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Admiral Sir William Penn

Admiral Sir William Penn was the father of the Quaker William Penn. As noted earlier the Admiral is buried in St Mary Redcliffe church, Bristol, England. What many people in Bristol, including many of Jamaican decent, do not know is that he was the Sea General responsible for the attack on the Spanish slave colony of Jamaica and annexing it as an English colony in 1654.

At the end of this post there is a pdf download of slides I used during my recent series of talks in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Feel free to use them as an educational resource if you wish.

During 1654 (when England was a Republic under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell) Admiral Penn offered his services and his fleet to the exiled King Charles II. Charles asked him to wait for a more opportune time before changing political sides. But then, in October the same year, Penn had no scruples about being appointed as Cromwell’s Admiral to take the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti). This was part of Cromwell’s colonial Western Design. Later that year a Sea-Armament of 30 – 60 ships and 4,000 soldiers set sail from England bound for Hispaniola. Sea General Penn and the land-army General, Venables, had numerous disagreements, (Penn, as we’ve seen, was equivocal in his support for the Cromwellian regime and Venables was an ardent Parliamentarian, this, coupled with their equal yet divided commands, lead to much mutual hostility).

The fleet was reinforced by about 5,000, reluctant recruits from Barbados and the Leeward Islands who were taken on at St. Kitts. The English reinforcements were nominated by colonial Regimental Commanders who took the opportunity of sending people they considered to be undesirable and their number included an indentured labourer and soon-to-be-famous privateer, Henry Morgan.

While in Barbados the resident colonists were unwilling to get involved in the Cromwellian escapade and were reluctant to release their slaves and indentured servants to fight against the Spanish. In fact the Barbadian planters and colonists had been doing a prosperous trade with New England colonies and with the Netherlands, in direct conflict with English foreign policy. They were not about to see themselves as subject to rule from a remote Republican England especially as its population of some 30,000 people included a sizable number of Royalists who had fled there after being so recently defeated. It is also worth noting that just four years earlier, in 1650, Barbados had come out in support of King Charles II and their rebellion had been put down by the use of two men-of-war and 1,000 troops.

On April 14th, 1655, the force landed on Hispaniola and set off on a sixty-mile march during which they were ambushed and later repulsed by the Spanish before being thoroughly defeated and fleeing in panic on April 25th. English soldiers then started dying at an alarming rate; in total 1,000 of the English troops died, either in battle or from disease. After re-assembling, licking their wounds and burying their dead, the English force set off for the Spanish possession of Jamaica, an island that they knew to be poorly defended and seen as a much less important prize. Thirty-eight ships sailed into Port Royal (Kingston) which was quickly captured. Spanish Town was then plundered by English troops. Many of the Spanish on Jamaica escaped, but not before releasing their slaves – who were to become known as the Maroons.  Penn and Venables left Jamaica leaving Vice Admiral Goodison and Major General Fortesque in charge of a very dispirited force. Over the next few years troops died of starvation and disease, they refused to grow crops believing they would be sent home if there was no food. The English were attacked by the freed Spanish slaves.The Governors; Fortesque, Sedgwick and Brayne, died, one after the other. English colonists encouraged to go to Jamaica from other islands fared little better than the troops.

When Penn returned to London he was dismissed from his post and punished by spending time in the Tower of London. Cromwell wrote to Admiral Blake:

‘It is too sad a truth, the Expedition to the West Indies has failed! Sea-General Penn and Land-General Venables have themselves come home, one after the other, with the disgraceful news; and are lodged in the Tower [of London], a fortnight ago, for quitting their posts without orders.’

When Penn had returned from the West Indies he brought back a slave named, Sampson. The Admiral had acquired ownership of him in Barbados by trading him for his original, personal servant slave, Anthony. Penn is also known to have owned at least one further slave named, Jack.

When Penn retired to the castle and estates of Macroom he wrote a code of naval tactics which was later incorporated by the Duke of York into his ‘Sailing and Fighting Instructions’; which became the standard text for British naval expansionist tactics for some centuries.

Sir Admiral William Penn and the taking of Jamaica, 1664