The day before his thirtieth birthday, Oliver Cromwell, a minor gentleman from Huntingdonshire, departed Gravesend for the New World. Born into the lower end of landed gentry northeast of London, Oliver was the only surviving son, a middle child of ten born to his parents. His inheritance granted him a toehold into the upper class, and in 1620 he married Elizabeth Bourchier, the daughter of a wealthy leather merchant, Sir James Bourchier, who owned great swaths of Essex. The two began a happy, if hard working, life together blessed with many children.
Yet Oliver Cromwell was plagued by doubt and despair through his twenties. He sought treatment in London for valde melancolicus (as clinical depression was called in the era) and at last found relief through Puritanism, the new strain of religion quickly becoming popular through the growing middle class, perhaps introduced to it by his merchant father-in-law. Cromwell later wrote that he was the “chief of all sinners” who had come to see salvation in the rigorously disciplined denomination.
Alongside his religious growth, Cromwell entered local politics. He immediately began clashing with others over the formation of a new charter for Huntingdon and proved himself an eager contender. When elections were called for a parliament in 1628, his opponents managed to spread rumors that bumped him from the support of Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich.
Discouraged about his prospects at home, Cromwell thought back to a book he had read at Cambridge, Captain John Smith’s A Description of New England published in 1616. “Here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land… If he have nothing but his hands, he may… by industries quickly grow rich.” Cromwell admired the thought of gain through his own work and Providence without hindrance of backbiters, so he determined to join those among his father-in-law’s partners colonizing the New World.
Cromwell voyaged with the Higginson Fleet that arrived that July in Salem, on the north side of the newly chartered Massachusetts Bay Colony. His wife Elizabeth, six months pregnant, stayed behind with their three sons and daughter, Bridget, to settle affairs. When the ships returned to England, they carried a letter from Cromwell calling her to join him as quickly as possible, which they did on the Winthrop Fleet the following year. Cromwell had found his calling as a settler, and he held Salem (named for an early peaceful transition between governments) to be a paradise on Earth. Over the coming decades, Cromwell’s farm prospered, two more children were added to the family, and he became a leader among the congregation.
When the General Court of the colony called for organization of a militia for common defense in 1637, Cromwell’s name instantly became known throughout Massachusetts. He led his troops with strict discipline, intelligence, and the bravado of a man certain God is on his side. While the Civil War tore their homeland apart, Cromwell was eager to welcome veterans to his well-defended paradise. Through his connections with the merchants, Cromwell encouraged a mutual defense with other colonies on the western Atlantic in Virginia and Bermuda to ensure safety even as factions soaked up resources in England.
The test of Cromwell’s commonwealth came in 1651 when Parliament decreed that only English ships could trade legally in English ports. Dutch ships anywhere near English waters suddenly became prey for privateers, and tensions turned to war after English and Dutch fleets exchanged cannon-fire over a perceived slight of the Dutch not tipping one’s flags in salute.
With Nieuw Nederland situated between Massachusetts Bay and Virginia, Cromwell determined to make a precautionary attack. Aided by Swedish allies from the Delaware River, Cromwell’s troops, nicknamed the New Marine Army, used novel and daring sea, shore, and land tactics to conquer the Dutch North American colony. They then moved south, conquering St. Marin and he Antilles in the Caribbean and threatening Surinam.
War ended with the Dutch in 1654, just as it began anew against the Spanish. Cromwell continued to spread English authority in the Caribbean, faltering initially at the Siege of Santo Domingo in 1655 before pressing on and carving an English hold onto the island of Hispanola. He died while on campaign in 1658. According to legend, he became a prophet in his last hours and gave detailed descriptions of heaven. Some historians hold that this was due to the yellow fever that took his life. The location of his grave remains a mystery.
Cromwell’s legacy is a mixed one. Descendants of Puritans applaud his religious convictions, and military historians are fascinated by many of his actions. On the other hand, rumors stated that his conquests of Catholic colonies were brutal, even genocidal. While the actual numbers and treatment of those defeated are often under debate, Cromwell established English control on those islands, which lasted for centuries to come.
In reality, Cromwell did not leave England. He became a member of Parliament in 1628 under the patronage of the more powerful Montagues, the Earls of Sandwich. As a cavalry commander, he quickly rose through the ranks to lead the whole of the Parliamentarian forces to victory. With the establishment of the republican Commonwealth of England, Cromwell was named Lord Protector and ruled without question until his death, after which his body was exhumed and executed for treason.