The Anglo-Spanish War 1655-1660

By Paul Sutton

The Anglo-Spanish War 1655-1660, the subject of a two-volume set written by me and to be published by Helion and Company this year, dramatically altered the balance of power in Europe. The upstart English Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell, buoyed by its victory in the First Dutch War and egged on by France, had the temerity to challenge the might of the King Philip IV’s Spanish Empire at its economic heart in the Americas. The result propelled England onto the world stage, making it a colonial power and a diplomatic and military force to be reckoned with, whilst at the same time humiliating the Spaniards and accelerating the decline of its international power and prestige, which further encouraged the expansionist King Louis XIV to challenge Spanish domination in Europe. These two books examine both the causes and consequences of this war, whilst also explaining in detail the fighting that occurred across the Caribbean during this five-year period.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England c. 1653-1664
(Jan van de Velde (after Robert Walker), The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, RP-P-1890-A-16095)

The war highlighted the inherent weakness of the Spanish empire at the time. Despite ample warning of an English attack Spanish diplomacy was unable to halt it. In the West Indies it had no navy to protect its vast possessions and so the English fleet was able to roam at will. Despite a defeat in Hispaniola the English occupied Jamaica and for five years the Spanish could do little to resist the occupation; what few forces it could muster from its nearby colonies were poorly equipped and even poorer led and were quickly defeated. Despite rumours to the contrary the Spanish lacked the resources to dispatch a relief force from Europe as it was engaged in a prolonged struggle with France, which the English soon joined in. Spain had claimed the Americas for itself and denied entry to all other nations but was powerless to stop even this poorly equipped English encroachment. The last Jamaican-based Spanish forces were harried off the island in 1660 but even after this humiliation they lacked the capacity to defend themselves elsewhere. The English sack of Santiago de Cuba in 1662 was but the forerunner of the pirate attacks of Henry Morgan in the years to follow and to which the Spanish were to offer no resistance. The ultimate indignity came at the Treaty of Madrid in 1670 when Spain formally ceded English possessions in the West Indies and the myth that the Americas were perpetually Spanish was shattered. These events, coupled with defeats against France, spelt the end of Spanish dominance in Europe and so the known world. But…as one power fell, so another arose.

Portrait of Philip IV, King of Spain c.1615-1657
(Jacob Louys, The Metropolitan Museum, New York, 51.501.7557)

Cromwell’s attack was the English state’s first attempt at colonial expansion. With this state enterprise came the responsibility to pay for and maintain the colony, a responsibility that proved initially to be too overwhelming for the London government. However, in time the bureaucrats learnt to administer far away colonies and established specific government apparatus to enable this and that ultimately provided the mechanism to control a global British empire. The subsequent administration of faraway colonies made it imperative that an adequate state navy was available, but it was also one that could be equally used for defence and expansion and so there is a clear line between the occupation of Jamaica and the development of a truly global state naval capacity. Over the coming decades the English developed a Caribbean empire with Jamaica at its hub, built upon privateers, sugar and slaves, which generated enormous wealth for the mother-country, and which help propel its colonial, diplomatic, and commercial ambitions upon a truly world stage. Despite the shambolic nature of the English campaign Cromwell was clearly perceived in Europe to have humbled Spain, an act that immensely increased English prestige in the continent’s capital cities. England became almost instantly a major power and influencer on the continent at the expense of Spain, but this would also lead to friction with France that would simmer for decades to come and often explode into open conflict.

It might have taken a century or more after the humbling of Spain before England gained dominance over the French and later the world but the roots of this were established because of Cromwell’s war in the West Indies. The Lord Protector’s intrepid scheme to steal South America from Spain might not have been fully (or even partially) realised but his desire to place England at the forefront of world power politics was and later generations expanded on this dream. Cromwell would surely have approved of what followed. The Anglo-Spanish War truly shifted the balance of power in Europe and contributed to both the rise of Britain and France and the demise of Spain.

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