Admiral William Penn


on 18 August, 1854, William Penn was chosen to lead the protector's cherished expedition to the Caribbean, the ‘western design’ in which Cromwell hoped to find continuing use for his victorious navy by annihilating the Spanish empire in the West Indies. Penn would share command with Robert Venables (general of the land forces) and a body of civilian commissioners intended to supervise colonization once victory had been achieved. Instructions drawn up on 9 December spoke of ‘getting ground’ without naming any target. The prime objective became Hispaniola, which had been the first European settlement in the Americas. The fleet sailed from Spithead on 25 December, Penn commanding from the Swiftsure, with thirty-seven other warships, support vessels, and several thousand soldiers. On 29 January they came to Barbados where thousands more men were engaged with 1200 of the seamen being formed into a regiment to serve ashore. Penn seized a number of Dutch ships trading in contravention of parliament's orders and then sailed on 31 March, calling at Antigua and other islands already in English hands. On 13 April they came in sight of St Domingo on Hispaniola. Penn declined to risk a frontal assault, and the troops were landed next day some 25 miles west at Nizao. When they reached the capital they were easily repulsed. Penn offered his artillery in support of a further attempt, and was furious when this was rejected by Venables. There is no doubt that antagonism between Penn and Venables (which Cromwell had foreseen and attempted to defuse) contributed to lack of co-ordination at all levels. Penn was blamed by the military for the change of landing site, for denying them supplies, and for the unavailability of guides. For all these issues Penn advanced cogent operational reasons, and the failure of the assault was, as even Venables acknowledged, chiefly the fault of a ‘rascally rabble of raw and unexercised men’ and their inadequate provisions.

The task force was, however, not crippled, and by 3 May when the troops re-embarked the ‘general voice was for Jamaica’. Penn confirmed this objective to his officers on the following day, and the island was sighted on the 9th. Penn personally led the landing on 10 May aboard the Martin galley, to which he transferred because of its shallow draught. At first the Spanish resisted, but their forts were abandoned before all the troops were ashore and the garrison surrendered next day. By 17 May the whole island was in English hands.

Penn subsequently sent two of his ships to reconnoitre the Spanish main, but made no further attempt to seize territory or shipping. After a month on Jamaica, increasingly ill, Penn decided to return home to report; he sailed on 25 June and made Spithead on 31 August. On 3 September the fleet was ordered into the Thames, and on the 12th Penn was interviewed in Whitehall. On the 20th he and Venables were sent to the Tower. Their arrest was gleefully reported by the royalists, who expected the commanders to be executed for failing to accomplish the ‘design’. Clarendon would allege that both men were all along ‘well affected to the King's service’ and ‘not fond of the enterprise they were to conduct’. As it happened the result had been as the royalists wished: Anglo-Spanish hostilities in Europe, which Cromwell had hoped to avoid, were provoked, while the protector was denied the great victory which would have buttressed his regime. But it is inconceivable that Penn and Venables, even had they been so minded, could have engineered just this outcome. Their imprisonment is adequately explained by their return without orders and Cromwell's pique at the frustration of his plans. On 25 October Penn apologized to the protector for his disobedience and begged to be freed for the sake of his family and his ‘increasing distemper’. His release was ordered the same day on his relinquishing his commission. He was not to serve the protectorate again. He retired to Ireland, and from his seat at Macroom, co. Cork, attended to his estates. He was not absolutely in disgrace, for in 1658 he received a knighthood from Henry Cromwell, and his wife was able to catch a lift to England aboard one of the state's ships.

Image courtesy of National Maritime Museum


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