Cromwell thought it scandalous that fellow Protestants be at war with one another, and thus had always been reluctant at best about the Dutch War. According with tradition the Lord Protector was convinced that Spain was the great threat, and remarked 'the Spaniard is your natural enemy' and believed it was his calling to fight for God against the forces of the Anti-Christ, the Spanish. This was a constituent part of his strong conviction in his duty to bring the godly reformation. There was a growing demand for peace with the Dutch in England, and the Lord Protector's position and attitude were apt to respond to it. At this time opinion circulated that the war had been caused by the machinations of Spanish statecraft and Jesuits bent on creating antipathy between the two republics. This, it was alleged, was part of the Spanish design to create a universal monarchy. With the circulation of this opinion went Protestant propaganda. In 1654 the Treaty of Westminster concluded the First Dutch War. In England there was some more pragmatic complaint that Cromwell had failed to gain significant economic advantage from the Dutch position of weakness. But Cromwell's interest at this point in time was with persuading the Dutch into anti-Spanish alliance, even prepared to offer Dutch monopoly of East India trade in return for a declaration of war with Spain. The Dutch declined however.
The military reputation of the Protectorate was given substance by victory in the Dutch War. European nations thus began to consider alliance with England - by the end of 1654, economic agreements had been made with Portugal, Sweden and Denmark. Cromwell's confidence in his ambition to engage Spain grew. It was decided the Protectorate would pursue the 'old enemy' in the Spanish colonies of the Americas. This became known as the 'Western Design'. The aim was to conquer Caribbean islands from the Spanish and establish permanent bases for the fleet to attack Spanish shipping. The decision was taken by the government in the aftermath of the Dutch War, the release of the fleet gave Cromwell the opportunity to present the case for attacking the Spanish colonies to the Council of State. Records indicate Cromwell thought of the war in terms similar to a Protestant 'crusade' - denouncing the Spanish king as 'the greatest enemy to the Protestant cause in the world'. The Lord Protector also appealed to English vengeance on the Spanish. There is an idea that Cromwell was convinced by mercantile interest to promote the Western Design.
As a prelude, the government launched a propaganda campaign, with the stereotypical depictions of the Spanish as the Anti-Christ and popish tyrants. However the planning of the operation was not well- thought. The fleet under Venables and Penn, directed towards Hispaniola, made a poor landing, and the extreme heat and disease took its toll on the troops. Spanish resistance was determined and effective, forcing the English forces to withdraw, and redirect their strategy to launch a successful attack on Jamaica. In retrospect the conquest of Jamaica proved as valuable an economic and strategic asset as would the principal objective, Hispaniola. However, to contemporaries it was difficult to come to any other conclusion that the campaign had been a failure - thousands of troops lost, and Spanish reprisals involved the closure of European ports to English vessels. In addition, the Dutch, recovered from the losses of the war, were swift to move into market openings created by the ban on English shipping in Spanish ports. Furthermore, the Western Design was expensive and it was difficult to justify such an operation at a time when the Protectorate was experiencing financial difficulties.
An historical debate has emerged from the Western Design - did it constitute an early form of imperialism? Certainly, the Protectorate acquired and settled colonies that would be important for the British Empire. Cromwell has even been cast as the founder of the British Empire. The Lord Protector certainly gave his support as well as his religious sympathies to the Puritan colonists of North America, encouraging them to expand into Dutch and French regions; and in 1654 a naval squadron was dispatched to capture Nova Scotia from the French.
Though France was obviously a Catholic monarchy, Cromwell was impressed by the Bourbon monarchy's toleration of Huguenots. For some time the French had been hopeful of winning the support of the Protectorate for the war against Spain. Through contact with Mazarin, the French Chief Minister, Cromwell became aware that the French could be useful allies, especially with the failure of the Western Design. Thus the Lord Protector was willing to consider a treaty. In 1655 the Duke of Savoy massacred Huguenots in the Vaudois valley, and in response Cromwell protested, as did many Puritans including John Milton, whose
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