture Jamaica, however, came when leader Juan de Bolas left the Spanish for the English in 1660. It would be another 10 years before the British could officially call the island their own, with an official cession in the Treaty of Madrid.

This same year, two colonels rebelled against D'Oyley, though the reasons for the mutiny are not known. However, Charles II of England's ascension to the throne after the death of Oliver Cromwell caused changes in the colony of Jamaica in 1661 and 1662. In fact, D'Oyley was required to lose some of his rights, and shortly thereafter left his role in the island's government.

Jamaica's Pirates

Throughout this period, pirates, often known as buccaneers (from the French "boucan"), filibusters, freebooters, and privateers, reigned supreme throughout the region. Rampant piracy made the capture of Jamaica simple, as the island's residents simply believed the attack to be a routine pirate situation.

However, the British, instead of simply being attacked by these pirates, managed to turn these free spirits to their own use. "Privateer" was the term used for the legally sanctioned piracy promoted by the British.

In fact, Sir Thomas Modyford, appointed governor in 1664, was charged with ridding the island of buccaneers. While the pirates were driven from Port Royal, they simply set down on Tortuga. However, a war had broken out in the region, and no ships could be spared by the Admiralty to protect the island.

Instead of relying on the British fleet to protect Jamaica, Modyford made a historic decision and worked to organize the buccaneers into a fighting force. The French had already attempted this strategy, but their success was limited. Modyford had enlisted the captainship of Colonel Edward Morgan, uncle of the famous Henry Morgan.

Though the piracy was only minimally effective against the Dutch in the Second Dutch War, the group had an unexpected but pleasant side effect for the British. Their attacks against the Spanish kept them defending their own islands and ships.

Henry Morgan

Modyford found his strongest and most protective ally in Henry Morgan, whose attacks are well-known. Morgan was often commissioned by the Jamaican government, and his first major role was in such a capacity: He invaded Havana, Cuba, to learn about any planned Spanish attacks on Jamaica. Morgan and his crew, however, also sacked the city.

Morgan's most famed attacks were against the isthmus of Panama, illustrating historic ties between the island of Jamaica and Panama, which go back as far was the mid-1600s. Morgan's first attack on Panama was at Porto Bello, on the Caribbean coast. Although Modyford did not approve of this attack - Morgan was only to be attacking ships - these buccaneering troops were providing much needed distraction, keeping the Spanish troops away from Jamaica.

During the next attack by Morgan against Panama, he took the city, sacking it and earning a great deal of money. His leadership carried himself and a small force of men through the tropical jungle for eight days traversing the isthmus, with a promise of a great deal of money from the plunder. In fact, the group earned about 750,000 pieces of eight from the loot, as well as slaves, sold to the highest bidder.

However, this came shortly after the Treaty of Madrid, and word reached Europe in 1671, causing the Spanish to call for justice. Both Sir Thomas Lynch, who had replaced Modyford as Governor of Jamaica, and Morgan were called to England to be sentenced, though neither suffered much during their punishment, each living out their days in comfort. In fact, Morgan was later knighted and returned to Jamaica as Lieutenant Governor under the Earl of Carlisle as Governor.

Shortly after this upset, piracy began to wind down. Morgan himself was involved in the prosecution of pirates who simply could not let go of their trade. There was no longer a need for buccaneering to keep the island of Jamaica safe from the Spanish.

Although the English occupation of Jamaica was uneasy, it was unchanged after the 1670s. Jamaica would remain staunchly British for the rest of its days.

 

Back to Jamaica History Overview

History Resources, References, and Further Reading

 

Help us improve! We welcome your corrections and suggestions.